Is God dead? New psychological research counters: Is atheism dead? Studies suggest that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as in the existence of “immortal souls,” and “higher powers,” evidence that suggests to some that “religion is hardwired into our genes.”
As an atheist, I’ll argue that rumors of our death are greatly exaggerated. And yet we atheists aren’t on as firm ground as we claim. Most atheists think that evolutionary theory, as it's popularly understood, yields a complete explanation for life. But they’re wrong.
Still, the wherewithal to round out the science of life is in hand and with it, not only will atheism fit atheists better, it will fit a lot of agnostics and inquiring spiritualists as well.
Atheism suffers from having weak opposition, religious arguments that are so scientifically laughable that they’re easily dismissed. We atheists tend to fall prey to what I’ll call defaulty logic: “Since religion is so wrong, we’re right by default.”
Compared to theology, evolutionary theory is a much more realistic claim. But evolutionary theory has a gaping gap that inclines us to slip into talk of higher powers and immortal souls, a gap that the religious are good at identifying but bad at filling with anything like a scientific explanation.
The gap is in our understanding of useful, functional, end-directed or purposeful behavior. Most evolutionary theorists talk out both corners of their mouths about it, out the one corner dismissing life as the purposeless physical copying of genes and out the other corner smuggling purpose into their theory in the form of natural selection’s purposeful design or usefully selfish genes purposefully dressing themselves up with traits (replicator vehicles) that keep themselves copying.
The religious say “obviously life engages in purposeful behavior” and they’re right. They say that those purposes come from God or a higher power and they’re wrong. Purpose emerged in a universe that didn’t start with any, and the burden is on scientists to explain how, which a few scientists have begun to do, with great promise.
But until their findings are widely understood, atheists will tend to dismiss purpose as non-existent and yet smuggle it in through intuitions about higher powers and immortal souls both of which, though imaginary, sound like sources of purpose.
Purpose starts with functionality, adaptive traits that seem purpose-built but can’t be since life doesn’t have an engineer to purpose-build them. Nor are life’s adaptive traits merely randomly passive configurations of matter that happen to endure. It takes work to maintain adaptive traits, to repair them faster than they would otherwise break down and to pass them on to future generations, purposeful work that’s completely ignored when we treat evolution as nothing but the passive self-copying of strands of DNA.
At the heart of all purposeful behavior lies a capacity for representation. We think of representation as the way pictures or words represent things, but more broadly defined, all adaptive traits represent aspects of creatures’ environments. A bird’s wings represent features of the air; your hemoglobin molecules represent the shape and binding features of oxygen molecules. Such adaptive representations are like photo-negatives of the things they interact with. Your hand is representative of the physical objects they’re adapted to hold. Your leg bones and muscles are representative of gravity here on earth. When we say a trait fits an environment we’re saying it represents what works in that environment.
Living behavior is full of representations, traits that fit or represent environmental conditions. Evolutionary theory explains how representations change to track environmental changes, but as it’s presently understood, doesn’t explain how a capacity for representation emerges in the first place.
Atheists today are stuck on a hunch that has proven successful in science from the Renaissance forward, a commitment to the belief that there is only one kind of causality in the universe, simple physical cause and effect, things pushing and pulling on each other in law-governed ways that change them. Such physical causality is never representative of anything. It just happens.
Concentrating on push and pull causality has yielded us extraordinary knowledge about physical behavior. Confident in today’s science as sufficient, many atheists try to believe that we living beings are all just concentrations of molecules pushing and pulling on molecules, representative of nothing. There are many who assume we’ll soon have a push and pull explanation for all seemly purposeful behavior too and can then dispense with purposes altogether, as when psychologists attempt to explain your motivations and behaviors as simply the product of chemical interactions in your brain.
Evolutionary theorists waffle on representation. You hear it in their talk about what DNA is. It’s a mere chemical, but then again it’s more than that. It’s somehow also information.
Information is always representative, information about something for some real self, an individual for whom the information matters. How does DNA become representative of what works in our environments? Evolutionary theorists don’t speak to that question clearly enough to satisfy scientific standards.
Purely physical behavior doesn’t happen because it matters. Inanimate behavior isn’t useful, functional, goal directed, intentional or purposeful. But living behavior is. Somehow with the advent of life, behaviors started to matter to individuals in a way not spelled out by current evolutionary theory. With life, matter started mattering, and mattering started to change the behavior of matter, a different kind of causality from mere pushes and pulls. Your body is a particular configuration of matter that can’t possibly be explained except with reference to what it represents to you and the work you have to keep doing to survive.
It’s ironic to hear people talk about genes hardwired for religion. Hardwiring is a term from pop versions of evolutionary theory, a term reeking of the kind of ambivalence evolutionary theorists struggle against around purposes. Engineers can hardwire machines to function a particular way. Gods might also. In either case they would do so for their purposes and we would be mere machines, particular configurations of pushes and pulls designed to, or representative of our designer’s purposes.
But evolution hardwiring us? Nope. Evolution has no purpose. It’s just our name for the process by which our purposes change over time, not hardwired to stay the same no matter what, but representatively tracking changing environmental conditions. Evolution is the opposite of hardwiring. Evolutionarily hardwired is an oxymoron.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to lay out a full scientific hypothesis about the physical origins of purposive behavior, behavior representative of what works in changing environments. But that account can be had elsewhere, in this magnificent tome that’s hard going for the lay reader in many parts, or in other articles I’ve written, or in a book I’m working on now for Columbia University Press that makes the theory as accessible as I can make it, which isn’t much more difficult than science's explanation for lightning.
Of course, the hypothesis I embrace for how mattering emerges from matter could prove wrong. That's true of all scientific theories. One can't pursue scientific answers without accepting that risk.
I'm more confident in our questions than our answers. How did evolution start? What changed such that usefulness began to shape physical behavior as it so clearly does in living systems? How did mattering emerge from matter?
And I'm confident that neither theology or evolutionary theory have yet supplied sufficient answers to these questions. The first purposeful being did not emerge when a higher prior purposeful being breathed purpose into it, nor is purpose the product of molecules copying, some more successfully than others.
Imagine though how the science vs. religion debate would change if we had an accessible, reliable answers to these questions. Only with a more complete scientific theory of life will we see just how hard-wired religion turns out to be.