Is religion no more than genes?

Who is reading this? I am confident that you are a human being, and that means that you are rational. And I also know that you can distinguish right and wrong in your decisions through ‘love of self and love of neighbour’.

How come?

If we look at evolution we know that the principle is clear: our characteristics are in our system, and our structure is a mixture of our parents’ structures — plus the effects of personal experience. And the mixed qualities of our systems are passed on to the next generation

But we are aware that there have been, between chimpanzees and us, the primitive archaic human beings — such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans*. They, and others, would generally be described as archaic sapiens —  above the chimpanzees but below us.

But what does that mean? Were these archaic people able to behave rationally at some level, and did they have capacity to distinguish evil and good which required them to choose the good and to avoid the evil? Will we find them in Heaven, or otherwise?

But the problem relates to us too. We assume, as Christians, that love of God and love of neighbour are essential. But an atheist might argue that we merely follow the moral rules because we have inherited the genes needed to keep society effective — and so produce the next generations. They might argue that Christianity is simply a human development which happens to assist our society to continue and grow.

I am conscious that I am capable of making rational decisions, and that I can choose the good and disdain the bad. As a full time, full life, Catholic, my religion assures me that these faculties are created by the Almighty — and have eternal outcomes. So what would I say to someone who claimed that this is simply the actions of my genes: choosing the good and distaining the bad are no more than simply aspects of evolution?

About Quentin

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21 Responses to Is religion no more than genes?

  1. John Thomas says:

    Surely, a good atheist/materialist/evolutionist would claim that religion (particularly Christianity) impedes human Progress/evolution, since it asks you to be meek, forgiving, turning the other cheek – in a word, weak – and thus, Christianity is anti-Progress/evolution (didn’t Nietzsche take this line, and the Nazis?). To properly evolve, humans have to be men (ok, people) of Power, who disdain this weakness, and the strong will – should – rise to the top, and the weak will – should – be destroyed, eliminated, disappear. The altuism of Christianity holds humans back – they will think; surely, such a view, such people, are the real products of evolution.

  2. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/10/19/is-religion-no-more-than-genes/ ) :

    // As a full time, full life, Catholic, my religion assures me that these faculties are created by the Almighty — and have eternal outcomes. So what would I say to someone who claimed that this is simply the actions of my genes: choosing the good and distaining the bad are no more than simply aspects of evolution? //

    If all that is comes from God and if God is unknowable, there’s no need to answer him unless you want to convert him. I’d not try. Belief seems impervious to argument.

  3. galerimo says:

    Good question Quentin!

    As to the fascinating part about whether our Neanderthal and Denisovan precursors enjoyed rationality, I suppose we will have to wait for more evidence to be uncovered and further research.

    And given the amazing progress we are making in our knowledge of human evolution you have to be optimistic that science will soon deliver us more facts and interpretations on the topic.

    As to Will we find them in Heaven, or otherwise? I like to think of those many mansions of which Jesus talks.

    You know, the ones in which we are bound to find all those we had considered, unlikely!

    The widespread influence and practice of religion in our present world, and before our time, certainly suggest that it is solidly embedded in our genes.

    Of the 7.9 billion of us on the planet there is only about 2 billion who are identified as atheist, agnostic or secular non religious. Some would include these as religion!

    Religion is not something on the margin of life but rather, human life itself, experienced as being in conscious harmony with the total reality that it teaches us, to be, where we belong.

    However conflating religion with morality is not a good detour.

    There is far more to religion than it’s morality. A bit like putting the Homo Sapiens before the Neanderthals. One is only one among the many consequences of the other.

    So to your interrogator, who appears to confuse morality with religion, I would say, as human beings we are religious by nature, Homo Religiousus according to Rahner’s definition.

    But moral, by the same token, definitely not.

    It that were the case then religious people would be moral people and we know that is not true.

  4. Alan says:

    If altruistic behaviour in other animals is evident and a degree of self sacrifice is such an effective survival trait that some creatures are physically adapted for it, then it is difficult for me to imagine it being “weak” in evolutionary terms. It would seem to have been a tried and tested approach for many species long before our closest relatives were here.

  5. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/10/19/is-religion-no-more-than-genes/ ) :

    // They might argue that Christianity is simply a human development which happens to assist our society to continue and grow. //

    I read “continue” to mean survive and “grow” to mean improve. Modern man has become obsessed with survival. In the service of eliminating debility and death, he has made himself a slave to material improvement. He aspires to make ever better tools so he can live forever in perfect health in a perfect world. Paradise without God. Pleasures without end.

  6. Iona says:

    There needn’t be a conflict between “it’s genes” and “it’s God”. Genetic changes over time constitute one way in which God creates beings who are capable of rational thought and altruistic behaviour.

  7. galerimo says:

    Religion is what confers meaning on our existence.

    I imagine once our ancestors had filled their bellies and provided safe shelter for themselves
    They lay down and gazed up at the stars and wondered

    Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?

    And not so much whatever answer came up for them but how they attached themselves to whatever answer came up, became their religion.

    And religion then sought to embody this answer through ritual, sacrifice and myth.

    It was a fantastic human invention because it brought about a sense of place for us in our cosmos, a perception of the big picture and how it all worked.

    Just as much as survival may have given us language, religion probably gave us the impetus to become social animals.

    How else could we stay united once we got a break from searching for food and from battle?

    It certainly is a social reality and something that you can’t do on your own or even in small numbers.

    The thing is, religion always serves us: it becomes its opposite once it becomes our master.

    It is a means to an end, but never an end in itself – even those of us, like most of humanity, who are born into our religion or religious culture, still must decide how it will work for us as individuals.

    We invented religion so we need to take responsibility about how we want to use.

    So rather than answering that religion is just genes it’s probably more accurate to say “genes plus” to include the personal responsibility bit.

    • milliganp says:

      My secondary school headmaster, a somewhat cynical Xavarian brother, used to say “man creates God in his own image” and I suspect you agree with him. If all religion is just a form of human projection, it is ultimately pointless. If a “good life” can be merely reduced to dying not knowing everything you have done is ultimately pointless, I’d say Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin have not done too badly at all.

      • ignatius says:

        “Man creates God in his own image”
        I would have thought this to be an obvious truism of religion and belief more generally. Left to our own devices what else can we do?
        The whole point of the Christian Faith is that, unless God breaks through then we are still stuck in Plato’s cave, believing that the shadows on the wall are in fact the whole reality.
        That is why there has to be revelation, that is why ‘wisdom’ is a gift. That is why the Christian faith makes so little ‘sense’ and why if we think we understand God then we do not. That is why we are so easily tripped up by our own folly concerning faith and why some form of direction is neccessary.

  8. milliganp says:

    Yesterday’s guardian had an interesting opinion piece about the Church of England and linked to some research about religious views. It seems thar religion has drifted away from the people rather than the other way round. In the research paper a comparison is made with the Danish established religion and social attitudes.

    The Guardian: The Guardian view on the Church of England: the numbers are not adding up.
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/26/the-guardian-view-on-the-church-of-england-the-numbers-are-not-adding-up

    British Academy – No Religion Britain

    Click to access 11_Woodhead_1825.pdf

    I hope the links don’t mess up the blog.

    • FZM says:

      I found some of the claims in the ‘No Religion…’ report surprising; for example, Catholic teaching on some of the social issues it mentions has stayed constant during the whole period and presentation of the teaching seems to have softened over time, not become more outspoken. On the other hand it seems social attitudes have shifted (or have been shifted) significantly. Then, solutions proposed seemed to be toning down or removing the distinctly Christian content to religious activities and services. Maybe this is possible for the more local Protestant churches, but the Catholic and Orthodox churches are world churches which can’t easily modify their worship and teaching in this way.

      At present it also looks like new tendencies again are appearing. at least in the US. This time towards a less compromising attitude to progressive social trends and a growing political/identitarian interest in religious tradition among politically engaged young men:

      https://unherd.com/2021/11/the-american-rights-civil-war/

      The young ‘Conservative Ink’ guys it mentions probably are more inclined to read Julius Evola’s book ‘Revolt against the Modern World’ and will like Society of Pius X style Catholicism, even it they are agnostic themselves.

      • ignatius says:

        I couldn’t fathom the ‘unherd’ article at all, a different world and far away. I liked the ‘No religion’ report though:
        “My surveys reveal the extent of ethical liberalism in Britain today. Contrary to the view that there is pervasive moral fragmentation, they show that there is actually a massive moral consensus about the importance of individual freedom of choice, with the overwhelming majority of British people (about 90 per cent), both religious and non-religious, affirming ethical liberalism.”
        I think this is true of us here in Britain. I’ve been speaking with probably dozens of non church attenders recently and tend to find among them a sort of curiosity about faith issues but pretty much an indifference towards the church. I can understand this quite easily since ‘ethical liberalism’ has its own dignity particularly regarding the various issues currently being debated. I’m not personally much surprised by this indifference either. It seems to me that, without a personal and dynamic faith experience, there is very little reason to go to church at all. Basically it seems to me that the Socio/political sphere has overlapped then encroached rather the religious. I expect that this will be especially true of those ‘none’s’ who went to church for awhile as children but then simply stopped going.
        What I’m not sure about is how much this matters in the grand scheme of things.

  9. milliganp says:

    Just some rambling thoughts on “what makes us what we are”.
    – Observing my grandchildren it is obvious that their personality “emerges” – i.e. it seems to have been there from the very beginning (or at least significant aspects).
    – Neurology seems to indicate that there is a “God / Religious Experience” area in the brain.
    – Experiments with certain psychotropic and hallucinogenic substances produce in those given the drug experiences similar to extreme religious (transcendent) experiences.
    This would seem to indicate that a significant part of what we are is ‘hard wired’ or pre-existant.
    Thankfully, as a Catholic, this chimes with Augustine’s “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
    It also points to the possibility that some of our human flaws are instrinsic (original sin?)

  10. David Smith says:

    milliganp writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/10/19/is-religion-no-more-than-genes/#comment-65019 ) :

    // Neurology seems to indicate that there is a “God / Religious Experience” area in the brain. //

    There’s Science again, presumptuously mucking about with things it can’t understand.

    Humans are designed to question, and if they don’t come across an easy answer, they just make one up. What shall we call this location in the brain that causes the subject to hallucinate when we shock it? Let’s call it the God Locus. If that catches on, we can write a book about it and become famous.

    // “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” //

    Nah, tranquilizers and opium do that. It’s all superstition. What these people need is a drug that takes away all anxiety but leaves the patient submissive, compliant, and fully functional. We’re working on that, sir.

  11. ignatius says:

    // Neurology seems to indicate that there is a “God / Religious Experience” area in the brain. //

    I remember this research. This has all been updated. It was that the right parietal lobe, if traumatically impaired, tended to give rise to more religious experience. They scanned and surveyedd 20 people with traumatic impairment to the area and then got interested in the results Now the thought is that the brain response is a bit more complex and diffuse but nonetheless is ‘hard wired for God’ I find this odd little branch of Neuro psychology to be quite comforting, after all what use would be a brain be otherwise….. 🙂

  12. David Smith says:

    FZM writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/10/19/is-religion-no-more-than-genes/#comment-65063 ) :

    // At present it also looks like new tendencies again are appearing. //

    Not so new (from Touchstone, November/December 2021) :

    // The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death. Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, German radio broadcast, Christmas Day, 1969. //

  13. David Smith says:

    Thanks, FZM, for the pointer to the “Unherd” article ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/10/19/is-religion-no-more-than-genes/#comment-65063 ). I suspect that what confused ignatius about it ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/10/19/is-religion-no-more-than-genes/#comment-65064 ) is hinted at in this quote:

    // It was a for-profit entrepreneurial approach to moral renewal that felt both very American and somewhat baffling to a Bongland ex-Lefty. //

    That confused me, too. The writer assumes that the reader understands what all the ideological and movement references point to, and I don’t. But on the upside, it’s a rich mine for further reading. There’s a lot to like in what I’m seeing of conservatism in America. Americans can be frenetically impulsive, but that’s not wholly a bad thing.

    • FZM says:

      I think I recognised most of them, even if only distantly, apart from that one. I’ve never come across that before. American political thinking is quite important because in most cases sooner or later it starts to influence us here in the UK as well.

      It looks like US conservatism is being renewed by the Trump phenomena and in reaction to identity politics and the great awokening. (This probably explains the young Conservatism Ink contingent). Something similar is going on in France, US style woke politics is making some progress among the young, but the right wing response in the form of ‘Generation Z’ (for Eric Zemmour) is very strong.

      I agree with what ignatius said about the strength of liberal individualist perspectives in the UK, but identity politics is slowly growing in influence, and it has been almost deliberately constructed in opposition to the established liberal views.

  14. David Smith says:

    FZM writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/10/19/is-religion-no-more-than-genes/#comment-65089 ) :

    // identity politics is slowly growing in influence, and it has been almost deliberately constructed in opposition to the established liberal views //

    Sovereignism seems to me a natural reaction to the blatant authoritarianism people have passively been putting up with over the past two years. Of course, the two are not opposites, but better the devil you do than the devil you don’t. In Britain, both viable political parties are what look to this American decidedly left of center, so there’s nearly nowhere in real life for the British voter to go, but there are clear and real choices here and in parts of Europe, among them, apparently, France.

    By the way, I think letting the media furnish all the definitions of all the labels for what little political discussion exists in the media is foolish. For example, agreeing to call the crazy left “liberal” and the sensible right “nationalist” is ceding the argument up front.

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