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Evolutionary Psychology and the Genetic Fallacy

October 13, 2011

Before I really get into the meat of my thoughts regarding religion, I do want to get one issue fully out of the way, and that is the issue of evolutionary theory and psychology.

I had an atheist coworker once who shared with me why he didn’t believe in God, and what the purpose of religion was. Though he was baptized a Presbyterian when young, I don’t get the feeling he ever really “got” religion, though he did spend some time in college trying to figure out why people were religious. He told me his conclusion: religion satisfies basic psychological needs in people. For instance, people are religious because they want somebody to love and care for them; they want justice, and they don’t see it in the world around them; they want to see their loved ones again one day, etc. In his mind, this satisfied him, but the way he said it gave off the impression that he also believed that, in some way, this proved religion to be false.

Though I agree that these are some of the benefits of religion, and I’d even concede the possibility that they explain the origins of certain religious beliefs, this does not automatically prove religion to be false, for this commits what philosophers call the Genetic fallacy. Let me give you an example. Say a guy named Steve was walking across the street one day at an intersection, and a man in a car makes an illegal left turn at a red light and hits him. Steve is in the hospital for quite some time, and when he is discharged, he decides his new mission in life is to make sure tougher laws are passed regarding people who make illegal left turns at red lights.

However, when Steve tries to lobby his state legislature to pass tougher laws, his state senator derisively tells him, “We don’t need stricter laws for that. The only reason you believe such laws should exist is that you got hit by a car at an intersection.” Well, the state senator may be right that this is how the belief originated, but does that prove that the belief is false? Likewise, does it prove that the belief is true? Neither – the origin of the belief is logically disconnected from the merits of the belief. The state legislature should debate the merits of such stronger laws on their own terms, instead of worrying about where the belief originated.

Modern psychology operates strongly on the assumption that humans have evolved from other primates. Therefore, evolutionary psychology informs the psychology of religion by attempting to show that religious belief is possibly an adaptation that increased the fitness of humans living in their environment. My coworker was right when he said that there are benefits to believing in God, and this is actually what we should expect if religious belief is a beneficial evolutionary adaptation. I am not ignorant of the difficulties this may present for certain literal interpretations of religious texts (and I will write on the issues of Adam and Eve, scriptural literalism, and other Creation stories in the future). However, I do not believe that this presents a problem in regards to the truth value of religious beliefs, for the reasons stated above.

Far from it, actually. Presumably, a Creator could design the Universe in such a way that the sentient beings that evolve in it would have good reasons to believe in him – however those reasons originated. So when I describe the benefits to religious belief, or the possible evolutionary origins of certain religious practices or beliefs, you should not assume that I am trying to strike a blow at the truthfulness of those beliefs. If God existed, would we really expect no benefit to believing he exists? And if benefits do exist, does it matter through what mechanism those beliefs originated?

Consider what William James rightly points out in Lecture One of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902):

“But now, I ask you, how can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance? According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see ‘the liver’ determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul…They are equally organically founded, be they of religious or non-religious content.

To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary…Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor’s body at the time.” (p. 25)

Our belief that the external world is real, that the ground below us is solid, our belief in the existence of mathematics and numbers and their applicability to the real world, our belief in love and beauty, our belief in the value of human life, all of them can be “explained” in terms of evolutionary adaptation. So are we justified in throwing out every belief we have simply because they have survival benefit?

I admit that, even knowing this, it still strikes a nerve when we have our most cherished spiritual beliefs examined through this kind of a reductionist lens. William James addressed this as well:

“It is true that we instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by the intellect as any other object is handled…Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it would say; ‘I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.'” (p. 21)

And so it is. I would never seek to reduce your spiritual experience into merely an evolutionary benefit or adaptation, because you are, like James’ indignant crab, yourself, yourself alone. Your spiritual experience should be evaluated on its own terms, and you are the best person to do that. Evolutionary psychology might shed some light on reasons, but never on truth.


James, W. (2004). The varieties of religious experience. (Revised ed., pp. 21-25). New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books.

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