Home » Evolution, News, Religion » Robert Bellah: Those who wish to think that a religion can be explained biologically are really devoted to genetic determinism

Robert Bellah: Those who wish to think that a religion can be explained biologically are really devoted to genetic determinism

In “Conversation with Robert Bellah” ( The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2012),
Hans Joas asks, re Bellah’s recent book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age,

What is wrong, so to speak, with the biologically founded critique of religion? On the one hand, you are deeply interested in this biological grounding of the phenomenon of religion, but on the other hand, you are so sharply critical of certain biological attempts to deal with religion. What is the difference?

It really comes down to a question, which I would argue is metaphysical, not scientific: the question of determinism versus freedom. Those who wish to think that a religion can be explained biologically are really devoted to genetic determinism. There must be some inborn genetic tendencies that lead to religion. At the crudest level, there’s a gene for believing in God. I reject that entirely, not on scientific grounds, but on the metaphysical basis of those scientific views because I think we can interpret the entire biological history of life in terms of creativity and freedom. Consciousness and purpose go back to the very beginnings of life, and if even single-celled animals have some very minimal (what the scientists call) “sentience” and know where they are and what they need to do, then obviously humans have a far more complex form of consciousness, assisted by language, and what we do simply cannot be reduced to a matter of genes—the genes that helped us develop vocal chords and a kind of brain that could deal with language. We owe a lot to biology, but each level we reach has its own autonomy. And conscious, reflective, ethical human beings cannot be explained in terms of biology except insofar as culture itself is, in a certain historical sense, a product of certain kinds of evolution.

I really would push my argument back into this animal sphere itself. In my book I cite many people who argue that organisms participate in their own evolution, that there is an element of freedom and creativity that goes very deep into the biological world. So my rejection of biological explanations for religion is really a rejection of a certain kind of rigid reductionism and determinism that I think is a metaphysical prejudice and does not arise from the science of biology.

It may not “arise from” the science of biology but it utterly dominates it. And that is a fact with consequences.

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11 Responses to Robert Bellah: Those who wish to think that a religion can be explained biologically are really devoted to genetic determinism

  1. “there is an element of freedom and creativity that goes very deep into the biological world.” – Robert Bellah

    Kinda gets at some of the critiques levelled recently at BioLogos, doesn’t it?

    “I am not rejecting the notion of natural selection or even the notion of the struggle for existence, but I think they are too narrow views of evolution.” – Robert Bellah

    Surely that must disqualify him from being an IDer!

    “The misinterpretation of people like Dawkins and Hitchens is that religion is just a mistaken proto-science. But religion is about action, and faith is about trust.” – Bellah

    One thing is clear. And it marks a difference with internet blogger Timaeus’ abstract, disembodied, detached view of IDM-ID: “the body is central in religion—embodied practice.” Unfortunately, the same is not (yet) true of ‘intelligent design/Intelligent Design’.

    “a clash of civilizations is exactly what we don’t need in the world today” – Bellah

    Exactly, well said! Neither do we need a ‘culture war.’ So, what are IDM-IDers doing to overcome the ‘culture war’ instead of feeding into it? Digging their feet in against Human Extension as an alternative view of ID and Evolutionism or being ready to embrace it?

    “The misinterpretation of people like Dawkins and Hitchens is that religion is just a mistaken proto-science. But religion is about action, and faith is about trust.” – Bellah

    The misinterpretation of people like Meyer and Behe is that intelligent design theory is just a true proto-science (trying to prove ontological objectivity – neutrally observed existence – ‘design’). But intelligent design theory is about action (processes), and designing is about choices (which are not yet part of the theory).

  2. This guy, Stephen L Talbott, has it nailed, hammered flush and punched right the way through:

    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/.....-of-beings

    “But no cellular entity or process is exempt; everything has been or will be baptized a ‘mechanism.’”

    “Baptised!” This guy’s a street-fighter. Stop him. He’s gouging their eyes!

    Now he’s talking about their biological ANIMISM! Reminds me of my brother-in-law calling me an animist for cursing an object I’d banged my head against. But I think they’re much more faithful, even pious animists. Very touchy about sacrilege; witch-hunters, really. Surely, animist bitter-enders (like the Japanese soldiers, emerging from the jungle in the late fifties).

  3. Gregory said:

    “Exactly, well said! Neither do we need a ‘culture war.’ So, what are IDM-IDers doing to overcome the ‘culture war’ instead of feeding into it? Digging their feet in against Human Extension as an alternative view of ID and Evolutionism or being ready to embrace it?”

    Gregory, I’m sorry, but if you think that Christians are just going to roll over and let the materialists take over the culture, you are a bit naive. There is a culture war going on and although you may control the schools and educational institutions right now, we will continue to battle for the hearts of men and women around the world. People need to know Jesus! They need a firm foundation for their life, one that offers, hope for the future and hope for the here and now. One that offers hope for change and meaning in life. One that offers them moral guidance and even one that reminds them of their responsibility before God for how they live.

    Jesus told us to go into all the world and preach the gospel and love all men. The foundation of the gospel is the book of Genesis. God created this world and this is a vital doctrine that will destroy our civilization if it is lost. Creation is one of the evidences for the existence of God so yes, we will continue to defend God’s Word. We will continue fight this culture war because the other side will not back down.

    What are we supposed to do? Just roll over and let the humanists have their way with our society and our children and our beliefs and values? Is that what you mean by putting to rest the culture war? You want us just to accept your belief that there is no meaning to the universe and human life? Sorry. That is a poison that we will not allow to take over our society without a fight.

    You ask what IDers are doing to overcome the culture war. I would ask you what you are doing to overcome the culture war?

    Please tell us how we can avoid a culture war on this very important subject.

  4. always “culture war” going, every place of man on earth, every year since beginning of man, always conflicting big, small.

    sergio

  5. sergio,

    What are the opposites of ‘warring’ and ‘conflicting’? Has that also been going on every place on earth since the beginning of man?

    gregory

  6. tjguy

    Ithink you’re attacking the wrong Gregory.

  7. Gregory,

    where peace happen, conflict happen elsewhere, then some time change places, conflict here, peace there. East fight West, North-South, communism-capitalism, christian-muslim, muslim-buddhist, buddhist-taoist, zoroaster-christian, mongol-chinese, skin light-skin dark of americas. everwhere everyone have peace and conflict and back. each peoples want save own culture from being made into stranger culture.

    sergio

  8. Thanks sergio. Your point is important (especially pluralising ‘americas’!). If war vs. peace, can we then say conflict might be opposite to cooperation or collaboration (cf. allied forces)?

    In Russian terms vzaimopomosh = ‘mutual aid.’ This is a very different view (via K.F. Kessler and P. Kropotkin) than Darwin’s.

    “Please tell us how we can avoid a culture war on this very important subject.”

    Look to an alternative way to circumscribe evolutionism and toward theories and methods that involve collaboration, cooperation and working together (cf. YOYO vs. WITT). Human Extension is one of those approaches, which offers ‘tension’ instead of ‘struggle’ and ‘cooperation’ instead of ‘competition.’ That is, unless you wish to go on warring for war’s sake.

    As Jon notes, if you’re going to attack the wrong Gregory, you’ll end up simply supporting the ideology of intelligent designism, rather than showing willingness to engage in a ‘dialogue of civilisations’ that benefits humanity.

    IDM-IDers continue to feed into their ‘culture war’ strategy and seem to have no way out on the horizon to offer; instead they embrace and become the war itself in their communications. No peace on the front is possible for ID warriors.

  9. I’m sorry Jon and Gregory if I misinterpreted or misunderstood something!

  10. 10

    Gregory,

    thank you, such discussion very close to heart.

    sergio

  11. Since my name was mentioned negatively in #1 above, I’d like to clarify my own view of Bellah’s remarks.

    I’ve read the entire Bellah article that is being discussed, and while I don’t endorse every opinion Bellah utters, I like quite a bit of what he says: his ecological remarks, his critique of reductionism and determinism, his rejection of the attempt by some scientists to turn evolution into a surrogate religion, and other things.

    Bellah does not mention either ID or BioLogos in his discussion, so it is forcing things to try to squeeze some anti-ID points out of Bellah’s remarks. But it’s clear from his remarks that he finds standard neo-Darwinism shallow even as a purely biological account of evolution.

    Amusingly, in the full interview, Bellah commits the cardinal sin in Gregory’s book — he speaks of the “evolution” of religion. And in the excerpt above, he speaks of culture as the product of evolution. Gregory normally jumps down the throat of people who extend “evolution” to cover things in the human world, and normally lectures people to speak of “change” or use some other word instead of “evolution.” But Bellah gets a free pass on his usage here. I guess it would not do to criticize a big name that you want to use as a weapon against ID people.

    The following two paragraphs are instructive:

    “The misinterpretation of people like Dawkins and Hitchens is that religion is just a mistaken proto-science. But religion is about action, and faith is about trust.” – Bellah

    ‘The misinterpretation of people like Meyer and Behe is that intelligent design theory is just a true proto-science (trying to prove ontological objectivity – neutrally observed existence – ‘design’). But intelligent design theory is about action (processes), and designing is about choices (which are not yet part of the theory).’ – Gregory

    Gregory fails to perceive the all-important difference: Dawkins and Hitchens did not invent religion, but Meyer and Behe etc. invented intelligent design. Meyer and Behe thus have the authority to “interpret” ID, i.e., to say what it is about, whereas Dawkins and Hitchens have no parallel authority to interpret religion. Meyer and Behe know what they meant when they said what they said; Dawkins and Hitchens don’t know what Moses and Buddha and Zoroaster and Christ meant when they said what they said. Gregory’s parallel thus fails.

    As for “intelligent design theory is about action (processes)” — that is simply false. The ID people themselves say otherwise, and no one else’s opinion matters.

    However, it is true that designers make choices. Note, however, that ID theory examines the choices, not “the process of choosing.” And, where the designer is God, “the process of choosing” or “the process of designing” will be forever inaccessible to the human mind — God does not admit us into his counsels — but the results, i.e., the design choices made by the creator, are in principle entirely comprehensible. This is why Gregory’s project, which is to understand “the designing process,” and the ID project, which is to understand only the result of the process, are distinct; thus, ID, though it doesn’t have to be (and isn’t) hostile to Gregory’s project, has no need of it.

    Gregory’s charge that ID people have been “digging in their feet” against Human Extension is preposterous. In fact, ID people haven’t opposed Human Extension at all. They’ve merely noted what Gregory himself has admitted, that it has nothing to do with what they are interested in, i.e., detecting design in nature; thus, they don’t oppose Human Extension; they ignore it.

    As for what ID people are doing to overcome the culture war, since neo-Darwinism is one of the main sources of the culture war, by undermining neo-Darwinism, they will remove one of the culture war’s causes. Once the general public is convinced that “science” no longer endorses the view that “randomness” can build new body plans and create human beings, the general public’s hostility to “science” (which hostility exists only in relation to origins questions, anyway) will cease. So ID people are doing their best to create peace between religion and science, by getting rid of false science. But the biologists over at BioLogos, and the young sociologist from Eastern Europe, keep interfering with the program by shafting ID proponents in the back. Apparently they want the culture war between “randomness” and “design” to continue indefinitely, rather than to see the final victory of “design” over “randomness.” A strange tactic for a Christian, or any theist, to take.

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