A group of leading atheists is very puzzled by the continued existence and vitality of religion. As biologist Richard Dawkins puts it in his new book The God Delusion, faith is a form of irrationality, what he terms a “virus of the mind.” Philosopher Daniel Dennett compares belief in God to belief in the Easter bunny. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and now Letter to a Christian Nation, professes amazement that hundreds of millions of people worldwide profess religious beliefs when there is no rational evidence for any of those beliefs. Biologist E.O. Wilson says there must be some evolutionary explanation for the universality and pervasiveness of religious belief.
Actually, there is. The Reverend Ron Carlson, a popular author and lecturer, sometimes presents his audience with two stories and asks them whether it matters which one is true. In the secular account, “You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach three and a half billion years ago. You are a mere grab-bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere.”
In the Christian view, by contrast, “You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that He gave the life of His only son that you might spend eternity with him.”
Now imagine two groups of people—let’s call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe—who subscribe to these two worldviews. Which of the two tribes is more likely to survive, prosper and multiply? The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all. The religious tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.
Should evolutionists like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Wilson be surprised, then, to see that religious tribes are flourishing around the world? Across the globe, religious faith is thriving and religious people are having more children. By contrast, atheist conventions only draw a handful of embittered souls, and the atheist lifestyle seems to produce listless tribes that cannot even reproduce themselves.
Russia is one of the most atheist countries in the world and there abortions outnumber live births by a ratio of two to one. Russia’s birth rate has fallen so low that the nation is now losing 700,000 people a year. Japan, perhaps the most secular country in Asia, is also on a kind of population diet: its 130 million people are expected to drop to around 100 million in the next few decades. And then there is Europe. The most secular continent on the globe is decadent in the quite-literal sense that its population is rapidly shrinking. Lacking the strong Christian identity that produced its greatness, atheist Europe seems to be a civilization on its way out. We have met Nietzsche’s “last man” and his name is Sven.
Traditionally scholars have tried to give an economic explanation for these trends. The general idea was that population was a function of affluence. Sociologists noted that as people and countries became richer, they had fewer children. Presumably primitive societies needed children to help in the fields, and more prosperous societies no longer did. From this perspective, religion was explained as a phenomenon of poverty, insecurity and fear, and many pundits predicted that with the spread of modernity and prosperity, religion would fade away.
The economic explanation is now being questioned. It was never all that plausible anyway. Undoubtedly poor people are more economically dependent on their children, but on the other hand, rich people can afford more children. Wealthy people in America today tend to have one child or none, but wealthy families in the past tended to have three or more children. The real difference is not merely in the level of income. The real difference is that in the past children were valued as gifts from God, and now they are viewed by many people as instruments of self-gratification. The old principle was “Be fruitful and multiply.” The new one is, “Have as many children as enhance your lifestyle.”
The prophets of the disappearance of religion seem to have proven themselves to be false prophets. Even though the world is becoming richer, religion seems to be getting stronger. The United States is the richest and most technologically advanced society in the world, and religion shows no signs of disappearing on these shores. China and India are growing in affluence, and the Chinese government is not exactly hospitable to religion, yet religious belief and practice continue to be strong in both countries. Europe’s best chance to grow in the future seems to be to import more religious Muslims. While Islam spreads in Europe and elsewhere, Christianity is spreading even faster in Africa, Asia and South America. Remarkably Christianity will soon become a non-Western religion with a minority presence among Europeans.
My conclusion is that it is not religion but atheism that requires a Darwinian explanation. It seems equally perplexing why nature would breed a group of people who see no purpose to life or the universe, indeed whose only moral drive seems to be sneering at their fellow human beings who do have a sense of purpose? Here is where the biological expertise of Dawkins and his friends could prove illuminating. Maybe they can turn their Darwinian lens on themselves and help us understand how atheism, like the human tailbone and the panda’s thumb, somehow survived as an evolutionary leftover of our primitive past.