Religion as Evolutionary Phenomenon
Is religion merely an evolutionary
strategy? It is easy to concede the point made years ago by D.T.Campbellthat 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.
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 Theissens Biblical
Faith: An Evolutionary Approach(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 Theissens attempt to hold to an evolutionary
epistemology, to knowledge as a form of adaptation to reality.
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)Two 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).But 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.
Theissens 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
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.
link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos (T&T Clark, 1999)