I found out this morning that Robert Bellah, one of America’s premier sociologists of religion, died on July 30 from complications after heart surgery. Bellah’s magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution, has been foundational in my understanding of religion, and I am deeply saddened to hear of his death.
Tag Archives: evolution
Over at This View of Life, Michael Blume summarizes a paper by psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais regarding the origins of religious non-belief. Blume distills Norenzayan and Gervais’ argument quite nicely, showing four possible steps to religious non-belief:
1. “‘Mind-Blind’ Atheism”: the non-belief of those who cannot, for reasons psychological or physiological, imagine the presence of supernatural agents.
2. “Apatheism”: the non-belief of those who live in environments that provide “existential security” in themselves, lessening the perceived need for a supernatural source of security (like eternal life, supernatural prosperity, etc.).
3. “InCREDulous Atheism”: the non-belief of those who live in societies where religious Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs), like public rituals, are not prevalent or are non-existent; these societies are “comparatively devoid of cues that others believe in any gods at all.”
4. “Analytic Atheism”: the non-belief of those who have — like most people on Earth — intuitive leanings toward experiencing the supernatural, but override those intuitions through analytical thought.
Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17 (2013): 20-25.
Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist and ethologist, has an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, in advance of his most recent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, which was released today. Here’s an excerpt:
Underlying many of our mistaken beliefs about animal intelligence is the problem of negative evidence. If I walk through a forest in Georgia, where I live, and fail to see or hear the pileated woodpecker, am I permitted to conclude that the bird is absent? Of course not. We know how easily these splendid woodpeckers hop around tree trunks to stay out of sight. All I can say is that I lack evidence.
It is quite puzzling, therefore, why the field of animal cognition has such a long history of claims about the absence of capacities based on just a few strolls through the forest. Such conclusions contradict the famous dictum of experimental psychology according to which “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” . . .
The one historical constant in my field is that each time a claim of human uniqueness bites the dust, other claims quickly take its place. Meanwhile, science keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.
Aristotle’s ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.
Are religions viruses of the mind? I would have replied with an unequivocal “yes” until a few days ago when some shocking data suggested I am wrong. . . .
It seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as “viruses of the mind” may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a “virus” to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase “bacterium of the mind” or “symbiont of the mind” doesn’t have quite the same ring.
This post is really interesting. The author, formerly a Dawkins-esque anti-theist, was convinced — by empirical data at a scientific conference — of the evolutionary value of religiosity. However, even though she no longer thinks that religion is a Bad Thing, she still speaks in negative terms about it.
Go check it out.
Archaeologists working at South Africa’s Pinnacle Point cave site uncovered a collection of tiny blades, about an inch big, that resemble arrow points, likely belonging to prehistoric bow and arrows or spear-throwers. The researchers say the discovery is further evidence that humans (Homo sapiens) started to act and think like modern people early in their evolution. …
The new study, however, goes one step further. The researchers say the blades were found throughout a geological section of Pinnacle Point that spans roughly 11,000 years (71,000 to 60,000 years ago), indicating people could communicate complicated instructions to build intricate tools across hundreds of generations. This instance of long-term maintenance of a cultural tradition early in human history is evidence that the capacity for modern culture began early and slowly built up, Brown and colleagues say. Previous suggestions that complex culture came and went in the early days of humans is probably an artificial result, they say, because so few African sites have yet been excavated.
Very cool stuff! Go on and check out the whole article.
Lately, I’ve become interested in evolutionary studies in fields other than the natural sciences — evolutionary linguistics, evolutionary cultural studies, evolutionary religious studies — and, as I’ve been reading the literature, I’ve noticed a definition of “evolutionist” that I was previously unfamiliar with, one that is purely descriptive, in contrast to the polemical sense I had known previously.
I had previously only heard the term used in the sense of “someone who believes in evolution, rather than divine creation of the earth,” often with the connotation of “someone who is non- or anti-Christian, and who holds a religious, or near-religious, belief in science.” In this sense, it is mostly a polemical term: evolutionist in contrast with creationist. Here’s an example of evolutionist used in this sense:
In the secular media, for instance, the debate is often described as “creationism vs. evolution,” as if the “ism” should not apply to “evolution.” This is not accurate, because believing in evolution, like believing in creation, requires acceptance of a certain presuppositional dogma and requires placing one’s faith in a story about the unrepeatable past. …
Also, the term “religion” must be defined clearly. While beliefs and worship practices, procedures, and conduct are involved in religion, any belief system that purports to be a total explanation of reality is more-or-less religion. Thus, insofar as it is an attempt to explain why the world is the way it is, held to with ardor and faith, Darwinian evolution can thus be considered religion. …
Authors should be more precise when they—using a qualification—inform the reader of any assumed vertical change (when one kind of living thing is changed into another kind, as Darwinian evolutionists believe has happened regularly throughout life’s history, yet has not been shown).
However, I’ve recently come across the term in a completely different context: evolutionist as “someone who studies the process of evolution from a scientific standpoint” or “someone who studies a phenomenon using the evolutionary process.” In this sense, the term carries no connotation of belief or disbelief in any faith. It is also a descriptive term; the -ist ending merely describes the person’s object of study, like in chemist, geologist, linguist, etc. For instance:
Early evolutionists could not resist proposing terms such as “savagery,” “barbarism,” and “civilization” for stages of sociocultural development — terms that would not survive the advent of professional anthropology. A second wave of evolutionists . . . could base their controlled comparisons on richer and more systematically collected ethnographic data. …
In its latest incarnation, evolution is seen as multilinear and can even be divided into topics such as cultural evolution, social evolution, and ethnogenesis. …
When general evolutionists need to ensure that their controlled comparisons and contrasts are being carried out on societies of the same level of complexity or sociopolitical integration, they have tended to create shorthand terms for different social forms or types.
On doing a bit more research, it turns out that both senses of evolutionist are very old. The OED cites the Methodist 1866 Ladies’ repository, and gatherings of the West as an example of the term in its polemical sense. It also cites the 6th edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as an example of the descriptive sense. It is worth noting, though somewhat unsurprising, that the polemical sense has mostly shown up in Christian literature, while the descriptive sense is more or less contained to scientific literature.
One wonders whether the difference in definitions is a contributing factor to strife between non-evolutionist Christians and non-Christian evolutionists. On the surface, they seem to be using the same terminology, but they have loaded the words with two completely different connotations. Maybe a first step to mutual understanding and acceptance would be for the two groups (or representatives thereof) to sit down, unpack the terms from each side’s viewpoints, and hammer out a single definition that both can agree on.
Some of us are more apt to explore our faith than think of ways of preserving it. Our intellectual exploration is unavoidably wrapped up in our own spiritual growth. The two work together. Intellect challenges faith but they are not at odds. They need each other.
Sometimes thinking clearly and deeply changes what you believe, and that does not make baby Jesus cry. Neither does it cue the seventh trumpet of judgment or kick over the seventh bowl of God’s wrath in the Book of Revelation.
This is a great post from the man who’s probably best known for being an Evangelical and an evolutionist. It’s also reassuring to those of us who want to live a fully-explored faith, rather than a faith that is accepted blindly and uncritically.
I’ve been watching the evolution wars on a couple of biblioblogs recently (specifically, Exploring Our Matrix and Unsettled Christianity). I appreciate the work Dr. McGrath and Joel (respectively) are doing on the subject. However, I can’t help but think that a sustained, direct war on biblical literalism will, in reality, accomplish little actual change. Likewise, the war on liberal theology waged by the conservative side of Christianity (e.g. Al Mohler, Norman Geisler, et al.) will not effect much change, either. In my opinion, here’s why:
1) The two positions differ from each other in first principles.
On the one hand, Christian liberalism is devoted to follow evidence wherever it leads. If the evidence seems to show, for instance, that life arose on Earth through a process that lasted for millions and millions of years, the good liberal has an obligation to follow this evidence to its logical conclusions, even if that means he/she must re-think what it means for God to have created the world.
In the same way, Christian conservatism is devoted to follow the Bible wherever it leads. If the Bible seems to teach, for instance, that God created everything ex nihilo over the course of six 24-hour days, the good conservative has an obligation to follow this teaching to its logical conclusions, even if it means he/she must re-think the nature of science.
2) Both sides say harsh things about the other, but usually only to their supporters (“preaching to the choir”).
It has long been recognized that humility and charity are two mark of true Christian character (see, for instance, C. J. Mahaney’s excellent little book Humility: True Greatness). However, for some reason, both sides in this debate act with very little charity or humility toward the other. Rather than treating each other like fellow Christians — remember, we’re all trying to follow the faith the best way we know how — both sides treat the other like willful distorters of the truth. Such an attitude had its place in the past, but now is anachronistic. For instance, Tertullian wrote, concerning heretics, that “obstinacy must be conquered, not coaxed” (Scorpiace 2). Such a tactic, though, is ineffective in the end, which brings me to my third point:
3) Harsh and direct fighting only serve to make the other side more convinced of their own superiority.
Think back to the last time you had an argument face-to-face with someone. As the argument went on, which was more tempting: to calmly and rationally examine your own position and see how the other side might inform your position in ways you hadn’t seen, or to entrench yourself deeper and argue even harder for what you already thought? If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that it would be the latter more than the former. When you perceive an attack, whether explicit or implicit, on a system of thought that you cherish, the natural response is to attack right back, not to examine yourself or your way of thinking. Which leads to the conclusion that:
4) If you want to persuade someone to your side, you have to be willing to admit where you’re wrong.
Conservatives: do you want to reclaim a historical interpretation of Genesis 1-3? Then be willing to admit that your position has a hard time explaining scientific data cogently. Liberals: do you want to see evolution accepted as fact by all Christians? Then be willing to admit that to do so entails a radical re-thinking of Christian theology, with which not everyone is comfortable. Both sides: do you want to see an end to this debate? Then be willing to admit that your side does not hold a monopoly on truth; be willing to learn from the other.