« Insourcing | Gene Expression Front Page | Explanations anyone? »
December 18, 2004

God & the evolutionists

When talking about evolution to the public it is very important (in the American context) to emphasize that religion & Darwin are not plainly at odds, that there are many religious folk who accept the basic fact of evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, via Chris Mooney, I see that Greg Graffen of Bad Religion has published a thesis titled Evolution, Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist World-View. Graffen surveyed prominent evolutionary biologists on their attitude to and adherence toward religion and other metaphysical extra-scientific issues. One key point to note is that they are members of the National Academy of Sciences.

About 5.5% of respondents assented to a belief in a personal God and 6.5% believed in a Deist God (Survey results, PDF). This tracks well with the Larson & Witham survey of 1998 of NAS members, 14% of mathematicians, 7.5% of physicists and 5.5% of biologists responded that they believed in a personal God. So, it seems clear that evolutionary scientists are not special in their irreligion, rather, it itends to be a property of NAS members in general. Opinions about immortality (life after death) seem to also be about the same for the two surveys.

72% of the surveyed evolutionary biologists believed that religion might be an adaptation, while only a minority agreed with the idea of separate "magestaria" (a Gouldian term), with an even smaller faction assenting to a seamless harmony. Religion is a rather complex social phenomena strongly influenced by environmental factors, but that evolutionary biologists should be open to an adaptationist and functional explanation of religious behavior strongly suggests to me a Gouldian separation between the social and biological is a minoritarian position.

Addendum: My current opinion is that in the most general sense a naive functional interpretation is difficult for religion, though I suspect that the varieties in which it manifests itself are constrained by functional-biological delimiters. But "religion" is a very broad definition, and so a one-size-fits-all explanation is probably untenable.

Posted by razib at 04:11 PM