Last week, I shared what I learned about a scientific field called the evolutionary psychology of religion. I wanted to write about it because I felt torn when I first started delving into the topic. I’m a pagan and my beliefs are dear to me, as is the company I keep when I practice my faith. And yet I am as much a scientist as I am a pagan. So, I couldn’t just dismiss or ignore the science — even though the science suggests my gods are just in my head. This totally made me tense up with raised shoulders and a squinched face. Not a good look. Oy.

In a nutshell, “Evolutionary psychology of religion is based on the hypothesis that religious belief can be explained by the evolution of the human brain.” At least that’s how you’ll see it described on most sites, including Wikipedia (where I copied this quote). The problem is, that’s not really a good description of EPR. The description should be EPR hypothesises the capacity for religious belief can be explained by the evolution of the human brain, not religious belief itself.* So, an EPR-er might say to you, “Your brain has evolved in such a way that you can believe in Odin.” S/he would not say, “You believe in Odin because of the way your brain evolved.”

Once I figured this out, I could unwind my shoulders.** It helped me understand that EPR is not suggesting Odin is a figment of my brain architecture. But my face was still squinched. Because EPR is also not suggesting that Odin is not a figment of my brain architecture. <Read in your best Jason Stackhouse accent!> I mean, it ain’t sayin’ he is, but it ain’t sayin’ he ain’t neither. *Sigh* I have always believed that knowledge is power, so I kept reading.

As in every scientific field, there are several schools of thought. The two main explanations for why the brain evolved to allow for faith are adaptation and exaptation (see last week’s post for details). And then there are two schools of thought on why exaptation might have occurred, as a by-product of human interaction or as a by-product of self-defense mechanisms.*** These ideas are well-thought out and apparently fairly established in the EPR field. So, how do I feel about these ideas? Ideas that say I believe only because, through a quirk of evolution, I’m capable of believing. What do I say to that?

*Still thinking*

Here’s what other people have said. “That humans are hard-wired to believe in god is evidence for god (because he must have designed the hard-wire)” (see example here) or “If you believe EPR is true, then you must be an atheist” (which is what Richard Dawkins thinks). Interestingly, these two viewpoints on EPR are philosophically at odds. I fall into neither category. I think the first view-point tends towards a chicken-or-the-egg argument and does little to advance our understanding (scientific or spiritual) of EPR. And I worry this line of thinking is a slippery slope for an intelligent design argument, which flatly denies natural selection. I can’t dig that. Also, I will not say this is an atheist science. That is, I don’t think believing EPR is true necessitates believing religion is false.

I do not believe that accepting this evolutionary account of religion requires one to accept atheism.”

John Teehan, Associate Professor of Religion at Hofstra University in an interview with Scientific American for Darwin Day 2009

However, this appears to be a science favored by atheists. That is, EPR is attractive to atheists, specifically anti-theists. The more I read (of non-peer reviewed material),§ the more I get a “this is proof there is no God” vibe. Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about. A really smart guy talking about a really cerebral topic, but kinda being a dick about it. I get it, Mr. Harvard Speaker Guy. My brain evolved in a particular way to do particular things, and those particular things gave mankind the particular ability to believe in gods. When did being dismissive become the auto-response to serendipity? I mean, if there was a memo about this, I didn’t get it. And neither did Pfizer.§§ I don’t appreciate the attempt to use EPR to devalue my faith. And I caution anyone against viewing science solely through a theistic, atheistic or anti-theistic lens. Doing so completely compromises the objectivity for which scientists strive.

But I digress. Back to the question at hand. How do I feel about EPR? A science that, at the end of the day, says religious belief is just part of normal cognitive functioning. There are some who try to reconcile faith with EPR. I don’t feel compelled to do that. Here’s what I say about EPR.

So what?

My brain has the capacity to believe in, relate to, imagine a higher power. That doesn’t mean the high power isn’t real. My brain has the capacity to believe in, relate to, imagine my friends and family, too, and they (by all accounts…thus far) are real. But let’s propose for a moment, that my gods are not real and I am just executing a rogue program in my brain. Again so what? My gods and my practices are the mechanisms through which I connect with the world and the cosmos. And those things (by all accounts…thus far) are real.

In my last post, I pondered what I would say if asked, “Why do we have religion?” We have religion to engage a common human experience and to express a deep, commonly shared connection to the divine, to the ether, to the cosmos (paraphrased from Teehan). Call it what you will. We are connected to something we don’t yet fully know. The universe is bigger than we thought and contains more planets than we thought. We just keep learning more and more about what we have to learn. As much as I am a fan, empirical evidence is not the end all be all for measuring reality. Face unsquinched.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Carl Sagan

Does that something…the divine, the ether, the cosmos…warrant or deserve religious commitment? Ah hell. That’s another post, maybe even another blog!

What about you, readers? Are you discomforted by EPR?

* In her editorial review, Jax explained this nicely, “Science exists to describe how things work, not tell us philosophically why they happen, and to leave out the words ‘capacity for’ in a definition of EPR effectively changes a legitimate field of science into a philosophical study designed to prove atheism, because it’s no longer a clinical descriptor for how we believe, but suggesting a reason for why. My understanding of science is that you are correct; that (good) science is not about an agenda but about dispassionately describing reality.”  Go Jax!

** It was not easy to figure this out, though. Most of the research is written to say things like “religion can be explained by…” instead of “the capacity for religion can be explained by…” But when it comes to explaining why religion is culturally pervasive, the discussion is about how the brain developed and retained the trait that allowed for religious belief. The explanation goes something like “Oh, the brain can do this and that’s what lets it do this, too” not “Oh, the brain can do this and that’s what makes it do this, too.” To explain religious belief itself, EPR would have to contain hypotheses as varied as beliefs and practices — and that’s mighty varied (so much so that anthropologists can’t agree on a definition for religion). In addition, if EPR were explaining religious belief (and not the capacity for it), wouldn’t it then follow that those who do not have religious belief either did not evolve the same way the rest of us did or that they are more evolved than the rest of us? I like me some atheists, but are they more evolved? Nah.

***  I’m really interested in the “by-product of self-defense” argument because it should be testable. I don’t know a lot about artificial intelligence, but I do know that we design computing systems that protect themselves from threat (i.e., viruses, hacking). Have by-products from these defenses occurred in AI? I have no idea, but I am interested to know more if anyone has more information! I’m also really interested in just learning about biological self-defense mechanisms. Our biological defenses are the result of genetic memory, which fascinates me. Genetic memory doesn’t just work on our innards. It has outward effects as well, such as our reaction to (and fear of) snakes and babies’ grabbing reflex).

§ Non-peer reviewed articles are those written (hopefully) by scholars, but not subject to the peer-review process. The peer-review process is a scientific tradition and is a way for the scientific community to vet research before it is made public.

§§ Pfizer created the drug Sildenafil to treat hypertension. Early trials of the drug showed an unanticipated side effect. Sildenafil is now more widely known and used today as Viagra.

+ Featured image is a visualization of a DTI measurement of a human brain.