Monday, October 13, 2008

Why Philosophy of Religion Pays No Attention to Evolutionary Biology

Ronald Bailey, in religiononline, has an article called "Does Religion Make People Nicer: Only If They Think Sky Big Brother Is Watching." Bailey especially refers to an article by University of British Columbia social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim F. Shariff. They argue that "religions do appear to encourage generosity and honesty."

Stop here. For two reasons. #1 - That's like observing that robins eat worms. Of course they do. But thank you for pointing this out. Because of #2 - Hitchensian philosophy pronounces religions evil. This evo-bio observation says: they're not.

As for me and my religion, I concur. "Religion" has made me more generous and more honest. I said "more," not "enough." For Bailey, evo-bio explains this. But I see a difference between the hypothesis Bailey puts forward and Jesus-followers like myself. Bailey writes:

"Religion encourages people to sacrifice their individual fitness for the benefit of unrelated individuals or for their group. For example, young men may risk sacrificing themselves in war to protect their tribe. So how does religion encourage prosociality? The answer is that being watched by a Big-Brother-in-the-Sky tends to make believers nervous about being selfish."

Not for me. I've become a lot less selfish since becoming a follower of Jesus, but not because "Big-Brother-In-The-Sky" is watching me. I'm more like the apostle Paul who wrote, "Christ's love compels me." I want to give my life to others and for others because God, in Christ, has spent his life on me. The difference is not about being "nervous about being selfish," but about being compelled to be unselfish. I think that's an important difference. and I think this difference is especially exemplified by Christianity.

Bailey cites "studies that find that invoking an unseen watcher enhances moral behavior. In one amazing experiment, when participants were told that the ghost of a dead student was haunting the experimental room, they cheated less on a computer test. Other researchers report that when experimental subjects were primed with religious words, they cheated significantly less on a subsequent task. Similarly, Norenzayan and Shariff found that subjects in experimental economic games were more generous when God concepts were implicitly activated before play."

I'm sure this happens. But here's where Christianity distinguishes itself from other religions. As a Christian I follow God because of what God has done for me, in history. Personally, the idea that I'm more moral and nicer now then before I became a Christian because "God is watching me" has rarely been something I've thought of. Instead, when I have thought about the omnipresence of God and "Christ in me, the hope of glory," I end up thanking God for how much he loves me and accepts me in spite of my failures.

But now to my philosophy of religion point. The concern is truth, and truth is a property of statements. The philosophy of religion truth-question is: "Does God exist?" If God exists and is omnipresent, then persons who believe this is true will likely be more generous. But that people seem more generous as they believe in an omnipresent God, while it may be a sociological truth, has no effect on the discussion about God as it takes place in the philosophy of religion. And if someone tries to use this to discredit the idea of belief in God or as a way of explaining why people believe in God or maybe invent "God," that's an example of the genetic fallacy.