Hard-wired for God?

For centuries we thought that God was the source of our sense of God. God’s self-disclosure, we assumed, was what evoked in human beings the impulse to believe and worship. It came as no surprise, therefore, when historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists discovered that even our remotest ancestors were religious. The earliest humans must already have been touched, at an unfathomable level of their existence, by what we call God. Isn’t the reality of God—or the presence of the sacred—enough to explain why human beings universally possess a “faith instinct”?

Not any more—at least to many thoughtful people, including Nicholas Wade. A New York Times science writer widely respected for his well-crafted writings on the topic of human evolution, Wade wants to make it clear that it is high time for a purely natural explanation of religion. Evolutionary biology, he claims, can provide it. We are religious only because in human evolution our ancestors acquired a heritable suite of genes that expressed itself in an instinct for faith that has proved to be adaptive. The same capacity for faith still exists in each of us, not because of any divine initiative, but simply because it has been instrumental in promoting human survival.

The Faith Instinct is not the first attempt to provide a Darwinian account of religion, but it is much more intellectually impressive and more measured in tone than most others, especially those that have recently joined forces with militant atheism. Its professed objective is not to debunk religion, and Wade tries hard to avoid the antitheistic materialism of high-profile Darwinian faith-debunkers such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Jerry Coyne. Those writers wield evolutionary biology as a weapon to deliver the human race from what they call “faith,” whereas Wade thinks the faith instinct, as expressed typically in religions, is here to stay.

Again, religion is important to Wade only because it is biologically adaptive: it has fostered the survival of populations of human genes from one generation to the next. Embracing a neo-Darwinian view of life, Wade claims that religion, like language and intelligence, has enabled human survival by inclining us toward group cohesion. Natural selection has equipped us with a religious longing for dialogue with supernatural beings, and this propensity has in turn fostered a sense of “sociality” and other emotions essential to dealing with the omnipresent threat of extinction at the hands of nature and hostile human groups.

An adaptive religious tendency to negotiate with “supernatural agents” was already fixed in the human genome even before a small ancestral human flock emigrated from Africa fifty thousand years ago and started slowly populating the rest of the planet. All human beings living today have inherited the primordial human family’s religious propensity genetically, and not just culturally. Fortified by Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser’s proposal that human beings all share a universal moral grammar comparable to the innate syntactical rules for linguistic expression unearthed by Noam Chomsky, Wade locates our capacity for religion in a similar biologically hardwired preserve.

Theologically speaking, this is an interesting idea. For if the faith instinct is firmly rooted in the human genome, it would follow that the radically secularist project of banishing all traces of faith from our world, as the “new atheists” demand, would be biologically, and not just culturally, calamitous.

But are we really hardwired genetically to be religious? Some evolutionary anthropologists view religion not as an adaptation permanently fixed in our genes, but as a now-dispensable byproduct of biological adaptations that have nothing to do with religion directly. Dawkins and Dennett endorse the latter account because it allows them to stigmatize religion as a noxious virus that can (and should) be wiped out completely, without fear of disturbing our essential humanity. Wade, on the other hand, argues that religion—especially because of its role in enhancing adaptively requisite group cohesion—is as much a part of our genetic heritage as our capacity for learning, speaking, and making music. To rid human beings suddenly of their “faith instinct” would be neither therapeutically prudent nor scientifically realistic.

Then what about God? Having earlier assured theologically inclined readers that they should not be bothered by his evolutionary account of religion, Wade raises this concluding question: “Is there not some way of transforming religion into versions better suited for a modern age” than those provided by theistic traditions? In spite of his well-intentioned attempts to be nice to monotheistic believers, Wade ends up much closer to the likes of Sam Harris than he had originally promised. Monotheism is not evil, as it is for Harris, but in Wade’s judgment Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with their belief in a personal transcendent God, “were not meant to last forever.”

Moreover—and this would be good tidings to the new atheists—if we wait long enough and make the right choices, the human genome may undergo further evolution. Wade speculates that it can undergo a metamorphosis so dramatic that eventually the faith instinct, if it still persists at all, will abandon its past habit of giving domicile to fantasies about supernatural agents.

Theologically speaking, there can be no reasonable objection to pushing evolutionary accounts of religion as far as they can go, provided one does not invest them with the status of ultimacy. Unfortunately, Wade cannot avoid giving evolutionary biology the final word about religion. “Religious behavior,” he declares, “evolved for a single reason: to further the survival of human societies.”

After plunging into a highly selective body of contemporary historical scholarship questioning the revelatory claims of the monotheistic traditions, Wade emerges all the more confident that the “single” reason for faith’s persistence is that it has been biologically adaptive. His explanatory monism makes it inconceivable to him that faith could also be a response to the sacred. Here, in keeping with most other evolutionist interpretations of religions, he commits what philosopher Holmes Rolston III (in his masterful Gifford Lectures, Genes, Genesis, and God) calls the “if functional therefore untrue fallacy.” Even if evolutionary science has shown religion to be biologically adaptive, there is no logical reason to assume that the faith instinct cannot also put us in contact with truth, perhaps the deepest truth of all.

In his wildly speculative finishing touches to an otherwise scientifically sober, informative, and well-intentioned book, Wade takes on the role of a Darwinian debunker after all. In doing so, he seems unaware of just how intimately his own faith instinct has uncritically affixed itself to the modern cult of scientism and evolutionary naturalism.

Published in the 2010-04-09 issue: 

 John F. Haught is Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University and author of The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University Press, 2017).

Also by this author

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads