The Fallacy of the God Gene

04/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Two major newspapers did what all mainstream media do best: Get the story wrong. The New York Times published "The Evolution of the God Gene" by Nicholas Wade in which we are told that, "religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning it exists because it was favored by natural selection." We are further informed that religion is "universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland."

As a neurobiologist specializing in evolutionary biology these twin assertions about natural selection and the brain caught my attention. Both claims are wrong. But they are made so frequently as to have become conventional wisdom, like the canard that we only use 10 percent of our brains. Such folklore is a powerful force so these claims largely go unchallenged no matter how false.

From these incorrect assertions, the author makes an incredible leap from innocuous myth to something more dangerous: "For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless." Amazing how many absurd ideas can be packed into a single sentence. Let's see.

First, religion did not evolve through the mechanisms of natural selection. The idea of god perpetuates itself through cultural transmission. Second, atheists as a rule do not claim that religion is "useless" at all, fully recognizing that an appeal to an unseen force had benefits to early human societies unschooled in the sciences. Third, even if the absurd claim were true that religion evolved through natural selection, that would in no way challenge the tenet that god is nothing but a silly myth. The "evolution" of religion would simply mean that perpetuating a ridiculous myth had a selective advantage, nothing more, and would certainly not lend credence to the myth itself.

To the author's credit, the article takes a middle ground and seeks to demonstrate how religion as an evolved trait is not terribly helpful to believers, either. But no matter how balanced the presentation, the basic premise of an "evolutionary perspective" on religion is deeply and fundamentally flawed.

Religion was born not from some god gene, but of fear of the unknown, of the drive to control the uncontrollable, of the need to have mastery over one's fate in the face of an uncertain world. The first ideas of religion arose not from any awe of nature's wonder and order that would imply an invisible intelligent designer, but rather from concerns for the events of everyday life and how the vast unknown of nature affected daily existence. To allay fears of disease, death, starvation, cold, injury and pain, people fervently hoped that they could solicit the aid of greater powers, hoped deeply that they could somehow control their fate, and trusted that the ugly reality of death did not mean the end. Hope and fear combine powerfully in a frightening world of unknowns to stimulate comforting fantasies and myths about nature's plans.

The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions, but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept "I don't know," because we cannot turn off our instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, even when none exist. So we make up answers when we don't know. We develop elaborate creation myths, sun gods, rain gods, war gods and gods of the ocean. We believe we can communicate with our gods and influence their behavior, because by doing so we gain some control, impose some order, on the chaotic mysteries of the world. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world. Religion was our first attempt at physics and astronomy.

Of course, the biggest and most wrenching unknown served by religion is that of our fate upon dying. As a matter of survival, we are programmed to fear death, but perhaps unlike most other animals, we have the cruel burden of contemplating this fear. Religion is one way we cope with our knowledge that death is inevitable. Religion diminishes the hurt of death's certainty and permanence and the pain of losing a loved one with the promise of reuniting in another life.

But fear of the unknown, fear of mortality, and hopes for controlling and understanding nature's course do not represent the only foundation on which religion stands. Another is social cohesion. We are social animals, gregarious by nature. Cooperation is what makes the human animal -- a weak, slow and vulnerable creature -- a powerful force on earth. But cooperation becomes more difficult with increasing numbers. Some means of maintaining social order is necessary. Early societies soon learned that rules of behavior imposed in the form of rituals enabled large groups of people to live in close proximity. Rituals create norms against which people can readily judge the behavior of others in diverse social settings. Any deviation from the norm is easily spotted and can be quickly addressed. In this way, order can be maintained. Notice that modern-day teenagers express their rugged individualism by dressing identically. Any non-conforming outlier would be easy to spot. Religion offered, and offers still, an obvious means of enforcing societal rules by promising a joyous afterlife for conformers, or eternal punishment for those who misbehave. Religion is used as a bribe to induce good manners.

Finally, religion was eventually transformed into an important source of raw political power, divorced from any role more benign. If religion is used as a tool to control individual behavior, someone needs to develop those rules and ensure their enforcement. Who better to act as behavior police than religious elders, shamans, or high priests? What better way is there to manipulate and bend people to your will than by making up the rules by which they must live? With that influence over the daily lives of every citizen comes power traditionally reserved for city-states and empires, with all the normal trappings, including armies, treasuries and palaces. And corruption, an inevitable consequence of a system based on the false promise of eternal bliss and empty threats of eternal damnation.

Fear of death, the need to explain away the unknown, hopes for controlling one's destiny, a desire for social cohesion, and the corrupting allure of power are the combined masters of all religion. Evolution and natural selection do not enter into this equation other than with the obvious fact that humans evolved large brains.

The New York Times article ends by posing the question, "Could the evolutionary perspective on religion become the basis for some kind of détente between religion and science?" No. The two seek fundamentally different answers asking completely different questions using incompatible methods of inquiry. Religion seeks to search for and understand purpose; science does not. Science is a tool of rationalism, which seeks an objective truth that can be verified with reproducible data. The two ideas cannot be reconciled.

Which brings us to the second newspaper article, this one by Dinesh D'Souza in USA Today, with the title, "Don't Blame God for Terrorism." Well now. The author dismisses Islamic radicalism and suicide bombers as a "special case" not to be counted against religion. But to be counted against rationalism are secular examples of terrorism like Japanese kamikazes. The final assault on logic comes with the question, "If religious beliefs in life after death are the source of terrorism, where are the Buddhist suicide bombers?" We again counter an example of multiple absurdities stuffed into one paragraph. Let's see.

First, kamikaze pilots exclusively hit high-value military targets, mainly battleships and aircraft carriers, during a war between declared enemies. To equate those acts to a kid strapped to a bomb in a crowded market borders on disgusting. Second, the Japanese worshiped the emperor as a god, thereby offering no relief to religion's guilt. Third, the absence of Buddhist suicide bombers is no more significant than the absence of neurobiologist bombers. Fourth, Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. How many ways can an author be wrong in one article?

As if that attack on history and reason were not enough, the author dives deeper into the abyss of absurdist thought with the statement, "Nor has anybody been able to identify the Christian bin Laden, the Christian equivalent of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah..." He is kidding us, right? Did he forget the Crusades? The Inquisition? Systematic centuries-long Christian persecution of the Jews? The Irish Republican Army? Bombing abortion clinics? Assassinating pro-choice doctors? And let us not forget the routine human sacrifices of ancient religions and every other act of evil committed specifically in the name of god with the crazed zeal of believers. Islamic fundamentalism is not a "special case" but just another ordinary example in the history of religious terrorism.

That religious zeal motivates terrorist acts is simply undeniable. The hijackers on 9/11 yelled "god is great" as they flew to their deaths, not "we want land from Zionist occupiers." To claim the World Trade Center attacks were not driven by religion and belief in an afterlife is an insult to our collective intelligence. Terrorist acts perpetrated by rationalists are not motivated by their non-belief, but by something more banal, like hatred for the federal government or the United Nations. Timothy McVeigh did not blow up the Murray building to promote agnosticism. He did not yell, "There is no god!" as he pushed the detonator. To claim somebody would self-sacrifice for a non-belief is nonsense. As Richard Dawkins said, "Individual atheists may do evil things, but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism."

The idea that religion and rationalism equally deserve blame for terrorism is dangerous, leading to the following bizarre idea with which the author ended the USA Today article: "If we need to watch out for heaven-seeking Muslims bent on killing innocent people and flying airplanes into buildings, we need to be just as vigilant against atheist fanatics who are willing to murder millions..."

No further comment is needed.