Can religion evolve?
By J. L. Schellenberg
On the last page of On The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin turns from millions of years of natural selection in the past to what he calls a “future of equally inappreciable length” and ventures the judgment that “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress to perfection.”
A heady thought. And just a tad overstated, most contemporary Darwinians would say. The directions evolution will take in the billion years or so left for life on Earth will depend on unforeseeable changes. For all we know, evolution in the far distant future may proceed quite without us — and indeed without any beings smarter than a goldfish.
Yes, for all we know. But by the same token, things could turn out rather differently. A lot can happen in ten million centuries: maybe we or future species will advance science and philosophy significantly. Something similar might be said about politics, art, and athletics. Few who are at all acquainted with evolution and geological time would disagree with these maybes.
But what about religion? It’s amusing how quickly a large chorus of voices shouts “No!” Religious zealots, of course, are in the chorus. They think their current religious beliefs and practices can bear the weight of eternity. But also in the chorus — way off to the other side — are a bunch of contemporary evolutionary thinkers, who find religion ridiculous and regard it as on the way out.
Why should religion alone, of all the main areas of human life, be regarded as incapable of evolving, and in a manner leading to improvements? At least part of the answer, I suspect, is that traditional religion is emotionally sticky, the flypapery sundew of the ideological world. Because it still holds us in its sway, both negatively and positively stirring the emotions, even intellectuals are led to fixate on its particular forms and doctrines and effects, as though religion could never be anything else.
But this can’t possibly be the right way to think about religion. Evolutionists, it seems, have a lot to tell us about it that they have not yet learned.
This suggests itself all the more insistently when we set that big future for life on Earth mentioned a moment ago – that billion years – alongside the piddly few thousand years humans have so far spent in a semi-reflective frame of mind. When I represent a billion years with a twenty-foot chalk line for my students, they’re shocked to discover that those several thousand years, which to our ears have such an impressive ring, move us forward from the starting point less than one seven hundredth of an inch. And we think our best religious efforts are behind us!
Well, maybe they are. Perhaps for ten million centuries our descendants will glorify us for having drained religion dry in only a second of scientific time. But is it reasonable to believe this? One wonders what developments in thinking and feeling the world might see in so much time. How primitive religiously would we seem to intelligent beings evolved from us even a few million years from now? Contemplating such thoughts, one begins to wonder whether the very idea of our primitivity contains the germ of some interesting religious developments. What would religion in our own time look like if it were developed while holding this idea of our primitivity firmly in mind? Might it be more rational? Might it also become more useful, an aid in the project of ensuring human survival over the long term?
Consider, for example, our tendency today to identify religiousness with the mental state of believing. Maybe religion is not ready for belief. Moreover, there are other attitudes capable of sustaining a religious commitment with which the idea of an ultimate divine reality can be addressed — might I suggest imagination? And we may soon discover them.
Or consider the idea of God. The cognitive science of religion tells us that humans are strangely drawn to agent-centered notions of the divine. But for evolutionists, this has to be qualified: humans at present. After all, the beginning is near. It’s right behind us! Maybe the idea of a person-like God will be one of our first – and unsuccessful – attempts to think beyond ourselves. And while they pore over the possibilities, maybe religious types who are wise to our evolutionary immaturity will learn to take as the most fundamental object of their imagination something far more general than the idea of God. (An evolutionary rationale for the much denigrated tendency of liberal theologians to say little about the nature of the divine – who knew?)
The interesting thing is that no one has seen the evolutionary door to such thoughts about religion being opened.
Darwin himself seems not to have seen it. His remark about the deep future came in a rare moment, and his own thoughts about religion were preoccupied with its traditional forms. Contemporary evolutionary theists and pantheists haven’t seen it. They stand by Darwin’s door looking back, either still preoccupied with the traditional God idea, trying to reconcile it with the gory facts of natural selection, or else absorbed in wonderment over the processes that have led from the deep past to us while ignoring the deep future. Theologians of a reductionist bent haven’t noticed Darwin’s door opening either. Instead they merrily throw out the holy religious baby with its unholy bathwater, dealing with traditional religion’s implausible claims about reality by seeking to dissociate religion entirely from claims about reality. Certainly evolutionary irreligionists like Richard Dawkins haven’t seen it. They’re too busy using the shortcomings of much existing religion to help spread the belief — as premature at our stage of development as religious belief — that there is no more to reality than the natural facts science can track.
The deep future, as we will discover, has radical consequences for all such thinking about religion. Most of them have not yet been noticed, let alone absorbed. So look out! If we dare to walk through the door Darwin left open, religion and evolution could become a hot topic in ways we have not yet dreamed.
J. L. Schellenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University. His first book was Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell, 1993) and his most recent is Evolutionary Religion (OUP, 2013).
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Image credit: Evolution art by Ade McO-Campbell (own work), Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.