Letters to the editor

To use science to attack religion in this way is misguided and ultimately undermines our confidence in science even more than our confidence in religion. If religious belief is only a byproduct of our naturally selected minds having produced no direct fitness benefits in our evolutionary past, so too are a host of scientific beliefs, including the belief in natural selection itself. This observation leads to an uncomfortable problem for the anti-theist. If our brains (and the thoughts they generate) have arisen only because of their ability to produce survival-related behaviors and not Truth, how can we trust them to tell us the truth about such matters as, say, natural selection? The anti-theist must construct an argument to justify trusting his or her own mind, which could be in the midst of producing “accidental” thoughts and beliefs while constructing the argument! Such an argument, too, must consider the huge psychological literature detailing how human minds systematically get things wrong—from visual perception to higher-order reasoning—apparently to assist in our survival.

Even embracing an evolutionary account of religion, the theist may skate through this epistemological train wreck by insisting that a deity has orchestrated evolution to produce minds that can be trusted to produce true beliefs (at least under certain conditions). Perhaps the deity fine-tuned the nature of the universe from its origin so that our minds—capable of truly knowing the deity—would be inevitable. Or perhaps the deity directed just the right “random” mutations that natural selection then chose, which eventually produced our minds so that they could know Truth.

The point is that the theist may choose to believe in a deity and evolutionary or cognitive scientific accounts of religion without a conflict. The anti-theist’s determination to undercut religious belief via evolution may force abandonment of science itself. If, as Bloom suggests, religion and science will always clash, the blame lies not on the theist but on the anti-theist.

Justin L. Barrett
Institute for Cognition and Culture
Queen’s University
Belfast, Northern Ireland

P   aul Bloom draws upon a voluminous body of research, much of it his own work on the development of understanding of self, to construct a wholly plausible argument that a dualist approach to understanding the world is built into humans as a genetic—or more probably epigenetic—adaptation that has served human societies well, and that this dualism has specific consequences for widespread belief in God.

There are several subtleties in the argument that deserve closer scrutiny. Bloom teeters on the edge of the common trap of discussing science and religion as though they are monolithic. As his tour around various belief systems shows, what we term “religion” encompasses a breathtakingly wide spectrum of beliefs.

Similarly, cosmologists, synthetic chemists, and social psychologists approach their crafts in incredibly diverse ways. While there are certainly hot spots in the relationship between science and religion, exemplified by the clash between evolutionary biology and a particular fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity, the vast majority of what is addressed by each camp has no bearing on the other. In the end the epigenetic-adaptation argument advanced by Bloom is no more compelling than the existence of compound eyes or flagellar motion in bacteria advanced by the intelligent-design community as evidence for the existence of God. Perhaps it is time to calm the shrill voices on each side and recognize that the existence problem is, within the context of what we understand science to be capable of, formally undecidable, and therefore is properly within the realm of faith alone.

Paul W. Bohn
Centennial Professor of the Chemical Sciences
University of Illinois
Urbana, Ill.

As an unbeliever resigned to the   necessity of religion, I appreciate Paul Bloom’s article proposing a source for that mysterious necessity. However, some comments may be in order.

That we have evolved to be creationists may be saying too much. The rural Thais with whom I spend much of my time are not much concerned with the origins of life, and certainly have no commitment to any given explanation or story. Rather, they are concerned with the multitude of spirits—of the dead, of trees and streams, etc.—that must be clothed, fed, placated, exorcised. Similarly, both urban and rural Thais are not much concerned with the meaning of things. Often there is no articulate meaning, beyond “It’s pretty.” When pressed, Thais make something up, resulting in conflicting explanations for the same thing. This would seem to call into question Bloom’s inborn tendency to impute purpose where there is none. Still, as Bloom predicts, there seems to be a tendency to impute a designer to the overall scheme of things.

Finally, Bloom need not have worried that Buddhism constitutes a counter-example to his thesis. “While it may be true,” he writes, “that ‘theologically correct’ Buddhism” rejects belief in body-soul duality and supernatural beings, “actual Buddhists believe in such things.” Indeed they do, but “theologically correct” Buddhism also believes in life after death, ghosts, deities, heavens, and hells. These beliefs are central components in the doctrine of every traditional variety of Buddhism. The rational Buddhism of which so much has been made by Western humanists is a creature of their highly selective readings of Buddhist scripture.

Stephen Evans
Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University
Bangkok, Thailand

A trend is apparently emerging in  modern thought, which we might call “accidentalism”: everything important is an accident. The accidental human, treading his accidental Earth, stabilized by an accidental moon, whirls through the accidental universe as he worships his accidental god in the language of his accidental mind. It is at least a consistent paradigm. But it is not an explanation, and is hardly more appealing than any other non-explanations (divine agency, to pick one) we might put forward. And if it is not exactly intellectual bankruptcy, it approaches intellectual penny-wisdom and pound-foolishness.

Nelson Hoffman
Los Alamos, N.M.

Paul Bloom replies:

Much of my argument that belief in God is an evolutionary accident is based on Justin Barrett’s important research, and I’m glad he took the time to express his more general views on religion and science. He notes that the human capacity for science is also likely to be an evolutionary accident, and concludes from this that we have no reason to trust our scientific beliefs. For Barrett, the only way we can ever be sure that anything is true is to trust that God wanted us to have true beliefs and has orchestrated our evolution with this goal in mind.

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