01/14/2008 11:55 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Atheism as a Stealth Religion III: Four Questions and Six Possible Answers

My previous two blogs (I and II) stressed that we must be skeptical about atheist beliefs, lest they go the way of stealth religions. Now let's roll up our sleeves and see what this means for the study of overt religions. Here are four questions:

Q1) Is there any scientific (i.e., empirically verifiable) evidence for the existence of supernatural agents that intervene in natural processes, especially to alter human affairs?

Q2) If not, how can we explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms?

Q3) What are the impacts of religion, good or bad, on human welfare?

Q4) How can we use our understanding of religion to ameliorate its negative effects and advance the goals of secular humanism?

For an atheist such as myself, Q1 has already been answered. Creationist beliefs have been falsified again and again, even before Darwin's theory of evolution (e.g., geological discoveries during the early 19th century). I am comfortable regarding religious beliefs as 100% a human social construction, enabling me to proceed to Q2.

Evolutionary theory offers six major hypotheses about religion as a natural phenomenon. Moreover, theories of religion that were formulated without evolution in mind usually fit into these categories. Here they are in their briefest possible form. Please see the Evolutionary Religious Studies website that I and my colleagues have created for a fuller description.

H1) A superorganism. Religions might forge human groups into cooperative units, whose members work together to achieve common goals. Perhaps Emile Durkheim was right when he defined religion as "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things...which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."

H2) A form of exploitation. Religions might be sneaky ways for some members--presumably the leaders--to profit at the expense of other members of their own religion. Perhaps Karl Marx was right when he said that religion is the opium of the masses.

H3) A disease. Because culture is transmitted from person to person, it bears an intriguing resemblance to a disease organism. Just as disease organisms evolve to benefit themselves, often at the expense of their hosts, perhaps religions are highly evolved to facilitate their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups. This possibility was famously suggested by Richard Dawkins, and perhaps he is right. In case Dan Dennett is reading this blog (he is fond of accusing me of failing to make this point): virulent parasitism is only one possible outcome for memes, which can also evolve to benefit human individuals and groups. These other two outcomes are subsumed under H1 and H2. See my earlier blog on selfish genes and memes for more on this subject.

H4) Like a moth to flame. Moths are adapted to navigate by celestial light sources such as the moon and stars, which are so far away that they enable the moths to fly in a straight line. Unfortunately, earthly light sources such as streetlights and candles cause the moths to spiral inward to their deaths. This is an example of a byproduct or what Stephen Jay Gould famously called a spandrel-- a trait that has no benefit and can be very costly, but remains in the population by being connected to other traits that do have a benefit. Perhaps religion is a costly byproduct of psychological traits that function adaptively in non-religious contexts.

H5) Like obesity. Our eating habits are killing us in today's fast food environment, but they were clearly adaptive in the food poor environments of our ancestors. Perhaps religions were similarly adaptive in the Stone Age, when human groups were small and composed mostly of genetic relatives, but have gone awry in modern life.

H6) A roll of the dice. In biological evolution there is something called genetic drift. Traits that we recognize as different have no effect on fitness and therefore increase or decrease in frequency at random. A neutral trait exists for no other reason than by chance. Few people would propose that all aspects of religion are neutral, but some aspects might be, resulting in the very real possibility of cultural drift.

Now that I have described the six evolutionary hypotheses, some readers might have an objection. Where is the deeply felt psychological experience of being religious, such as a close relationship with God? The answer involves one of the most important distinctions in evolutionary theory, between proximate and ultimate causation. Everything that evolves by natural selection requires two explanations. Why do flowers bloom in spring? One answer is because spring is the best time of year to bloom (ultimate causation). Those that bloomed earlier were nipped by frost, those that bloomed later failed to develop their fruits, natural selection did its thing, and we only see the survivors. The second answer is because the survivors have a particular physiological mechanism that causes them to bloom in spring, such as a sensitivity to day length (proximate causation).

Proximate and ultimate explanations are always complementary and one can never substitute for the other. They are intriguingly similar to a distinction that is often made between the "vertical" and "horizontal" dimensions of religion, as in this definition of Islam from an encyclopedia of world religions:

A noun derived from the verb aslama ("to submit or surrender [to God]"), designates the act by which an individual recognizes his or her relationship to the divine and, at the same time, the community of all of those who respond in submission. It describes, therefore, both the singular vertical relationship between the human being and God and the collective, horizontal relationship of all who join together in common faith and practice.

Vertical and horizontal. Proximate and ultimate. Very interesting. See the Evolutionary Religious Studies website for more.

Having outlined our six hypotheses about religion, we are in a position to answer Q2. All we need to do is consult the facts of religion and decide which of the hypotheses--or which combination, since they are not necessarily mutually exclusive--is correct. Before I tell you the answer, I would like to pose a fifth question for your consideration.

Q5) Will the answer to Q2 influence the answers to Q3 and Q4?

For example, pretend that H3 turns out to be correct and then try answering Q3 and Q4 for yourself. Now pretend that H4 turns out to be correct and repeat the exercise. I don't know anything about your two sets of answers, but I'll bet money that they are different from each other. How could it be otherwise? When vervet monkeys see a leopard, they give a special alarm call that instructs everyone to head up into the trees. When they see an eagle, they give a different alarm call that instructs everyone to come down from the trees. Different threats require different actions. If religions pose a threat in modern life, we need to know what particular kind of threat, so we can respond appropriately, just as the monkeys need to distinguish between leopards and eagles. It would be amazing if the six evolutionary hypotheses, which are profoundly different from each other in their conception of religion, resulted in exactly the same plan of action for what to do about religion.

And now for the moment you have been waiting for. Which of our contestants is the winner? The answer is...