Why Evolutionary Psychology Falls Short in Deconstructing Religion

The poster boy of evolutionary psychology: Steven Pinker.

In my previous article, “Psychologizing Religion: Is God an Imaginary Friend?” I explored the so-called projection theory that was developed by Sigmund Freud. (Feel free to read the executive summary of that article here.) In viewing religious beliefs through a psychoanalytical lens, he saw God as nothing more than an imaginary father who could satisfy our subconscious desires, hopes, and fears. Although I believe I was successful in delivering a critique of the projection theory, there were a number of intersecting ideas that kept coming up in my research that I had to put on the back-burner and save for a follow-up article — this one. Primarily, these ideas were based in contemporary psychological critiques of religious belief that steam not from doing psychoanalysis, but evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology is different from psychoanalysis in one key respect. Where psychoanalysis tries to understand the conscious and subconscious motivations an individual person has, evolutionary psychology takes a broader view by focusing on people and societies as they have historically evolved. In terms of religion, it is supposed that if we are able to understand how we evolved as people, then we can also understand how religious belief arose and evolved as well. In the first chapter of The Theoretical Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology, authors John Tooby and Leda Cosmides describe what makes evolutionary psychology so special:

“The primary tool that allows evolutionary psychologists to go beyond traditional psychologists in studying the mind is that they take full advantage in their research of an overlooked reality: the programs comprising the human mind were designed by natural selection to solve the adaptive problems regularly faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors — problems such as finding a mate, cooperating with others, hunting, gathering, protecting children, navigating, avoiding predators, avoiding exploitation, and so on. Knowing this allows evolutionary psychologists to approach the study of the mind like an engineer. You start by carefully specifying an adaptive information-processing problem; then you do a task analysis of that problem. A task analysis consists of identifying what properties a program would have to have to solve that problem well. This approach allows you to generate hypotheses about the structure of the programs that comprise the mind, which can then be tested. Indeed, evolutionary psychology is unique among theoretical orientations in psychology in the degree to which it derives from independently established theories principled predictions about previously unknown aspects of the species-typical psychological architectures of humans and other species (see, e.g., Buss, 1999; Daly & Wilson, 1988; Gaulin, 1995; Symons, 1979).” (p.18–19)

The approach is very intuitive. In viewing human evolution in terms of a series of problems to be solved, each developmental leap we took as a species allowed us to move one rung higher in the animal kingdom — until we rose to the top of it. Of course, some people are deeply skeptical of an aggrandized view of humanity, also known as anthropocentrism. However, no other species on this planet has left orbit, or has fashioned weapons capable of ruining the biosphere. It is for such kinds of reasons that evolutionary psychologists try to unpack our unique cognitive markers that make us who we are, and try to figure out why we had ‘the right stuff’ that allowed us to rise to the top.

Another strength of evolutionary psychology is that its approach is inherently interdisciplinary —it brings historians, biologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and of course psychologists to the table, just to name a few. It seems fitting then to ask how different fields of study can be integrated into various evolutionary psychological schemes. Here it seems no human activity is inherently out-of-bounds, because everything we do could be construed in terms of problem-solving and decision-making.

For instance: why do humans enjoy playing sports? Professional athletes contribute nothing to society for its own sake. Playing sports is a leisure activity that is not at all productive in terms of eliminating poverty, hunger, disease, and so forth. But we do it anyway. We celebrate it. We built institutions around it. We love our athletes. So why do we waste our time with sports? I am kidding. Sort of.

In all seriousness, that sort of question is exactly the kind of question an evolutionary psychologist would love to explore. No doubt, they would likely point to athletics in general being derivative of the hunting skills we acquired, or that some particular games are also derivative of cooperative hunting and perhaps also fighting other humans. At any rate, the general idea is to develop some narrative that can account for something we do, and usually this means identifying some circumstance where some attitude, thought, or behavior might have originated - which brings us to theology and religion.

Given the breadth and depth of religious practices on this planet, one cannot simply discuss the human experience without discussing religion. When and why did gods enter our picture of reality? Why do we worship beings we cannot shake hands with? Why do we think they have plans for us? Or that we owe them anything? Why did our ancestors give authority to shamans, prophets, oracles, and priests?

It is the intent of this article to simply sketch a response to these questions, as well as ask and answer another: can evolutionary psychology deconstruct theology? Which is to ask, can we expose the psychological and cognitive nuts and bolts of the religious experience in such a way that eliminates the need for appealing to miracles and divine revelation as the source of it?

Let me begin with a narrative of our origins…

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a group of our African ancestors stood in awe around a fire that the heavens had gifted us. Lightning struck a tree, and it caught fire; but instead of running away from the flames, one of our ancestors reached for a broken tree branch that had been inflamed and threw it upon a dry bush. The results were fantastic. Not only did the bush catch on fire and begin to spread, but this chain of events provided our ancestors with an object and transformative lesson in cause and effect.

While the mysteries of combustion were unknown, they discovered that fire could be harnessed. Soon this tribe would begin to experiment with various sticks and twigs, perhaps trying to recreate what the Heavens had bequeathed us in the first place. Eventually, the right combination of twigs and friction created smoke, which led to embers, which led to a tiny flame which led to a bonfire of our own making.

While the particulars of the story above are highly speculative, there is no doubt that our ancestors huddled around that first fire as we huddle around it today. They were surely astounded by the light and heat, but equally astounded in the technological breakthrough in being able to create the fire itself. Our ancestors no longer had to be afraid of the cold, of the dark, and of predators in the night. Fire would also allow them to bake mud bricks, which are stronger and more durable than sun-dried mud bricks.

Trial and error, the greatest teacher, would soon lead to adventures in pottery and the crafting of containers for food and water storage. This in turn would give birth to culinary science, as pots would allow stews of great nutritional value to be cooked. Enriched by a new diet and an environment that promoted improvisation and adaptation, new neural pathways in our brain began to form, as well as the size of our brain itself.

Between the margins of hunting, gathering, pottery, and cooking, there would be ample time for an even greater invention — the story. As our ancestors gathered for evening supper, enjoying each other’s company and recalling the day’s events, their brains would slowly become more attuned to not only grammar, but of narrative structure and the basic elements of a plot.

The stories our ancestors told would become invaluable assets in the coding and transmission of information, so much so that we might call them the USB flash drives of folklore. As one story would get passed to the next generation, it would invariably become more robust. Additional details beyond the plot, such as the setting, conceptual artifacts, and multiple characters with different personalities would soon populate these stories. The function of the stories would change as well, on one hand they could be used to keep history, but on the other hand to captivate and entertain, to impart wisdom. The best stories did both, and these would definitely get passed along.

In order to respond to the Big Questions, it is clear that a Big Story was needed. Something dramatic, something cosmic, something poetic, and something epic. One story for all to hear and to know in order to bring order into a chaotic world. Today we refer to these Big Stories as creation myths or cosmogonies, and every extant population group has one. When you read them side by side, there are some common themes and motifs that keep showing up. This could be a result of one or two causes: either we have a common ancestral population in which these Big Stories originated, or these Big Stories just happened to converge on the same ideas.

Both of these ideas have some credence. If Big Stories were developed as solutions to solve a problem, and multiple population groups had the same problems, then we would expect a convergence. But if we all share common ancestry, then we would also expect to retrace elements of various Big Stories and discover a ‘Common Big Story’ that rest are derived from. Most likely the truth is somewhere in between both of these hypotheses.

Although, the ‘Common Big Story’ would be unsurprising considering genetic research has strongly favored the so-called Out-of-Africa Hypothesis for the anthropological origins of the human race. If every human population group living today are descendants from a single population group, then we would expect Big Stories to change and evolve as the human race slowly spread across the globe. Consider this map below which depicts early human migration according to the Southern Dispersal paradigm (which is that humans preferred to move along southern coastlines rather than deeper inland).

Over thousands upon thousands of years, each migrational development would be accompanied by a development in the Big Stories that our ancestors took with them. This would seem to explain why both the Norse and Aboriginal peoples feature a snake in their respective mythologies (see: Jörmungandr and the Rainbow Serpent.)

There are of course some regional and ethnic strains where the Big Stories diverge or feature narratives that other population groups don’t have, such as the Great Flood myth, but the similarities are remarkable nonetheless. Typically there is some divine drama in which some God or gods create everything, and there is some male and female partnership who are the symbolic parents of the human race, and some sort of explanation for the human condition. These ideas continue to speak to us in profound ways, particularly the idea that there is some organizing principle to the Universe, and that every human being has a shared and common ancestry.

It is not hard to see how Big Stories might have evolved and began incorporating additional ideas to give them significance in order to make sense of the Circle of Life. From the moment we are born to the day that we die, our lives are intertwined with our environment. The carnivore who kills her prey to feed her pack will also invariably feed scavenger animals who pick apart the prey’s carcass, and what remains will sink into the ground and provide nutrients to the soil for plants to grow, which in turn helps other creatures thrive. As the grass withers and the flowers fade, the four seasons bring forth rain, sun, storms, and snow in their time, these patterns teach us that everything is connected to everything.

In a 2009 article for Scientific American, Michael Shermer hypothesized that our pattern recognition tendencies are a part of a cognitive trait he referred to as agenticity. This trait, which has been linked with what other evolutionary psychologists refer to as the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), is said to be the source of our basic instinct and intuition to think a rustle in the grass was caused by a predator rather than by the wind or some other harmless animal. Our HADD kept us safe by attributing agency to things that did not have a clear cause, and that the utility of this attribution not only helped our species survive, but thrive (because hunting for instance requires anticipating a prey’s reactions). Agency in this case was likely derived by observing motion. The basic idea is that if something exhibits motion, then it is clearly alive or has some agency; whereas if something is not moving, then it is either dead or does not have agency.

When you combine the agenticity idea with the HADD and the inference from motion, evolutionary psychologists have a pretty convincing narrative for how and why our Big Stories often featured powerful spirits or gods as the agents in control of things. For example, the motion observed in the heavens from the Sun and Moon were attributed to agency, which eventually evolved into the full blown concept of a solar deity. This idea can be extended to other gods and goddesses as well, and when one begins to use those characters to make sense of the world, the Big Stories begin to look more and more like the religious narratives that we’re all familiar with. Once ritualized behavior and social conformity is thrown into the mix, the evolutionary psychologist has all the tools they need to fully deconstruct religion as we know it. So now what?

Notice how the religious deconstruction narrative is in fact its own kind of Big Story…

In a 1978 article for the New Scientist magazine titled “Sociobiology: the art of storytelling,” the famous science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould once criticized the project of doing scientifically minded deconstructions of history as being susceptible to putting more weight into plausibility and consistency rather than hard data. Bear in mind, Gould was a stickler for the probative powers of science, particularly that proper science should always be based on direct observation and experimentation. In the article, Gould said:

“Yet in one area, unfortunately a very large part of evolutionary theory and practice, natural selection as operated like the fundamentalist’s God — he who maketh all things. Rudyard Kipling asked how the leopard got its spots, the rhino its wrinkled skin. He called his answers ‘Just So stories.’ When evolutionists study individual adaptations, when they try to explain form and behaviour by reconstructing history and assessing current utility, they also tell just-so stories — and the agent is natural selection. Virtuosity in invention replaced testability as the criterion for acceptance. This is the procedure that has given evolutionary biology a bad name among many experimental scientists in other disciplines. We should heed their disquiet, not dismiss it with a claim that they understand neither natural selection nor the special procedures of historical science…

Truth, as we understand it, must always be our primary criterion. We live, because we must, with all manner of unpleasant biological truths — death being the most pervasive and inelectable. I complain because sociobiological stories are not truth, rather they are unsupported speculations with political clout (again, I must emphasize, quite apart from the intent of the storyteller). All science is embedded in cultural contexts, and the lower the ratio of data to social importance, the more science reflects the context.”

Gould’s criticism informs us that no matter how believable and consistent a historical narrative might be, unless it is evidence-based, it can lead to biased accounts in which the storyteller will either force-fit all of the data into their theory or ignore the data that conflicts with their theory. So what would be extremely useful in the case of exploring the origins of religious belief would in fact be a time machine, so we could travel to the past, interview thousands of ancestral subjects, strap them into MRI machines, and demand that they explain (in our terms no less) why they believe the Sun is a deity of some kind. Of course, not only is that scenario absurd and impossible, but it seems to further reinforce the point that religious belief is not exactly reducible to a neat evolutionary psychological theory — it is much more complex.

By analogy we can imagine someone such as myself who has zero mechanical knowledge about cars, but some knowledge of tools, proceeds to dismantle a car down to its nuts and bolts. Suppose then in the process of dismantling the car I discovered a crucial part necessary for locomotion — the drive shaft. Armed with this knowledge, would it be reasonable for me to claim I have discovered how the car works overall? Probably not. In fact, what would be a more impressive feat would be to rebuild the car from the ground up, because then I would be able to demonstrate my knowledge more sufficiently.

Take for example this study: “Cognitive mechanisms for the evolution of religious thought,” in which the authors noted that religious ideas had minimal counter-intuitiveness (MCI) because they relied on metaphor, which humans have a natural tendency to grasp. Metaphorical concepts are easy to disseminate, which is why the study thinks religious narratives and gods became accepted despite their lack of empirical proof. But is not that also true for a vast majority of our non-religious beliefs as well? The real question is whether or not our intuition accurately maps onto reality, and if those intuitions can support religious beliefs, NOT whether or not they are metaphorical or have MCI.

After all, as Abraham Maslow once wrote in The Psychology of Science (1966), “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Extending this analogy, not every structure or machine can be built using nails exclusively, one needs nuts and bolts as well, which hammers have no use for. What Maslow warned against is that when one becomes overly dependent upon a single analytical perspective, one’s conclusions become all-too predictable. The narrative that supposedly deconstructs religion is not the result of open-minded inquiry, but of applying a particular methodology (which is most likely motivated by a particular ideology).

Are religious deconstruction narratives doing just what Gould warned? Are they telling a ‘just so story’ for the purpose of demystifying the origins of religious narratives? Perhaps it would be best for all of us to recognize that we have a tendency to use narrative to explain some phenomenon, and then we go on to believe in that narrative as though it exhausts all other explanatory options. We all have this tendency to prefer single-faceted solutions when addressing multi-faceted problems, because that helps keep our conceptual schemes parsimonious. But the allure of parsimony often distracts us from cases which genuinely need complex approaches, methodologies, and solutions.

Mark Twain once wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” So on some level, we would expect a ‘just so story’ to be ‘just so’ if it is in fact the truth, but I fear in the case of evolutionary psychology’s religious deconstruction narrative, it is teetering over the line in terms of being a useful fiction. However, I can hear a skeptic of the case I have built making the following point: we might liken the evolutionary psychologist to that of a criminal prosecutor whose job is to develop a narrative that explains how the accused committed the crime. Because we lack self-evident facts for some aspects of that narrative, we must compose a fiction; And if these fictions are based on established norms in a given field of inquiry, then we can trust those fictions as being plausibly true.

I know this point very well. I have made it myself. During my time in the Navy Reserve, as an intelligence analyst, we often had to build assessments of adversarial courses of action using incomplete and impartial data. More often than not, these assessments utilized assumptions based on established norms in order to raise their plausibility and applicability. However, the assessments the intelligence community builds and the narratives of a criminal prosecutor differ from the historical narratives of the evolutionary psychologist in three key respects.

The first is something I have already mentioned — we do not have any robust historical records of the circumstances surrounding religious belief formation. We have a rough idea that primitive spiritual concepts evolved into the systematic theologies we know of today, but this rough idea does not extend to the origination of those spiritual concepts. Hypotheses such as Michael Shermer’s “agenticity” idea have not been corroborated by any broad experimentation, which as Gould noted makes it difficult to trust their veracity (let alone their falsifiability as well!). Consequently, theorizing how a given concept evolved is not the same thing as theorizing how it originated.

The second is related to the first, but important nonetheless, which is that narratives are better when they tap into explicit memory. The reason why the narratives of the intelligence community and criminal prosecutors are considered trustworthy is because they rely on a convergence of perspectives offered by experts and witnesses — people with hands-on knowledge or recent memory of the topic at hand. This gives their narratives a ‘freshness’ that is coherent with other puzzle pieces and considerations.

The third is the degree of specificity. The deconstruction narratives of evolutionary psychology are very general and tend to use broad strokes. In the example I gave in this article, I used the Out-of-Africa hypothesis to try to find a common thread between various Big Stories, but the Out-of-Africa hypothesis could be wrong! Likewise it is possible Big Stories were not motivated by problem-solving at all, but other circumstances… perhaps even real historical events! On the other hand, the narratives employed by the intelligence community and criminal prosecutors are much more precise and detail oriented because their scope is much narrower.

But what if evolutionary psychology is doing it right, and these problems are all contrived? Well, as I discussed in my previous article, even if the inner psychological motivations and cognitive mechanisms that lead to the acceptance of religious beliefs are identified, this should not be taken as falsification of those religious beliefs. Additionally, in this article I discussed how religious belief formation could occur by simply following the premises of an argument, in which case psychological motivation or cognitive mechanisms may only play a supporting role.

In closing, none of what I’ve written here should be taken as saying evolutionary psychology is a worthless enterprise, on the contrary, I think it can offer a unique perspective on human development. However, when that perspective turns to the religious experience, I find the approach of evolutionary psychology severely wanting.

Clear and critical thinking-out-loud about philosophical and theological topics from the perspective of a Christian pastor.

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