Atheism and the goodness of God 10: evolutionary explanations of religion

I’m taking a last couple of flying tours of selected bit of William Lane Craig and Chad Meister (eds) God is Good, Good is Great.

This one is on chapter 6 by Michael J Murray, ‘Evolutionary Explanations of Religion’.

The interesting thing here is how the same evidence can be interpreted in radically different ways.

Murray notes how recent scientific research, especially in the neurosciences, are suggesting that we are, if not  ‘hard wired’, at least predisposed to religious belief. Not surprising maybe given the vast amount of religious belief in the world.

One way of looking at this is Calvin’s ‘sense of the divine’ or Augustine’s ‘God-shaped hole’.

Another is that of Richard Dawkins and others who see such research as ‘explaining’ the origins of religious belief and therefore show it to be false, unjustified and unbelievable.

Murray outlines various forms of scientific accounts of religion. There are adaptionist theories that propose that religion has certain characteristics that give some sort of ‘fitness benefit’. Especially that religion helps sustain cooperation among groups of individuals in the face of threatening forces.

But groups need members to play the game and tow the line and not get a free pass on the those that do. So religion is an adaptation that ‘keeps us in line’ – with the threat for example of divine displeasure if we don’t keep the rules. The individual is subject to the interests of the larger group through religious belief.

Or a more popular account is the cognitive model whereby our minds are predisposed to believe that there are bigger forces or agents at work in the natural world. For example, ‘gods’ behind lightening or the movement of the sun.

There is also evidence that we are strongly predisposed to see ‘goal-directedness’ in the world around us – a sort of ‘intuitive theism’ that believes in a greater purposiveness to life.

So if science is suggesting we have a natural disposition towards religious belief, the real question is ‘What are the Implications?’

Some super-confidently see it as the death knell for religion … Dawkins says ‘the irrationality of religion is a byproduct of the built in irrationality mechanism in the brain’. Another says ‘God is an artifact of the brain.’ Another says ‘I’ve got God by the throat and I’m not going to stop until one of us is dead.’

The thinking here seems to be that this natural disposition towards religious belief somehow ‘proves’ God is not really there at all, he is a fiction of our imagination. But, Murray says, this is simply mistaken. The science cannot legitimately be made to claim any such thing. This is another case of the New Atheism using science to make profoundly unscientific claims.

The Christian can simply say ‘What’s the problem? God made us that way’. Or as Calvin put it

‘there is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.’


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