October 11, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Religion vs. Evolution: Which Explains Which?

Evolutionists have a running theme that evolving humans invented religion for various evolutionary reasons.

In her most blatant article in recent years, Elizabeth Palermo at Live Science purports to tell the rest of mankind where their religion came from.  Her article is entitled, “The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved.” To sound authoritative, she picks an expert named Kelly James Clark, a senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute in Michigan.

Picture this: You’re a human being living many thousands of years ago. You’re out on the plains of the Serengeti, sitting around, waiting for an antelope to walk by so you can kill it for dinner. All of a sudden, you see the grasses in front of you rustling. What do you do? Do you stop and think about what might be causing the rustling (the wind or a lion, for example), or do you immediately take some kind of action?

“On the plains of the Serengeti, it would be better to not sit around and reflect. People who took their time got selected out,” Clark told Live Science. Humans who survived to procreate were those who had developed what evolutionary scientists call a hypersensitive agency-detecting device, or HADD, he said.

In short, HADD is the mechanism that lets humans perceive that many things have “agency,” or the ability to act of their own accord. This understanding of how the world worked facilitated the rapid decision-making process that humans had to go through when they heard a rustling in the grass. (Lions act of their own accord. Better run.)

But is this a just-so story masquerading as a scientific explanation? Does giving an imaginary human response an acronym provide understanding? In order to look unbiased, Palermo suggests a different scenario, appealing to Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford for expertise:

But not everyone agrees that religious thinking is just a byproduct of evolution — in other words, something that came about as a result of nonreligious, cognitive faculties. Some scientists see religion as more of an adaptation — a trait that stuck around because the people who possessed it were better able to survive and pass on their genes.

At first, Palermo seems to want to avoid reductionism.  Both scenarios, however, are completely naturalistic, relying on Darwinian selection.  As such, they deny any rational content in religion.  It’s all the outcome of genetic forces in the prey-vs-predator competition.

A Fool and Her Theory Are Soon Parted

Observers may wish to read “How scientists fool themselves, and how they can stop” by Regina Nuzzo in Nature.  One of four sources of cognitive bias she warns about is just-so storytelling:

As data-analysis results are being compiled and interpreted, researchers often fall prey to just-so storytelling — a fallacy named after the Rudyard Kipling tales that give whimsical explanations for things such as how the leopard got its spots. The problem is that post-hoc stories can be concocted to justify anything and everything — and so end up truly explaining nothing. Baggerly says that he has seen such stories in genetics studies, when an analysis implicates a huge number of genes in a particular trait or outcome. “It’s akin to a Rorschach test,” he said at the bioinformatics conference. Researchers will find a story, he says, “whether it’s there or not. The problem is that occasionally it ain’t real.”

Two of Nuzzo’s recommendations are to seriously consider alternatives and invite debate by those who disagree. Evolution News & Views gave high marks to the late atheist evolutionist Will Provine for doing this (see ENV #1, ENV #2, ID the Future with Phillip Johnson, ID the Future with Paul Nelson). Many creationists and ID advocates have encouraged debate (see Academic Freedom Petition) and have complained about the often one-sided presentation of evolution. Palermo’s article, though it presents two views, is an example of cognitive bias where only Darwinians need apply.

Moral Evolution Without the E-Word

One cannot find the word evolution in two articles about the origin of morality, but what is the message?  There’s no mention of evolution, for instance, in a press release from the U of Missouri on Science Daily that talks about the “development of altruism.” But there’s also no moral standard. What the psychologists look for is “prosocial” behavior, which might be interpreted as two individuals patting one another on the back. Toss in a little sympathy (feeling for another’s wants), and you get this from Gustavo Carlo, a “professor of diversity” at the university:

Engaging in prosocial behaviors has a self-reinforcing quality that eventually may become incorporated into how adolescents view their moral selves; this may help explain how some individuals, over time, become more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors and become more sympathetic, Carlo said.

In this view, the “moral self” is an illusion based on behaviors that become self-reinforcing. But if altruistic behavior is scientifically amoral, on what basis does Carlo advocate moral education that “encourages boys and girls to express their prosociality“?  Is that morally good?

A psychologist from Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich with the name sounding like a Roman philosopher (Markus Paulus) offers his views on the “emergence of morality in toddlers” in a Commentary in PNAS. If humans are products of evolution, they are remarkable, he begins:

Humans are a remarkable species. Not only do they display prosocial behavior to an extent that is unseen in other species, but these tendencies are also shaped by moral norms that prescribe what we ought and ought not to do. It is a central characteristic of moral norms that they are of an impersonal nature and apply likewise to the self and other. Thus, humans also evaluate their conspecifics’ behaviors on basis of moral standards and punish or reward them based on these moral judgments.

Paulus avoids use of the e-word evolution. He does, however, delve into the usual materialistic debates about the “ontogenetic origins of human morality” with heavy reliance on neuroscience experiments to provide understanding.  Morality, he suggests, is a malleable quality depending on embryonic development and social conditioning.  To some extent, that is evident; children tend to follow the moral standards of their families, tribes and societies.  Not always, though. Some turn to religion after a training in atheism, and vice versa.  Some make choices based on their own observations and reasoning, such as from reading books, not from evolutionary influences on their social group.  To deny the ability of reasoning to change one’s mind based on evidence or new information undercuts Paulus’s own credibility.

Can morality be explained in a vacuum?  At the end of the commentary Paulus changes tone, almost getting a tinge of conscience over having naturalized morality:

It should be noted that research on human morality cannot be judged from a neutral point of view — a view from nowhere — as we are all continuously engaged in moral considerations and debates. Any research on moral behavior presupposes thus a particular view on what we judge to be moral or not moral. The basis of this differentiation, that is, the justifications of norms, can only be understood from the perspective of someone who participates in a moral debate. Consequently, we need to be careful to not confuse normative questions about the validity of norms with empirical signatures of moral judgments and social evaluations, as the latter can only be empirically assessed when one presupposes a particular normative view on what is actually good or bad. In the present case of perceiving clearly antisocial and violent behaviors, such a judgment seems common-sense. Nevertheless, it would be good to keep in mind the normative presuppositions we are making when examining moral judgment and moral conduct. Such a combined effort of moral neuroscience, moral philosophy, and moral psychology seems to be well equipped to raise our understanding of the ontogenetic origins of human morality to the next level.

Paulus just hinted that certain things can be “actually good or bad,” not just so defined based on one’s social context. But is it “good” to “keep in mind” that such presuppositional questions are best addressed in the academy (moral neuroscience, moral philosophy, moral psychology), rather than in church?  Having briefly awakened from his dogmatic slumbers, it appears that Markus Paulus promptly rolled over and went back to sleep.

Giving Religion a Minute on the Soapbox

Science Magazine took advantage of the Pope’s visit to America to seek a Catholic view on science and religion. Edwin Cartlidge, a science writer from Rome, asked the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, Guy Consalmagno, what he thinks. One tidbit: “God doesn’t get in the way of doing good astronomy,” Consolmagno said: “Just the opposite. He is the reason we do astronomy.”

Consalmagno used the opportunity to advertise a couple of important Catholics in modern science, Gregor Mendel and Georges Lemaitre.  But he also pointed to some of the presuppositions that underlie all of science: belief in an orderly universe of laws, confidence that the universe is real (not an illusion), and the conviction that “the universe is so good that it is worth spending your life studying it, even if you don’t become rich or famous.”

Catholics get an outsized platform in the American science media even though they are a religious minority.  At least three reasons account for this: (1) Catholicism has a celebrity figurehead (the Pope) that Protestants do not.  Reporters are attracted to powerful people.  (2) There is a perception that Catholicism has been static ever since Peter. Anyone who knows church history knows how false that is. (3) Catholics never question important consensus views like the big bang or an old earth, and are wishy-washy about Darwinian evolution.  These factors draw science reporters to tolerate Catholics part way. Don’t hold your breath for Protestant creationists to get such a platform in the press, even though some of them are just as scientifically qualified as the Vatican astronomer, if not more so.


We’ve answered the likes of Palermo’s “evolution of religion” articles so many times, we want to give our readers a try at it.  Read her piece, and write a concise response, pointing out the flaws in her reasoning.  Try to make watertight arguments that the most ardent evolutionists cannot deny. The best entries will be added to our commentary.

Extra credit: tackle another “evolution of religion” theory by psychologist Steven Reiss of Ohio State, presented favorably without critique on PhysOrg.

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  • mody nader says:

    What the charlatans say is the ultimate nonsense ….before such blabla void of meaning they must answer the following fundamental questions :
    1- They must prove that fields , particles and forces can generate the feelings of awe and wonder .
    2- They must prove that Fields , Particles , and Forces can generate the capacity to grasp , understand and imagine the meaning of being a supernatural agent .
    3- They must prove that fields , particles and forces can generate the urge to explain nature and the capacity to put every thing in a global system .
    According to the charlatans , the human being is a bag of molecules and as such the bags of molecules would never invent a conceptual system , bags of molecules does not care about life or death or immotality or reward for good deeds or the corruption of the soul for bad deeds , bags of molecules does not even care for survival in nature , bags of molecules are a mere collection of physical interactions with not a single iota exceeding that ……for humans to invent religion as per the charlatans deception claim humans must be first humans , so before any nonsense babbling the charlatans must first explain all aspects of being human ……..explain not produce utter nonsense .

  • dsg727 says:

    If religion is a necessary outcome of evolutionary development, then what evolutionist has any justification to argue against religion?

    If religion was found to be BENEFICIAL for man’s evolution, then there is no justification for coming against it, rejecting it, or being hostile to those that engage in it. They are only doing what EVOLUTION has dictated/is dictating and those who are against that, are ultimately against a facet of evolution, by default.

    Name one other necessary facet of evolution of man that is rejected so vehemently by people today? How about one necessary facet of evolution that is rejected in the slightest by evolution believers?

    It comes down to this then. Either you, the opposer of religion, are wrong about religion being a function of evolution (evidence against evolution being true, then) or you are acting and living in a way that is contradictory to your own evolutionary worldview.

  • lux113 says:

    To me, this all has some delicious irony.

    The scientists say that evolution has provided us with a trait to assign ‘agency’ to things that don’t actually have it.

    Their “just so” stories are assigning a form of “agency” to things that don’t actually have it, or at least not the agency they are ascribing. They see “patterns” in our behavior throughout history and say “this is what caused it”, with no real evidence but the pattern itself. Isn’t that the type of argument they use against the religious?

  • lux113 says:

    In the article “How scientist’s fool themselve’s” where they are speaking of the problem with “just so” stories… is it any surprise that they use “just so” stories when describing how the problem of “just so” explanations ‘evolved’?

    “even an honest person is a master of self-deception. Our brains evolved long ago on the African savannah, where jumping to plausible conclusions about the location of ripe fruit or the presence of a predator was a matter of survival. ”

    Just amazing. They don’t even recognize they are doing it!

    Person asks scientist: “Do you think maybe you reach conclusions scientifically often by a faulty chain of assumptions based on stories that may sound good in your gut, but are not actual repeatable and testable science?”

    Scientist: “Well, yes, we do, it’s because our brains evolved long ago on the African savannah, where jumping to plausible conclusions about the location of ripe fruit or the presence of a predator was a matter of survival. ”


  • rockyway says:

    The conclusions a person comes to depends upon their worldview. If a person holds to materialism then they have no choice but to come up with a naturalistic explanation of God (or of belief in God) but to the theist this is akin to a naturalistic (i.e. mindless, undirected) account of the cell phone.

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