Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Why believe?

The cover of the New York Times Magazine on Sunday asked rhetorically in big white letters on (what purports to be) a starry background "Why Do We Believe?" "How evolutionary science explains faith in God," whispers the subtitle of the article by Robin Marantz Henig.

Henig suggests at one point in her essay that the current interest by evolutionary biologists in explaining the almost universal human belief in supernatural spirits (including, of course, the Big Guy Himself) is by way of revenge on the creationists who have so diligently sought to ban the teaching of evolution from the public schools (or at the very least counter natural selection with the pseudoscience called intelligent design). After all, belief is a natural phenomenon like sexual desire or the male propensity for violence. If desire and agression are evolved behaviors, why not religious faith?

Note here, as Henig is careful to assert, that it is the behavior of belief that scientists study, not the more abstract question of God's existence. But of course the implication is plain. If belief in a personal supernatural being who attends to our individual lives and hears and answers prayers is merely a more elaborate version of belief in fairies, poltergeists or the spirits of trees and brooks, then He is no more likely to exist than they. Har! Take that, creationists!

Well, revenge, I suppose, is sweet, but rather beside the point. If a tendency to populate the world with spirits is part of human nature, then evolutionary biology is not likely to have much effect on whether or not people believe. Even scientists can find ways to justify faith. The psychologist Justin Barrett is quoted by Henig: "Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people. Why wouldn't God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?"

There's no way to answer such a statement except to get out Ockham's Razor and start slashing away. If my belief or disbelief in a God who intervenes in human affairs makes not the slightest empirically verifiable difference in my life, then why believe? That's precisely the question evolutionary biologists are trying to answer, and more power to them. Meanwhile, if it is in my biological human nature to be religious, then I will be religious -- that is to say, reverent, celebratory and grateful in the face of the world's unfathomable Mystery -- but I will stay armed with the Razor and wary of anthropomorphic idols.