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In evolutionary terms, is religion so bad?

The Dawkins rampage against religion raises the question why religion in the first place? On strict evolutionary grounds, isn’t religion an adaptation that offers humans survival and reproductive advantages? It’s is not at all clear that atheism offers similar benefits (how many Dawkins-style village atheists were there among our hunter-gatherer ancestors?).

Consider, for instance, the following piece by Chuck Colson on the negative sloping demographic trends in Russia. Or does Dawkins also want to target not just religious believers but overpopulation? Perhaps he should make common cause with Eric Pianka, whose fondest dream for the human race is that 90 percent be wiped out by Ebola virus (see here).

A Sterile Worldview
Vanishing Russia
By Chuck Colson
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, Russia “has lost the equivalent of a city of 700,000 people every year since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.” We’re talking about the population of San Francisco or Baltimore—a grim reminder of how fruitless some worldviews can be.

If demographic trends hold steady, Russia’s population, which stands at 142 million today, will drop to 52 million by 2080. At that point, according to Sergei Mironov, the chairman of the upper house of the Dumas, the Russian parliament, “there will no longer be a great Russia . . . it will be torn apart piece by piece, and finally cease to exist.”

Mironov isn’t alone in his fears. Russia’s demographic crisis raises “serious questions about whether Russia will be able to hold on to its lands along the border with China or field an army, let alone a workforce to support the ill and the elderly.”

Even more disturbing than the numbers are the reasons behind them: that is, “one of the world’s fastest-growing AIDS epidemics . . . alcohol and drug abuse . . . [and] suicide” are among the leading causes of Russia’s shrinking population.

What’s more, last year there were 100,000 more abortions than births in Russia. And many women who want children can’t have them: “[A]n estimated 10 million Russians of reproductive age are sterile because of botched abortions or poor health.”

As Scripps-Howard columnist Terry Mattingly puts it, “we have suicide, AIDS, substance abuse, rampant abortion, and a loss of hope in the future . . . in a nation that, in the past century, saw the rise of an atheistic regime that tried to stamp out the practice of faith . . . Do you think there might be a religion element in here somewhere?”

Well, not according to the Los Angeles Times or the Russian government. The Times’s story did not mention the role of religion—or, in this case, its absence—in its analysis of Russia’s plight. And the Russian government is trying to avert catastrophe by using the same techniques that have failed in the rest of the world: that is, bribing people to have children.

They will fail in Russia, as well, because they don’t address the real problem: The real problem is a loss of faith. Life has always been tough in Russia, and Russians are famously fatalistic. But, as writers such as Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn told us, Christianity helped Russians to see their suffering as redemptive and not to lose hope.

Seventy-four years of official atheism robbed the Russian people of this source of hope. This, more than a ruined economy and environmental degradation, is what has put Russia on the road to extinction. It’s a tragic reminder that ideas, and the worldviews and attitudes they engender, have very real consequences.

It’s also a cautionary tale, for what happened to Russia is, in many ways, just an exaggerated and accelerated version of the secularism and materialism overtaking much of Europe. There, as in Russia, secularism is proving to be literally sterile. And maybe it is a lesson we had better learn here as courts and cultural elite continue to marginalize the Christian faith in America.

Chuck Colson is the Chairman and Founder of BreakPoint and of Prison Fellowship Ministries

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30 Responses to In evolutionary terms, is religion so bad?

  1. This has been the thrust of some of my recent posts. Even ceding their point of view. Just look at the results.

  2. And look also at the number of children: Mike (Behe) vs Richard /D.): 9-1. This yields an expected exponential growth vs an expected exponential decrese. Who is going to win at the end? :-)

  3. Newsflash: religion and good health are correlated:

    http://www.loris.net/thepaperweb.html

    Excerpt: “Although alternative explanations cannot be completely discounted, for the time being it seems that the various elements found in religiosity combine in a somewhat unique way to inhibit the development of disease. ”

    So, for reasons of truth or reasons of pragmatism, or both, we should support the spiritual life.

  4. “It’s a tragic reminder that ideas, and the worldviews and attitudes they engender, have very real consequences.”

    Which is why the evolutionary biologist who wrote “Guns, Germs & Steel” gets it so wrong. Ideas and beliefs are what determine our future, not mere circumstances.

  5. My pastor has 9 kids. Clearly he has demonstrated higher differential reproductive success than Richard Dawkins.

  6. Correlations are tricky things. What’s Colson’s explanation for the population explosion in (communist) China?

  7. Materialism is just in Europe and Russia but also im my heart. I’m more materialist than I want to admit. Unlike what Dawkins claim living by faith isn’t easy. Yet I’ve found living by faith more rewarding. (It’s a lot easier to live with a lot money in the bank than depend on God each day to provide your needs with nothing lefted over)
    It’s my materialist side I don’t like which lead me to the Lord and the church. As Jesus stated “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul?…”

  8. correction : Materialism isn”tjust in Europe but also in my heart.

  9. 9

    Michael Shermer doesn’t seem to think that religion is so bad. Heck, even “Evolution fits well with good theology.” What’s the problem with religion?

    I’d like to hear Dawkins and Shermer debate this point.

  10. yes, I think humans are meant to be in small groups. Our modern way of life isn’t our “natural” way of life. I think churches are great at offering a core component of a society, which is a smaller social group, united in ideas, with a hierarchy of leadership. (preacher is the alpha male) There are so many benefits from a good church that I totally agree that religion in this sense can be beneficial.
    While religion can be a source of harm, whether you like it or not, religion is the filter of ideas for our society. Anti-slavery, civil rights, worker rights, etc. all had to get the “OK” from the large religions before they became mainstream. Social change always happens at the church.
    Ken Miller will do far more for evolution theory than Dawkins will. The key to getting this knowledge out is by finding ways to integrate it into the ideas already held by people.
    I like Dawkin’s writings on evolution, but his attitude toward religion really turns me off.

  11. To Dawkins, religion is just another superstition we must be saved from – to be fair to the guy.

    I cannot separate Dawkins’s actions towards religion from these fellows: http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/10/.....index.html

  12. jaredl,

    “To Dawkins, religion is just another superstition we must be saved from – to be fair to the guy.”

    I think that’s being more than fair – it’s downplaying the level of rabidity Dawkins displays regarding the subject, and overstating how well-meaning he truly is, just by his writings alone.

  13. Talk about jumping to conclusions.

    Birth rates vary in a most complex fashion. A few statistics (backed up with links).

    The total fertility rate (ignore crude birth rates – they are a function of the age of the population) for developed countries is 1.6. The TFR for Russia is 1.4 – low but by no means the lowest – catholic Spain for example is lower at 1.3.
    http://www.prb.org/pdf05/05WorldDataSheet_Eng.pdf

    The TFR for the USA at 2.0 is high for a developed country. The difference between the USA total fertility rate and Western Europe turns out to pretty much match the much higher teenage pregancy rate in the USA. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S....._exception

    The TFR for white USA is about 1.8 (less than France). http://www.amconmag.com/2004_12_06/cover.html

    8 of the 10 lowest birthrates are excommunist Eastern Europe. Some of these countries are very religious (e.g. Poland).
    http://extranet.gallup-interna.....elease.pdf

    Possibly there is something about being released from Communism that suppresses birthrates? But I am noy going to jump to conclusions.

  14. “(preacher is the alpha male)”

    Any preacher worth his salt should consider himself the omega male, the servant of all. Alpha male preachers, who prance around large stages and like receiving applause, I find horribly suspect.

    To the article, muslims are currently doing this job very well in Europe, where native birthrates are in sharp decline even in Catholic bastions like Spain and Italy. Add in immigration (particulary if Turkey gets in the EU) and you will see the end of Europe as you know it by the end of the century. I doubt it will end prettily, as a rising majority seeks to change laws to its favor (probably Sharia) and the resultant clashes become impossible to contain. Call me alarmist, but living in different parts of Europe the last couple of years has really opened my eyes a bit to this reality.

  15. Proximity does not equal causation.

    I have a good friend who lives and teaches in Moscow. Some of the factors he has observed in the country which contribute to the general decline (both economically and numerically):

    1. Government corruption

    While the roots of this were present under communism, it was held somewhat at bay. Now it is rampant and there is little accountability for officials who break the law.

    2. Men leaving wives and children

    Because the USSR lost so many men in World War II, many men grew up in households without fathers. There isn’t the social pressure for a man to remain with a wife, especially when there are children.

    While religion may play a role in this, I suspect it truly has more to do with how these men were raised. Just looking at US statistics about single parent households demonstrates even “Christianized” countries have problems here.

    3. Poor medical care

    Because there was little impetus under communism to go through the work to become a physician–they didn’t make much more than the average worker–there is a tremedous shortage of personell and facilities.

    While Christianity should impact each of these in some way, Russian economic policies likely had much to do with getting to this place.

  16. “as courts and cultural elite continue to marginalize the Christian faith in America.”

    I find this line of thought troubling. First, Christianity so permeates our society compared to other religious views I have trouble accepting the premise that Christians are somehow marginalized. As others have noted people like Colson have turned Christians into their “voting block” and use code words like “marginalized” and “activist judges” to raise money and increase their power.

    The second reason I find this troubling is: The best way to keep people from living the radically sold-out Christian life is to make Christianity and the State one entity. Once you do that then Christianity becomes the “least common denominator faith.”

    As Christians in the US, we are not very deep thinkers. We tend to be “knee jerk” kinds of people who love to be fed the warm milk of propaganda. Dover? It was that crazy activist judge.

    Yeah, right.

  17. There are many factors that effect fertility rates but anybody that claims that faith is not one of the leading factors is kidding themselves. Faith positively affects the fertility rate. Issues that lower the fertility rate such as abortion, AIDS, and men leaving their wives, are related to faith, since people of faith are less likely to be at risk for AIDS, have abortions, or leave their wives.

    Government corruption has nothing to do with the fertility rate.

  18. Jehu,

    Thank you for making a thoughtful post.

    Actually, fertility rates are dramatically affected by political instability/political policy.

    If, as a result of political corruption, there are less resources available for the people, husbands are more likely to desert their families and women are more likely to abort or abandon a child they cannot afford to feed and shelter.

    Even in a stable government where resources are scarce (China), selective abortion and abandonment are a significant problem.

    A reader on another board also forwarded this study to me:

    http://www.religiousconsultati....._rates.htm

    This documents the more the population of a country identifies themselves as religious, the higher the rate of STDs, abortion, homicide and teen pregnancy.

    We often assume countries like the US have been profoundly affected in our behavior by our faith. Sometimes the data does not bear that out.

    I have not read anywhere the correlation documented between faith and fertility rate. If you have a source I would be interested in seeing it.

    I don’t have a problem saying I believe Christianity is generally good for a society. I don’t, however, think it is the single most important societal influence as Colson seems to imply.

    Political and economic stability are likely the most important factors in fertility rate.

  19. Fascinating! Of course religion—if it arose through Natural Selection (and what didn’t according to the Darwinists?)—it conveys an advantage. So why should Dawkins decry it so when he admits that he’s not so sure he has a logical argument for moral outrage against real serious crimes? Maybe it’s the totalitarian impulse. He wants to remake the world his way, and what has logic to do with that? Maybe also it’s the sound of the argument: Natural Selection made you poor yahoos that way, but we elites (through plastic surgery, stem-cell research, cloning, reeducation camps, etc.) can change all that.

    Then as to the web reference in 10:

    Efthimiou explains why it is ghosts can’t walk among us while also gliding through walls, like Patrick Swayze in the movie “Ghost.” That violates Newton’s law of action and reaction. If ghosts walk, their feet apply force to the floor, but if they go through walls they are without substance, the professor says.

    Ah, yes, but we seem to have such in the New Testament (John 20:19). I’ve always supposed this meant the ability to pass through a selected mass by choice. One has to wonder. Does the Deity not only perform miracles (defy physical laws?), act agentively (just as do humans), and perhaps also possess a technology beyond ours?

  20. This line of thought’s a little similar to Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, I think. If religion is an adaptive cognitive mechanism, then the (religion-disparaging) naturalist has good reason to think that adaptive cognitive mechanisms aren’t all that reliable.

  21. With regard to faith and demographics, there are indeed a great many things at work, most of them secular (as in “long term trend”).

    For instance, what is probably the most cohesive sect in the US, LDS, has seen female TLF fall from the high fours to around 2.4 in something like forty years.

    As for Dawkins the source of religion: One thing he perpetually (and oddly) fails to consider is that human characteristics may entail emergent properties. For example, speech (whatever its cause) requires significant abstraction and symbol manipulation ability. An emergent property of speech is (probably) mathematical ability.

    Nothing in our environment of evolutionary relevance required other than rudimentary math, but we can’t both speak and not be able to do advanced math.

    Similarly with religion. It is an emergent property of the abilities to analyze patterns, seek explanations, have a sense of time, and knowledge of mortality.

    So religion need not necessarily have been “selected for,” but rather an unavoidable emergent property of those abilities.

    If true, that means tilting against religion, per se, is a fools errand.

    Where he would better spend his time is addressing why the major religions are creations of particular revelation, with the attendant creation of universalist, exclusionary, moral communities, that have led to no end of bloody conflict.

    Emergent properties, you might say.

  22. ScaryFacts,

    Actually, fertility rates are dramatically affected by political instability/political policy.

    Such things can have an effect on fertility, lot’s of things can. However, generally speaking, those things do not negatively impact birth rate. Palestinian women in the Gaza strip have one of the highest fertility rates in the world, 5.78 children per women, and they live in a model of government corruption, financial hardship, and political instability.
    https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/gz.html

    A reader on another board also forwarded this study to me:

    http://www.religiousconsultati....._rates.htm

    This documents the more the population of a country identifies themselves as religious, the higher the rate of STDs, abortion, homicide and teen pregnancy.

    The study you cite compares 19 countries, it doesn’t gather statistics on individuals, and it doesn’t control for other factors, so it’s method doesn’t justify its conclusions.

    I have not read anywhere the correlation documented between faith and fertility rate. If you have a source I would be interested in seeing it.

    All of the studies I am aware of show much higher birth rates among people of faith.

    “The share of the world’s population that is religious is growing, after nearly a century of modest decline. This effect has been produced by the younger generations in the developing world rejecting secularisation, combined with higher religious fertility levels. Throughout the world, the religious tend to have more children, irrespective of age, education or wealth. “Secular” Europe is no exception. In an analysis of European data from ten west European countries in the period 1981-2004 I found that next to age and marital status, a woman’s religiosity was the strongest predictor of her number of offspring.”

    http://www.prospect-magazine.c.....hp?id=7913

  23. Mark Frank,

    A variety of factors affect birth rates, including race, education, and income. Therefore, simply comparing the birth rates of various nations against their alleged religiousness is not a valid methodology to determine the effect of religion on fertility. The proper study is to compare the fertility of women after controlling for other factors. For example, comparing the fertility rate of educated white women of faith with educated white women who are athiests, etc.

    Prospect magazine has a very good article on the demographics of faith in its November issue. Here is the link. http://www.prospect-magazine.c.....hp?id=7913

  24. “Fascinating! Of course religion—if it arose through Natural Selection (and what didn’t according to the Darwinists?)—it conveys an advantage.”

    This has been said before, but I think it’ a very important point. If Dawkins truly believes that Darwinism is correct, then he should be totally impartial to religion, and in fact study it with an open mind to learn evolutions “reason” for selecting it for survival. My point in this is, I think it’s clear that Dawkins is an atheist first, and Darwinist second. It seems to me that his hatred of anything “God” would exist with or without Darwin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Darwinism actually comprised very little of his thinking. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Dawkins actually believed in God, but for whatever reason hates Him. I really think he could give a hoot about science or Darwin, and much more enjoys attacking anything to do with religion. Why he does this is another question.

  25. Indeed, Jehu. Aggregating a nation of believers with its unbelievers and then labeling the results as reflective of a society with high claimed faith is bad statistics or, at best, nearly useless. You have to control, and even the divorce statistics breakdown differently when you separate those who claim to be “Christian” along the lines of those who attend services with regularity vs. nominal Christians. Also, when you factor in among the number of total divorces those that are 2nd and 3rd divorces (or beyond) things change again. I don’t see why a nominal Christian on his fourth marriage should skew the rates with such weight.

  26. Jehu

    I take Prospect and already read the article thanks. As I remember his point was that religious communities do tend have a higher birthrate than secular communities (but until now in Europe this has been more than compensated for by a tendency for children in religious families to become secular as they grow up). I don’t challenge this. But that is just one of many factors affecting birthrate, and to conclude that Russia’s current low birthrate is primarily because of “loss of faith” when birthrates are plunging all over the world is sheer conjecture.

  27. rswood,

    That is a good point, all the statistics I have seen show a tremendous behavioral difference between Christians who rarely attend service and those who attend frequently, including Catholics who attend communion rarely and those who attend frequently. All to often, those who want to discount the benefits of faith will use statistics that do not distinguish between those who rarely attend services and those who attend frequently.

  28. 28

    An article today’s New York Times indicates that Hungary still has the highest recorded suicide rate in the world. The rate is about four times higher than that of the U.S.

    The next highest recorded rates show that in Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Sweden about 25 people out of 100,000 kill themselves. Dr. Buda said that three countries that do not publish suicide data, the European part of the Soviet Union, East Germany and Rumania probably had suicide rates above 30 per 100,000.

    Also,

    In other high-suicide countries, the specialists said, the rates remain steady. In Hungary, however, it has been climbing since the mid-1960′s.

    Both researchers stressed that the rise in suicides had been accompanied by dramatic increases in chronic alcoholism, equally worrying to the Government. The study is concentrating strongly on a suspected causal link between the two social ills. A high percentage of suicide victims were alcoholics.

    and

    Rather, the researchers said, this occurred during a far-reaching social transformation that followed the installation of a Communist regime, subsequent liberalization and an economic upswing. In the process, they said, established family and community bonds were weakened or broken.

    Dr. Buda and Mr. Csehe-Szombathy said the opening of a ”second economy,” in which Hungarians could find extra earnings as more or less private entrepreneurs, has sent many Hungarians on a frantic pursuit of the consumer standards of the West. Only, they said, at Hungarian wages and prices it takes much more work for a person to meet such standards.

    Only 30% of Hungarians are atheists, and 50% are Roman Catholics. According to the CIA World Factbook, the population growth rate is -0.25%. So perhaps, at least in the case of Hungary, the great evils are substance abuse and rampant materialism. Or perhaps the problem is that, while most Hungarians profess Christian faith, the nation is not, as a whole, much into religious practice.

  29. Benjy,

    Again, your methods do not justify your conclusions. How do you know whether or not 100% of the suicides in Hungary are athiests? Also, 30% athiest is a very high athiesm rate. The article you cite also sates:

    he next highest recorded rates show that in Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Sweden about 25 people out of 100,000 kill themselves. Dr. Buda said that three countries that do not publish suicide data, the European part of the Soviet Union, East Germany and Rumania probably had suicide rates above 30 per 100,000.

    Setting aside the fact that there is no such country as Czechoslovakia, all of these countries all have a very high athiesm rate.

  30. The article omits mention of the rising birthrate in France that is largely due to the government “bribing” people to have children.

    I do not see how you can completely discount all the obvious factors, many of which were mentioned in the article. Moscow and St. Petersburg, the most secular places in Russia, are doing pretty darn well. It is rural Russia who’s economy completely collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union that is suffering now. A healthy dose of faith would certainly be a good thing, but I cannot see how that would be a fix for the deeply entrenched obstacles towards recovery for the region. It needs primarily time and money. Russia probably does not even have the money to buy the necessary time let alone provide an adequate amount of investment for its hinterlands.

    There is also the issue of calling Soviet Russia atheistic. Officially it was but the penetration of atheism into a deeply religious population was only skin deep. The book “Godless Communists” is a good look at the suppossed transformation of the Russian people from theism to atheism. It appears to be a transition that never actually took place.

    Overall I find Mr. Colson’s analysis to be at best a call for missionaries, who may be able to do a lot of good, but certainly not a revealing analysis of the roots of the grinding poverty and subsequent social problems in rural Russia.

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