Christians and other religious adherents oftentimes claim that the universal tendency to believe in God is itself evidence for God’s existence, what I will call the Argument from the Prevalence of Religion. Where else does such a predisposition come from? In every corner of the globe and every span of human history, belief in God, immortality, and salvation have occupied the human mind. This makes a good deal of sense if God has purposely created us with a tendency to believe, but atheists have no plausible explanation for the origin, development, and thriving of religion.
Or do they? With the development of neuroscience and the biological theory of evolution, many people are seeking to find alternative explanation for the extent of belief. Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Breaking the Spell, has recently suggested that modern religions have evolved from ancient folk beliefs, and biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, has defended the idea that religious beliefs are self-replicating cultural memes that originated as byproducts of evolutionary selection processes.
Which side of the debate is right? And if people like Dawkins and Dennett can explain religion naturalistically, then is belief in God irrational after all? Are Christians simply caught under the spell of ancient folklore and embracers of a delusion?
Are the Naturalistic Theories Plausible?
If you want to develop an evolutionary theory of the development and flourishing of religion, the natural tendency is to look for ways in which religion is beneficial. After all, if our ancestors received some sort of benefit from religious beliefs, then natural selection may have assisted in the spread of religion. 1
From the standpoint of human survival, then, is religion really beneficial? Dennett suggests in Breaking the Spell that credulous humans who believed in the supernatural were more susceptible to the placebo effect, and therefore were more likely to be healed by shamans and mystics. Other possible benefits of religion include stress alleviation (particularly in the face of death) and community bonding links.
However, the evidence that religion offers an overall survival advantage seems to be quite weak. Dawkins, while claiming that there is some evidence that religious belief protects people from stress-related diseases, is skeptical of the general claim;
“Is religion a placebo that prolongs life by reducing stress? Possibly, although the theory must run a gauntlet of sceptics who point out the many circumstances in which religion causes rather than relieves stress. It is hard to believe, for example, that health is improved by the semi-permanent state of morbid guilt suffered by a Roman Catholic possessed of normal human frailty and less than normal intelligence…In any case, I find the placebo theory unworthy of the massively pervasive worldwide phenomenon of religion.” 2
Many theories offered for why religion is so widespread fail to really explain the central issue of why people are inclined to believe in the first place. It is commonly claimed that religion is used by rulers and politicians to control the masses; this, however, does not explain why people are predisposed to religious belief and it does not explain the absolute origin of belief either. Unless it can be shown that religion is generally useful, at least early on in the evolutionary history of man, then the naturalistic project of explaining religion will fail.
However, Richard Dawkins has pointed out the religion may not be advantageous per se, rather, it may simply be a byproduct of other things which are beneficial. Dawkins’ own theory is that religion is the byproduct of two separate phenomenon. The first is the tendency, especially for children, to be gullible. Dawkins claims that “For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad.” 3 The second tendency is our predisposition to dualism and our presumption of intentionality. Thus, humans (especially children) naturally believe that there is a soul or a me within the body, which is separate from the body, and they also assume that naturalistic phenomenon are for some purpose (for example, a child will naturally believe that clouds are for raining).
Thus, people are naturally predisposed to believe that there is an over-arching reason, or intentionality, behind things like rain, lightning, thunderstorms, and disease. This tendency led to the development of religious beliefs. Since children are gullible, these beliefs spread quickly and can infect an entire population after a few short generations.
Is this theory plausible? I must admit that while the theory may not have significant evidential backing, it does seem a relatively reasonable theory about the origin of religion. And Dawkins’ theory is by no means the only one.
Is Religion a Delusion?
Assuming that Dawkins’ account (or a similar one) is generally correct, or at least plausible, does that mean that religion is refuted? If we can trace our tendency of belief in God to psychological dispositions inherited from our ancestors, then shouldn’t we simply admit that belief in God is foolish?
Absolutely not. Even if philosophers and scientists like Dennett and Dawkins were perfectly successful in creating a theory of the emergence and flourishing of religion, this would not constitute rational grounds to dismiss religion as a fantasy. 4 To make this claim would be to commit the genetic fallacy. This fallacy occurs when someone attempts to reduce the significance or truth value of an idea to an account of its origin. The merits (or lack thereof) of religion must be considered on its own accord. So, even if Dawkins et al. are correct, it is of little relevance to Christian belief (except to perhaps undercut the Argument from the Prevalence of Religion).
Moreover, the fact that Dawkins and company can construct some sort of internally consistent theory for the prevalence of religion is not, in my view, all that impressive. Consider that Dawkins, who thinks that religion is a harmful phenomenon that, all things being equal, would tend to be weeded out by natural selection, is still able to build a theory that explains how it has flourished. What sort of human behavior couldn’t, with some degree of creativity and imagination, be explained with references to natural selection and supposed evolutionary mechanisms?
Imagine, for instance, if religion were in fact a very rare phenomenon, exhibited by only about 5% of human beings throughout history. Would evolutionary theorists have any difficulty explaining this tendency? In all likelihood, they would argue that religion is selected against by natural selection due to its tendency to cause war, encourage sacrifice, and divert resources and effort to religious activities. This would be a simple, elegant explanation, arguably much more simple and elegant than the theory offered by Dawkins. Evolutionists are only forced to offer theories such as Dawkins’ because, in fact, almost everybody throughout history has been religious. Thus, evolutionary theory can apparently “explain” human behavior whether 5% of people are religious or 95% are. This suggests to me that the existence of an evolutionary story is not itself a very impressive thing- evolutionary rationalizations can explain almost anything.
Consider another example; some human beings and other animals have committed supererogatory, self-sacrificial acts. One particularly powerful example of this type of behavior occurs when a soldier throws himself on a grenade to save a group of his comrades. Humans throughout the ages have been known to commit such suicidal acts of generosity. Yet, what possible act could be a more uncomfortable fit for the evolutionary naturalist? How on earth has evolutionary processes produced a tendency, any sort of tendency, for such irreversible acts of self-sacrifice? The soldier who throws himself on the grenade cannot even be rewarded for his self-sacrifice. Evolutionists like Dawkins will explain this behavior as byproducts of other, ultimately selfish, biological motivations. However, if no human or animal ever committed a supererogatory, self-sacrificial act, this fact would fit very well with the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. The fact that evolutionists can “explain” this behavior only proves that evolutionary stories can account for just about any conceivable human behavior. The fact that religion can be “explained” with such reasonings is thus not all that impressive- it is expected.
Is the Argument from the Prevalence of Religion Refuted?
So, the fact that evolutionists have offered a rationalization for the existence of religion is both unimpressive and not relevant to whether or not religion is true. But, doesn’t this discount the Argument from the Prevalence of Religion (hereafter APR)? We have a naturalistic explanation, however contrived it may be, and so we have no need to hypothesize our tendency to believe in God as coming from God Himself.
Strictly speaking, I think that this is mostly true. I am not a huge advocate of the APR, primarily because it is too easy for people to come up with alternative explanations or rationalizations. However, it is worth noticing that the existence of “naturalistic” explanations does not completely undermine the force of the APR. After all, who is to say that God didn’t use naturalistic processes, to whatever degree, to shape us so that we end up susceptible to believing in Him?
Consider the recent debate about whether or not there is a so-called God gene in our brains that predisposes us to belief. Geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer’s controversial book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, postulates that human beings have a gene which is largely responsible for our belief in God. Although some religious laymen and theologians object to the idea, Hamer dismisses any relevance for atheism- “Religious believers can point to the existence of god genes as one more sign of the creator’s ingenuity — a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence.” 5
Hamer is correct, the existence of a tendency to believe in God, even if discovered to be caused naturalistically, could still plausibly be considered evidence for God’s existence.
Defending the APR
So, is the Argument from the Pervasiveness of Religion a successful one? In my opinion, it is only marginally so. In other words, while the APR does increase the likelihood of God’s existence, it is a very weak inductive argument that should be used with caution. Personally, I would not use it to argue my case against a staunch nonbeliever, and I would not use it in a public debate. Several problems minimize the force of the argument.
The Varieties of Religious Belief
Although it is true that humans have a tendency to be religious, these religious beliefs and ideas have varied widely. If almost every person believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, monotheistic god, then the case for the APR would be quite strong. However, religious beliefs take many forms, including polytheism, pantheism, and spiritual “life forces.” There is simply not a large degree of similarity between religious beliefs, which tends to argue against a single Creator providentially giving humans the propensity to believe.
The Existence of Naturalistic Alternatives
Although, as I have argued, the existence of naturalistic accounts of the origination of religion do not strictly disprove the APR, the fact that there are alternatives reduces the persuasiveness of the argument. Of course, this depends on the plausibility of the proposed naturalistic explanations. The naturalistic alternatives are more successful at rebutting the APR if they can be shown to be contingently likely to occur in any given life-containing universe.
Basically, naturalistic alternatives are not very good at rebutting the APR if the naturalistic alternatives themselves were unlikely to occur in the first place. For example, an evolutionary theory of the natural development of religion is unavoidably going to contain some natural contingencies. In other words, certain things are going to have to happen in the development of life, the brain, and the mind in order for the explanation to work.
To illustrate this, Dawkins’ postulates that religion is partly the result of the gullibility of young children being selected for by natural selection. However, there are several contingent natural facts (i.e., facts about the world which could have been otherwise) that must be in place for this to work. For example, human children need to be vulnerable for a relatively long time. If children developed much more quickly, then the need to blindly listen to elders would be reduced, and critical thinking and rationality, not gullibility, would be selected for. So, in summary, the more the naturalistic scenario relies upon natural contingencies, the more likely that the natural realities were designed or planned, in part or in full, by God. 6
Many people are content to explain away religion as the result of evolutionary development. However, these theories only speak of the origin of religious belief and do not touch on religion’s truth value. To assume otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. Additionally, even the existence of a persuasive naturalistic account of religious development does not necessarily undercut the Argument from the Pervasiveness of Religion. Nevertheless, the APR is a weak inductive argument for God’s existence at best and should thus be used with caution.
1. In fact, one does not even have to accept evolutionary theory in order to accept this line of reasoning. Even the most staunch anti-evolutionists admit (rightly so) that natural selection is a real phenomenon and that it can have a real effect.
2. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (2006) pp. 167-168
3. Ibid, p. 176
4. I am not necessarily implying that Dawkins, Dennett, or others are arguing in this way. It is perfectly legitimate for them to construct a theory about the origination of religious belief, either out of curiosities sake or out of an attempt to refute the theistic Argument from the Prevalence of Religion. However, if they make a jump from explaining the origination of religion to dismissing religion, then they are committing a fallacy.
6. Dawkins’ hypothesis, so far as it goes, seems to rely on relatively few unlikely natural contingencies. Thus, if one grants that the hypothesis is persuasive, then it argues relatively strongly against the APR.