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The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

13th European Skeptics Congress 2007

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Friday, September 7th–9th
Davenport Hotel
Dublin Ireland

The European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO) presents its 13th bi-annual congress bringing together delegates from across Europe to discuss ideas of particular interest to skeptics. This year’s conference, hosted by the Irish Skeptics Society in Dublin, Ireland, is on the theme of “The Assault on Science: constructing a response.”

READ more information about this conference…

David Sloan Wilson (portrait)

David Sloan Wilson

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has been a runaway bestseller and garnered much attention for his passionate plea for atheists to stand up and be heard. But there is so much more in that book about religion that has drawn considerably less attention, most notably his theory on the evolutionary origins and development of religion, which is a technical field of study among a small band of scientists, one of whom, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, has penned the following analysis of Dawkins’ theory of religion, which he feels is wide of the mark based on the evidence. Wilson is the author of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, and his latest book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

David Sloan Wilson is a Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University.

— Michael Shermer

photo of stained glass window

Religion as a product of evolutionary group selection processes is captured in this beautiful church stained-glass window that conveys the beehive structure of individuals working together within a group.

Beyond Demonic Memes
Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion

by David Sloan Wilson

Richard Dawkins and I share much in common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory. We share an interest in culture as an evolutionary process in its own right. We are both atheists in our personal convictions who have written books on religion. In Darwin’s Cathedral I attempted to contribute to the relatively new field of evolutionary religious studies. When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues. Hence this critique of The God Delusion and the larger issues at stake.

Where We Agree and Where We Part Company

In The God Delusion Dawkins makes it clear that he loathes religion for its intolerance, blind faith, cruelty, extremism, abuse, and prejudice. He attributes these problems to religion and thinks that the world would be a better place without it. Given recent events in the Middle East and even here in America, it is understandable why he might draw such a conclusion, but the question is: What’s evolution got to do with it?

Dawkins and I agree that evolutionary theory provides a powerful framework for studying religion, and we even agree on some of the details, so it is important to pinpoint exactly where we part company. Evolutionists employ a number of hypotheses to study any trait, even something as mundane as the spots on a guppy. Is it an adaptation that evolved by natural selection? If so, did it evolve by benefiting whole groups, compared to other groups, or individuals compared to other individuals within groups? With cultural evolution there is a third possibility. Since cultural traits pass from person to person, they bear an intriguing resemblance to disease organisms. Perhaps they evolve to enhance their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups.

If the trait is not an adaptation, then it can nevertheless persist in the population for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was adaptive in the past but not the present, such as our eating habits, which make sense in the food-scarce environment of our ancestors but not with a McDonald’s on every corner. Perhaps the trait is a byproduct of another adaptation. For example, moths use celestial light sources to orient their flight (an adaptation), but this causes them to spiral toward earthly light sources such as a streetlamp or a flame (a costly byproduct), as Dawkins so beautifully recounts in The God Delusion. Finally, the trait might be selectively neutral and persist in the population by genetic or cultural drift.

Dawkins and I agree that these major hypotheses provide an excellent framework for organizing the study of religion, which by itself is an important achievement. We also agree that the hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Evolution is a messy, complicated process, like the creation of laws and sausages, and all of the major hypotheses might be relevant to some degree. Nevertheless, real progress requires determining which hypotheses are most important for the evolution of particular traits. The spots on a guppy might seem parochial, but they are famous among biologists as a case study of evolutionary analysis. They can be explained primarily as adaptations in response to two powerful selective forces: predators remove the most conspicuous males from the population, whereas female guppies mate with the most conspicuous males. The interaction between these two selection pressures explains an impressive amount of detail about guppy spots — why males have them and females don’t, why males are more colorful in habitats without predators, and even why the spots are primarily red when the predators are crustaceans (whose visual system is blind to the color red), as opposed to fish (whose visual system is sensitive to the color red). Guppy spots could have been selectively neutral or a byproduct of some other trait, but that’s not the way the facts fell.

Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould: Strange Bedfellows

The late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously criticized his colleagues for seeing adaptations where they don’t exist. His metaphor for a byproduct was the spandrel, the triangular space that inevitably results when arches are placed next to each other. Arches have a function but spandrels do not, even though they can acquire a secondary function, such as providing a decorative space. Gould accused his colleagues of inventing “just-so stories” about traits as adaptations, without good proof, and being blind to the possibility of byproducts and other non-adaptive outcomes of evolution.

Gould had a point, but he failed to give equal time to the opposite problem of failing to see adaptations where they do exist. Suppose that you are a biologist who becomes interested in explaining the bump on the nose of a certain species of shark. Perhaps it is just a byproduct of the way that shark noses develop, as Gould speculated for the human chin. Perhaps it is a callous that forms when the sharks root around in the sand. If so, then it would be an adaptation but not a very complicated one. Perhaps it is a wart, formed by a virus. If so, then it might be an adaptation for the virus but not the shark. Or perhaps it is an organ for detecting the weak electrical signals of prey hidden in the sand. If so, then it would be a complex adaptation.

Few experiences are more thrilling for a biologist than to discover a complex adaptation. Myriad details that previously defied explanation become interpretable as an interlocking system with a purpose. Non-adaptive traits can also be complex, but the functional nature of a complex adaptation guides its analysis from beginning to end. Failing to recognize complex adaptations when they exist is as big a mistake as seeing them where they don’t exist. Only hard empirical work — something equivalent to the hundreds of person-years spent studying guppy spots from an evolutionary perspective — can settle the issue.

Dawkins argued on behalf of adaptationism in his debates with Gould and would probably agree with everything I have said so far. For religion, however, he argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.

For the Good of the Group?

To understand Dawkins’ skepticism about the group-level benefits of religion, it is necessary to trace the history of “for the good of the group” thinking in evolutionary theory. Groups can be adaptive only if their members perform services for each other, yet these services are often vulnerable to exploitation by more self-serving individuals within the same group. Fortunately, groups of individuals who practice mutual aid can out-compete groups whose members do not.

According to this reasoning, traits that are “for the good of the group” require a process of between-group selection to evolve and tend to be undermined by selection within groups. Darwin was the first person to reason this way about the evolution of human morality and self-sacrificial traits in other animals. Unfortunately, his insight was not shared by many biologists during the first half of the 20th century, who uncritically assumed that adaptations evolve at all levels of the biological hierarchy — for the good of the individual, group, species, or ecosystem — without requiring a corresponding process of natural selection at each level. When the need for group selection was acknowledged, it was often assumed that between-group selection easily prevailed against within-group selection. This can be called The Age of Naïve Groupism, and it ended during the 1960s and 1970s, thanks largely to two books: George C. Williams’ 1966 Adaptation and Natural Selection and Richard Dawkins’ 1976 The Selfish Gene.

In Adaptation and Natural Selection, Williams affirmed the logic of multi-level selection but then added an empirical claim: Even though between-group selection is theoretically possible, in the real world it is invariably trumped by within-group selection. Virtually all adaptations evolve at the individual level and even examples of apparent altruism must be explained in terms of self-interest. It was this empirical claim that ended The Age of Naïve Groupism and initiated what can be called The Age of Individualism, which lasted for the rest of the 20th century and in some respects is still with us.

Another theme developed by Williams was the concept of the gene as the fundamental unit of selection. In sexually reproducing species, an individual is a unique collection of genes that will never occur again. Individuals therefore lack the permanence to be acted upon by natural selection over multiple generations. According to Williams, genes are the fundamental unit of natural selection because they have the permanence that individuals (much less groups) lack.

In many respects, and by his own account, Williams was interpreting ideas for a broader audience that began with Darwin and were refined by theoretical biologists such as Sewall Wright, Ronald Fisher, and J.B.S. Haldane. The concept of the gene as the fundamental unit of selection, for example, is identical to the concept of average effects in population genetics theory, which averages the fitness of alternative genes across all of the individual genotypes and environmental contexts experienced by the genes. A decade later, Dawkins played the role of interpreter for an even broader audience. Average effects became selfish genes and individuals became lumbering robots controlled by their genes. Group selection became a pariah concept, taught only as an example of how not to think. As one eminent evolutionist advised a student in the 1980s, “There are three ideas that you do not invoke in biology: Lamarkism, the phlogistron theory, and group selection.”

Scientific Dogmatism

In retrospect, it is hard to fathom the zeal with which evolutionists such as Williams and Dawkins rejected group selection and developed a view of evolution as based entirely on self-interest. Williams ended Adaptation and Natural Selection with the phrase “I believe that it is the light and the way.” Here is how Dawkins recounts the period in his 1982 book The Extended Phenotype:

The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism … We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin’s ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label ‘the selfish organism…”

This passage has all the earmarks of fundamentalist rhetoric, including appropriating the deity (Darwin) for one’s own cause. Never mind that Darwin was the first group selectionist. Moreover, unlike The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype was written by Dawkins for his scientific peers, not for a popular audience!

In reality, the case against group selection began to unravel almost immediately after the publication of Adaptation and Natural Selection, although it was difficult to tell, given the repressive social climate. In the first place, calling genes “replicators” and “the fundamental unit of selection” is no argument at all against group selection. The question has always been whether genes can evolve by virtue of benefiting whole groups and despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. When this happens, the gene favored by between-group selection replaces the gene favored by within-group selection in the total population. In the parlance of population genetics theory, it has the highest average effect. Re-labeling the gene selfish, just because it evolves, contributes nothing. The “gene’s eye view” of evolution can be insightful in some respects, but as an argument against group selection it is one of the greatest cases of comparing apples with oranges in the annals of evolutionary thought.

The same goes for the concept of extended phenotypes, which notes that genes have effects that extend beyond the bodies of individual organisms. Examples of extended phenotypes include a bird’s nest or a beaver’s dam. But there is a difference between these two examples; the nest benefits only the individual builder, whereas the dam benefits all of the beavers in the pond, including those who don’t contribute to building the dam. The problem of within-group selection is present in the dam example and the concept of extended phenotypes does nothing to solve it. More apples and oranges.

The Revival of Group Selection

Much has happened in the four decades following the rejection of group selection in the 1960s. Naïve groupism is still a mistake that needs to be avoided, but between-group selection can no longer be categorically rejected. Claims for group selection must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, along with the other major evolutionary hypotheses. Demonstrations of group selection appear regularly in the top scientific journals.

As one example reported in the July 6, 2006 issue of Nature, a group of microbiologists headed by Benjamin Kerr cultured bacteria (E. coli) and their viral predator (phage) in 96-well plates, which are commonly used for automated chemical analysis. Each well was an isolated group of predators and their prey. Within each well, natural selection favored the most rapacious viral strains, but these strains tended to drive their prey, and therefore themselves extinct. More prudent viral strains were vulnerable to replacement by the rapacious strains within each well, but as groups they persisted longer and were more likely to colonize other wells. Migration between wells was accomplished by robotically controlled pipettes. Biologically plausible migration rates enabled the prudent viral strains to persist in the total population, despite their selective disadvantage within groups.

As a second example reported in the December 8, 2006 issue of Science, economist Samuel Bowles estimated that between-group selection was strong enough to promote the genetic evolution of altruism in our own species, exactly as envisioned by Darwin. These and many other examples, summarized by Edward O. Wilson and myself in a forthcoming review article, are ignored entirely by Dawkins, who continues to recite his mantra that the selective disadvantage of altruism within groups poses an insuperable problem for between-group selection.

Individuals as Groups

Not only can group selection be a significant evolutionary force, it can sometimes even be the dominating evolutionary force. One of the most important advances in evolutionary biology is a concept called major transitions. It turns out that evolution takes place not only by small mutational change, but also by social groups and multi-species communities becoming so integrated that they become higher-level organisms in their own right. The cell biologist Lynn Margulis proposed this concept in the 1970s to explain the evolution of nucleated cells as symbiotic communities of bacterial cells. The concept was then generalized to explain other major transitions, from the origin of life as communities of cooperating molecular reactions, to multi-cellular organisms and social insect colonies.

In each case, the balance between levels of selection is not fixed but can itself evolve. A major transition occurs when selection within groups is suppressed, making it difficult for selfish elements to evolve at the expense of other members of their own groups. Selection among groups becomes a dominating evolutionary force, turning the groups into super-organisms. Ironically, during the Age of Individualism it became taboo to think about groups as organisms, but now it turns out that organisms are literally the groups of past ages.

Dawkins fully accepts the concept of major transitions, but he pretends that it doesn’t require a revision in his ideas about group selection. Most important, he doesn’t pose the question that is most relevant to the study of religion: Is it possible that human genetic and cultural evolution represents the newest example of a major transition, converting human groups into the equivalent of bodies and beehives?

Selfish Memes and Other Theories of Cultural Evolution

Dawkins’ third claim to fame, in addition to selfish genes and extended phenotypes, was to coin the term “meme” to think about cultural evolution. In its most general usage, the word “meme” becomes newspeak for “culture” without adding anything new. More specific usages suggest a variety of interesting possibilities; that culture can be broken into atomistic bits like genes, that these bits are somehow represented inside the head, and especially that they can evolve to be organisms in their own right, often spreading at the expense of their human hosts, like the demons of old.

As with religion, Dawkins has not conducted empirical research on cultural evolution, preferring to play the role of Mycroft Holmes, who sat in his armchair and let his younger brother Sherlock do the legwork. Two evolutionary Sherlocks of culture are Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, authors of the 2005 book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. One of the sleights of hand performed by Dawkins in The God Delusion, which takes a practiced eye to detect, is to first dismiss group selection and then to respectfully cite the work of Richerson and Boyd without mentioning that their theory of cultural evolution is all about group selection.

Consider genetic evolution by itself. When a new mutation arises, the total population consists of one group with a single mutant and many groups with no mutants. There is not much variation among groups in this scenario for group selection to act upon. Now imagine a species that has the ability to socially transmit information. A new cultural mutation can rapidly spread to everyone in the same group, resulting in one group that is very different from the other groups in the total population. This is one way that culture can radically shift the balance between levels of selection in favor of group selection. Add to this the ability to monitor the behavior of others, communicate social transgressions through gossip, and easily punish or exclude transgressors at low cost to the punishers, and it becomes clear that human evolution represents a whole new ball game as far as group selection is concerned.

In this context, the human major transition probably began early in the evolution of our lineage, resulting in a genetically evolved psychological architecture that enables us to spontaneously cooperate in small face-to-face groups. As the great social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville commented long ago in Democracy in America, “the village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.” As the primate equivalent of a beehive or an ant colony, our lineage was able to eliminate less groupish competitors. The ability to acquire and socially transmit new behaviors enabled our ancestors to spread over the globe, occupying hundreds of ecological niches. Then the invention of agriculture enabled group sizes to increase by many orders of magnitude, but only through the cultural evolution of mechanisms that enable groups to hang together at such a large scale. Defining, motivating, coordinating, and policing groups is not easy at any scale. It requires an elaborate system of proximate mechanisms, something akin to the physiological mechanisms of an individual organism. Might the elements of religion be part of the “social physiology” of the human group organism? Other than briefly acknowledging the abstract possibility that memes can form “memeplexes,” this possibility does not appear in Dawkins’ analysis.

Bring on the Legwork

It is absurd, in retrospect, that evolutionists have spent much more time evaluating the major evolutionary hypotheses for guppy spots than for the elements of religion. This situation is beginning to remedy itself as scholars and scientists from all backgrounds begin to adopt the evolutionary perspective in their study of religion.

An example from my own research will show how empirical legwork can take us beyond armchair theorizing. Here is Dawkins on the subject of whether religion relieves or induces stress in the mind of the religious believer:

Is religion a placebo that prolongs life by reducing stress? Possibly, although the theory must run the gauntlet of skeptics who point out the many circumstances in which religion causes rather than relieves stress … The American comedian Cathy Ladman observes that “All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.”

One of my projects is a collaboration with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced shick-sent-me-hi), who is best known among general readers for his books on peak psychological experience, such as Flow and The Evolving Self. Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) which involves signaling people at random times during the day, prompting them to record their external and internal experience — where they are, who they are with, what they are doing, and what they are thinking and feeling on a checklist of numerical scales. The ESM is like an invisible observer, following people around as they go about their daily lives. It is as close as psychological research gets to the careful field studies that evolutionary biologists are accustomed to performing on non-human species, which is why I teamed up with Csikszentmihalyi to analyze some of his past studies from an evolutionary perspective.

These studies were performed on such a massive scale and with so much background information that we can compare the psychological experience of religious believers vs. nonbelievers on a moment-by-moment basis. We can even compare members of conservative vs. liberal protestant denominations, when they are alone vs. in the company of other people. On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone. Religions are diverse, in the same way that species in ecosystems are diverse. Rather than issuing monolithic statements about religion, evolutionists need to explain religious diversity in the same way that they explain biological diversity.

These results raise as many questions as they answer. We did not evolve to feel good but rather to survive and reproduce. Perhaps religious believers are happily unaware of the problems that nonbelievers are anxiously trying to solve. As a more subtle point, people pass back and forth between the categories of “nonbeliever” and “believer” as they lose and regain faith. Perhaps some nonbelievers are psychologically impaired because they are the recent casualties of religious belief. Only more scientific legwork can resolve these issues, but one thing is sure: Dawkins’ armchair speculation about the guilt-inducing effects of religion doesn’t even get him to first base.

Natural Historians of Religion

Hypothesis testing does not always require quantification and the other trappings of modern science. Darwin established his entire theory on the basis of descriptive information carefully gathered by the naturalists of his day, most of whom thought that they were studying the hand of God. This kind of information exists in abundance for religions around the world and throughout history, which should be regarded as a fossil record of cultural evolution so detailed that it puts the biological fossil record to shame. It should be possible to use this information to evaluate the major evolutionary hypotheses, which after all represent radically different conceptions of religion. Engineering principles dictate that a religion designed to benefit the whole group will be different from one designed to benefit some individuals (presumably the leaders) at the expense of others within the same group, which in turn will be different from a cultural disease organism designed to benefit itself at the expense of both individuals and groups, which in turn will be different from a religion for which the term “design” is inappropriate. It would be odd indeed if such different conceptions of religion could not be distinguished on the basis of carefully gathered descriptive information.

Of course, it is necessary to gather the information systematically rather than picking and choosing examples that fit one’s pet theory. In Darwin’s Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great religious scholar Mircia Eliade. The results are described in an article titled “Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample,” which was published in the journal Human Nature and is available on my website. The beauty of random sampling is that, barring a freak sampling accident, valid conclusions for the sample apply to all of the religions in the encyclopedia from which the sample was taken.

By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective — what they cause the religious believers to do. The best way to illustrate these points is by describing one of the religions in the sample — Jainism — which initially appeared the most challenging for the group-level adaptation hypothesis.

Jainism is one of the oldest and most ascetic of all the eastern religions and is practiced by approximately three percent of the Indian population. Jain ascetics filter the air they breathe, the water they drink, and sweep the path in front of them to avoid killing any creature no matter how small. They are homeless, without possessions, and sometimes even fast themselves to death by taking a vow of “santhara” that is celebrated by the entire community. How could such a religion benefit either individuals or groups in a practical sense? It is easy to conclude from the sight of an emaciated Jain ascetic that the religion is indeed a cultural disease — until one reads the scholarly literature.

It turns out that Jain ascetics comprise a tiny fraction of the religion, whose lay members are among the wealthiest merchants in India. Throughout their long history, Jains have filled an economic niche similar to the Jews in Western Europe, Chinese in Southeast Asia, and other merchant societies. In all cases, trading over long distances and plying volatile markets such as the gem trade requires a high degree of trust among trading partners, which is provided by the religion. Even the most esoteric (to outsiders) elements of the religion are not superfluous byproducts but perform important practical work.

For example, the ascetics must obtain their food by begging but their religion includes so many food restrictions that they can only accept food from the most pious lay Jain households. Moreover, the principle of non-action dictates that they can only accept small amounts of food from each household that was not prepared with the ascetics in mind. When they enter a house, they inspect the premises and subject the occupants to sharp questions about their moral purity before accepting their food. It is a mark of great honor to be visited but of great shame if the ascetics leave without food. In effect, the food begging system of the ascetics functions as an important policing mechanism for the community. This is only one of many examples, as summarized by Jainism scholar James Laidlaw in a 1995 book whose title says it all: Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society Among the Jains.

How then, is it possible to live by impossible ideals? The advantage for addressing this question to Jainism is that the problem is so very graphic there. The demands of Jain asceticism have a pretty good claim to be the most uncompromising of any enduring historical tradition: the most aggressively impractical set of injunctions which any large number of diverse families and communities has ever tried to live by. They have done so, albeit in a turbulent history of change, schism, and occasionally recriminatory “reform,” for well over two millennia. This directs our attention to the fact that yawning gaps between hope and reality are not necessarily dysfunctions of social organization, or deviations from religious systems. The fact that lay Jains make up what is — in thoroughly worldly material terms — one of the most conspicuously successful communities in India, only makes more striking and visible a question which must also arise in the case of the renouncers themselves.

This example illustrates a phenomenon that I call the transformation of the obvious. Jainism appears obviously dysfunctional based on a little information, such as the sight of an emaciated acetic or beliefs that appear bizarre when taken out of context. The same religion becomes obviously functional based on more information. This is the kind of “natural history” information that enabled Darwin to build such a strong case for his theory of evolution, and it can be used to build an equally strong case for the group-functional nature of Jainism. As for Jainism, so also for most of the other enduring religions of the world.

An Emerging Consensus?

I recently attended a conference on evolution and religion in Hawaii that provided an opportunity to assess the state of the field. It is not the case that everyone has reached a consensus on the relative importance of the major evolutionary hypotheses about religion. My own talk included a slide with the words SHAME ON US! in large block letters, chiding my colleagues for failing to reach at least a rough consensus, based on information that is already at hand. This might seem discouraging, until we remember that all aspects of religion have so far received much less attention than guppy spots from an evolutionary perspective. The entire enterprise is that new.

There was, I believe, a convergence taking place during the short period of the conference. Richard Sosis, whose previous research includes a detailed comparison of religious vs. non-religious communal movements, presented new research on the recitation of psalms among Israeli women in response to terrorist attacks. William Irons and several other participants developed the concept of hard-to-fake signals as a mechanism for insuring commitment in religious groups. Dominic Johnson reminded us that inter-group conflict, as much as we might not like it and want to avoid it, has been an important selective force throughout human genetic and cultural evolution and that some elements of religion can be interpreted as adaptations for war. In my response to this paper during the question period, I largely agreed with Johnson but pointed out that most of the religions in my random sample did not spread by violent conflict (e.g., Mormonism). Johnson is currently examining the religions in my random sample in more detail with respect to warfare, a good example of cumulative, collaborative research. Peter Richerson and I gave a tutorial on group selection, which was especially useful for participants whose understanding of evolution is grounded on the Age of Individualism.

Lee Kirkpatrick delivered a lecture titled “Religion is Not an Adaptation” that might seem to oppose the adaptationist accounts mentioned above. What he meant, however, is that he doubts the existence of any genetic adaptations that evolved specifically in a religious context. He is sympathetic to the possibility that more general genetically evolved psychological adaptations are co-opted by cultural evolution to form elaborately functional religious systems. Similarly, other psychologically oriented talks about minimal counter-intuitiveness (beliefs being memorable when they are weird but not too weird), hyperactive agent detection devices (our tendency to assume agency, even when it does not exist), and the ease with which children develop beliefs about the afterlife, might be interpretable as non-adaptive byproducts, but they might also be the psychological building blocks of highly adaptive religions. In evolutionary parlance, byproducts can become exaptations, which in turn can become adaptations.

No one at the conference presented a compelling example of a religious belief that spreads like a disease organism, to the detriment of both individuals and groups. The demonic meme hypothesis is a theoretical possibility, but so far it lacks compelling evidence. Much remains to be done, but it is this collective enterprise that deserves the attention of the scientific research community more than angry diatribes about the evils of religion.

Real-World Solutions Require a
Correct Diagnosis of the Problems

Explaining religions as primarily group-level adaptations does not make them benign in every respect. The most that group selection can do is to turn groups into super-organisms. Like organisms, super-organisms compete, prey upon each other, coexist without interacting, or engage in mutualistic interactions. Sometimes they form cooperative federations that work so well that super-super-organisms emerge at an even larger spatial scale. After all, even multi-cellular organisms are already groups of groups of groups. In a remarkable recent book titled War and Peace and War, Peter Turchin analyzes the broad sweep of human history as a process of cultural multilevel selection that has increased the scale of human society, with many reversals along the way — the rise and fall of empires. Religion is a large subject, but the explanatory scope of evolutionary theory is even larger.

American democracy can be regarded as a cultural super-super-organism. The founding fathers realized that religions work well for their own members but become part of the problem at a larger social scale. That is why they worked so hard to accomplish the separation of church and state, along with other checks and balances to prevent some members of the super-super-organism from benefiting at the expense of others. In this context I share Dawkins’ concern that some religions are seeking to end the separation of church and state in America. I am equally concerned that the checks and balances are failing in other respects that have nothing do to with religion, such as unaccountable corporations and extreme income inequality.

I also share Dawkins’ concern about other aspects of religions, even after they are understood as complex group-level adaptations. Religions can be ruthless in the way that they enforce conformity within groups. Most alarming for a scientist, religions can be wanton about distorting facts about the real world on their way toward motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world. We should be equally concerned about other distortions of factual reality, such as patriotic histories of nations and other non-religious ideologies that I call “stealth religions” in my most recent book, Evolution for Everyone. Finally, I agree with Dawkins that religions are fair game for criticism in a pluralistic society and that the stigma associated with atheism needs to be removed. The problem with Dawkins’ analysis, however, is that if he doesn’t get the facts about religion right, his diagnosis of the problems and proffered solutions won’t be right either. If the bump on the shark’s nose is an organ, you won’t get very far by thinking of it as a wart. That is why Dawkins’ diatribe against religion, however well-intentioned, is so deeply misinformed.

On Scientific Open-Mindedness

Toward the end of The God Delusion, Dawkins waxes poetic about the open-mindedness of science compared to the closed-mindedness of religion. He describes the heart-warming example of a scientist who changed his long-held beliefs on the basis of a single lecture, rushing up to his former opponent in front of everyone and declaring “Sir! I have been wrong all these years!”

This inspiring example represents one end of the scientific bell curve when it comes to open-mindedness. At the other end are people such as Louis Agassiz, one of the greatest biologists of Darwin’s day, who for all his brilliance and learning never accepted the theory of evolution. Time will tell where Dawkins sits on the bell curve of open-mindedness concerning group selection in general and religion in particular. At the moment, he is just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an evolutionist and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion.

It is time now for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work on understanding one of the most important and enigmatic aspects of the human condition.



  1. Peter Holmgren says:

    I fail to see how concepts, like religion, can be an effective part of evolution. I understand concepts as being a tools, that we as biological organisms can adapt to. If we look at animals, they do not seem to have religious behavior. I have never seen a group of animals gather on a regular basis, where one of them preaches to the other. Using a hammer as a daily tool, can may form our hand to a point where it has a perfect grip on the hammer.
    I fail to see how delusional thinking have to do with evolution. Religion gather people as a group and as a group people can achieve a lot for themselves. But that’s it! Even atheists can do that, so there is nothing special about that. One can ask oneself, what the chances are for a true religious person(praying being the weapon) against a hungry African lion.
    I am an Atheist and one of the reasons I don’t support religion in any form is that I don’t support the possibility of creating deluded individuals of otherwise mentally healthy people.
    “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
    Deluded people are not very adaptable to change, so one could say that in an evolutionary sense, religion is a natural way of mass-suicide.
    Try look at the sociological and psychological patterns og behavior, and tell me that those that are religious of origin never have had a destructive result in one way or another.
    I think we should be very careful about defending religion, before we for sure know that it is not a threat to life in general.

    Peter Holmgren, Cognitive Psychologist

    • Jim Sexton says:

      Peter Holmgren in his reply says:

      “I fail to see how concepts, like religion, can be an effective part of evolution.”


      “I fail to see how delusional thinking have to do with evolution.”


      “Deluded people are not very adaptable to change, so one could say that in an evolutionary sense, religion is a natural way of mass-suicide.”

      I think maybe he would benefit from re-reading David Sloan Wilson’s article above. For starters, assuming that a religion is equal to its dogmatic conceptual content is just that: AN ASSUMPTION.

      The same goes for equating religion with delusional thinking. It is an assumption.

      And similarly for claiming that deluded people are not very adaptable to change. I mean, that sounds plausible, but where is the evidence for that? Where is the leg-work, to use Mr. Wilson’s phrase?

      To study something, you must first know WHAT IT IS, and this is not done by simple fiat definition. In a scientific method, it must be done via careful observation and research. William James, when he wanted to study religion, actually did this, and even pointed out the importance of the inner state, the subjective part, of religion and religious experience.

      Anyone can have a “pet theory” of religion–as Dawkins does–but a pet theory is not a scientific theory. It is armchair theorizing.

      If you define “religion” to be conceptual, deluded, dogmatic belief in a supernatural agent or agents, then you will most certainly come to a different view of religion than someone who includes in the term “religion” the many other elements that it actually DOES contain.

      To name just one single counter example, many forms of Buddhism fall totally outside Dawkins’ definition of “religion”. Yet, no matter, just sweep that under the rug. Religion = superstition. End of story. Now just damn all religion wholesale! It’s easy.

      But it is NOT scientific. I was astounded at the wild speculation after wild speculation all piled together to form Dawkins’ explanation for the origin of religion. THIS is from a “scientist” I wondered?

      Thankfully there are people such as David Sloan Wilson who actually care about evidence and demonstration and scientific method. Dawkins seems to be immune to criticism from his atheistic peers. The fact that so many people have said to him “I’m an atheist, but . . .” doesn’t give him any pause, but only creates even more enemies he can disagree with. He talks about how people need to be able to critique religion without stigma–we need to be able to talk about it critically. I agree. But he can’t seem to accept criticism even from his colleagues like Michael Ruse or Steven J. Gould. Any who veer from the true atheistic faith are cast out. Or can’t mean what they say–not really. Dawkins has only one truth in regard to religion: it is a virus and a delusion. And this truth informs and organizes everything else.

      But this is the very reverse of scientific method, and is already being shown up for what it is by truly scientific research into the evolutionary study of religion.

      • Matt Sullivan says:

        “To name just one single counter example, many forms of Buddhism fall totally outside Dawkins’ definition of “religion”. Yet, no matter, just sweep that under the rug. Religion = superstition. End of story. Now just damn all religion wholesale! It’s easy.”

        You yourself made an assumption just before writing this, in that by “religion” Dawkins means all religions. Dawkins is referring to ‘theistic’ religions, which of course Buddhism is not. That’s not to say that these atheistic religions can’t be ‘deluded’ either, but it becomes necessary to note the difference, hence why some are “swept under the rug” as you put it.

  2. Stone says:

    I find David Sloan Wilson’s reflections here entirely brilliant. This is one of the most thrilling pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and I find his arguments thoroughly convincing. I freely admit I am strictly a layman in this field, but Wilson’s thoughts here have emboldened me to present an admittedly overlong sequence of “snapshots” of my own thoughts on many of these questions over the course of this past decade. While these “snapshots” reflect a change in my own thinking from total atheist to guarded, or provisional, theist (the parameters of which hopefully emerge in the course of my extended remarks), I hope readers will focus primarily on the dynamics behind the inceptions of many a theistic creed and how those dynamics might shed light on Mr. Wilson’s main points.

    The easiest way for me to address all this is to be autobiographical. As an atheist for most of my adult life, an intense amount of reading up on the history of social reformers generally persuaded me in my ’40s and ’50s that something very similar to deity was more probable than not after all. I still do not now view the reality of deity as certain, though, which is why I stick with “probable” instead. Also, history’s paper trail does not suggest to me that this deity phenomenon has all the attributes commonly ascribed to it in many, though not all, religions. For instance, although I tend to the assumption that deity may possibly be omniscient, I still don’t believe it’s omnipotent. That is, it may know all that goes on, but I do not credit the notion that it either micromanages or can micromanage a single thing. Also, I doubt that there is any kind of afterlife; and I have definitely not arrived at my general conclusions as to the likelihood, if not certainty, of deity through anything like faith. I’m not aware of ever having had such a “sensation” at all, in fact, and am generally uninterested in nebulous impressions of that kind. Reading and sifting many and varied accounts throughout history is more my speed.

    What I’ll supply here is long, no question, and if Mr. Wilson and the other readers here have neither the patience nor the time to slog through this, I’ll quite understand. What I’m enclosing here are two different snapshots of two ways of thinking about what I’ve read, with certain portions of various reflections that unquestionably overlap. But they illustrate reasonably clearly (I hope) what changed this atheist into a believer — of sorts. I sometimes doubt that many a traditional orthodox believer in any known religion of today would even view me as a real believer at all. But I can say that I now feel that there is some kind of ever-present entity that, at the very least, inspires some people in a tangible way and abides with them from the cradle to the grave in some dimension outside of the three dimensions plus time that we all know as concrete.

    Even more importantly, though, whatever the reality, or lack of same, behind many a religion, its social utility, and therefore its evolutionary utility re the strengthening of human community, assumes overriding importance in these reflections, as they do in Mr. Wilson’s.

    Here’s “Snapshot no. 1”, written from the perspective of my erstwhile atheism —


    This post involves, among 101 other things, an implicit query related to pioneers across the eons: Which pioneers have functioned as both “socially evolutionary” and as “Original”s? I’ll explain what I mean by these terms in more detail as we proceed. But I’ve decided to provide here two different lists first, showing a contrast that has bothered me considerably through the years. I may have already referred to this contrast in very general terms in other posts, but it’s time now to put some flesh and bones on that contrast, so others can judge its significance for themselves.

    So here we go:

    The first of the two lists shows many path-breaking and entirely original spins on social/cultural ethics that have emerged from founding pioneers who have, in the process, founded new and countercultural (for their time) theistic creeds as well, along with their _contextually evolutionary_ moral values —

    (values that, as we’ll see, have little to do with so-called “sin”, really [ultimately, a red herring anyway, and fostered more by followers obsessed with exceptionalism than by the initial pioneers]) —

    those initial pioneering moral values from the initial founders consisting primarily of salutary puncturing of socially thoughtless attitudes denying the humanity of all social misfits. These thoughtless attitudes are replaced by these pioneers with a constructive sense of responsibility for all without exception instead (“I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine”). All well and good, but why must the most far-reaching and original spinners on such social responsibility always drag in some brand new (and countercultural and initially nonconformist) theistic creed along with their independent social conscience?

    Whatever each pioneer’s individual faults — and a few of them certainly have their individual personal flaws, no question — each one has shown clear originality for their time and place and culture in that they introduce, without prior precedent

    1. the centrality of peace as the spine to all social values (Lugal-Shag-Egur of 3rd-century-B.C.E. Sumeria — but he also introduces the worship of a deity, Ningirsu, who’s conceived as a powerful god who safeguards all peace treaties)

    2. the establishment of protections for the treatment of the socially downscale and the introduction of the concept “freedom” (Urukagina, the Sumerian reformer — but he also reconceives Ningirsu as the safeguard of the widow and the orphan [the first known use of this turn of phrase], thus instituting a new form of worship)

    3. the notion that those who are afflicted and oppressed deserve the most respect and consideration of all (the writers of Exodus — but they also introduce the worship of a new god, Yahweh, who has “surely seen the affliction of my people .. and have heard their cry .. And I am come down to deliver them” — in contrast to all other gods of that period who safeguarded the mighty instead)

    4. the fundamental concept of Yin and Yang (the writer of the I Ching [thought by some to be a certain Wen Wang] — but this text also introduces something called “Tian” [loose translation: “Heaven”] as a metaphysical bulwark of all that is)

    5. the first conscientiously designed Constitution in the Western tradition, instituted as the Constitution of Orchomenus (Hesiod, nicknamed “hearth-founder” for his groundbreaking constitution — but he also introduces into literature the classic picture of the cosmos as conceived in ancient Greek tradition, with its pantheon of gods like Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and so on)

    6. the establishment of conventional wisdom as automatically suspect and the powerful’s use of the jackboot (so to speak) as intrinsically antithetical to all nature (the writer of the Tao-te-king, sometimes called Lao-Tzu — but this text also introduces a new form of worship, Taoism, which worships the Dao as [paraphrase] “the mystical source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things”)

    7. the utter repudiation of any and all violence whatsoever and a rejection of a caste system and of any system that imposes any types of discriminatory levels on the human family at all (the originator of the sermons in the Digha-Nikaya, usually taken to be Buddha — but these sermons also reconceive a new Brahma, a deity now free of anger, pure of mind, free of malice, without wealth and free of worldly cares, capable of union with and inspiration of a sequence of “messengers” who “regard all with mind set free, and deep-felt pity, … sympathy, … equanimity”)

    8. the primacy of reining in the arrogance and violence of those in power, advocating a new-minted reciprocal and considerate reform in political life instead, thus shaping the extraordinarily peaceful and stable culture of the Han dynasty (Confucius — but he also introduced the concept that all moral strength comes ultimately from “Tian”, a new wrinkle on the “Tian” of the I Ching)

    9. ethics itself as the most important element in humanity’s existence together with a claimed capacity for anyone, from freeman to slave, to grasp it and master it better through continually sharpening self-knowledge (Socrates — but he also introduced his conviction that he could sometimes hear God’s own voice, when being dissuaded from a course of action that would not be right)

    10. service to all and living purely for others, even loving one’s enemies, in expectation of the last being first and the first last (the writers of the various Gospels, Scriptural and non-Scriptural, in describing Jesus of Nazareth — but these texts also introduce a new Yahweh, who is merciful and loving, yes, but worship of whom is still yet another form of theistic creed)

    11. the primacy of negotiating peace with one’s enemies on their own turf, going in unarmed at great personal risk, just in order to construct a peaceful existence for all peoples in the region, and the instituting of an automatic gift to the poor from all citizens (Mohammed, a reformed raider — but he also introduces a new god, Allah, who must be worshiped five times a day) and

    12. a nuts-and-bolts path to total world peace in our modern world, and the first conception, within a combined political/theological context, of our globe as a single village long before other politicians ever took up this idea (Bahá’u’lláh — but he also re-introduces the modern world to a then-new conception of deity as the inspirer of a sequence of “messengers”, and therefore worthy of a new form of worship, Bahai).

    That’s one list. Here’s the other:

    This list starts off with certain genuinely upright and courageous nonbelievers throughout history that historians rarely talk about —

    A) Mathias Knutzen, who described himself as the first “Conscientist” in a series of path-breaking pamphlets published in Central Europe in the 1670s:

    ‘We declare that God does not exist, we deeply despise the authorities and also reject the churches with all their priests. For us Conscientists the knowledge of a single person is insufficient, only that of the majority is sufficient, as in Luke, 24,39: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me and see for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (because a single person cannot see everything) and the conscience in combination with the knowledge. And this, the conscience, which the generous Mother Nature has given to all humans, replaces for us the bible — compare Romans, 2, 14-15: (14)”For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:” (15)”Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” — and the authorities; it is the true judge, as Gregory of Nazianzus testifies (“On his Father’s Silence, Because of the Plague of Hail,” paragraph 5: “Under what circumstances again is the righteous, when unfortunate, possibly being put to the test, or, when prosperous, being observed, to see if he be poor in mind or not very far superior to visible things, as indeed conscience, our interior and unerring tribunal, tells us”), and is valid for us instead of the priests, because this teacher teaches us to harm nobody, to live in honor and to give everybody what is his. When we fail to do this, I maintain, as this life is for us the only one we have, our entire life will seem like a host of plagues, even as a hell. If, however, we behave in a just manner, it will be like heaven. This, i.e. the conscience, comes into existence with our birth, and it also dies when we pass into death. These are the principles that are innate in us, and whoever rejects them, rejects himself.’

    When we research these ethical principles of his — and their nub is, and actually presented in italics in the original German, “to harm nobody, to live in honor and to give everybody what is his” — we find that Knutzen, in setting this off in italics, is adopting another’s code that he sincerely admires rather than conceptualizing an original groundbreaking one of his own. He is borrowing here from the ancient Roman jurist Ulpian, a polytheist whose writings formed the backbone of the Justinian code.

    B) Going back to the ancient Greeks, we have Democritus who urged that everyone be engaged in public service. Admirable sentiment, of course. The “asterisk” here is that this time it is his nonbelief that is not original with him, since he was an avid student of and proselytizer for Leukippos, the ingenious elder pioneer of the ancient Greek Atomist school, the first school to recognize that all life is composed of atoms. At the same time, it is clear from what little we have of Leukippos’s own voice that he himself was solely engaged in the close study of what many term purely as physics, with social justice and philosophy never an abiding interest. In fact, Epicurus appears to have remarked that Leukippos was no philosopher.

    C) A century or so later, there is Theodorus, who is, unlike Democritus, an “autonomous” atheist, with no mentor or peer group behind him, and hence a true “Original” in that respect, and also a reasonable socially responsible philosopher. His brand of philosophical hedonism, though, partakes partly of Epicurus’s more thoughtful spin on hedonism and more directly of Aristippus’s mild hedonism, the latter having pioneered the Cyrenaic school. Again, then, we have someone who is not entirely an “Original”, this time adopting, albeit sincerely, others’ ethical tenets.

    D) Then there is Stratton, another upright original atheist, seemingly uninfluenced by forebears like Theodorus and/or Democritus and/or Leukippos. His (sincere) ethics, though, constitute a wholehearted adoption of the Socratic model.

    E) In the C.E., there is even a genuine martyr of freethought, Vanini. His tongue was amputated and he was strangled and burned at the stake. On his way to this ghastly ordeal, he stated he wished to die “en philosophe” — with equanimity. He was an avid student of Aristotle, whose concept of the Good Life had deeply impressed this brave nonbeliever. At the same time, where Aristotle states that the Good Life resides ultimately in contemplation, Vanini had enthusiastically adopted the then-new variation on that construct, promulgated by a thinker of his own time whom he adopted as his more immediate model, Pomponazzi. Pomponazzi may be the first to advance the notion that all religions contain a kernel of the truth, but Vanini, a nonbeliever, probably had little interest in that. What he did adopt enthusiastically from Pomponazzi — and lived and died by — was Pomponazzi’s variation on Aristotle: Instead of the Good Life residing ultimately in contemplation, Pomponazzi stated that the Good Life resides ultimately in moral action. Vanini was courageous but not an “Original” in holding fast to this formulation at his very last hour.

    Will there be, at some point in future history, a figure like one of these, who is just as much a moral model as one of these, but also at the same time an answer in autonomous “original”ity to the 12 cases of pioneering countercultural theisms cited further up. None of these nonbelievers cited here have that double “original”ity, both of creed and of ethics, that the 12 theist groundbreakers (above) have. They’re either “original” in one respect or the other but never both, unlike the first list.

    So far — and I’ve beaten my head against a wall on this, researching this to a fare-thee-well, so I feel fairly confident in saying this — no one of this nonbeliever description has been an “Original” in both respects. The question is, Will such a transforming nonbeliever figure who can “evolve” our species come along before humanity extinguishes itself in some ghastly conflagration brought on by religious strife? So far, only total “Original”s have brought cultures back from the sociopathic brink in the past (and all of them counterculturalists in their respective theisms rather than their atheisms), with those dedicated nonbeliever advocates who dot the landscape with some already-mooted ideas being merely consigned to “big yawn” status (like the ethically impeccable but ineffective Vanini).

    Of course, it is not a case of there being all that few nonbelievers in every age. There are a number, if you know where to look and what to read (encyclopedias are generally a waste of time). The thing is, they have not seized everyone’s imagination in the same decisive way — yet. And I think that can be traced to the fact that we have not had a total “Original” among those who are indeed morally perceptive — yet.

    F) The very earliest (known) pioneering nonbeliever was a signal failure in terms of any new culture arising out of his example, even though he certainly had both an entirely original creed and entirely original “ethics”, unlike those unbelievers cited above. But when one studies what he said, it’s not hard to see why his example failed to gain a significant shelf life, although he did have a few adherents for about a century or so (a mere blip in human history). He was the ancient Indian thinker Brhaspati (not to be confused with other figures named Brhaspati in ancient Indian culture), the pioneer of the ancient Indian Lokayata school of philosophy. Here’s some bits of what he said:

    “There is neither god nor liberation” [i.e., an afterlife]. “Moreover, earth, water, fire and air are the four forms of matter. The only valid form of knowledge is the one produced by the senses.” “There is no world other than this; there is no heaven and no hell; the realm of Siva and like regions are invented by stupid impostors of other schools of thought.”

    “There is no heaven, no final liberation,
    nor any soul in another world,
    Nor do the actions of the four castes,
    orders, or priesthoods produce any real effect.”

    And his “ethics”?

    “Merit and demerit also do not exist.” “The pleasure that is produced in a person due to the obtainment of the desired and the avoidance of the undesired is useless.” “gifts of gold and land, the pleasure of invitations to dinner, are devised by indigent people with stomachs lean with hunger.
    “The building of temples, houses for water-supply, tanks, wells, resting places, and the like, please only travelers, not others” [OUCH! So much for social responsibility].

    “While life remains, let a man live happily,
    let him feed on melted ghee [an extremely expensive and fattening butter] though he runs in debt”.

    It’s always struck me that here, and not in Brhaspati’s avowal of total unbelief, we have the reason why he failed to capture a whole culture’s imagination (despite his number of adherents for a century or so). Most people just like to think of themselves as caring and compassionate, whether or not they really are, and when a philosophy fails to address the needs of others in ways that presuppose that everyone hearing them is naturally as upright as the day is long (;-), such philosophies eventually get tuned out, as happened to Brhaspati. His example (as the earliest known atheist) may even have done incalculable damage to the cause of atheism for centuries, if not millennia. The “ethics” may simply have turned too many people off.

    All this does not gainsay the fact that sociopathic philosophies can still exert a hold of sorts if advanced with enough charisma and cunning. But they don’t tend to transform whole cultures for more than a couple of centuries, at most. Those “ethics” that have longer influence than that are, sooner or later, the more stable ones that effectively include greater numbers within the “social compact”. Inclusiveness just yields greater long-term stability. Yes, there can be appalling suffering so long as a sociopathic philosophy prevails. And it can last for as long as two or three lifetimes. But it is ultimately self-destructive and unstable through its very cruelty.

    Brhaspati’s (relatively) poor reception may be an object lesson for today. If anyone wants to be respected as proselytizing atheists, they may have to advance a clearly responsible and universally caring ethical/social/cultural code (a la the 12 theist paradigms cited at the top here), or the underlying idea — in this case, atheism — may have a hard journey indeed. It could even be that latter-day nonbelieving “self-centered-ists” like Rand and Nietzsche (and Hobbes, to an extent) have done just as much long-term damage to atheists as Brhaspati may have, due precisely to the same lack of a caring ethic.

    That concludes the second list.

    Someone once asked me ironically —

    “So, the “good” influence of religion lies in its tendency to make people follow leaders, and if the leaders happen to be good, then religion has had a good influence?” —

    with the ironic subtext that religion is the best way to make people follow some perfectly awful pioneers as well.

    I would respond that while “Original” plus sociopathic can make a devastating cultural impact, that which is both “original” and altruistic tends to have a longer and stronger influence. Unfortunately, that which is originally altruistic has to apparently be presented in an entirely new and original package as well in order to establish any foothold inside any culture. That’s what history seems to teach us anyway. So far, any such successful original packages have been exclusively theistic, although counterculturally so. That shows that religion, provided it’s a new counter-cultural religion, has been the only effective carrier of such good — and original — ethical ideas — thus far. Unfortunately, it has been an effective carrier of some pretty noxious ideas as well ……………

    Now, is religion — a new countercultural religion, that is — the only package in which good — and “original” — ethical ideas can take strong root in a culture on the brink of sociopathic collapse? That’s the million-dollar question. Fact is, we don’t know the answer for sure. It would obviously be important if an atheist as thoroughly original (for his immediate culture) as Brhaspati could fire the imaginations of enough people to jump-start more environmentally and socially responsible habits on a global scale today. But that would need a much more socially responsible social ethic than the apparently disreputable Brhaspati could muster up in himself almost three thousand years ago.

    Is there a possibility that our brains are actually wired in such a way so that we (the majority of us, that is) only respond as a culture or a whole species to ideas that are both good/original when, and only when, they are also “clothed” in new counter-cultural theisms? Is religion then somehow a neccessary evolutionary building block of some sort for human community? It is these thoughts that are teasing me now, and I wonder if any up-to-date evolutionary specialists may eventually address this question. [FROM TODAY: I am delighted to see Mr. Wilson doing precisely this in the above article!]

    One can’t help wondering, What would have happened to ancient India had Brhaspati coupled his pioneering nonbelief with an ethical code a century ahead of Buddha’s (he came approx. a century ahead of Buddha) in its all-embracing sense of social responsibility and caring? Would Brhaspati’s ideas have still ended up in the same obscure circular file they’re in today, or would his ideas have then transformed much of Asia into a region eventually free of religion altogether? The only region of the world like that? If we knew the answer to that question, we would know if the majority of our brains invariably require some form of ever-new religion (that is, necessarily counter-cultural) in order to also “take in” good/”original” ethics that periodically save us from the full horrors of sociopathic apathy, or if they can also “take in” such good/”original” ethics in some other creedal package instead, including nonbelief, provided that that package is just as soundly “original” and autonomous from its immediate culture as would be the “original”/good ethics confronting such a doomed culture in the first place under this scenario.

    That concludes “Snapshot no. 1”. Now here’s “Snapshot no. 2” written from the standpoint of having concluded that some kind of deity is more likely than not —


    As an atheist for most of my life, I never had any difficulty accepting that evolution has been shown as scientifically verifiable and that Genesis remains strictly a myth. Today, I would have no quarrel with any part of that conclusion at all. Consequently, for me, the dynamics of speciation within evolution and of individual fitness development for individual species are central to any understanding of what makes humanity tick.

    In my 30s and 40s, I became fascinated with, and a compulsive reader of, any and all written treatments of and on the various ways in which individual species manage to thrive and grow stronger and more fit in a variety of ways. And I began to be intrigued by the various steps through which humanity had managed to thrive and adapt in its behavior sufficiently to develop the kind of close cohesion within certain communities that we see today.

    To begin with, I’d guess that moral/ethical codes are an inevitable development for any species dependent on socialization of any kind, the way humanity clearly is. That guess alone got me interested in turn in all countercultural manifestations throughout the ages of socially frowned on expressions of solidarity with the helpless and the left out.

    At the same time, it’s basically a chicken/egg problem to me, I guess: When I studied history as an adult non-believer, I approached it pretty much as a natural phenomenon akin to something described in any modern primer on evolution. Since I’ve never bought into the presumed dichotomy of nature versus civilization — primarily since our civilizations seem to me an expression of our nature anyway — I’ve always viewed all of our ethical values as contingent responses at discrete levels of our natural development. This became a chicken/egg problem to me because when reading up on history as a non-believer it struck me forcefully that the natural processes by which the earliest ethical codes expressing solidarity with the vulnerable have come about inevitably seem to entail some particular individual’s expressed awareness — hallucinatory or not — of some new and deeply personal and visceral sense of deity as well, usually a countercultural and risky “spin” on deity at that, personally dangerous to the given individual in her/his particular culture at the time.

    So it’s a chicken/egg problem because often it’s impossible to tell if the “hallucination” of a deity inspires the new ethical code or the new ethical code inspires some newly minted “spin”/”hallucination” of a deity. Certainly, at the least, there often seems to be an oddly symbiotic relationship between the two.

    Yet before jumping to any conclusions on this, I got keenly interested in the history of the opposite side of the coin: the pioneering self-centered philosophies instead. Recent evolutionary studies like those from Edward O. Wilson and others seem to show that when certain species whose daily existence depends heavily on socialization subsequently develop a support system that regularly looks out for the more helpless among them, that species tends to thrive better than those that stall at a discrete point due primarily to individually selfish behavioral patterns that are ultimately a species’ undoing (in many cases). If modern evolutionary studies from Ed Wilson et al reveal self-centered behavioral patterns as being ultimately self-destructive to their species — as indeed they do — then what exactly make similar self-centered philosophies in humanity’s own history tick? Why do they arise? How do they arise?

    Most importantly, what is the earliest (extant) example of an unequivocal self-centered philosophy overtly deaf to any claim on society by the more helpless among us? That question can be answered. It is the ancient Lokayata philosophy in ancient India, ca. the 7th century B.C.E. No earlier such philosophy can be traced. There may have been some earlier such philosophies, but this is the earliest for which we have any info. This philosophy claims, first of all, that resting places and watering holes for travelers are a waste of time and designed only for people who, being indigent, are therefore of no value. It also decries the notion of general dining invitations to people in the neighborhood, decrying these precisely because they are ultimately of benefit to the indigent only while inconveniencing those of greater substance and therefore of greater worth. Instead, it should be the interests of oneself only that guides individual behavior. Here is the earliest direct quote of the founder of Lokayata, Brhaspati:

    “Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings; gifts of gold and land, the pleasure of invitations to dinner, are devised by indigent people with stomachs lean with hunger.
    “The building of temples, houses for water-supply, tanks, wells, resting places, and the like, please only travelers, not others.
    “The Agnihotra ritual, the three Vedas, the triple staff, the ash-smearing, are the ways of gaining a livelihood for those who are lacking in intellect and energy.”

    Now, an odd coincidence here: Lokayata is not only the earliest overtly self-centered philosophy extant. It is also the earliest extant overtly atheist philosophy as well. Ascertaining the latter gave me, as an atheist, a bit of a shock, I can tell you. At the same time, I still think it very likely that certain primitive theistic assumptions (addressing the how and/or the why of the intricate ways of this universe) should still be viewed with some wariness today. And I have to say that I also view warily certain primitive concepts of deity itself that still prevail today as well. But the behavioral tendencies of those countercultural figures throughout time who feel a visceral sense of deity around them (such as Buddha et al) and link this with a pioneering “spin” on altruism, versus those tendencies of those who counterculturally articulate both self-centeredness and nonbelief as a linked philosophy, certainly make one wonder which philosophies are more conducive to a thriving and evolving human community, as described by Ed Wilson et al.

    This accorded with a general pattern for all the pioneers in non-belief down the centuries. Lokayata is not alone in advocating a self-centered way of life instead of a caring one. The earliest extant overt articulation of atheism in ancient Greek literature comes from Critias, who was the ruthless leader of the Thirty Tyrants at the end of the Pelopenesian(sp.?) War, at the end of the 5th century B.C.E. The earliest overt expression of atheism in Enlightenment France comes from the early 1700s, from Jean Meslier, who linked his posthumously issued atheism with a call to brain everyone who disagreed with him, and a wish that every noblemen might be strangled with the ripped-out guts of every remaining priest (evidently a believer in collective punishment……..)

    I was thus disappointed to find that, although there have been plenty of atheist social reformers of great altruism — one thinks of humanitarians like Bertrand Russell, or Mr. Ingersoll, or Baron Holbach — there does not seem to be a single such altruist who actually introduced both her/his new atheism and her/his own pioneering ethical code at the same time — symbiotically — and whose twin introduction of same resulted in a “fast-tracked” cultural impact on everyone around her/him. This contrasts with the picture for countercultural theist altruists.

    Now, within the four corners of this phenomenon, the strict historical approach would be to ascertain which factor is the variable that causes such a pattern to obtain for one group (countercultural theists) and not the other (countercultural atheists)? If this evolving process for ethical codes comes from nature itself, and I would guess that it does for precisely the reasons provided by Ed Wilson et al, then how can the “hallucination” process of deity from specific — (?)highly attuned(?) — counterculturalists not come from the same thing, nature? — particularly since it so frequently has this symbiotic relationship with ethical evolution? Of course, ascribing the “hallucination” of deity to the general nature of our species still doesn’t automatically make deity real. It just makes the “hallucination” natural and inevitable, which says nothing about its reality. But since the practical value of evolving ethical codes seem all too real and urgent to me, not an illusion at all but an urgent reality without which our species would eventually sink into anarchy, I have to ask why an individual direct deity “hallucination” isn’t also reality-based after all, given the (apparent) symbiotic relationship between the two — “hallucination” of deity and insightful countercultural ethics — throughout history.

    If someone could uncover a peer-bucking atheist who introduced her/his atheism out of whole cloth to her/his own culture and did so in tandem with a profound social reform of that culture of some kind, the apparent monopoly that countercultural theist “spinners” have on jump-starting this seemingly natural process of evolving ethical codes throughout history would be broken. There would then be no reason at all for explaining this “hallucinatory”(?) deity phenomenon among the most altruistic and impactful pioneers. I could simply drop this notion of deity as something real altogether. But right now, given the historic patterns I’ve observed, it would seem intellectually dishonest for me to ignore the possibility of deity entirely. Even the introducer of the first thoroughly atheistic philosophy in Western Europe of the second millennium C.E., Matthias Knutzen in the late 1670s, while his ethics happen to be quite other-centered, shapes the ethics of his philosophy around the injunctions of another, the Roman jurist, Ulpian, instead of arriving at a new “spin” on altruism of his own.

    I should add, BTW, that I don’t think I have any great emotional attachment to my newest conclusions that deity is (probably) real after all. If this described monopoly pattern were to be broken, I would then calmly conclude that I was originally correct to be an atheist. But right now, since it seems intellectually dishonest for me to stick with my erstwhile atheism, I won’t do that. At the same time, the most extensively documented figures who articulate new and deeply personal “spins” on deity and new “spins” on altruism symbiotically — Buddha, Socrates, Christ — are not agreed on an afterlife. So I still feel the jury is out on an afterlife, even though I now view deity itself as a probability and no longer a possibility.

    Clearly, atheists are just as likely to feel the call of the helpless on our conscience as are any believers. The question is not Are all atheists all-good or all-bad? In fact, they show the same mix of good and bad common to the rest of the human family. Instead, the question is, Where do humanitarians like Russell get their inspiration?

    The key point here is that the startups of pioneering countercultural expressions of atheism within many historic communities and cultures always seem linked with countercultural calls to unalloyed self-centeredness, and vice versa, while the startups of pioneering countercultural conceptions of deity within many historic communities and cultures always seem linked with countercultural calls to unalloyed altruism, and vice versa. These curious symbiotic relationships at the startups of creeds on either side of the divide appear to hold firm throughout history. It’s only later in the history of these creeds that positions sometimes get reversed: Hateful figures like Torquemada sometimes emerge who warp a theistic philosophy of caring into a savage orgy of blood, even as peaceful and humane figures like Holbach and Ingersoll similarly tend to emerge who then transform an initially callous atheistic philosophy bent only on self-satisfaction into a gentle warning that the people at large should eat something more than just cake……… (BTW, contrary to some assumptions, Robespierre, one of the most brutal of the French Revolution’s leaders, actually singled out atheists for the guillotine[!] along with the royalty and the nobility, being a devout believer himself — oh yes! — so it’s a canard that atheism was always at the back of the most brutal tendencies of the Fr. Rev. — unless one blames everything on Meslier, of course.)

    Since I view humanity today as staring down the barrel of “perfect storm” conditions for its imminent extinction within one or two generations at most, either through ecological collapse or WMDs run amok or something else even more horrific, it is imperative that all our available brain power be used in ascertaining as accurately as possible each and every comma of whatever was said or done by figures like Buddha, or Jesus — or Tolstoy, or Gandhi, or Mandela, etc. We must gain a proper understanding of how these ethical insights were arrived at in the first place. Knowing exactly what was said and understanding precisely the mainsprings behind what was said is more important than anything. Knowledge is power. And it took the writings of the sometimes skeptical Jesus Seminar researchers to make me see this, and it was my own historical research that made me see as well that deity might quite likely be behind such insights. For the first time in my life, I took Scripture seriously: at the least, it is one of humanity’s preserved written laboratories of altruism versus self-centeredness in a fearsome agon.

    So, when we have a closer knowledge of whatever facilitated a Buddha’s or a Christ’s transformative impact on a selfish culture, we’ll have a better knowledge of how we can trigger the better angels of our nature today without the jackboot (which is already a sell-out right there) and thus stave off the imminent extinction that not only seems highly likely today but — IMO — totally inevitable under current circumstances within many of our current lifetimes. Wherever the Seminar works of Borg or Crossan or others lead us, that can only be to the good. Wherever biological or chemical or general scientific research leads us, that can only be to the good —

    — . If such research leads us to the conclusion that something other than deity is at the back of these altruistic cultural reformers, then that’s fine. If it confirms my working conclusion that deity is the common denominator behind these altruistic cultural reformers, then that’s fine too. This question is worth pursuing today because we have no other choice. The selfishness and the smallness and the violence and the stubbornness of most world leaders today have left us with no choice. We have to pursue this kind of study, whether it be of Jesus or of Urukagina (the earliest known cultural reformer of all [in ancient Sumeria]), without fear or favor. Otherwise, we can kiss our grandchildren’s adulthood goodbye.

    Finally, putting all that aside, I would have to say that, while I’m no longer an atheist, and while I now accept a concept of deity, I don’t necessarily believe in deity as conceptualized in any one creed. If forced to choose, I feel more comfortable choosing particular individuals as models of ethical fitness rather than institutional creeds. And if forced to choose certain individuals, then I’d say that the most closely vetted individuals via modern secular scholarship who appear to have genuine interaction with deity of some kind, and whose ethics also seem to stand up to the strictest scrutiny, appear to be Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth (Christ). We probably come closer to the essence of deity by restricting ourselves to the earlest textual strata on these three figures specifically, courtesy of modern secular scholarship, than we do by adherence to any one creed.

    That concludes “Snapshot no. 2”. Again, I realize this is quite a mouthful, but I simply have not had time to adjust these two different sets of reflections written at different stages of my thinking — no time to adjust them into a single account that removes overlaps. Regrets for that.

    Thanks for slogging through all this!



    • Walter says:

      Freethinking is not the same as atheism, as you may well know. Vanini f.i. was a freethinker, but never denied the existence of a god. Greec philosophers didn’t deny the existence of the gods.

      • Stone says:

        Walter, you make a good point about Vanini. Thank you. As I said, both these “travelogues” of mine were written a while back, and it’s useful to have them adjusted from time to time. I think I’m comfortable with the idea of putting Vanini aside. The distinction you make between freethinkers and atheists is also useful.

        I believe you are correct that — SFAIK — a distinct number of prominent Greek thinkers and skeptics never explicitly state that no god or gods exist, not even Leukippos or Democritus, the materialist trailblazers for the Atomist school, if I’m not mistaken. They simply do not mention Zeus or any other traditional God concept, but that is clearly different from explicitly maintaining that any notion of such a thing as divinity is purely delusional.

        OTOH, two ancient Greek thinkers do explicitly state that no god or gods exist, Diagoras and Critias. In the case of Diagoras, we only have second-hand accounts. But for Critias, we do have his own words, preserved for us in Sextus Empiricus’s On The Physicists.



  3. Gershon says:

    Science is done by collecting factual evidence and building mechanistic “explaining” models based on it. We can have assumptions but we have to be prepared to ditch them based on new evidence. And we absolutely should not promote any theory based on assumptions not yet backed up by evidence as if it were a “scientific truth”. For example, we should not use an “observation” from a comedian instead of some measured data, right?

    It looks like Dawkins’s description of religion is not really scientific. What should we call it? Biased? Dogmatic? Theorizing without solid evidence?

  4. Cam9976 says:

    This really pisses me off. Group selection was disproved a long time ago. Group behavior certainly does exist, but it emerges through the selection of genes. Reciprocal altruism and kin selection (the selection of genes in a given population that are spread throughout multiple individuals, because genes aren’t limited to individuals) can explain group behavior at all levels.

    It isn’t necessary to return to group selection just to try and explain difficult phenomenon like religion — that would be like trying to resurrect Lamarckism in order to explain the growth of muscles.

  5. Davis says:

    Why note look at animal models. Wolves live in packs. They cooperate to hunt in groups. They share their food. Older wolves will mind and protect the young. While, lower ranking wolves will submit and sacrifice for the higher ranking wolves. I guess wolf genes haven’t read Dawkins.

    Well, for most of human history, we’ve been hunters and gatherers who’ve lived in packs much like wolves. We as humans have developed a higher sense of awareness. When the primitive hunter saw a mountain range, he knew that there was land beyond. There were things in the world that he could not see but was aware were there. These mysteries included where the sun went at night, what happened to the dead, and if his pack was controlled by an alpha leader, maybe the world was too.

    So, religion may not the result of a malignant meme, but rather, the result of a social species evolving curiosity.

  6. L. E. Nielson says:

    Refreshing point of view. Couldn’t agree more with the assertions made about observing religion and ideology as the ‘animals’ that they are.

    The main difficulty is this:

    Ideology as Animal is far too abstract for many to grasp, especially for the adherents of a given ideology. Even scientists tend to think of this as a metaphor or an analogy, however it is best understood as fact.

    Instead of a microscope, we need a macro-scope.

    Upon reading Joseph Campbell’s “Myths To Live By” in 1998, I realized the following:

    1. Religions have promoted the ecological advancement of our species. They’re not ‘tools’, rather they are alive.

    2. Meme-systems are the ideological analogs of biological genes.

    3. Evolution is very present in groups, e.g. group-selection.

    4. Much like technological development advances across processing mediums, biology – along with its evolution – has done the same by advancing from the biological to the ideological medium. Ideology, (religion included) is a type of organism that has established itself in the ideological medium that exists because of mankind’s highly evolved brain and our ability to communicate ideas.

    5. This development is a natural – and obvious – progression of the evolutionary process.

    6. Ideology, (religion included) is to mankind as mankind is to symbiotic microbes etc. Therefore their ecological niche is codependent.

    I propose that the gulf between individual vs. group selection can by bridged by understanding that the meme-set that constitutes the ideology (group) IS the individual selector. Therefore the two approaches are not incompatible.

    What is the force that drives this?

    In a lay effort to express what drives this connection, I have developed the Power Equation:

    P = C/E

    Where: P stands for Power, C represents Control and E is Energy.

    It may be observed that the behavior of all living things represents the expression of this equation.

    I think if this as the Force of Nature.

    The Memetic Superorganism:

    In an effort to survive, all living things seek to maximize control over the resources (energy) within their environment. Ideologies are built upon biology and therefore exhibit the identical behavior in the form of what I term the Memetic Superorganism.

    Memetic Superorganisms are alive. They consume energy, grow, reproduce and produce waste. We need to study their evolution in the same manner as all other biological organisms.

    Meme-sets are the equivalent of genes. Ideology is a living extension of biology. It is the ultimate adaptation because of its evolutionary advantage – speed of mutation.

    The new species:

    Memetic Superorganisms are alive and in their many forms, we are their cells. Make the connection!

    More lay observations at


    L.E. Nielson

  7. Chinmay says:

    Dr. Wilson

    The God Delusion is not at all an attempt to discuss god or religion in evolutionary terms. It deals with the gravest philosophical problems about religion which we all, and especially scientists, should be aware of. Science owes a lot to philosophy and vice-versa, surely you don`t believe scientists should abstain from philosophical writings.
    Is it possible that someone is just trying to make a mark in the market by including titles with the name Dawkins in it.

    • Jrock says:

      Certainly scientists shouldn’t be precluded from philosophical writing. But if they are going to do such writing and include scientific evidence to support their argument, they should get their facts straight. Dr. Wilson pointed out the gross errors and over-generalizations that Dawkins made when invoking evolutionary biology to support his argument. Other web sites have torn apart Dawkins’ other philosophical claims (See here for one example:

      As Dr. Wilson stated, Dawkins doesn’t seem to be wrong about everything, but major premises of his book are questionable–questionable to the point in fact where one wonders if it isn’t perhaps intentionally misleading. Are you saying it is wrong to point out these errors simply because the book has sold a lot and made Dawkins famous?

  8. R. Tester says:

    I think one of the many failings of humans/human society in my lifetime at least, is overcomplication. I think the email of Stone’s is a good example.
    Religions are a device for the rich to get richer and the poor to be made poorer, maintenance of hierarchy; sustaining the power structure in society.
    One of the studies Jared Diamond was involved with comparing three Polynesian societies showed the Hawaiian(the most socially “complex”) had a highly hierarchical society with the top tier having connections to “god” (by definition “superhuman”). Sam Harris makes the point in “The end of faith” that the christian historical figure JC was altered to aquire these “superhuman” qualities (strengthening the hierarchical structure).
    Humans seem to be simultaneously worshipping idols aged from the ancient to the modern; gods and fire, royals/the rich and famous and cars, while being profoundly ignorant of the evolution of the cosmos and life on earth.

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