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Drees, Willem B. “Evolutionary Naturalism and Religion."

According to Willem Drees, at least three issues arise from an evolutionary view of nature. One is the challenge to a literalist understanding of Genesis. Another is that evolution may leave no room for divine action in the world. Finally, evolution can radically modify our understanding of human nature and morality. The latter is the focus of Drees’ paper. Rather than seeking an alternative to, or a modification of, evolutionary ideas, Drees intends to stay as close as possible to insights offered and concepts developed in the sciences. He call his position “naturalism” and asks what the consequences are if a naturalist view is correct. His central theses are: 1) upon a sufficiently subtle view of science, evolution can do justice to the richness of experience and of morality, but 2) not to the cognitive concerns of religion; nevertheless 3) there is still room in a naturalist view for religion as a way of life and as a response to limit questions concerning the scientific framework.

Drees first distinguishes between soft or nonreductive naturalism, whose context is ordinary human experience and language, and hard or reductive naturalism. The latter includes epistemological naturalism (a universal application of the scientific method without an ontological commitment) and ontological naturalism (Drees’ position). Within ontological naturalism there are three varieties: reductive materialists, who hold for type-type identity, nonreductive materialists, who opt for token-token identity (Drees’ position), and eliminative materialists, who would reduce away the higher level of discourse.

In Drees’ view, the natural world is all that we know about and interact with; no supernatural realm shows up within the world. All entities are made of the same constituents. Still naturalism (or physicalism) can be non-reductive in the sense that higher level properties may require their own concepts and explanatory schemes. Evolutionary explanations are primarily functional. He argues that such a naturalism need not be atheistic. Instead, physics and cosmology form the boundary of the natural sciences and raise speculative, limit questions about the naturalist view as such, questions about which naturalism can remain agnostic. The integrity, coherence, and completeness of reality as described by science does not imply its self-sufficiency. Contrary to Peter Atkins, Drees sees religious accounts in which the natural world as a whole is dependent on a transcendent Creator as consistent with, though not required by, naturalism. What Drees rejects is a view of God as altering the laws of nature or as acting within the contingencies of nature since, again, nature is complete and the integrity of nature is affirmed.

Next Drees turns to evolutionary explanations of morality. If morality, such as pro-social behavior, is given an evolutionary explanation, can it still be considered “moral”? Drees first argues that evolutionary naturalism as a whole should not be dismissed because of the claims made by those whom Daniel Dennett calls “greedy reductionists.” Instead Richard Alexander, David Sloan Wilson, Elliot Sober, Michael Ruse and Francisco Ayala give serious consideration to the importance of cultural and mental aspects in the evolutionary explanation of morality. He describes four reasons why such accounts need not undercut the validity of seeing morality as genuinely “moral.” For example, sociobiology undermines the claim that values originate in a supernatural source, but people are still free to choose from among competing values. Morality can go beyond our emotions, as E. O. Wilson argues, and the contingencies of our evolutionary history, as Michael Ruse proposes, to reflect a genuine distinction between is and ought.

But what happens to religion when it becomes the object of scientific study and explanation? Whereas morality and experience seem to survive an evolutionary understanding, the implications for religion are more serious. In effect, a functional and immanent understanding of morality need not be as problematic to moral persons as a similar understanding of religious language may be to believers, since religious language typically refers to transcendent realities. Thus, some of the fears by believers seem warranted. However, Drees holds that the grounds for accepting a naturalistic evolutionary view of reality, including ourselves, are strong. Hence, rather than backing away when a conflict threatens, he prefers to reflect on the options for religion within an evolutionary framework.

According to Drees, naturalism rules out objective reference to divine action in the world and it offers an evolutionary account of how such ideas arose. Thus naturalism renders their cognitive content “extremely unlikely” without claiming absolute proof. Religious traditions can be studied as complex entities and ways of life, each within its own environment. They embody regulative ideals and forms of worship, and they undergird moral and spiritual commitments. Though their cognitive claims may need revision, religions confront and challenges us with these ideals and values, offering a vision for a better world. Moreover, they encourage us to raise limit questions which naturalism alone cannot answer and they in turn offer answers to such questions. The openness expressed in limit questions can induce wonder and gratitude about the world, and this mystical function of religion can be complementary to its more prophetic, functional characteristics. Finally, evolution has bequeathed us the capacity for imagination and thus for transcending any one particular perspective or regulative ideal. This in turn leads us to the notion of divine transcendence.

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