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Religion as Evolutionary Phenomenon

Is religion merely an evolutionary strategy? It is easy to concede the point made years ago by D.T.Campbell‘On the conflicts between biological and social evolution and between psychology and moral tradition’, Zygon 11, 167-208 (1976)that religion may have served to facilitate the transition from a human society dominated by biological evolution to one in which tribes were knitted together by holding certain common propositions about reality. Cultural, rather than biological, evolution then became dominant.For a further discussion of these themes see John Bowker’s Is God a Virus? (London: SPCK, 1995) pp3-150

But the belief that religion is also able to anticipate future possibilities to which cultural evolution has not yet attained, because it represents a process of adaptation to the-way-things-really-are, is a much more contentious one. It will be held inside believing communities, but will be largely opaque to those outside.

A significant study which sees religion as an evolved phenomenon is Gerd Theissen’s Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary ApproachEnglish translation by J. Bowden, London: SCM Press, 1984(1984).This book is important not least for a fine ‘history-of-religions’ account of the rise of Hebrew monotheism, but even within that account one can see the problems associated with Theissen’s attempt to hold to an evolutionary epistemology, to knowledge as a form of adaptation to reality.

Within such a scheme, a religious or scientific explanation is only more or less successful than its competitors.

But when he reaches the climax of his description of the evolution of Hebrew religion, Theissen cannot forbear to speak of ‘the discovery of the one and only God’ (emphasis ours)Theissen, 1984, 64Two pages later he has reverted to ‘the development of the one and only God, (with which) a radically new environment opened up with completely new “demands for adaptation”’ (emphasis ours).Theissen, 1984, 66But either such a God in some sense constituted the ultimate environment of human culture and the physical world alike, and was however partially and provisionally ‘discovered’, or there is and never has been such a God, and the belief merely ‘developed.’ As van Huyssteen shows, Theissen is actually putting forward the former view, a ‘critical-realist epistemology’ (see critical realism in science and religion) under the guise of his evolutionary descriptions.van Huyssteen, J W, Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Eerdmans, 1997) Ch.10

Theissen’s difficulties with terminology reflect the fact that the evaluation of scientific descriptions of religion as an evolved phenomenon will necessarily depend on the religious position of the evaluator.

For further discussion see can reductionism rule out the truth of religion?

Or consult a critique of Willem B Drees’ typology.

To explore the character of the two types of enquiry see critical realism in science and religion.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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