Noted British medical researcher Robert Winston’s forthcoming book, The Story of God, due out next month, sounds like it might be worth reading. Judging by excerpts published in The Guardian this past Thursday, Lord Winston views religion as something that may be hard-wired into our genetic code. If true, this should make us shake our heads in amazement, yet again, at God’s cleverness.
Excerpts (with extra paragraphing and bullet points added):
In his book Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in New York state, says that religiosity emerged as a "useful" genetic trait because it had the effect of making social groups more unified.
The communal nature of religion certainly would have given groups of hunter-gatherers a stronger sense of togetherness. This produced a leaner, meaner survival machine, a group that was more likely to be able to defend a waterhole, or kill more antelope, or capture their opponents' daughters.
The better the religion was at producing an organised and disciplined group, the more effective they would have been at staying alive, and hence at passing their genes on to the next generation.
This is what we mean by "natural selection": adaptations which help survival and reproduction get passed down through the genes.
Taking into account the additional suggestion, from various studies of twins, that we may have an inherited disposition towards religious belief, is there any evidence that the Divine Idea might be carried in our genes?
While nobody has identified any gene for religion, there are certainly some candidate genes that may influence human personality and confer a tendency to religious feelings. Some of the genes likely to be involved are those which control levels of different chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain. . . .
And it is easy to suggest a mechanism by which religious beliefs could help us to pass on our genes.
- Greater cohesion and stricter moral codes would tend to produce more cooperation, and more cooperation means that hunting and gathering are likely to bring in more food.
- In turn, full bellies mean greater strength and alertness, greater immunity against infection, and offspring who develop and become independent more swiftly.
- Members of the group would also be more likely to take care of each other, especially those who are sick or injured.
- Therefore - in the long run - a shared religion appears to be evolutionarily advantageous, and natural selection might favour those groups with stronger religious beliefs.
[Ed: Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity makes a similar argument: The practice of caritas by early Christians may have given the church, not just a biological advantage for its members, but also a “marketing advantage” in attracting converts.]
But this is not the whole story. Although religion might be useful in developing a solid moral framework - and enforcing it - we can quite easily develop moral intuitions without relying on religion. Psychologist Eliot Turiel observed that even three- and four-year-olds could distinguish between moral rules (for example, not hitting someone) and conventional rules (such as not talking when the teacher is talking). Furthermore, they could understand that a moral breach, such as hitting someone, was wrong whether you had been told not to do it or not, whereas a conventional breach, such as talking in class, was wrong only if it had been expressly forbidden. They were also clearly able to distinguish between prudential rules (such as not leaving your notebook next to the fireplace) and moral rules.
This would suggest that there is a sort of "morality module" in the brain that is activated at an early age. Evidence from neuroscience would back this up, to a degree. In my last book, The Human Mind, I noted that certain brain areas become activated when we engage in cooperation with others, and that these areas are associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. It also seems that certain areas of the brain are brought into action in situations where we feel empathy and forgiveness.
So religion does not seem to be produced by a specific part of our psychological make-up.
Is it more likely, then, that religious ideas are something of an accidental by-product created by other parts of our basic blueprint, by processes deep in the unconscious mind that evolved to help us survive?
Let’s assume arguendo that our religious ideas are indeed “something of an accidental by-product.” That would not rule out a role for a Creator. I’m reminded of a comment by the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, FRS, KBE (a former particle physicist) in one of his books: God didn’t create a ready-made world. He did something much more clever than that. He created a world able to make itself. To which I would add: