Religion Evolves – By Patrick Arnold

Patrick Arnold on J.L. Schellenberg’s Evolutionary Religion

J. L. Schellenberg, Evolutionary Religion, Oxford University Press, 2013, 192pp., $29.95
J. L. Schellenberg, Evolutionary Religion, Oxford University Press, 2013, 192pp., $29.95

One of the most radical implications of the evolution of life on earth comes with the discovery that humans have not always existed and are, in fact, a recent arrival on this planet. At only a few hundred thousand years old, it can be disorienting to imagine just how young humans are as a species — a sliver of time compared to the hundreds of millions of years life has been evolving on earth. J. L. Schellenberg’s Evolutionary Religion contends that this is only half of the story. What scientists and philosophers alike have not yet come to terms with is the prospect of future human evolution, and that same disorienting feeling should arise when we imagine what humans — and human religions — might look like hundreds of thousands of years from now. Such possible futures are not just the stuff of science fiction, but should have radical implications for how we think about human religion.

Schellenberg has been a leading voice in the philosophy of religion over the past few decades, well-known for a trilogy of books which defend a skeptical outlook on religion without rejecting the existence of the supernatural altogether. Evolutionary Religion marks the most accessible introduction to the work of this innovative and original thinker, but there is also enough new in the book to catch the attention of philosophers and theologians familiar with his more academic contributions, particularly when it comes to its focus on evolution.

Evolution plays a precarious role in Evolutionary Religion. On the one hand, evolution raises radical doubts about the tenability of religion as well as naturalism, the latter being a broad philosophical position that rejects the existence of the supernatural and views the physical world as exhaustive of what exists. On the other hand, evolution holds out hope for a new form of religion — or at least a new way of thinking about it. In short, Schellenberg’s argument goes, contemporary humans are severely limited in their knowledge because of their immaturity on the evolutionary timeline, casting doubt on most current religious and philosophical beliefs. This skepticism may be only temporary, as descendants of humans might one day evolve to be intelligent enough to see past our current limitations.

It is quite hard to pin down whether Schellenberg thinks it is merely possible or to some degree likely that humans will evolve to become more intelligent in the future. He says frequently that it is “quite possible” that humans will become more intelligent, citing a few relevant scientists like Richard Dawkins who discuss similar possibilities, but he never comes close to giving a reliable assessment of what the range of probability is — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the incredibly speculative nature of attempting to predict the evolution of an entire species over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Many recent discussions of the evolution of religion focus on the intricate biological and paleontological details known about the past few tens of thousands of years of religion in human culture and development. Schellenberg cites a few important milestones in our evolutionary history but does not really discuss this literature, instead preferring to give space to scientists when they are speculating freely on what the future of humanity might look like.

Portrait of René Descartes, Jan Baptist Weenincks. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of René Descartes, Jan Baptist Weenincks. Image via Wikimedia Commons

As a young species, human efforts at scientific, philosophical, and religious theorizing are inevitably immature. This claim provides the basis for Schellenberg’s evolutionary skepticism. “As we internalize the deep future,” he writes, “it’s with the realization that there’s just an incredible amount of time left for amazingly complex intellectual developments utterly contrary to present views to be achieved … Many layers of matured thought, developed only after much difficult collaboration over unbelievably long periods of time, may need to be laid down before we are in a position to see the deep truth of things.” Humans might become more intelligent. More intelligent humans might discover current scientific and religious beliefs deeply off-track. But why do these mere possibilities matter when evaluating current scientific, philosophical, or religious theories?

On one reading of the book’s evolutionary argument, these mere possibilities matter because we cannot rule them out. Evolution raises another instance of skeptical hypotheses common in analytic epistemology, the sort of global skeptical scenario that insists that, for all we know, most of our beliefs about the world are radically mistaken. It’s possible that a being like Descartes’ evil demon has systematically deceived humans in all of their beliefs, for instance. It’s possible that humans in fact live in a virtual world, akin to The Matrix, and all of our scientific, religious, and even common sense beliefs about ourselves and the world are radically mistaken. Are such scenarios likely? Probably not, but radical skeptical arguments have traditionally relied precisely on our inability to rule out convincingly these skeptical possibilities. On this reading of Schellenberg’s case, though, evolution does not play an essential role in the argument, and could easily be exchanged with other skeptical scenarios common in philosophy. At the very least, Schellenberg has more work to do in explaining why evolution is especially relevant, and one might well expect that will involve going much deeper into the empirical details of humanity’s evolutionary past — content unfortunately lacking in the book.

Schellenberg is insistent, though, that the skepticism evolution foists upon us does not cast doubt on the success of the sciences. Leaving current scientific theories fully intact, the argument instead claims to target only current religions, as well as various forms of atheism and philosophical naturalism. If the skeptical argument is successful, why think the sciences are immune to the doubts it raises? Schellenberg attempts to avoid such worries by developing a complex criterion for detecting which types of beliefs are vulnerable to skepticism, one that will show us why religious beliefs, but not scientific beliefs, are vulnerable to evolutionary skepticism. Beliefs have a number of important qualities: They can be precise or more or less vague, detailed as opposed to simple, and more or less profound. Beliefs are also more or less attractive, ambitious, and controversial. Beliefs with enough of the positive properties — not overly ambitious and controversial, for instance — acquire a resistance to skeptical doubt.

Questions arise about this scaffolding, though, not the least of which is that these qualities seem deeply subjective. Assuming they are real qualities beliefs have, how do we know when the properties work for or against skeptical doubts? For example, when is the complexity of a belief epistemically better than simplicity, or vice versa? Can we measure these presumed properties in any reliable way? Even if we can, how do we justifiably go from some measurement of these properties of a belief to a conclusion about its vulnerability to skepticism? These questions unfortunately do not receive much of an answer. One might indeed worry that belief in this very scaffolding lacks these positive properties, and so not even it resists skepticism by its own lights.

When is the complexity of a belief epistemically better than simplicity, or vice versa?

Another problem looms if we grant the skeptical argument’s premises. If they generate a radical set of skeptical doubts for current humans, why wouldn’t the same worries remain for human descendants at any point in the future? Schellenberg insists that the problem of skepticism is one we face because of our immaturity as a species: “If we were an old species, with … 600,000 years of inquiry behind us, and if the record of that process of inquiry showed a long period of development and change in our thinking on relevant matters and then a slow leveling off and convergence of views, maintained over thousands of years despite the most careful scrutiny, things might be different.” Defenders of theism as well as naturalism are likely to protest that such progress and defensibility can already be found in their worldviews, and that it is not clear how the timespan of 600,000 years of development becomes a reliable benchmark for theories about the nature of reality, particularly when the modern sciences themselves are relatively young as well — and Schellenberg certainly does not want to throw them out, too!

This skeptical argument contains a last puzzling piece. One of the key moves in the argument is the claim that if the negation of a proposition is epistemically possible for some subject, then it is unreasonable for that subject to believe that proposition. In other words, in order to reasonably believe something, you have to be able to rule out the possibility that you are mistaken. On this principle, if one believes that there is goldfinch in the garden, even though one also thinks it possible that it is instead a canary, one’s belief that it is a goldfinch would be unreasonable. At first glance, this seems at odds with ordinary ways people reason: scientists, for instance, often reasonably believe certain explanations of phenomena without ruling out every possible alternative explanation. Most people believe that we do not live in a virtual world, akin to The Matrix, and they seem reasonable in believing so even though they might not be able to rule out the possibility. This is one of the crucial steps in the skeptical argument, but Schellenberg simply claims it is true by the “definition” of epistemic possibility. In fact, his exact claim is quite controversial: the typical definition of epistemic possibility is simply that a proposition may be true, for all some relevant subject knows. Epistemic possibility is often thought relevant to the nature of knowledge, but its connection to reasonable belief is even less clear. Much more work is needed to get this premise in the skeptical argument off the ground.

Turning to the second, positive half of the book, Schellenberg’s evolutionary pessimism purports not only to clear the current playing field of worldviews but also to point to a new way of thinking about religion. In fact, it makes available an entirely new religion, Schellenberg contends, because the only religion that can escape evolutionary skepticism is one pruned of the commitments to supernatural entities found in traditional religions. This provides a creative new role for the traditional arguments for God’s existence. Instead of attempts at proving the existence of a supernatural entity, these arguments point to the possibility of a reality that transcends the natural world, a reality that we are a long way from understanding. Given our present immaturity, however, we can say very little about the content of this skeptical, pragmatic, and fundamentally contextual religion. There might, for instance, be a transcendent reality beyond the natural world, a reality ultimate both in its value and its metaphysical nature. Schellenberg calls this possibility the religion of ultimism. Many readers, atheists included, will likely be comfortable with such an anti-dogmatic openness, but Schellenberg finds substantial content in the possibility of ultimism and claims that we ought to have a positive faith-like attitude toward this religion, an attitude not as strong as belief but nonetheless strong enough to shape how we act. Ultimism encourages us to be tolerant and open to new possibilities, but not much else is said about how a faith-like attitude toward this religion should or could shape our lives.

Evolutionary Religion introduces a staggering number of new and original ideas to the philosophy of religion, and it marks a welcome change to the typical debates between atheism and theism, and science and religion, that are often published. One might well worry that Schellenberg has not done enough to motivate faith in ultimism, as opposed to any other possibility, many of which could no doubt change how we view the world — from faith in the Great Pumpkin to simply an open-minded skepticism without faith in anything in particular. Ultimism “has enough content to provide a basis for judging what one ought to do,” though it is not clear what it suggests we ought to be doing, besides giving up on naturalism and any sort of theism and retaining an openness to future possibilities for religion. Perhaps, though, that openness is what ultimately matters.