Crisis of faith

Scientists who use evolutionary psychology to explain religion are ignoring facts and missing the point.

Margaret Wertheim
December 24, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Just in case you were wondering, Purgatory is very much alive. As part of the Catholic Church's jubilee celebrations, Pope John Paul II announced this year that any Christian who gives up drinking or smoking in 2000 will have his or her time in Purgatory lessened. The pontiff's power over the souls in Purgatory was affirmed in medieval times, though very few popes have exercised this right. One who did was Boniface VIII, who in celebration of the 1300 jubilee granted complete pardon from all Purgatorial torment to anyone who died while on pilgrimage to Rome that year. Not everyone approved of such terrestrial dabbling in the hereafter; for some Christians, Boniface's action was a dangerous and illegitimate abuse of power. John Paul II apparently has no such qualms.

As an ex-Catholic girl I was thrilled to hear that the "Middle Kingdom" was still rocking -- it's one of those things that Reformation leaders quickly struck off the register. Yet even in overwhelmingly Protestant America, Purgatory remains a significant feature of our religious landscape. According to a 1997 Yankelovich survey for Time/CNN, three-quarters of Americans (76 percent) believe they are bound for heaven: Most (61 percent) expect to go there directly, but 15 percent expect a sojourn in Purgatory. Only 4 percent see themselves headed for hell.


At the start of this century, many intellectuals believed that by the year 2000 religion would have died off. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. According to polls, 95 percent of Americans believe in God. 59 percent say that religion is very important in their lives, and another 29 percent rate it as fairly important. Only 4 percent identify themselves as agnostics or atheists. Sixty-eight percent belong to a church or synagogue and nearly half of our populace, 46 percent, describe themselves as born-again. Why, in this post-Enlightenment age -- an era supposedly dominated by secular reason and science -- have religious beliefs not only survived, but flourished?

Why people believe in God is the central question of Michael Shermer's new book "How We Believe." Director of the Skeptics Society and an ex-born-again Christian himself, Shermer has a general fascination with belief; this book might be seen as a companion to his previous "Why People Believe Weird Things," a portmanteau study of "weird" beliefs from ESP to Holocaust denial. Though Shermer abandoned religion in his own life, he retains, he says, a deep appreciation of its role in other peoples' lives. But despite that appreciation, like many contemporary scientists who try to explain religion, he's leaving out evidence and missing a really critical point.

In 1998, along with MIT social scientist Frank Sulloway, Shermer set out to conduct a survey on why people believe in God. The results were both intriguing and surprising. The number one reason given (29 percent of respondents) was the apparently good design of nature or the universe. The number two reason was a feeling of God being present in everyday life (21 percent). In third place (at just 10 percent) was the answer that belief in God is comforting, consoling or relieving. The fourth place answer (another 10 percent) was that the Bible says so.

One unexpected result here is that only one in 10 people gave the consolation response. That is significant because so many secular intellectuals, particularly those opposed to religion, seem to assume that the desire for psychological comfort is the primary engine of religious faith. Over the past decade we have witnessed a boomlet in books by scientists decrying the rise of fundamentalist and New Age religious beliefs (along with other "irrationalisms" such as belief in ESP, psychic powers and past lives). At the core of these books -- see Nicholas Humphrey's "Leaps of Faith," Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" and Richard Dawkins' "Unweaving the Rainbow" -- can usually be found the view that all such beliefs are childish searches for consolation in the face of death and life's injustice. This condescending view is what I call the "child clutching at teddy in the dark" theory of religion.

The latest addition to this line is Wendy Kaminer's "Sleeping with Extraterrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety," a well-intentioned though curmudgeonly tirade against various forms of "irrational" belief currently sweeping our nation. Halfway through her book, Kaminer trots out the view that "people believe in deities because they would find life unbearable without them." But as Shermer's study reveals, consolation is not the driving force of many Americans' faith.


On the contrary, for almost a third of his respondents, belief in God is founded on an essentially rationalist answer -- these people are convinced there is a God because the universe seems so highly ordered that to them it suggests the hand of a conscious creator. Such a response would have resonated with the founders of the scientific revolution -- Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Galileo -- all of whom saw their scientific discoveries as evidence of a divine architect. But if such views were widespread in the 17th century, it is far from obvious why they are so alive two centuries after Kant definitively showed why the "argument from design" could not be used as evidence for God.

For Shermer, this rationalist approach to religion is of a piece with a larger picture. Humans, he says, are "pattern-seeking animals." Hence, for him religion becomes just a special kind of pattern to be explained. There are two levels on which he says religious patterns need explaining: the personal and the social. On the first front, Shermer posits the existence of something he calls a "belief engine." Here he follows in the footsteps of Steven Pinker, the MIT linguist and cognitive scientist whose book "How the Mind Works" proposes that our brains comprise a series of specialized computational devices or "mental modules" that perform such tasks as recognizing faces or perceiving surface textures.

Instead of a single module, Shermer proposes a more diffuse and complex structure, a general mental "belief engine" that he sees as underlying not only religious belief, but also magical thinking and even scientific thinking. One piece of evidence he cites for such a structure is the work of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, who has found that some temporal lobe epileptics have a heightened physiological response to religious imagery.

But it is the social dimension of religious belief that most concerns Shermer, and his primary project is to present a scientific explanation for how he thinks religions arise and flourish in human societies. Here he draws on research in anthropology, genetics and particularly evolutionary psychology. Underlying Shermer's program is a desire to find cross-cultural patterns in religious belief systems, a core that many religions share. "Seek and ye shall find" the Bible exhorts us -- and, more than their proponents admit, new scientific theories of culture often operate on the same principle.


Shermer rightly notes that one of the core functions of religion is to provide a society with myths that help to bind the community together. In this postmodernist age that is a fairly uncontroversial view -- though of course it is rejected by religious fundamentalists, for whom there are no myths, only Absolute Truths. What is troubling, however, is Shermer's claim that there are universal, or near universal, religious myths.

Two such myths he identifies are that of a messiah and that of a coming apocalypse. The former he discerns not only in Christianity, but also in the late 19th century Native American Ghost Dance, in Polynesian cargo cults and in the recent Heaven's Gate cult. But if all these cults share common themes with Christianity, that is hardly surprising for all have arisen within cultures heavily influenced by Christianity. None occur outside the Christian orbit, and hence they can't serve as evidence for the universality of a messiah theme. That theme is definitely not found in many indigenous religions prior to their encounters with Europeans, nor is it a feature of all the so-called "great world religions." Buddhism, for example, has no notion of a messiah; nor does it posit a coming apocalypse.

Shermer's desire for universal religious patterns is central to his project of finding a "scientific" account of religion. Science (at least in the modern Western sense of this word), is a search for universals. Yet his hankering for such an account seems to have blinded him to the incredible diversity of the phenomena -- he seems to see only those bits of religion that suit his purpose.


The most cursory look at Australian Aboriginal religions, for example, would have told him that the very idea of universal religious patterns may be an illusion. These ancient religious systems seem truly alien to Western minds on first encounter. Consider also an account I heard recently of an Eskimo shaman who healed the soul of a troubled young woman by stitching into it the soul of an arctic sea bird. What remotely Christian parallel is there for this? For all his claims to universalism, Shermer's book remains deeply Christocentric, a quality that, because it is so unconscious, calls into question the rest of his explanatory framework.

The assumption that Western patterns are universal is an all-too-common feature of other recent attempts to explain aspects of human culture in scientific terms. In Pinker's book, he asserts again and again that cultures around the world exhibit the same basic patterns of thought and categorization that we do. With Pinker, it is not just religion, but also language, art, music and philosophy that are filtered through blinkered Western eyes.

If with Shermer this move seems born of a genuine naiveti, in Pinker it is the hallmark of an extreme arrogance -- one that heralds nothing less than a new imperialism. (I am sorry to use this jargony term, but no other phrase will do.) Under the guise of "science" what is going on here is the age-old strategy of conquerors everywhere: Our experience is the experience! What is so ironic is just how much this resembles the tactics of religious fundamentalists. Of course, they do not claim that everyone sees the world as they do, rather that everyone should.


In either case, the resulting claim is that "our" way of seeing is the right, the true and ultimately the only valid way of seeing. Hand in hand with this universalizing is a tendency to equate religions everywhere, even the very term "religion," not just with Christianity, but with right-wing American fundamentalist Christianity. Kaminer's book is a prime example of this elision. Although she offers the occasional disclaimer that not all religious believers are Christian fundamentalists, that is the only version of "religion" to which she gives serious attention.

None of the pictures of "religion" that Kaminer or Shermer describe in their books mesh with the intellectual Catholicism in which I was raised in my native Australia. The religious atmosphere I grew up in was one of intellectual openness: My father was a professor of philosophy, and my mother became a leader in the emerging women's movement of the 1970s. Although my parents left the church, some of their Catholic friends remain among the most broad-minded thinkers I have ever met. American Jesuits I know would likewise be mystified by the truncated portrayals of religious belief that appear in these books. Christianity contains within it a bewildering diversity of denominations, from Pentecostals who speak in tongues and interpret dreams to Quakers who are free to question even the divinity of Jesus. There is not a universal pattern in this one religion, let alone among the vast plethora of world faiths.

Behind the tendency of secular commentators like Shermer and Pinker to make universal generalizations about religion lies their desire to come up with a scientific account of faith -- a project very much in the air right now. We have already encountered such proposals from Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson in last year's "Consilience"; from Richard Dawkins, who has famously explained religion as a virus of the mind, or what he calls a viral "meme"; and from English psychologist Susan J. Blackmore, who has elaborated on Dawkins' ideas in her recent book "The Meme Machine." For all these scientists, religion is simply a byproduct of cultural and/or genetic evolutionary processes that arises and flourishes in human societies because it lends a survival advantage.

On one level, an evolutionary account of religion is perfectly reasonable. By helping to bind groups of hunter-gatherers together, religious beliefs no doubt did help our ancestors to survive. No doubt such beliefs also aid in the survival of many communities today -- think of the Mennonites, Hasidic Jews or Iranian Muslims. Shermer is surely right to stress that religion is a social institution that binds groups together by encouraging "altruism and reciprocal altruism" among group members and by providing a moral framework for the community. But is that all there is to religion?


All these explanations at best ignore and at worst dismiss a critical issue. Religions are indeed social institutions and moral systems, but they also make fundamental claims about the nature of reality. Christians (most of them anyway) believe that Jesus really was the son of God. They believe he really did rise from the dead and ascend to Heaven, and that they too will be resurrected. For the faithful, God and the soul are fundamental aspects of the real. Intellectually sophisticated Christians admit that in part their church derives its strength from its institutional power, but part of its power, they insist, derives from its foundation in truth -- from the fact that God exists. Likewise, for Aboriginal Australians, the Dreamtime spirits really did create the world and they really do interact in it today.

Overtly or covertly, the new scientific accounts of faith deny religious beliefs any foundation in reality. Here the "true" reality is the one scientists describe, and religious beliefs become artifacts of psychocultural delusion to be explained by the "higher" powers of science. And so the historical wheel comes full circle, back again to the whole issue of science versus religion, and to which system is to be accorded the superior truth. In the 17th century, as the story of Galileo demonstrated, it was religion that had this power; today it is science.

What is at stake here is no mere quibble, as a brief example will reveal. Several years ago I attended a lecture by Oliver Sacks in which he suggested that Hildegard of Bingen's mystical visions may have been the byproduct of migraines. The Christian claim, however, is that Hildegard was communing with God, that her writing and music came directly from the divine mind.

Now as a Jesuit friend once pointed out to me, Hildegard may well have been having migraines, but that doesn't mean she wasn't also communing with God. The point is that religious people claim a reality beyond the purview of physical science. For them, science cannot, in principle, explain what Hildegard "saw."


Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim is the author of "Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars," and most recently "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet" (W.W. Norton).

MORE FROM Margaret Wertheim

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Religion Science


Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •