Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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).

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only philosophy articles the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Image credit: Evolution art by Ade McO-Campbell (own work), Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. David Thompson

    Very interesting article to ponder. It would seem like we would evolve away from the religion of today, but we may hit the reset button every 10,000 years through ice ages or nuclear destruction or climate change and everyone rushes back to the Sky God and all the prophesies of the bible take on new meaning.

    We seem to be evolving away from religion with our advancements in science, which is absolutely wonderful, but I am not betting on that trend to eliminate belief in supernatural agencies.

  2. Joel

    I think today’s popular religions (christianity, islam, etc) have certainly evolved over the last couple of millenia. The god of contemporary monotheism is quite unlike his portrayal in the O.T. No one seriously contemplates sacrificing, the treatment of women & minorities has changed to fit in with modern mores, etc.
    Doubtless as future morals held by society change, religious beliefs will continue to evolve to fit in in society.

  3. Alan

    Very fascinating. Regarding the age differences of the present stars we see and the accepted view that many of these stars have planets, how does this impact I wonder? There should be intelligences and clearly millions of years ahead of us. How are they living now wrt evolutionary religion if we are not living just in a naturalistic reality? One would guess they must be already, i.e. now, some way (a significant percentage) into their future that is discussed above (and we are just beginning ours).
    This stellar age difference gets worse because it is known that there was at least one stellar generation before our Sun was formed (it took at least one prior supernova to get the naturally occurring elements up to uranium into the solar proto-nebula) so there would have been intelligences that arose on planets around stars not contemporary to ours (even though “contemporary” could mean millions of years older or younger!). So the possibility (probability?) of intelligences billions of years beyond ours!
    A few figures that are known. The universe: 13.8 billion years old, our Sun formed 4.57 BY ago so it formed much later, 9.23 BY after the Big Bang, so opportunities for those BY old intelligences to be existing perhaps? Regarding religious experiences that people are now having (and we are so young), supposing these are veridical indicating there is a Divine reality, what does this mean for at least MY older intelligences, them now, us in our future and that they/we are living in this “religious” reality? One supposes something not unlike dipping deeply into a vast ocean.

  4. Dean

    I’m not sure there are really that many voices who disagree with this thesis; indeed, even fundamentalists generally recognize that while their fundamentals may not change the adaptation of said fundamentals to culture necessarily must (think clothing, technology, etc.). Is there really a lot of resistance to this idea?

    As for the evolution of belief, we found this in German theologians like Ritschl and his contemporaries, and also in American philosophers like C. S. Peirce. In these conceptions, too, Darwin is superseded by more cooperative formulations of evolution that do not rely on competition, arguably symptomatic of having our thinking trained by a culture that celebrates competition.

  5. [...] University Press explains why reference editors are more like Gandalf than Maxwell Perkins, asks if religion can evolve, and tells of seven things we didn’t know about “Lucy in the Sky with [...]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *