Evolutionary Psychology Goes Just Fine with Religion
Getting Past the Evolution/Religion Debates
Posted May 23, 2016
When I tell people that I conduct work in the field of evolutionary psychology, a common response is about like this: “Oh, I bet you get a lot of resistance from religious people!” And folks are often surprised when I tell them that the answer is “not really.” There is plenty of resistance to the idea of human behavior resulting from evolutionary forces, but in my experience, the resistance is more likely to come from academics in other fields rather than from religious individuals (see Geher, 2006).
Don’t get me wrong - there are definitely some religious people who hear the word “evolution” within the term “evolutionary psychology” and suddenly believe there to be some kind of conflict. Based on my years of experience in the field, I can confidently say that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Where Evolutionary Psychology and Religion Collide
A few years ago, I agreed to take part in a debate with a Christian creationist about evolutionary psychology. My approach throughout was pretty simple - evolutionary psychology has nothing to do with creationism. Rather, evolutionary psychology is a powerful intellectual framework that can be used to advance the human condition along a multitude of fronts (see Geher, 2014).
In thinking about it, it occurred to me that the work of evolutionary psychology really barely touches issues connected with Creationism at all. And the primary point of conflict between religious individuals and evolutionists is right on this point - the point of conflict deals with issues of creation - origins of life.
While evolutionary psychologists all take an organic, evolutionist approach to the origins of life, on the one hand, on the other hand, we’re really hardly concerned with this issue at all! Evolutionary psychologists spend very little time examining issues of the creation of life. It’s really just not the focus of our field. Rather, evolutionary psychologists use a variety of evolution-based concepts, such as adaptationism, sexual selection, etc., to help us better understand the causes of human behavior. I don’t know a single evolutionary psychologist whose research focuses on the creation of life. This is one for the evolutionary biologists and paleontologists! Put simply: Evolutionary psychologists have lots of problems - but this ain’t one!
The Effect of Religion on Endorsing Findings from Evolutionary Psychology
An interesting case-in-point regarding the interface of religion and evolutionary psychology is found in the work of Schwartz, Ward, and Wallaert (2011). These researchers presented a battery of findings from evolutionary psychology to two groups of adults. One group was comprised of religious individuals - the other group was comprised of secular individuals. The researchers asked the participants how much they believed in the various findings. In one condition, participants were simply given the findings. In another condition, participants were told that the findings “came from evolutionary psychology.”
The findings were quite revealing. In the no-label condition (i.e., when just presented with the findings), the religious participants were actually more likely to endorse the findings as accurate! However, get this: When the “evolutionary psychology” label was added, the pattern reversed - and religious individuals became less likely to endorse the findings! These findings suggest that, in fact, religious individuals don’t inherently have a problem with evolutionary psychology - but, rather, they have a problem with anything with the term “evolution” in the title!
The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion
In one of the most conciliatory scientific trends that I’ve seen in the past several decades, the field of evolutionary religious studies has emerged (see Wilson, 2002). The goal of this areas of inquiry is hardly to discount or dismiss the beliefs and values of religious individuals. Rather, the goal of this field is to use the powerful framework of evolution to help us best understand a foundational aspect of humanity - the nature of religion. From the perspective of David Sloan Wilson (and several others in this field), religious beliefs and practices are foundational aspects of our species. Religions are found across the world and they function similarly across cultures and across history. Religious practices have provided a basic means for humans to create social groups that extend beyond kin lines in a way that does not exist in any other primate.
Darwin’s ideas on evolution are powerful - providing insights into so many areas of life (see Wilson, Geher, & Waldo, 2009). Religion is a basic feature of being human - and using Darwin’s toolbox to elucidate the nature of religion has led to great insights into what religion is all about (see Wilson, 2002). From this perspective, there need not be any conflict between religion and evolution.
Scientific Fields and Religious Worldviews Differ in their Goals
In thinking about the interface between evolutionary psychology and religion, it’s important to keep in mind the very different goals of each of these entities. Evolutionary psychology is a scientific field of inquiry - the goal, as such, is to help advance our understanding of some phenomenon (in this case, the goal is to advance the understanding of human behavior by applying evolutionary principles).
A religious doctrine has an entirely different goal - which is to provide a set of guiding principles on how people “should” carry out their lives. Without a set of moral principles (which may come in a number of forms - including both religious and secular forms), humans don’t get along quite as well. Religious doctrines happen to be a primary mechanism for providing such guidance in our species.
A scientific field (such as evolutionary psychology) is all about explaining how things are. A religious doctrine is about providing guidance for people should behave. These are, of course, very different kinds of goals and understanding this distinction can potentially reduce any perceived conflicts between religion and evolutionary psychology.
Evolution and religion are famously antagonistic. But they need not be. And evolutionary psychology in particular truly does not conflict with religion in any way as far as I can tell. In their work, evolutionary psychologists do not focus on issues of creation - and this is pretty much true across the entirety of the field of evolutionary psychology. This said, via the emerging field of evolutionary religious studies, evolutionary psychology actually has the capacity to shed much light on the nature of religion itself.
Geher, G. (2006). Evolutionary psychology is not evil … and here’s why …Psihologijske Teme (Psychological Topics); Special Issue on Evolutionary Psychology, 15, 181-202.
Schwartz, B., Ward, A., & Wallaert, M. (2011). Who likes evolution: Dissociation of human evolution versus evolutionary psychology. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 5, 122-130.
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, D. S., Geher, G., & Waldo, J. (2009). EvoS: Completing the evolutionary synthesis in higher education. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 1, 3-10.