1. People like Scott Atran and Sloan Wilson abuse evolutionary biology to produce ad hoc explanations of an explanandum whose truth they presuppose: the universality of religion. Their explanations are no better than those discussed by Balu in chapter 5 of ‘The Heathen in his blindness: Asia, the West and the dynamic of religion.‘. Paraphrasing Balu, we may say that they consist of ‘two quarters of theology, a quarter of evolutionary biology and a quarter of illiterate ethnology’.
2. This universality of religion is a pre-theoretical assumption, as is the case in the earlier explanations by Hume, Freud and others. Whatever definition one chooses to give of ‘religion’ (‘implausible beliefs’, etc.), it remains the case that these guys commit the fallacy of petitio principii: they presuppose the truth of a proposition whose truth they should prove, namely, that religion is universal. After all, it cannot depend on one’s definition of the word ‘religion’ whether or not religion is universal. Just imagine we let the existence of gravitation on all planets depend on our definition of ‘gravitation’ (‘a force that exists on all planets’).
3. In fact, they commit another petitio principii also: they presuppose that religion is a human product, the product of human evolution (whether as a by-product or ‘spandrel’ or as an adaptation). Since religion claims that it is God’s gift to humanity and not of human origin, one should have proof before one supposes that it is a human product. It is impossible to prove that religion is of human and not of divine origin. Therefore, Atran and Sloan Wilson are engaged in a double petitio principii.
4. On top, these guys are ignorant of the object they claim to study. Firstly, they do not know what makes some phenomenon into religion. Hence, they really don’t know what it is they are explaining. Secondly, their knowledge of religions like Christianity and traditions like the Hindu traditions is superficial at best and non-existent at worst.
So, I would suggest not to take these guys too seriously. If newspapers spend pages on discussing these evolutionary explanations of religion, this is the case only because most journalists are not researchers. Scott Atran, Sloan Wilson and Dennett make fools of themselves by producing such silly explanations of religion.
- Evolutionary explanations of religion: an exercise in petitio principii
- Dawkin’s Delusion or The God Delusion?