Supernatural selection


Christians may squirm at the idea of researchers reducing their beliefs to naturalistic causes --- searching for a gene that predicts religious belief or providing a crass explanation for why people attend church. But Christians might squirm less if they thought about why scientists are so fascinated by religion --- because they can't quite explain it.

Take evogod for instance - a computer program created by anthropologist James W. Dow. Dow set out to answer a question that baffles evolutionary scientists: Where does religion get its staying power? If religious people live in a dream-world and only the hard-headed and fit should survive in the real world, why doesn't nature cut short the lives of religious people? How do these dreamers stick around and why do they thrive?

In Dow's own words, believing in the existence of the unseen "makes no sense from an common evolutionary point of view" because anyone who is "out of touch with reality should be eliminated by natural selection."

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Dow uses the program to conclude that believers depend on non-believers for survival. Dow says it's the non-believers' hard-headed realism - and their decision to look out for the dreamers - that keeps the dreamers alive.

Evogod doesn't explain why the non-believers would choose to protect the believers, though. Another anthropologist, Richard Sosis, theorizes that non-believers protect believers because religion can create a sense of solidarity and cooperation. Dow says maybe the sacrifices of believers inspire the non-believers to sacrifice for the community.

As "progressive Christian" blogger Jeff Beamsley puts it, evogod shows that "We may be hardwired at a very basic level to respect and admire the beliefs of others, even if we don't share those beliefs." In other words, maybe there's something about religious belief that can attract and even inspire those who don't believe - perhaps including the scientists who keep trying to wrap their brains around belief.


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