Atheists tell me that evolutionary psychology has shown that belief in God is just a conditioned impulse; programmed into us by genetic forces because it confers survival value.
Indeed, the notion that religious belief is a coping mechanism seems to be what motivates the evolutionary psycho-analysis—there’s no doubt that faith of one sort or another is better for one’s mental health than non-faith, and that believers reproduce at higher rates than non-believers.
This evolutionary advantage explains why such vast proportions of humanity believe things which are (so atheists say) patently untrue and even ridiculous. Figures vary, but as a rule it seems at least 95% of the world’s population professes some kind of belief in the supernatural—if not God, then something we might call the “transcendent”. And although some of the world’s most intelligent and well-educated people have spent a great deal of time elaborating sophisticated reasons to believe in the transcendent—in Christianity we have philosophers like Plantinga and Swinburne and Craig among many others—even the best of these reasons are actually just after-the-fact justifications for beliefs purely held because of biological programming.
It’s rather like how a man will justify his decision to buy a Lexus rather than a Toyota. It makes no difference the reasons he gives us; we know that at the end of the day, it was non-rational, emotional factors that really motivated him.
However, if this evolutionary account of religious belief is true, it seems to saddle atheists with an awkward problem.
Why think any belief is not just a biologically-programmed “useful fiction”?
If evolution has ubiquitously selected for absurd transcendent beliefs, and even the most sophisticated arguments we develop to defend those beliefs are just our vain efforts to rationally justify what biology has programmed us to think despite the actual facts of the matter, then how can we trust any of our beliefs whatsoever? After all, we’re not talking about minor, unimportant and/or uncommon beliefs that most people recognize as irrelevant or foolish. We’re talking about beliefs that affect our most fundamental understanding of reality, and which are held (across a spectrum) by almost everyone—including the most intelligent and learned members of our species.
But if such fundamental beliefs about reality are so ubiquitously and persistently false and uncorrectable, surely it is not only possible but indeed very likely that other fundamental beliefs we have about reality are equally false and uncorrectable? There seem to be plenty of other critical beliefs we should also have good reason to doubt. Not only is it possible these are false, but they are exactly the sorts of false beliefs it seems evolution would select for because of their survival advantage:
- The future will always be like the past
- The laws of physics always hold in the same way everywhere
- Human beings have some kind of value, both collectively and as individuals
- The physical world exists basically as we perceive it to
Indeed, what if the belief that transcendent beliefs are false…is itself a biologically-programmed false belief? What if thinking that religion is uniformly bunkum is itself simply a false belief selected for by the strange social evolutionary pressures of modern academia? Not only could the atheist not discount this possibility, but if it were true it wouldn’t matter what arguments he tried to give to defend his belief—they would simply be after-the-fact justifications.
Fundamentally, it seems that if such basic and important beliefs as religious ones are selected for because they confer survival value despite being completely false, then any basic and important beliefs we hold are quite possibly false by the same token. But this utterly undermines not only the scientific enterprise, but also the very idea that our beliefs are selected for by evolutionary forces.
Why should anyone think such a self-refuting view of the world is rational or worthy of being taken seriously? Beats me.