Christian: “Why would almost every people group around the world, throughout known history, have a form of worship either to many gods or simply one God?”
Atheist: “Religion seems to have served as an evolutionary benefit. Religion gives people a moral compass by which people treat one another in ways conducive to survival, population growth, and human development.”
This mock-exchange is similar to a real conversation I once heard. In fact, it’s similar to conversations I’ve had several times in the past.
Religion, thinks the evolutionary naturalist, seems to be a societal tool naturalistically given to people in order to preserve humanity as a species. There are, it is thought, certain evolutionary benefits found in various world religions, like Christianity. But, conveniently, that ship has sailed and we’re now on to bigger and better things… because, well, science!
The need for religion has passed, and because of recently acquired knowledge (relatively speaking), religion may actually be dangerous to keep around. Interestingly, that which helped us get to the point we are at today must be jettisoned in favor of the improved knowledge-base humanity now has at its disposal.
Simple Problems for Religious Obsolescence
There is one small problem for this view. The gist of the argument is—because we now know more, religion is useless, or irrelevant—perhaps even dangerous depending on who you ask. But isn’t it true that any group of individuals could have said this at almost any point in time throughout human history?
Think about it.
When was there not a progression of human development in history? Humans have always been progressing throughout the anthropologic past in both knowledge and technology (one could even say people have generally devolved insofar as ethics are concerned). Throughout observable history, humanity has been in flux insofar as philosophy and science are concerned. We are mutable creatures, nothing other than creaturely change ought to be expected.
Why did Plato need religion? We don’t really know much about Plato’s doctrine of God, he was never too clear. But we do know he believed in a god. Granted, however, the sophistication of Greek philosophy and science (relative to their day), why did Plato need a god according to this atheistic claim that natural selection “used” religion? If Plato knew more than past generations, couldn’t he have just removed their archaic beliefs rather than build on them? Plato could have just broke all ties with religion. He could have remarked that the “ancients” (from his perspective), were outdated and ignorant (as is commonly said today). He never did this. In fact—no one, no group—really did this before the 17th and 18th centuries (not as a concentrated initiative anyway).
Were Plato and Aristotle just not as thoughtful as, say, David Hume? I know Hume would have had categories available to him that Plato and Aristotle did not, but Hume never really made his arguments based upon empirical observation or the advancement of human technology. Rather, his skepticism was developed based on a strictly philosophical, epistemological dilemma. It was the thought of Hume and Kant (Kant was probably a Deist), which really fueled the idea of autonomous human thought and independence from God. Later, men like Schleiermacher would incorporate this emphasis of human experience into Christian theology, becoming the father of theological liberalism.
John Locke, a Deist, also emphasized experience over against God’s revelation, but he never did so on the basis of scientific empiricism (although he was an empiricist). Rather, philosophical presuppositions drove his view of human experience, God, and religious faith.
The idea that we, nowadays, are too advanced to allow for archaic religion is a non sequiter. It simply does not follow given the information we have. Is our technology better than the past? You bet. Is our scope of scientific exploration broadened because of it? Of course! But, when was there a time this was not the case? We have always been coming up with perceptually better solutions to certain problems throughout history; and now all the sudden, we’ve reached some arbitrary point at which religion is now extinguishable?
Ok, Religion was Valuable for a Time. What Value Does Evolutionary Belief Have?
Atheistic evolutionists are quick to grant the evolutionary benefits of religion. However, now we have reached an age in which this religion is no longer necessary. There are two questions needing answers. First, how do we know religion is no longer necessary? Second, what value does recognizing evolution in place of religion have? In other words, religion benefitted humanity by virtue of religiously motivated morals, and the drive to acquire more knowledge about God’s world around us; so, what can replacing religion with naturalism do for humanity?
“The survival value lies in the psychological predisposition to believe your parents, and the consequence of that psychological predisposition might very well be religion.” — Richard Dawkins
Consider any point in human history.
What if Kant would have said we no longer need religion? How could have he known that? If evolution would have been his motivation for renouncing religion, what about evolution told him we no longer need religion for human preservation? At every point, humanity has generally thought they were more advanced than the previous generations. Yet, they understood there was more to know. What about our current generation gives us the license to dismiss religion altogether, making the bold claim it is no longer needed?
This intellectual snobbery really makes no sense.
Galileo, for example, could have closed up religious shop after looking through the telescope for the first time. I mean, after all, the telescope was something additional to what we had prior to that point. It allowed us to peer deeper into the cosmos than ever before. Why couldn’t Galileo simply have concluded humanity, at that time, was simply too advanced for religion? He didn’t know we would later invent the automobile, the airplane, the lawnmower—heck, he didn’t even know we’d have laundry machines! But, Galileo’s generation sure thought they were advanced, didn’t they? Every generation has. What is it about this generation that renders religion unnecessary? And, if religion was unnecessary, how could we know that to be true?
It seems that, to be able to definitively claim that religion is unnecessary, one would have to have exhaustive knowledge of the future. What if we discovered, at some point, irrefutable evidence for the usefulness of religion? Interestingly enough, modern atheists usually do not even allow for this possibility (gasp! How close-minded!).
While we’re talking about evolutionary value, what evolutionary value does belief in evolutionary theory have for human preservation and progress? After all, there is no objective motives for the exploration of this world. It’s all just a big accident. Who cares? It’s not like it’s the handiwork of a divine Creator or anything.
What about ethics? Naturalism has yet to produce a cogent system of ethics grounded in anything beyond arbitrary human opinion. If naturalistic evolution is true, there can be no moral values beyond that of mere opinions about how things ought to be. Moral values and the broader systematic of ethics will always be in flux. There is no such thing as a moral compass if naturalism is true. Religion, specifically the Christian religion, gives us an objective grounding for ethics that naturalism wishes it had.
Cast in that light, naturalism sure seems to be a step backwards!
There’s Just No Good Reason to be a Atheistic Naturalist
When all is said and done, there just really isn’t a good reason to be a naturalist. It doesn’t have a great track record. It lacks a system of morals and ethics, motivations for various, yet necessary, activities (like scientific exploration), etc. Moreover, it’s contents are shaky at best and violently debated in both secular and religious circles. It’s largely a philosophical platform notwithstanding what its adherents want to claim. There is a philosophy behind naturalistic priorities and this drives their method as well as their conclusions.
There is no real good reason to be a naturalist (if naturalism includes atheism), because religion seems to better account for the philosophical and scientific advancement thus far observed. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s the Christian worldview which accounts for this progression alone. The church, and its doctrine, has been the fire behind some of the greatest cosmological, biological/medicinal, and technological strides throughout history.
Moreover, not only is there no reason to think religion is irrelevant (as seen above, it doesn’t make sense to claim this all of the sudden), but evolutionary theory doesn’t appear to offer evolutionary benefits to the human species. Consistently thought through, evolution lends itself to governmental tyranny (Stalin and Mao) and an ethical egoism this world has yet to witness. Though adherents of the Christian religion have acted in tyrannical and even genocidal ways throughout history, Christian biblical doctrine and the larger body of church history condemns those tyrants and genocidal maniacs who have used Christianity as a political ploy. This is why right doctrine (orthodoxy) is so important!
Sinners acting in sin do not act consistently with Christian principles. If I sin against God, as a Christian, I am not acting in accordance with my espoused system. In fact, my system, orthodox Christianity, calls me to repentance and the turning away from that sin. Only religion, the Christian religion, gives people what they need, objectively, to progress.
Evolutionary naturalism is filled with internal inconsistencies. This supposed incompatibility between the current state of affairs and religion is simply an illusion used by pop-atheists in order to popularize their movement of unbelief. As Christians, we know these movements come and go—this one will do the same.
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
— 1 Corinthians 1:20