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By Alan Jacobs


The Future of Atheism

Damned if you don't, damned if you don't.

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Let's try a little thought experiment, shall we?

One question that atheists invariably must face concerns the sheer prevalence of religious belief: if all religions are fundamentally mistaken about the thing that most concerns them, then why are human beings everywhere and in every time so overwhelmingly religious? Why is this mistake—which many, perhaps most, atheists think catastrophic—so nearly universal?

Since atheism came into its own a hundred and fifty years or so ago, atheists have tried various ways of answering these questions, some anthropological, some sociological, some psychological, some existential. But recently the most common explanation atheists give for religious belief is that such belief is evolutionarily favored: that is—for reasons which some atheists guess at, while others decline to speculate—religious belief in a person increases the chance that that person will pass on his or her genes to another generation. (Earlier this year Robin Marantz Henig wrote a helpful survey of some of these "adaptationist" views of religion for the New York Times.)

Now, an atheist saying this immediately has a new problem, especially if he or she thinks that religious belief produces violence and intolerance—which is what many atheists, most notably Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have shouted from the world's rooftops. Anyone who holds both these views is in an interesting position, to say the least. Do we say that if I am violent and intolerant toward others I am more likely to pass along my genes—perhaps because I kill or injure those who do not share my religious beliefs before they can reproduce? If we do say that, then the atheist who protests against violence and intolerance will have to argue that we should behave in ways that do not maximize the likelihood of passing along our genes.

But this is a bad situation for an atheist to be in, since he or she is likely to have trouble grounding that "should" in anything compelling, and in any case is—according to his or her own philosophy—fighting a losing battle. If religiously inspired violence and intolerance are evolutionarily adaptive, and the blind processes of natural selection are the only ones that determine reproductive survival in the long term, then people who argue against religion and its accompanying pathologies are certain to diminish in numbers and eventually become totally marginal—nothing more than the occasional maladaptive mutation. The selfish gene will ultimately, necessarily, win out over the altruistic one.

In his recent book The God Delusion Richard Dawkins has referred to religious belief as a kind of evolutionary "misfiring," but, curiously enough, uses precisely the same term to describe "the urge to kindness—to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity." Now it is true that he thinks religion is a lamentable, disgusting evolutionary error, while altruism and kindness are "blessed, precious mistakes." But in the long run—and evolutionary theory is always and only about the very long run—misfirings are misfirings, and Dawkins clearly doesn't believe that the instinct for altruism is adaptive. So Dawkins had better enjoy those blessed and precious mistakes while they're still here to enjoy: they won't be here forever. (Of course, Dawkins can take comfort in knowing that long before natural selection eliminates altruism he'll have made his own exit from the scene.)

Since this is not a corner that many atheists will want to paint themselves into, it is not surprising that some of them are more inclined to argue that religious belief (with its accompanying intolerance) was once evolutionarily adaptive but is no longer. But it seems to me that this is an even less desirable position for them to take. As I have already noted, the mills of natural selection grind exceeding fine, but they grind very slowly indeed: or, to use another metaphor, in the very long drama of human evolution, atheism has just come on to the stage and has had almost no lines. For it to start squeaking that it has triumphed and that all the other characters on the stage are obsolete seems comically hubristic at best. Even if it were true that circumstances of human culture have changed so that religious belief is no longer evolutionarily favorable, it could take millennia for that change to manifest itself clearly in the human population. (Our reproductive cycle isn't quite as fast as that of the fruitfly.) Moreover, if religious belief doesn't happen to be adaptive at the moment, circumstances can change so as to make it adaptive once more. Some of the favorite stories of biology textbooks involve species whose adaptability has been dramatically affected by relatively sudden changes in environment. For all these reasons, the notion that religious belief has outlived its evolutionary usefulness is pure guesswork.

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