Are Brains Destined for Religion?

August 25, 2010

In a previous essay that asked the question, " Can Science Eliminate Religious Faith? " I explored whether psychology can disprove God. Specifically, can psychology's explanations for religious belief be used to conclude that all religious belief is unreasonable? The proposed conclusion was negative: only the hard work of advocating secular culture can fully engage religion. Religion may be more "normal" than atheists wants to admit, but "normal" cannot mean "inevitable" or "right". We need the same reminder when appreciating the brain sciences and their investigations into religion. Some religious beliefs are the product of diseased or defective brains, but apparently some religious beliefs are the product of normally functioning brains. Other brain sciences, such as neuroscience and cognitive science, along with some behavioral science, are coming to agree with this view. Religion is not just for crazy people anymore.

We shouldn't be surprised to see the sciences converging on an understanding of religion for normal people. The human sciences must study all things human, and they must incorporate evolution. Religion has been a widespread and persistent feature of human society for a very long time. Over that time, biological evolution has been doing its slow work, and cultural evolution has been doing its faster work. Religion is a natural phenomenon that requires a natural explanation. It would be surprising indeed if the sciences were left unable to explain central features of human religious conduct. Instead, naturalism is prevailing over supernaturalism. We are watching the "naturalization" of religion: the several sciences are fitting religious belief into the natural world and showing how it has evolved there.

Religion appears as natural as any other human activity, such as agriculture, cooking, or engineering. And, like any other human activity, religion uses the same basic cognitive architecture, available to homo sapiens for at least 50,000 years or more. Both biological and cultural evolution has been quite hospitable to religions. Most religious ideas are not just compatible with evolution, they are positively supportive of our biological and cultural needs. From strengthening social bonds and enforcing moral codes to supplying comforting consolations, religions have found a variety of ways to make themselves useful for human life.

No malevolent viruses indeed – religions are more like symbiotic parasites. Their supplemental ideas and institutions demand sacrifices, but they arouse fresh energies in return, and supply a net balance of positive vigor. If religions could not serve as extra engines, like mitochondria in the cell body, they would have never survived so long in humanity. They would have either killed off their hosts in an energy drain, or entirely killed off each other in cultural collisions.

Religion had to be scientifically naturalized, and it is getting naturalized. As many useful explanations for religion emerge from the sciences, scientists feel very confident about their success. "Religion is real," they proclaim, "and we can watch how the brain naturally does it." Some scientists are so impressed by religion's basis in the human brain that they think that the brain must produce religion. Taking this notion to its rhetorical heights, Michael McGuire and Lionel Tiger state that "a god or some equivalent is the product of a normal human brain" and they conclude, "Like it or not, the brain will continue to secrete religion as long as life generates problems" ["Brain Science, God Science" in Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 2010)].

Must religion always be with us? These scientists are overlooking the possibility that religious institutions could be gradually replaced by secular institutions doing much the same work for human life. That substitution is an option worth considering, before religions get too comfortable supposing that science has approved and authorized their faiths. Secular culture may be relatively uncommon, but it is potent. Biological and cultural explanations for religion should not be mistaken for arguments concluding that religion is the best that humanity will ever produce. One might as well conclude that since most humans intuitively accept simplistic ideas about inertia, force, and causality which are demonstrably wrong by the standards of modern physics, then we are forever stuck with only primitive construction. Yet we can build skyscrapers and space stations. The forces of cultural evolution must have their say, as well.

When it comes to cultural evolution, we are active players on the stage of history, not passive observers awaiting the dramatic climax. We are our brains, in a sense, but we also use our brains. We contemplate and we create – we are not powerless and adrift in an irresistable flow of destiny's tides. The naturalistic worldview credits humans with their own energies to modify their social and natural environments, after all. If brains are natural, so is discerning intellect and willful power. It is still our right to ask, What sort of culture should we live in?

We can take responsibility for creating alternatives to religion. Do we really have that power to replace religion? McGuire and Tiger sound skeptical. Other naturalists, impressed by the sociological "Meme" explanation of religious belief, also depict our cultures as suffering from the grip of irresistible natural forces. Neither the name nor basic idea of Meme theory is new. [See J. Laurent, "A Note on the Origin of 'Memes'/'Mnemes'," in Journal of Memetics (June 1999). American psychologist William James was aware of Richard Semon’s 1904 book Mneme , but the theory did not proliferate in America at that time.] Meme theory proposes that units of conceptual information, called "memes" by analogy to genes of biological information, are transferred through human minds by communication and survive by their service in life. Religious memes, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have recently observed, can be naturally explained like any other kind of memes. Atheists inspired by this meme theory note how religious memes have evolved and proliferated against the competition over human history, explaining why most humans naturally tend to have firm religious ideas.

Leaving the scientific merits of meme theory aside (it has serious problems), we may wonder what atheists can really make of this approach to religion. Do atheists suppose that meme theory, by naturalizing religion, will help their argument that religious belief is unreasonable? That atheist hope would be more unreasonable. A counter-defense of religious faith is easily constructed from the same foundation in meme theory:

1. Humans naturally have religious faith because religion memes are highly evolutionarily successful.

2. Hence, religious faith is typically reasonable, more reasonable than any non-religious competition.


C. The atheist is unreasonable to demand that people stop having religious faith.

The atheist cannot answer this argument by replying that secular memes are better. On meme theory, there is no way to tell which memes are "better", unless one supposes that greater proliferation means "better". Should the atheist argue that atheism is better because it will someday win the meme competition? Is reasonableness reducible to popularity or success? Does Might make Right? Besides, some brain scientists already think that human brains will inevitably be religious.

The possibility that religion can be gradually replaced with secular alternatives cannot be ruled in or out by any amount of scientific knowledge. We must take responsibility for controlling our brains and our beliefs. The replacement of religion with secular alternatives involves advocating evaluative judgments about better belief-formation and intellectually improved cultures. That goes well beyond any science, and advocates of atheism are doing philosophy, not more science. Advocates of religion who claim that because brains produce religions then religions are naturally reasonable are similarly transcending anything that science could justify. Let's argue the virtues of belief and disbelief on their own merits. There is no choice but to take control of our ideas.

When atheists ask people to replace their religions with all-natural alternatives, these atheists must offer their cultural evaluations and defend them. Atheists have to take a principled cultural stand somewhere. Neither nature nor science is enough to replace religion. It's time to fight for the kind of culture that we think is best.