In the March Atlantic Monthly, a great letter by Justin L. Barrett of the Institute for Cognition and Culture in Belfast responds to a rather silly piece the publication ran back in December. (Unfortunately access to full text of these resources requires a subscription.)
The original article, "Is God an Accident?", by professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale, Paul Bloom, is a Darwinian up-dating of Freud's claim that religion is not true, but a psychologically determined behavior.1 In this case the author claims that religion is adaptive, that is, that it helps its adherents to survive the evolutionary struggle better than non-adherents. Unfortunately for the argument, the "debunking" of religion also debunks every other human belief, as Dr. Barrett argues, including the science on which the debunking is based (emphasis added):
To use science to attack religion in this way is misguided and ultimately undermines our confidence in science even more than our confidence in religion. If religious belief is only a byproduct of our naturally selected minds having produced no direct fitness benefits in our evolutionary past, so too are a host of scientific beliefs, including the belief in natural selection itself. This observation leads to an uncomfortable problem for the anti-theist. If our brains (and the thoughts they generate) have arisen only because of their ability to produce survival-related behaviors and not Truth, how can we trust them to tell us the truth about such matters as, say, natural selection? The anti-theist must construct an argument to justify trusting his or her own mind, which could be in the midst of producing “accidental” thoughts and beliefs while constructing the argument! Such an argument, too, must consider the huge psychological literature detailing how human minds systematically get things wrong—from visual perception to higher-order reasoning—apparently to assist in our survival.
Even embracing an evolutionary account of religion, the theist may skate through this epistemological train wreck by insisting that a deity has orchestrated evolution to produce minds that can be trusted to produce true beliefs (at least under certain conditions). Perhaps the deity fine-tuned the nature of the universe from its origin so that our minds—capable of truly knowing the deity—would be inevitable. Or perhaps the deity directed just the right “random” mutations that natural selection then chose, which eventually produced our minds so that they could know Truth.
The point is that the theist may choose to believe in a deity and evolutionary or cognitive scientific accounts of religion without a conflict. The anti-theist’s determination to undercut religious belief via evolution may force abandonment of science itself. If, as Bloom suggests, religion and science will always clash, the blame lies not on the theist but on the anti-theist.
Well, that about cuts the heart out of Bloom's argument.
An extended critique is redundant, but I do have to comment on one additional thing that irked me about the article: Bloom's claim that humans are naturally dualists (i.e., believe that our bodies and souls have independent existences). He invokes a series of examples to support this claim—but all of them are from the modern, post-Cartesian era (as if that were the extent of human history!). Of course he doesn't refer to biblical times in this section, because that would completely undermine his argument.
Despite these shortcomings I do not count Bloom's article a waste of glossy paper. He's sophisticated enough to open with an extended review of recent data showing the commonality of religion in the world. For example, Bloom observes that scientists are only slightly less religious than other folks:
About 40 percent of scientists said yes to a belief in this kind of [personal, biblical] God—about the same percentage found in a similar poll in 1916. Only when we look at the most elite scientists—members of the National Academy of Sciences—do we find a strong majority of atheists and agnostics.
If the silly secularist bulk of the article sweetens it enough to coax liberals out of their mirrored rooms long enough to consider the rest of the world's point of view, then the article certainly has some worth.2
1. Paul Vitz turns Freud's argument on its head (pile-driver?) in his Faith of the Fatherless.
2. The great thing about The Atlantic is that it always tries to position itself in the middle, which allows for an interchange of ideas between disparate political factions. Plus, since only the dead (many are active Democratic voters) have any reasonable excuse for missing the country's turn away from the left, the publication currently serves the function of reconciling liberals to reality. Take for example, "Letting Go of Roe."
Paul Bloom, "Is God an Accident?", The Atlantic Monthly (December 2005).
Justin L. Barrett, letter to the editor, The Atlantic Monthly (March 2006), 18.