Religion’s smart-people problem: The shaky intellectual foundations of absolute faith

Dec 24, 2014

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By John G Messerly

Should you believe in a God? Not according to most academic philosophers. A comprehensive survey revealed that only about 14 percent of English speaking professional philosophers are theists.  As for what little religious belief remains among their colleagues, most professional philosophers regard it as a strange aberration among otherwise intelligent people. Among scientists the situation is much the same. Surveys of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, composed of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically nonexistent, about 7 percent.

Now nothing definitely follows about the truth of a belief from what the majority of philosophers or scientists think. But such facts might cause believers discomfort. There has been a dramatic change in the last few centuries in the proportion of believers among the highly educated in the Western world. In the European Middle Ages belief in a God was ubiquitous, while today it is rare among the intelligentsia. This change occurred primarily because of the rise of modern science and a consensus among philosophers that arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like were unconvincing. Still, despite the view of professional philosophers and world-class scientists, religious beliefs have a universal appeal. What explains this?

Genes and environment explain human beliefs and behaviors—people do things because they are genomes in environments. The near universal appeal of religious belief suggests a biological component to religious beliefs and practices, and science increasingly confirms this view. There is a scientific consensus that our brains have been subject to natural selection. So what survival and reproductive roles might religious beliefs and practices have played in our evolutionary history? What mechanisms caused the mind to evolve toward religious beliefs and practices?

Today there are two basic explanations offered. One says that religion evolved by natural selection—religion is an adaptation that provides an evolutionary advantage. For example religion may have evolved to enhance social cohesion and cooperation—it may have helped groups survive. The other explanation claims that religious beliefs and practices arose as byproducts of other adaptive traits. For example, intelligence is an adaptation that aids survival. Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences and postulates the existence of other minds. Thus the idea of hidden Gods explaining natural events was born.

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