"Why religion is winning
By Dinesh D'Souza
November 11, 2007
The vigorous, the healthy and the happy survive and multiply.
– Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
Religion continues to grow worldwide, and atheists in America and the West are having a difficult time explaining why. These nonbelievers, most of them Darwinists, are convinced there must be some biological explanation for why, in every culture since the beginning of history, man has found and continues to find solace in religion. Biologist Richard Dawkins confesses that religion poses a “major puzzle to anyone who thinks in a Darwinian way.”
Here, from the evolutionary point of view, is the problem. Scholars such as anthropologist Scott Atran presume that religious beliefs are nothing more than illusions. Atran contends that religious belief requires taking “what is materially false to be true” and “what is materially true to be false.” For Atran and others, religion requires a commitment to “factually impossible worlds.” The question, then, is why would humans evolve in such a way that they come to believe in things that don't exist?
Philosopher Daniel Dennett states the problem clearly: “The ultimate measure of evolutionary value is fitness – the capacity to replicate more successfully than the competition does.” Yet on the face of it religion seems useless from an evolutionary point of view. It costs time and money, and it induces its members to make sacrifices that undermine their well-being for the benefit of others, sometimes total strangers.
Religious people build cathedrals and pyramids that have very little utility except as houses of worship and burial. The ancient Hebrews sacrificed their fattest calves to Yahweh, and even today people slaughter goats and chickens on altars. Religious people sometimes forgo certain foods; the cow is holy to the Hindus, and the pig unholy to the Muslims. Christians give tithes and financial offerings in church. The Jews keep holy the Sabbath, as Christians keep Sunday for church. Religious people recite prayers and go on pilgrimages. Some become missionaries or devote their lives to serving others. Some are even willing to die for their religious beliefs.
A critical question
The evolutionary biologist wonders: Why would evolved creatures like human beings bent on survival and reproduction do things that seem unrelated, even inimical, to those objectives? This is a critical question, not only because religion poses an intellectual dilemma for Darwinists, but also because Darwinists are hoping that by explaining the existence of religion they can expose its natural roots and undermine its supernatural authority. Biologist E.O. Wilson writes that “we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences.” He expresses the hope that sometime soon “the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon.”
So how far have these evolutionary theories progressed in accounting for the success of religion? In “The God Delusion” Dawkins writes, “The proximate cause of religion might be hyperactivity in a particular node of the brain.” He also speculates that “the idea of immortality survives and spreads because it caters to wishful thinking.” But it makes no evolutionary sense for minds to develop comforting beliefs that are evidently false. Explains cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker: “A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he is warm. A person face to face with a lion is not put at ease by the conviction that he is a rabbit.” Wishful thinking of this sort would quickly have become extinct as its practitioners froze or were eaten.
Yet Pinker's own solution to the problem is no better than that of Dawkins. He suggests there might be a “God module” in the brain that predisposes people to believe in the Almighty. Such a module, Pinker writes, might serve no survival purpose but could have evolved as a byproduct of other modules with evolutionary value. This is another way of saying there is no Darwinian explanation. After all, if a “God module” produces belief in God, how about a “Darwin module” that produces belief in evolution?
Still, the question raised by the Darwinists is not a foolish one. Biologists such as Dawkins and Wilson say there simply must be some natural and evolutionary explanation for the universality and persistence of religious belief, and they are right. There is such an explanation, and as a religious believer I am happy to provide one.
Two creation stories
The Rev. Randy Alcorn, founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries in Oregon, sometimes presents his audiences with two creation stories and asks them whether it matters which one is true. In the secular account, “You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach three-and-a-half-billion years ago. You are the blind and arbitrary product of time, chance and natural forces. You are a mere grab-bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You are a purely biological entity, different only in degree but not in kind from a microbe, virus or amoeba. You have no essence beyond your body, and at death you will cease to exist entirely. In short, you came from nothing and are going nowhere.”
In the Christian view, by contrast, “You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are created in his image, with capacities to think, feel and worship that set you above all other life forms. You differ from the animals not simply in degree but in kind. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that he has a perfect plan for your life. In addition, God gave the life of his only Son that you might spend eternity with him. If you are willing to accept the gift of salvation, you can become a child of God.”
Now imagine two groups of people – let's call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe – who subscribe to these two world views. Which of the two tribes is more likely to survive, prosper and multiply? The Religious Tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The Secular Tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all. The Religious Tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The Secular Tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.
Should evolutionists such as Dennett, Dawkins, Pinker and Wilson be surprised, then, to see that religious tribes are flourishing? Throughout the world, religious groups attract astounding numbers of followers and religious people are showing their confidence in their way of life and in the future by having more children. Despite the sales figures of atheist best-sellers, atheism remains a minority lifestyle and the largest atheist organizations have only a few thousand members.
The important point is not just that atheism is unable to compete with religion in attracting followers, but also that the lifestyle of practical atheism seems to produce listless tribes that cannot even reproduce themselves. Sociologists Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart note that many richer, more secular countries are “producing only about half as many children as would be needed to replace the adult population” while many poorer, more religious countries are “producing two or three times as many children as would be needed to replace the adult population.” The consequence, so predictable that one might almost call it a law, is that “the religious population is growing fast, while the secular number is shrinking.”
Country by country
Russia is one of the most atheist countries in the world and abortions there out-number live births by a 2-to-1 ratio. Russia's birthrate has fallen so low that the nation is now losing 700,000 people a year. Japan, perhaps the most secular country in Asia, is also on a kind of population diet: its 130 million people are expected to drop to around 100 million in the next few decades. Canada, Australia and New Zealand find themselves in a similar predicament.
Then there is Europe. The most secular continent on the globe is decadent in the quite literal sense that its population is rapidly shrinking. Birthrates are abysmally low in France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic and Sweden. The nations of Western Europe today show some of the lowest birthrates ever recorded, and Eastern European birthrates are comparably low. Historians have noted that Europe is suffering the most sustained reduction in its population since the Black Death in the 14th century, when one in three Europeans succumbed to the plague. Lacking the strong religious identity that once characterized Christendom, atheist Europe seems to be a civilization on its way out. The philosopher Nietzsche predicted that European decadence would produce a miserable “last man” devoid of any purpose beyond making life comfortable and making provision for regular fornication. Well, Nietzsche's “last man” is finally here, and his name is Sven.
Eric Kaufmann has noted that in America, where high levels of immigration have helped to compensate for falling native birthrates, birthrates among religious people are nearly twice as high as those for secular people. This trend has also been noticed in Europe. What this means is that, by a kind of natural selection, the West is likely to evolve in a more religious direction.
This tendency will likely accelerate if Western societies continue to import immigrants from more religious societies, whether they are Christian or Muslim. Thus we can expect even the most secular regions of the world, through the sheer logic of demography, to become less secular over time.
In previous decades, scholars have tried to give a purely economic explanation for demographic trends. The general idea was that population was a function of affluence. Sociologists noted that as people and countries became richer, they had fewer children. Presumably, primitive societies needed children to help in the fields, and more prosperous societies no longer did. Poor people were also believed to have more children because sex provided one of their only means of recreation. Moreover, poor people are often ignorant about birth control or don't have access to it. From this perspective, large families were explained as a phenomenon of poverty and ignorance.
The economic explanation is partly true, but it falls short of the full picture. Poor people reproduce at higher rates despite having access to birth control and movie tickets; it turns out they generally want larger families. Sure, they are more economically dependent on their children, but on the other hand rich people can afford more children. Wealthy people in America today tend to have one child or none, but wealthy families in the past tended to have three or more children. The real difference is not merely in the level of income, it is that in the past children were valued as gifts from God, and traditional cultures still view them that way.
Muslim countries, with their oil revenues, are by no means the poorest in the world and yet they have among the highest birth rates. Practicing Catholics, orthodox Jews, Mormons and evangelical Protestants are by no means the poorest groups in America, and yet they have large families. Clearly, religious factors are at work here. The declining birthrates in the West as a whole are, in considerable part, due to secularization. The religious motive for childbearing has been greatly attenuated, and children are now viewed by many people as instruments of self-gratification. The old biblical principle was “Be fruitful and multiply.” The new one is “Have as many children as will enhance your lifestyle.”
The economic forecasters of the disappearance of religion have proven themselves to be false prophets. Not only is religion thriving, it is thriving because it helps people adapt and survive in the world. In his book “Darwin's Cathedral,” evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson argues that religion provides something that secular society doesn't: a vision of transcendent purpose. Consequently, religious people develop a zest for life that is, in a sense, unnatural. They exhibit a hopefulness about the future that may exceed what is warranted by how the world is going. And they forge principles of morality and charity that simply make their group more cohesive, adaptive and successful than groups whose members lack this binding and elevating force.
My conclusion is that it is not religion but atheism that requires a Darwinian explanation. It seems perplexing why nature would breed a group of people who see no higher purpose to life or the universe. Here is where the biological expertise of Dawkins, Pinker and Wilson could prove illuminating. Maybe they can turn their Darwinian lens on themselves and help us understand how atheism, like the human tailbone and the panda's thumb, somehow survived as an evolutionary leftover of our primitive past.
D'Souza's new book, “What's So Great About Christianity,” is published by Regnery. Website: dineshdsouza.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org."