Evolutionary explanations of religion: an exercise in petitio principii

1. It is very disappointing to see how these evolutionary theorists of religion lack knowledge of religions other than garden variety Judeo-Christianity (where they seem to have at least some factual knowledge, as in Scott Atran’s case, they reproduce standard textbook stories about Hinduism that have been left behind a few decades back).

2. If they did a serious study, it would perhaps strike them that no one has ever given either theoretical or empirical proof for the claim that religion is a human universal. From the 13th century onwards, European travelers, missionaries, merchants and scholars simply assumed that there would be religion in all societies. With this assumption in the background, they looked for the ‘beliefs’ and ‘gods’ of these societies. In the process, these western minds invented religions everywhere. Later scholars began to create all kinds of definitions of “religion” in order to accommodate their (cultural) intuition that religion is universal. As though a definition of a word can help us decide on the universality of a phenomenon. After all, we don’t use a definition of the word “gravitation” in order to find out whether gravitation exists on all planets, do we?

3. The same goes for the so-called theories or explanations of religion. These simply presuppose as a pre-theoretical given that religion exists in all cultures and societies. Then they concoct ad hoc accounts groomed to explain for this pre-theoretical assumption. In the process, they abuse evolutionary biology, cognitive neurosciences, psychology, etc. to produce unscientific just-so stories. What they seem to miss, is that this is a massive exercise in the fallacy of petitio principii. That is, one assumes the truth of a proposition whose truth should be demonstrated: that religion is a cultural universal.

4. If this course intends to be scientific and serious in any way, it will have to answer a few questions: What is the proof for the universality of religion? How could one test this claim about the universality of religion? That is, which criteria allow one to test the presence of religion in a culture or society? This cannot be solved by giving definitions as to “the universal belief in spiritual or superhuman beings.” Notions like belief, spiritual, superhuman are too vague to provide us with any real test. One cannot also draw on evolutionary biology and claim that it shows that religion is universal, since evolutionary biology does not give us the structural properties that allow us to recognize the object of religion (and this would simply be a repetition of the petitio principii).

5. If one begins to realize the difficulty of proving that religion is a human universal, then the question becomes: How come all these brilliant minds have simply presupposed that religion is universal? Historically, it is very clear that we have inherited this assumption from Christianity. Christian theology tells us that God has given religion to humanity. It is inscribed in our souls, so to say. Thus, the stubborn presupposition that religion is universal (whether among scholars of religion, biologists, psychologists, common sense, …) is simply a secularized Christian theological claim.

6. Perhaps all these evolutionary thinkers are then abusing Darwin’s beautiful and brilliant theory in order to reproduce an old theological story about humanity. Surprising no, given the supposed atheism of people like Dan Dennett?

Anyway, those interested can have a look at S.N. Balagangadhara, “The Heathen in His Blindness…”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (Leiden, 1994; Manohar, 2005).

  • An evolutionary theory of Religion, if it is Eurocentric, can’t possibly claim that Religion exists everywhere. What it can and does claim is that under the same selection pressure evolutionarily stable outcomes will show convergence of a type which may justify Universalist ecumenism AT A CERTAIN STAGE OF CIVILIZATIONAL COMPLEXITY. However the ‘future of this Illusion’ depends on something unknown- viz. the future fitness landscape.

    You may recall that Darwin’s theories enabled the Buddhists to beat the Xtians at the Panadura debate. Evolution was a scandal for Western Christendom but posed no challenge to apophatic Orthodoxy, Occassionalist Islam, or relationist or process theologies.