“You can’t write honestly about human beings if you want to be popular.” (Steven Pinker)
Steven Pinker’s article in the latest issue of The Humanist, “The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion” (Sept/Oct ’06, pp 10-15), explains religion as an evolutionary byproduct of other adaptations, rather than as an adaptation itself. He objects to adaptation theories on grounds that they beg the question, wrongly assuming religion to be an inevitable outcome.
Here are the common explanations for religion as biological adaptation, to which Pinker objects (see pp 11-12).
1. Religion gives comfort. But why is the mind comforted by the ineffable, intangible, or even that which is plainly false? Usually we’re comforted by things we have good reason to believe are true.
2. Religion brings community together. But why do organisms cooperate better when religion enters the picture? Why aren’t emotions like trust and loyalty and solidarity enough, as indeed they can be.
3. Religion provides a source of ethics. But why look to religion for this? Secular philosophy and atheism can give us ethics as much as religion — just as religion can be a source for unethical behavior as much as ethical.
I agree that there is nothing inevitable about religion when considered this generally, and thus should not be viewed as an adaptation. Religion is more like reading and less like spoken language. (Spoken language, as Pinker points out, emerges spontaneously, inevitably, everywhere in all societies, while reading is a byproduct of spoken language; kids don’t read spontaneously unless taught.) It is a byproduct of other adaptations which yield more concrete benefits than the general ones above. Pinker suggests some of those benefits, which we will consider in the next post.