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On the Origin of Religion

Charles Darwin, known today as the father of evolutionary theory wrote his wellknown book, Origin of Species in 1859. Through this book Darwin opened a door that has gotten wider and wider since that time. He suggested an entirely natural process to explain the variation of life forms we see in creation: evolution by means of natural selection.  

Natural selection (i.e., providence) is a good explanation for variation among similar organisms and why species change over time. For example, the individuals of the original dog/wolf kind that exited Noah’s ark after the flood have since developed into many species of wolves, foxes, and dogs. Darwin, however, took natural selection several steps further when he suggested it as a means by which complex life might arise from simpler life forms (e.g. man sharing a common ancestor with worms and fish and bacteria). In doing so, he left the door open for a naturalistic1 explanation for the origin of everything. If one holds to natural selection as the explanation for the development and variation of life from simple, single-celled organisms into complex life forms like humans, they must follow the train of “logic” and also see many other things as being the result of natural selection: not just life itself, but religion and culture. Yes, you read that correctly. Much ink has been spilled in scientific journals on the evolution of things like religion, sports, and music.  

These aren’t new ideas. In Origin of Species, Darwin was largely silent on extending his evolutionary theory to human origins and how to reconcile the existence of a divine presence in a natural world. In his conclusion to Origin of Species, Darwin predicted that as his shocking, new theory would be slowly accepted by the world, “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.2 Darwin soon fulfilled this prophecy by following his own “logic”—if A evolved, then B and C must have evolved also—by publishing another book in 1879, The Descent of Man. In this book Darwin extended his theory of evolution by means of natural selection to the origin of mankind. He also unabashedly applied his theory to the origin of religion. “As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed [evolved], man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.”3 This would supposedly be the first step in the evolution of religion: speculating that there are higher powers out there that cause things to happen. You might call this superstition—superstition being a belief in the existence of other-worldly beings as opposed to religion as worship of these beings. An example of superstition would be the “barbarous people” on the island of Melita, where Paul was shipwrecked on his journey to Rome.  

And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god (Acts 28:36). 

A religious people? No. But surely superstitious in their expectation of Paul’s fated, soon to occur death. And when Paul did not drop dead, they regarded him as the being in control of fate. 

Today, religion is hypothesized as a natural outcome of the human mind. In the popular magazine, Science, Elizabeth Culotta stated: “We are so keenly attuned to the designs and desires of other people that we are hypersensitive to signs of ‘agents’: thinking minds like our own…We tend to attribute random events or natural phenomena to the agency of another being.”4 In other words, God is a figment of our imagination. Culotta also quoted the conclusions of some researchers who studied the perception of life and death in the mind of children: “We [human beings in general] have this unshakeable sense that our minds are immortal…This kind of belief is universal.”5 This “belief” is universal because God is universal, and he reveals himself in his creation. The heavens and the earth and all of the events throughout history shout together, “He is God!” The unbeliever clearly sees this revelation of God, but does not worship him.  

Under the evolutionary worldview, there are a few explanations given for why religion supposedly evolved. One of the more popular explanations is that religion promotes group solidarity. In other words, it encourages cooperative behavior among strangers and therefore produces stable groups of people, which are more likely to survive and reproduce. The rituals6 of any given religion are seen as enabling “the expression and reaffirmation of shared beliefs, norms, and values, and are thus essential for maintaining communal stability and group harmony.”7 Because religion promotes cooperation within a group, it is hypothesized, it also gives that group a selective advantage when it comes to conflict with another group—the more fit group will survive and reproduce, which is the basis of Darwin’s theory. The offspring of these survivors will end up being religious as were their parents, and the practice of religion grows even stronger. 

So why do I need to know this? I already know that unbelievers reject God and say that religion is a figment of our imagination. I don’t believe that, so what’s the big deal?  

It’s important to know these things because if you open the door just a crack to a purely naturalistic understanding of the origin of life, the devil will try to pry it open even further. The train of thought throughout the life of Charles Darwin is a case study in what happens when you leave that door open. Earlier in his life, it seemed as if Darwin thought positively of reconciling God and natural processes operating in the creation. He spoke several times openly of the Creator or referred to God in passing. For example, in the conclusion of his first book, he stated: “There is grandeur in this view of life [evolution via natural selection], with its several powers, having been originally breathed [by God] into a few forms or into one.”8 Recall that later on in life he wrote another book, in which he described man as evolving cognitive abilities and soon thereafter using those abilities to speculate on his own existence. Ultimately though, Darwin failed to reconcile the two because they cannot be reconciled. 

A purely naturalistic worldview takes God out of the picture. It labels religion as just a natural consequence of our hypersensitive, inquisitive minds or as an imaginary moral force that helps keep the members of a religion in check with no purpose in life except survival and reproduction. Thanks be to God for the purpose in our lives that he instills into us each day: the glory of his name. Remember that the revelation of God in creation does not only serve the purpose of leaving the wicked without excuse in the day of judgment. The elect child of God also reads the elegant book of God’s revelation in creation and he magnifies God for his “eternal power and divinity.”9