Debate Magazine

Evolution of Religion Project: Is “Adaptation” Code for “Design”?

Posted on the 18 April 2011 by Cris


Several  months ago I became aware of the “Evolution of Religion” project, which maintains a website here. I did not find it particularly interesting because it was immediately apparent that the project was designed to prove a particular point. We need look no further than the project’s subtitle to ascertain the a priori commitment that guides its research: “The Adaptive Logic of Religious Beliefs and Behavior.”

Splendid. Here we have what is supposed to be a scientific project specifically designed to prove that “religion” evolved because it is adaptive. This sounds like a perfect recipe for confirmation bias to me. It also feels like an agenda.

To understand what may be going on here, let’s look at the “Aims” of the project:

To many scholars, religious beliefs and behaviors appear so bizarre and so costly that they fall outside rational explanation, leading instead to explanations based on psychosis, cognitive accidents, or cultural parasites.

The aim of our project is to conduct a scientific examination of exactly the opposite hypothesis—that religious beliefs and behavior confer adaptive advantages to individual believers, and were therefore favored by natural selection over human evolutionary history. In other words, religion may have evolved.

This is quite revealing. In one corner, we have evolutionary scholars who argue that what we today call “religion” is not the result of targeted selection and is maladaptive. They are mostly atheists. In the other corner, we have evolutionary scholars who argue that we today call “religion” is the result of targeted selection and is adaptive. My educated guess is that some or several are believers.

While I do not have a problem with scholars being atheists or believers, I do have a problem with research that is designed to prove a metaphysical point. This becomes even more of a problem when personal biases or conflicts of interest are not fully disclosed.

As for the latter, it is good to see that the Evolution of Religion project acknowledges that it is “generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation.” For those unfamiliar with the John Templeton Foundation, its history, agenda, and support for particular kinds of research, I encourage you to read about it here.

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