ACCORDING TO:Natalie Angier, David Sloan Wilson, Thomas A. Bass
see some fundamental contradiction here. Everybody criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But at least they’re talking about how ludicrous some of these belief systems are. I know that David Sloan Wilson doesn’t take issue with the way I’ve framed these questions, but to see religion as having a positive influence does not get at the fundamental question of what it means to have faith. What is so good about having faith when you don’t have evidence? What is the real advantage to that? Why is this something that we want to encourage? Why not say, as I do with my daughter, “Let’s see some proof.” She asked her friend, who believes in Jesus, if she could wait up one night and see Him for herself, and it didn’t happen. Why is that OK? Why is it OK for scientists to say that skepticism is the default position, except when it comes to mainstream religion? — Natalie Angier
With apologies to Natalie, I think there’s a kind of a silliness to banging away at religious beliefs for their obvious falsehood, when in fact, if you’re an evolutionist, the only way you would want to evaluate these beliefs is to examine what they cause people to do. Do they help people function in their communities? Then this might be an explanation for why they exist. It also makes it unnecessary to criticize these ideas, again and again, because they depart from factual reality. We should be more sophisticated in the way we evaluate beliefs. — David Sloan Wilson
Thomas A. Bass
David Sloan Wilson
NATALIE ANGIER is a Pulitzer prize winning science writer for The New York Times. Her most recent book is The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.
Natalie Angier’s Edge Bio Page
DAVID SLOAN WILSON is distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. He also directs EvoS, a campus-wide program that relates evolution to all aspects of humanity in addition to the natural world. His most recent book is Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.
David Sloan Wilson’s Edge Bio Page
THOMAS A. BASS, a writer, is Professor of English at the University at Albany. His most recent book is The Predictors.
Thomas A. Bass’s Edge Bio Page
A DEBATE BETWEEN NATALIE ANGIER AND DAVID SLOAN WILSON, MODERATED BY THOMAS A. BASS
Natalie Angier: I want to say first of all that I deeply admire David’s work and that I probably shouldn’t think of this as a debate. Let me begin by reading this interesting little excerpt I came across recently—I will tell you afterward who wrote it.
In face of the onslaught of the fundamentalists, some scientists are content to repeat over and over that they believe in evolution but that there is no conflict between science and religion. They only obscure the real issue. This statement may be true, but it depends entirely upon the definition of religion. If religion means the emotions of sympathy, charity, and humanity—which to some extent are part of every human structure—then this statement is no doubt true. If it means that great seers and prophets of the world from the earliest times have, almost without exception, emphasized these emotions, then the statement is true. The scientists, who repeat that there is no conflict, evidently define religion in some such way. If religion means that the earth, and man, were created in six days, measured by the morning and evening; that the sun was made on the fourth day; that the first woman was made from Adam’s rib; that the sun stood still for Joshua; that the earth was completely drowned out by a flood; that the arc saved two of every kind of organic life gathered from all over the globe to start a new world; that all present life comes from animals that were saved from the arc; that each species is the result of a separate creation; that the human race was doomed to eternal torture because Eve was tempted by the serpent and man was tempted by Eve; that two or three thousand years later man was offered a chance for redemption by believing in an immaculate conception and a physical resurrection; if all this is part of religion, and it must be believed if one is religious, then the chances are that there are no scientists who will say that religion and science are in harmony. Why should not these scientists, who say that science and religion do not conflict, define in plain terms what they mean by religion? The time is past due for the scientists to speak in no uncertain terms: the fundamentalist does not quibble or dodge; he is using every means in his power to place the Bible and his interpretation of religion in the field of learning. The battle has been fought many times in the history of the world. Once more the combat is upon us, it cannot be won by quibbling and dodging. Science must openly and fairly meet the issue. The question to be determined is whether learning should be hampered and measured by dogma and creeds.
I thought this was wonderful, and it was written in 1927 by Clarence Darrow. All of which is to say that these are still issues to deal with and that, quite frankly, I think science is not necessarily rising to that challenge. In an article I wrote for the American Scholar ["My God Problem and Theirs,” 2004], I talked about this. Everywhere I went when I was reporting my last book [T[The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, 2007]scientists kept saying to me “Please try to tell people that evolution is real, that it happens, that it’s a great thing that explains the structure of life.”
But none of them ever addressed the other questions engendered by the fundamentalist revival. Nobody wants to tackle the statistics: 82% of Americans are convinced that heaven is real and 63% believe that they are going there; 51% believe in ghosts, but only 28% are swayed by the theory of evolution; 77% of Americans insist that Jesus was born to a virgin. … If evolution is real, can that be possible? From what we know of mammalian genetics, can that be possible? I guess we could think of ways it could happen. I mean, maybe she started fooling around with someone, but didn’t have intercourse with them and some of the sperm got up into her vaginal tract, and she got pregnant. Yes, we could say that. Could she have done it by some act of spiritual parthenogenesis? The answer is no, but nobody says that. They tell me, talk about evolution, but all this other stuff we’re not going to mention; we’re going to put it aside and try to ignore it. And then what happens is that we have a lot of problems with lack of scientific understanding, with this constant battle over creationism being taught in the schools, with people not believing science, people thinking it’s all just a matter of opinion.
I was very interested—and I also cover this in my article—in the different ways that scientists talk about certain things. They’re willing to go on the attack when it comes to creationism or spoon-bending. But when it comes to the miracles of conventional religion … no … we don’t touch that; we don’t deal with it. And I’m considered rude and insulting, just willfully provocative to bring it up.
I went to the Cornell website and came up with this example of how two different questions were treated. On the “Ask an Astronomer” website, to the query, “do most astronomers believe in God based on the available evidence?” astronomer Dave Chernoff replied that, in his opinion, modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God. People who believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions. He cited the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent. The probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics raise the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs.” He concluded that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of God and religious belief doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have anything to do with scientific reasoning.
Notice how much less kind was the response to a reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology: “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” said Dave Chernoff. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” He ended his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something. Skepticism is the default position and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.” In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them—poor gullible gits. But for the multitude to believe that, in one way or another, religious divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton …that’s OK.
I see some fundamental contradiction here. Everybody criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But at least they’re talking about how ludicrous some of these belief systems are. I know that David Sloan Wilson doesn’t take issue with the way I’ve framed these questions, but to see religion as having a positive influence does not get at the fundamental question of what it means to have faith. What is so good about having faith when you don’t have evidence? What is the real advantage to that? Why is this something that we want to encourage? Why not say, as I do with my daughter, “Let’s see some proof.” She asked her friend, who believes in Jesus, if she could wait up one night and see Him for herself, and it didn’t happen. Why is that OK? Why is it OK for scientists to say that skepticism is the default position, except when it comes to mainstream religion?
David Sloan Wilson: I want to begin by clarifying my approach to religion. Since I’m a scientist, I have one goal and one goal only, which is to explain things as natural phenomena, and that includes religion. This is not a new enterprise. People have been interested in religious studies for a long time. You go back to folks like Durkheim, and whether they call themselves sociologists or psychologists or students of religious studies, they are attempting to explain religion as a natural phenomenon. The amount of scholarship on this is huge. One of my problems with Dan Dennett’s book is that he acts as if this is a new thing. “Gosh, we should really be studying religion as a natural phenomenon.” As if we haven’t been already.
The question is whether evolutionary theory can succeed, where previous approaches have failed. Can evolutionary theory—which has unified the biological sciences—provide an explanation of religion which is more satisfying than previous explanations, including economic approaches and sociological approaches? I think the answer to that is, “Yes,” because evolutionary theory can explain most aspects of our species, and this particular enterprise is very new.
For reasons that are complex, evolutionary theory has been confined to the biological sciences for most of the twentieth century. It’s only been within the last ten or twenty years that this way of thinking, which is so powerful, has finally spread out and is being used to explain all human-related subjects. And how exciting is that! We really need to understand the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective, against the broader background of studying all things human from an evolutionary perspective. I think we’re living in very exciting times, intellectually.
So what does evolution say about religion? It turns out that there is not one evolutionary theory of religion; there are at least six, and this shouldn’t surprise us, because when evolutionists ask questions about any activity, they begin with a number of major hypotheses. They want to know, for example, is the activity adaptive? Is it something that evolved because it enhances survival or reproduction? Does it enhance group survival? Does it increase the fitness of individuals compared to other individuals within groups?
Other questions open up when we are discussing cultural evolution. Because culture hops from head to head, it has an intriguing resemblance to a disease organism. It is possible that culture can be parasitic. It can spread on its own terms, for its own good. It can be destructive to both individuals and groups, like the AIDS virus. Not everything that evolves is adaptive. There’s lots of stuff out there that doesn’t increase the survival or reproduction of anything. Steven J. Gould was famous for making this his great theme. It’s possible that something can be a byproduct; it can be a spandrel. Religion might be good for nothing whatsoever, but it’s connected to something else which does have a benefit. Or it might have been adaptive in the ancestral environment, in the Stone Age, but is no longer adaptive in the present; as is true with our eating habits, for example. Today, our eating habits are killing us, but they used to make great sense in an environment of food scarcity. So maybe religion is like obesity; it’s bad for us today, like our eating habits. On the other hand, maybe religion is neutral. It’s like all the genes out there that have no effect on fitness; they just drift into the population. This is why we have molecular “clocks.” We can date things from this kind of genetic drift.
These are some of the vastly different conceptions of religion, and it makes a difference which one we accept. Not all of them are mutually exclusive, but a scientist—whether or not you call yourself an evolutionist—needs to determine which of these different hypotheses fits the data.
Let me focus on two. One is the parasite theory. If you read the books of Dennett and Dawkins, they present religion as a disease, which we would be better off if we could get rid of. That’s why it’s a delusion and why we want to “break the spell.” When I read those books I feel as if I’m watching that old movie Reefer Madness. One whiff of “killer weed,” and you’re a goner. It infects your mind, and that’s it. It’s like the demons of old. We’re possessed, and we need to exorcize these demons. I titled my review of Dennett’s book “Scientific Exorcist.”
What I claim, on the other hand, is that when you examine the evidence for religion—of which there is a great deal—you see that religious groups function more or less as organisms. Let me read a quote that piqued my interest in this subject. It was written, not in the 1920s, but in the 1650s, by a member of the Hutterite faith, who said:
True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal in gathering honey.
If you have any knowledge of religious belief, you know that religious believers are always comparing their communities to single organisms and beehives. Now, I’m a biologist. I study single organisms and beehives. What’s interesting about evolutionary theory is that it provides an explanation for how single organisms evolve and how beehives evolve. Now it turn out that human evolution is a similar story. Human groups, including the small groups that formed during human evolution and the larger groups that formed from cultural evolution, are like bodies and beehives—they are that cooperative.
Against the background of intellectual thought over the last fifty years, this is a new concept, because we’ve been dominated intellectually by individualism. We’ve been trying to explain all aspects of human affairs as varieties of self interest. In 1970, Margaret Thatcher said in a speech, “There’s no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families.”
Now in a compelling and scientific way we can say, “No.” We are a group organism, and much of what we do is orchestrated by culture—not by our genes, but by culture. If you’re an evolutionist, you believe that most things evolve because of their effects on behavior. If we’re going to think about human beliefs this way—the mind is an organ for producing beliefs—how should we evaluate these beliefs? Should we evaluate them in terms of their correspondence to reality? Or should we evaluate them in terms of what they cause people to do? I think that when you look at beliefs, not just religious beliefs, but non-religious beliefs, as well—there’s something in my book I call “stealth-religions;” they don’t invoke supernatural agents, but they’re massive distortions of reality, nonetheless—and ask why these phenomena exist, the simple answer is that they motivate people to act together.
With apologies to Natalie, I think there’s a kind of a silliness to banging away at religious beliefs for their obvious falsehood, when in fact, if you’re an evolutionist, the only way you would want to evaluate these beliefs is to examine what they cause people to do. Do they help people function in their communities? Then this might be an explanation for why they exist. It also makes it unnecessary to criticize these ideas, again and again, because they depart from factual reality. We should be more sophisticated in the way we evaluate beliefs.
Thomas A. Bass: Natalie, to even up the score here, you have three minutes.
Natalie Angier: This reminds me of the White Queen who says, “I can believe six impossible things before breakfast.” First of all, this is the kind of thinking that can be easily manipulated. Second, this seems to be the antithesis of what science is about. Believing in something that isn’t true, because it motivates you to act, is not the kind of fundamental understanding that motivates science. If you believe you’re going to be resurrected after you die, which I think is a fairy tale, this is ultimately a dissatisfying way to promote life, and I don’t think that it’s going to get us anywhere as a culture. I think it’s a barrier that cultural evolution has to take us past. We need to move in the direction of accepting the universe as it truly is, rather than as we wish it to be.
Thomas A. Bass: Some definitions might help. What is science, what is religion, and why are they opposed to each other?
David Sloan Wilson: Science is an effort to understand the world as it really is. That’s the god of science, to understand “natural reality.” Religion has many definitions, and they are all unsatisfying. It’s not right to define religion in terms of belief in supernatural agents. Buddhism doesn’t follow that, much less Confucianism. There’s more to religion than that, or else there would be no difference between God and the Easter Bunny. Durkheim defines religion as a symbolic system that emphasizes the sacred and unites into a community, call it a church, all of its members. I think there’s something about religion which is dedicated to helping communities function well, and that’s not part of the definition of science, per se, although it might be a side effect of science.
Natalie Angier: I think that science is based on evidence and that religion is based on faith. That to me is the fundamental difference. When you have faith in something, it requires that you not ask for evidence. It is opposed to the scientific mindset. People assume that those who aren’t religious don’t have a rich inner life. This is a falsehood, but it explains why people say that they would rather vote for a child molester for president than an atheist. I think that art fulfills a lot of the functions that religion is supposed to . . . at least for me it does. I was just reading a poem by Elizabeth Bishop about death, and it made me cry. She wasn’t asking me to take anything on faith. It was a wonderful experience. It pulled my mind and all my senses into it, but she wasn’t asking me to believe something patently foolish. I don’t think it’s true that religions are not necessarily based on supernatural beliefs. That’s what is being promoted nowadays. We’re getting away from hazy, new-agey religions and back to the old-fashioned, orthodox, fundamentalist religions. These are the ones that are authoritarian. They say, “You will believe this.” You have to show your fealty by saying you believe something that, as Mark Twain said, “you know ain’t so.” To me, this is what religion really is. There is also the desire for an afterlife, which is a strong pull for a lot of people who get involved in religion.
Thomas A. Bass: Harvard paleontologist Steven G. Gould called science and religion “two non-overlapping magisteria.” In other words, science and religion are discrete realms of knowledge capable of co-existing. Is this possible, or are science and religion really opponents squared off against each other?
David Sloan Wilson: It’s important to point out that two or three hundred years ago creationism was a perfectly good scientific hypothesis. It was what most people endorsed and were trying to work with. What happened was that it failed, again and again. Now, religious belief has been driven from the field of empirical inquiry. There’s no subject anywhere which is being approached scientifically and empirically that tries to understand factual aspects of the world with religious belief playing a role. This is not because people have conspired against religion. It is simply because religion has failed as a way to explain the world. If you really take this seriously, and if you’re intellectually honest with yourself, you have to wonder what’s left over. This is why I’m an atheist, just as much as Natalie. But what’s left over—which science doesn’t give you by itself—is a value system, a set of guidelines for how to behave.
If you want to talk about separate magisteria, I say, “Fine.” We all need value systems for how to behave. Science might inform that, but it doesn’t constitute a value system by itself. Our value systems might be religious, they might be non-religious, but they’re social constructions. This is what interests me—although it may be troubling to other people—what happens when science, having explained all aspects of the biological world, begins in the same way to explain all aspects of religion, its institutions and beliefs?
I have a research project right now on religious conceptions of the afterlife from a cultural evolutionary prospective. Natalie said that we like to believe in a pleasant afterlife to allay our fear of death. That’s a long-standing hypothesis. It turns out that it fails miserably, as soon as you consult the evidence for it, because there are many religions that don’t feature a pleasant afterlife. Do you know what one of them is? Judaism. I didn’t know this until I started to learn about religion myself, but the afterlife figured much less in Judaism than in Christianity. When the Hebrew God spoke to his people, he was punishing them or rewarding them in this life. He scarcely had anything to say about what happens in the afterlife. Science does not by itself provide a value system. Nor do I believe that religion is a separate magisteria in the sense that there’s a God out there who is not impinging on the natural world in some way that we can’t measure.
Thomas A. Bass: Why did you start thinking and writing about science and religion, and what are the stakes for you in this debate?
Natalie Angier: The first time I wrote about this was after George Bush was elected [a[audience laughs]The campaign leading up to his election was steeped in religiosity. You had people like Joe Lieberman saying that you can’t take religion out of morality, and George Bush Sr. saying that atheists did not deserve to be citizens. I remember reporters hounding Howard Dean, demanding that he say he believed in the Resurrection and eternal life and that Jesus was God’s son. Howard Dean, who’s probably not religious at all, had to play the game.
I thought that this was really getting out of control. So I wrote my article, “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” where I talked about how hard it is to be an outed atheist. I got hundreds of letters in response, and almost all of them said the same thing: “This will probably be the only positive letter that you get, but ….” Everyone assumed I would get a lot of hate mail, but I had tapped into a kind of desire, maybe it’s a desire for a community of our own. I felt that somebody had to say that not everybody was buying into this—whatever was going on, which had gotten so extreme.
I was raised in a very weird religious household. My father was … ugh. I had my own emotional history with religion, but that wasn’t what made me become an atheist. I didn’t see any reason not to be. I don’t want to spend my life being a professional atheist. It seems like a very narrow, not very interesting position. But I feel that scientists have been really cowardly in some aspects of this.
I also wrote about Darrell Lambert. Some of you may remember his story. When he was promoted to Eagle Scout-dom he either had to say that he believed in God, or he would be kicked out of the Boy Scouts. He had already gone through a kind of conversion experience in his 9th grade biology class, when he decided that he was going to study evolution. He had gone to Bible classes his whole childhood, but, finally, he understood the world. He couldn’t lie, and he wouldn’t do what people were advising him to do, which was fake it and say “I believe.” I thought this guy was a hero. I kept waiting for scientists to say “Yeh! This biology class really made a difference in his life.” But nobody did. Darrell went on Connie Chung right after the Mafia family. People should have been rallying around him. Instead, it was sad to see what happened to him.
Scientists have been hounding me to talk about how evolution is real. Well, you guys have to stand up, too, and say that a lot of this stuff is just …. Let’s be more sensible about the terms of our discussion. I’m not saying that you have to walk around insulting people, but lay out what we think is likely, what sort of probability you would expect for the Resurrection, virgin birth, and all of that. Don’t just condemn spoon bending and telekinesis. Include all this other stuff that no one talks about. Why not put it together in one big basket and say, “Come on. Let’s be reasonable people, and here’s why we don’t think this is so.”
David Wilson: I agree with Natalie that in the modern world we need to have good facts interpreted by a good value system. We need a strong scientific culture that understands the world the way it is, and then we need to interpret these facts with good values. It’s interesting to go back to the founding fathers of this country. What did they think about religion, and why was the separation of church and state so important? It was important because most of these guys were irreverent. They were nothing like the religious zealots of today. They thought that religions were good on an intermediate scale, in providing services for their own members, but religions were a problem when you thought about the larger social unit. That’s why the separation of church and state was so important.
Yes, the world is full of intolerance, and atheists are despised in our culture, but when it comes to doing something about it, this is where it helps to think like an ecologist. An ecologist and evolutionist tries to explain human diversity in the same way that he explains biological diversity. What does that mean? In biological communities there are many species because there are many niches, and every niche calls for a different strategy for survival and reproduction. If you ask, what is the environment that favors the kind of society that we would like—a society grounded in good facts, informing a good value system—the only environment in which such a society can survive is a wealthy, stable environment. That’s what you find in Europe. I won’t talk about America for the moment. In Europe, you’re born into a safe environment; you have lots of resources; you can pack your individuals with education; and you can expect to live until you’re in your late seventies. You can figure stuff out. You can experiment. The consequences of failing aren’t so bad. This is where liberalism thrives.
A lot of what you’re talking about isn’t religion versus non-religion. It’s conservatism versus liberalism, just as there are liberal religions and conservative religions. I like to quote someone who converted from a conservative religion to a liberal religion. “I wanted a religion that asks questions rather than providing the answers.” Many religions pose the kind of open-ended questions that get confused with non-religion or atheism. Now, where do conservatism and authoritarianism thrive? They thrive in dangerous, chaotic environments, where people don’t have the resources to educate themselves. This is where you have a society in which people are told what to do. Other parts of the world, such as Europe, are becoming more secular, because the environment is favoring that. But the world as a whole is becoming more religious, more fundamentalist. Why is this? It’s because it’s becoming more dangerous and chaotic. Governments aren’t providing the services that people need, and religions are. Again and again you hear about these so-called terrorist organizations providing services for their people. When I hear my respected colleagues, such as Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins, talk about religion, I think they are smart people doing something which is not so smart. They ask, “How can people believe such dumb stuff?” But they are not looking at the ecological bases for these beliefs. If you think of these systems as successful in some environments, but not others, then you can isolate the environmental factors. If you want liberalism to thrive, religious or non-religious, then provide the proper environment, and it will grow spontaneously.
Thomas A. Bass: We have a question from the audience.
Audience Member: You said you weren’t going to refer to the United States just now. Can you put the United States back in your equation?
David Sloan Wilson: The United States is an anomaly for people who study religion because it’s an affluent society, and yet, it’s highly religious. The idea that it’s a free religious economy doesn’t work out very well, because if this were the case, then Australia and New Zealand should be like the United States, and they’re not. Another possibility is that the income inequality and inequality in general are so great in the United States that we combine an affluent nation like Europe, with a third world nation. There are many people who are not getting the fundamental ingredients of life, financial, psychological, or sociological, and who then turn to religion.
Audience Member: I came here prepared to say “a plague on both your houses.” The idea that you know what religion is and that science operates without it’s own kind of faith is for the birds.
David Sloan Wilson: There’s a lot about science that has the trappings of religion, but at the end of the day I want to disagree with you. I’m a veteran of the group selection wars. There are a lot of heresies in science, a lot of stuff that’s taboo. Science is often taught by rote, and one could use religious terminology to describe the process: heresy, taboo, priests. Dan Dennett makes this point himself. Much of what we know we take on faith. We take the theory of relativity on faith; we can’t derive all the equations from scratch. But at the end of the day, no matter how complicated it is, and how filled with paradigms and incommensurability, there is something about the scientific method that makes our representation of the world converge on what’s actually out there. This is a magnificent thing, and, unless it was the goal of science, it wouldn’t happen. Individuals won’t do it by themselves. The mind is full of all sorts of distortions. Unless you have a culture that says, “It’s our goal to have beliefs that accurately represent reality, and then a procedure—a set of procedures—which converge to reach that goal,” there is no way you will achieve scientific knowledge.
Natalie Angier: I do think scientists try—not all of them, but the good ones—to be their own worst enemy. They try to disprove their own pet theories. This is what the controls are all about. You know that you do have a lot of pre-conceived notions, and you have to fight against them all the time. Really good scientists will do that. It’s an ideal; obviously hard to reach. It’s an enterprise that’s being performed by people in all different cultures, all over the world, and they’re sharing their results. This circle has been widening, so that scientists are working in all sorts of countries that we otherwise would have little contact with. These scientists are working together. There’s something very powerful about this; it’s really kind of amazing.
Audience Member: I’m teaching a course here at SUNY Albany on the ethnology of religion. I also have a Master’s degree in religious studies from a Methodist seminary. I can see both scientific and theoretical approaches to religion. Part of the problem with this debate is the fact that there is no universally agreed upon set of terms for defining religion. Many societies don’t even have a term for religion, because what we, from a scientific perspective, consider to be a religion is so embedded in their worldview and social behavior that it can’t be separated from the rest of their culture. Evolutionary models for explaining the origins of religion have been around since the end of the 19th century, but many of these have been criticized for their ethnocentrism. Part of the problem with this whole “religion versus science” debate is that it seems to preclude other forms of religiosity that do not depend on empirical thought—such as Buddhism. I think there’s a problem with Christi-centric and dogmatic views of religion. We’re evolving toward this supreme form of rational thought, and Western rationalism determines what this highest form is. It’s akin to scientists arguing that evolution is progressing toward what we have already attained.
David Sloan Wilson: That was a nice comment. It reflects a lot of background and knowledge in anthropology. I think that salvaging an old idea that’s been rejected is much more difficult than coming up with a new idea. I know this is true in biology, because I have spent quite a few years trying to salvage the concept of group selection, which was a heresy for much of the 20th century. The same is true for theories of religion in anthropology. Most enduring cultures are impressively organized to manage the affairs of their people. I think this can explain some of the things you’re pointing out—the great diversity of religions, for example. This is exactly what you would expect from the postulates of evolutionary theory. There can be many different ways to organize groups of people, a huge diversity of ways. So we don’t expect uniformity at that level. Without plunging into an academic discussion, I think that what’s so exciting now is that we can revive some of these old ideas and return to a concept in which society means something.
Thomas A. Bass: I have a written question here in front of me. “Religions have highly developed systems for distinguishing believers from non-believers. In an age of fundamentalism and excess, such as our own, this leads to lots of people killing other people in the name of religion. Is this inevitable or avoidable?”
Natalie Angier: Is which part inevitable and unavoidable?
Thomas A. Bass: People killing each other in the name of religion—which we see a great deal of lately, don’t we?
Natalie Angier: Yes, we do. I think it is not inevitable; it is avoidable. Do we have to get beyond religion to get to that point? Well, probably not. If what David is saying is true, that if we have stability, which tends, naturally, to give rise to a more secular perspective, then we have a chicken and egg question. How do you attain this stability if you still have religious fundamentalists? At which point in the system do you intervene? Economically? Do you do it through political will? How do we get to this great stabilizer that will prevent people from damaging society? I’m amazed at how many suicide bombers appear everyday. I thought there might be a limit. But persecution seems to be attracting more people. This is a scary development. Sam Harris talks about this, how terrifying it is to have super powerful weapons in the hands of people with ancient beliefs. How do we stabilize things? Does anybody know this? Can anybody in this audience tell me how?
[A[Audience laughs]r> David Sloan Wilson: I can! One of the pleasures of studying a subject scientifically, including religion, is to find answers to these kinds of questions. I’ve studied a random sample of religions. I went to an encyclopedia of world religions, the sixteen-volume set compiled by Mircea Eliade, and I wrote a little computer program that picked volume numbers at random and page numbers at random within volumes. In this fashion I more or less grabbed a sample of religions, thirty-six religions, totally at random from this encyclopedia, without reference to any particular hypothesis. So I can answer the question, how many religions in this sample were spread by violent conquest? How many do you think?
Audience Member: All.
David Sloan Wilson: Really? It turns out that the minority were spread by violent conquest. Think of Mormonism. It didn’t spread by violent conquest. Think of early Christianity.
Thomas A. Bass: Mormonism might be thought to have spread by violent conquest … if you were a Native American.
David Sloan Wilson: Yes, but every white person in America was displacing the Native Americans. You don’t want to lay this at the doorstep of religion do you? Were Mormons different from anyone else? Do you think that the atheists among the pioneers weren’t displacing Native Americans like everyone else?
Thomas A. Bass: Were there any atheists among the pioneers?
David Sloan Wilson: Yes, there were! A lot of the people who came over were businessmen …entrepreneurs. The religiosity within the pioneers was much less than we think. By no means were there only pious puritans who came over.
Thomas A. Bass: Do you remember Garrison Keeler’s quip on this subject? He said America was settled by people who were looking for more religious repression than was available to them in Europe.
[A[Audience laughs]r> David Sloan Wilson: Does religion exacerbate between-group conflict? Or, when you look closely at religious conflict, do you see sociopolitical conflict lying behind it? Religion might only be framing the debate. To pick suicide bombing as an example, this is a strategic move. There is good literature on how this tactic is employed by Marxist groups, such as the Tamil tigers, as well as by religious groups. So the idea that you get infected by this religious fervor which causes you to strap a bomb on yourself is not true.
Audience Member: I have a question for Natalie. In the beginning, you took scientists to task, saying that they should make a bigger deal out of all of the untruths in religion. Could you explain what you have in mind? How can they do this in a way that won’t exacerbate the “us versus them” phenomenon that draws the ranks of the religious even tighter and seems to be so counter-productive?
Natalie Angier: What is it exactly that’s at stake? Is the scientific enterprise at stake? Is our future as scientific leaders in the world at stake? It might be. If we allow this kind of irrational thinking to spread into all areas of academic research, then the integrity of the scientific enterprise is going to be compromised, along with our economic future, which is built on it—and I believe this. We’re concerned that a spreading irrationality is affecting scientific progress. Scientists are willing to speak out against part of it. They criticize people who do Ouija boards and horoscopes. They say, “That’s ridiculous,” but for some reason they think they shouldn’t speak out against creation science and other religious beliefs that are even more commonly believed by Americans.
If this is the approach that scientists are going to take, then it seems to me that they’re not going to accomplish what they set out to accomplish, which is to encourage people to think scientifically. The scientific way of thinking and of understanding the world has an economic, rational, and perhaps even a pacifying aspect to it. I recognize that scientists have done terrible things. We have the nuclear bomb because of Oppenheimer. Scientists are speaking out now and asking, “You guys in the media, why don’t you help us here?” And I’m saying, “Well, you’re asking us to help you in this one specific way, but we can’t accomplish the job as long as you’re ignoring other aspects of irrational and superstitious thinking.” Superstition is not necessarily synonymous with religion, but it does seem that—in America at least—the two often go together. So when it comes to criticizing superstition, do we carve out an exception for religion? Is it bad to have creationism taught in school, or isn’t it? Scientists seem to think it is. Is it bad that there are horoscopes in almost every newspaper in the United States, while at the same time they’re closing down their science sections? I think these are decisions that we have to make as a society.
Audience Member: Has communication advanced past group selection?
David Sloan Wilson: Yes. I think the reason that social units became larger in Europe is because of the widespread print media …newspapers and so on. People were addressing common issues, and that’s true even more so now. Communication can be a nervous system that creates larger groups, but it’s important to say that that’s not inevitable, by any means. There are all kinds of dystopic scenarios. Just because the scale of things has become larger does not mean that we’re going to turn into a great big organism. It could go the other way. We could turn into a big group in which some elements take over, and we get permanent inequality. This is another reason why I think it’s important to study religions respectfully. If we’re going to understand how society might work at a large-scale, we damn-well better understand how it works at a small-scale. That’s the only model we have. Then we can try to take some of those elements and scale them up. Our best models for large-scale cooperation are smaller-scale groups in which cooperation does exist.
Audience Member: I was wondering if either of you are familiar with the work of Desmond Morris, particularly The Naked Ape and his theory of why the concept of God evolved. Basically, when humans were hunter-gatherers there was one despotic alpha who kept everyone in order, and then, as we evolved to become cooperative hunters, we created the ultimate alpha—God—who keeps us all in line. We have evidence for this in the submissive gestures that most religious groups make to their God, kneeling and bowing their heads and so on.
David Sloan Wilson: That’s not quite right. Many of the high gods or moralizing gods didn’t come into existence until later on, with larger-scale societies. Hunter-gatherer societies are very egalitarian. They don’t need to have a high-god in the way that we envision it. But Morris did make one good point in his discussion of monotheistic religion. Why did monotheism come about? Its origins lie in cultural dislocation. Humans used to be born into a culture. You had no choice about joining another culture. In this world, there was no need to distinguish between religion and other aspects of society. It was all merged together, and you could have many different deities and spirits orchestrating various aspects of your life. Modern religions do things differently. They have to get people to join the religion, and the religion has to monitor its members. The group is larger. There are many more people, so the opportunities for policing, for people to survey each other, are more limited. At this point, the idea of a deity that’s all-seeing comes into play.
Audience Member: Natalie Angier describes a slippery slope in many versions of religion toward authoritarianism. Yet, as I listen to David Sloan Wilson, he seems to be describing a happy version of ecology, in which religion does a lot of good in terms of spreading values and bringing good things to groups. I’d like to hear from both you—maybe just one more time—if, in your view, religion exacerbates conflicts between peoples or affirms values and community?
Natalie Angier: I think in this country it’s tending toward exacerbating conflict. The problem is that it’s no longer sufficient to be a vague believer in religion. You have to show evidence of belief. This is what I meant when I talked about religion veering toward authoritarian and extreme positions, and this is why I finally felt compelled to speak out. Public figures didn’t used to have to declare their religious beliefs. Now, even Al Gore has to put himself on display. He gives this fantastic scientific presentation about understanding the world and understanding the atmosphere. He has this incredible ability to synthesis enormous amounts of information. But at the end of his talk he feels compelled to speak about the creator. He’s making some kind of gesture so that he won’t be attacked, at least from thatdirection.
Where is this coming from? Why is this happening in this country? We can’t just leave it where I thought it was—evolving toward a place where you say, “OK, let’s put religion aside.” Kennedy, who was Catholic, wanted to do that. “I’m not going to be run by the Catholic Church while I’m in office,” he said. “This is not part of the discussion.” But all of a sudden you can’t get away from it. This is not a healthy development for this society. Scientists are suffering. People are starting to see the United States as compromised by the rise of extreme religiosity. I believe that science in America has been an incredible enterprise, and I think scientists have to protect it, not just when they feel immediately threatened, but as a general thing. This is the direction we need the country to go in—the exploration and adventure that everybody can participate in, not just those who show their fealty to something. This is not a good thing going on here.
Of course, I think it’s terrible what’s going on in the Middle East. It’s much more complicated than religion, and I understand that. Economic systems are a part of it, too. I don’t want to sound like some kind of simplistic idiot just thinking you can blame it all on religion. Not at all. My point is that when scientists ask me to speak out against This and I say, “Well what about That?” It’s someplace they don’t want to go. And I say, “Don’t you think that this outbreak of irrational thinking has a larger cause than just the creation scientists? They’re not that powerful.” There’s some larger phenomenon that we need to address, and scientists are ducking it.
David Sloan Wilson: We want to end on a note of agreement. Much of what’s going on here is a dismantling of the separation of church and state. Instead, we should be cultivating the attitude that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had, that it’s perfectly acceptable to be an atheist, that an atheist could be elected to public office, and that all religious faiths should be open to criticism and public discourse. I haven’t mentioned stealth religions yet, but they’re all over the place. If you think of nationalism, if you think of free-market economics, these are stealth religions. The “invisible hand” of the markets is not invoking a supernatural agent, but it is pure fiction. If you really think everyone operating in their self interest is going to make large-scale society work well—this is funny. And yet people will defend this idea to the death. If you look at intellectual movements, academic movements, what the hell does it mean to be politically correct? What it means is that there’s inadmissible stuff that you can’t believe, and if you do, you’re out of here. Many aspects of intellectual and academic culture are just as intolerant as any fundamentalist religious movements. I think what we need to talk about is the nature of belief of all kinds. All the things that we’re talking about in respect to religion, we need to think about more broadly, in order to diagnose these problems that we both agree are problems.