Religion, Atheism and The Evolution of Symbolic Thought.

Stone tools provide the first evidence of the evolution of symbolic thought and began to emerge in our hominid ancestors around 2.5 million years ago. The cognitive architecture in the brain had to be in place before the first spark of creativity occurred, before the hominid looked at the crude lump of rock and saw the refined handaxe within it.

hand axe .jpgJust as millions of years later, Michelangelo  looked at a lump of marble and saw Pietà.


The evolution of symbolic thought very likely enabled the evolution of language and technology. The same mechanism also gave rise to art and spirituality, two elements which some together in pre-historic cave paintings and depictions of shamans.

Religion might be said to be  codified human spirituality just as science is codified human innovation and curiosity and ethics is codified morality. They come from the same wellspring  – symbolic thought – and are deeply embedded in evolved human nature.

To call for the end to religion, as many atheists who follow the lead of Dawkins and Harris, is to say you are going after human nature. You then, however, find yourself in bed with social constructionists and postmodernists who deny human nature. This isn’t a rational position. We cannot erase spirituality without also erasing everything else symbolic thought gives us.

I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that’s where Dawkins or Harris would want to be. Yet it’s where the argument takes them. (Edit: this is not a criticism of these individuals. I admire and respect both – and I know Harris doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater with respect to spirituality and symbolic thought. This is just a discussion of the premises of the atheist argument, which Dawkin’s and Harris’ have popularised.)

I agree with them that religion and science should be kept separate. Religion is not science. That is true. Many people also assert that it’s not rational. I don’t agree.

Many of our instinctive biases help us stay alive on a daily basis. To use Jonathan Haidt’s elephant/rider metaphor, the elephant will instinctively take fright at the small thing rustling in the long grass, which could be a mouse, a snake or a tiger. The point is, the elephant doesn’t know until the mouse or tiger reveals itself. This is what we call common sense. Our instinctive biases have functions in terms of fitness. How ever much we scorn them now as intellectuals and rationalists, they helped our ancestors succeed – which is why we are now here, looking at this magic screen, reading words and thinking about abstract things such as symbolic thought. Meta!

But great as it is for helping us not get run over by a bus or eaten by lions, common sense isn’t great for science. Which is why we created the scientific method in the first place. We don’t need a subjective method. That’s already our state in nature. Science is not common sense, it is uncommon sense.

The very natural fear we have of jumping out of our comfort zones, also hampers us taking that further risky step, which might end up in total humiliation and social ostracism; there is no greater fear for a social animal, as humans are.

But getting back to religion; has it actually hampered the progress of science? I can’t see that it has.  The Enlightenment still occurred after the dark ages and in the midst of murder, mayhem and religious zealotry. We still have that of course but, since the beginning of recorded history, when have we ever not?

Would it be possible to erase spirituality and religion from human nature and also not take symbolic thought with it? I can only see that, if it were ever possible to trace that thread along the tangled bank of evolution to cut it off at the source, it would only render us less complex and less human.

I agree, science and religion are two discrete areas, but who am I to deprive a person who has lost loved ones of the hope they will meet them again in another life? It’s none of my bloody business. And it isn’t illogical of them to believe in an afterlife, if it helps get them through the night and look after their surviving loved ones.

I understand that, because atheists do not approve of an unreformed radical Islam and see it as a threat to hard won Western freedoms, they feel the need to go after all religion so as to be logically consistent and not seem bigoted. But the premises of this are flawed. The atheist argument, which denies religion is a part of human nature appears to me to be just as woolly as their opponents, who think God made man in his image. I think we can do better.

If atheists want to go after religion as a political force, then just be honest about it. Argue for a separation of church and state – argue for the continuation of that separation in the West and against religious mission creep into scientific realms. I would agree with them on that.

Science and religion are two separate areas, and both vie for expression; of curiosity on one part, and comfort in the face of certain death on the other. I don’t think that’s a glitch, I think it’s a feature.

In the same way that I think religion should stay out of science, I think science should stay out of religion. Fight to keep that separation distinct yes, but not to erase one or the other. That’s as illogical as postmodernists denying the biological basis of human nature.

Disclaimer: I’m agnostic.


5 thoughts on “Religion, Atheism and The Evolution of Symbolic Thought.

  1. I would say that humans want to understand and interptet the world in order to interact with it more effectively. Symbolic thought is a product of the abstraction of actions towards thought/imagination that has happened in this evolutionary driven process. In this context religions are early proto-sciences which consitute a system of “truths” which can serve as a guide to navigate life more successfully. Handling the fear and sorrow regarding death is one instance. However, other aspects of human nature other than symbolism have manifested in religion as well, e.g. tribalism, blind faith as a tool to assert authority and supress free thought, sexism, homophobia, and many other really unuseful phenomenons. It seems cherry picking to use the example of consolation to stress the usefullness of religion, especially because without faith you can still make peace with death. I would even argue that the belief in a life after death can be counter-productive by instilling passivity in humans where initiative and action would be the correct response.

    The way I know Sam Harris’ positions, he doesn’t think abstract, symbolic thought is negated by saying goodbye to religions, he would probably argue that science is the most refined form of symbolic thought (religion 2.0 or 3.0), because it is a more true reflection of reality and therefore is ultimately more useful for humans adapting to the world. So he wants people to make this refinement in their thinking, not ditch both religions and sound, scientific reasoning. Or maybe that’s just my position 😉

    I think it would be great if you were to have discussion with Sam Harris on his podcast at some point. I know that he enjoys being challenged and that he’s eager to get his positions changed by compelling arguments.

    Thank you for your thoughts, Paula, and my best regards!

    • Thank you. I think tribalism is another evolved trait in all species (human and non-human) linked to kin selection and that it out dates symbolic thought itself. Tribalism is just as embedded in human nature than symbolic thought. Like most behavioral propensities it exists on a continuum from benign to malign with equilibrium in the middle – community cohesiveness on one side, bigotry and xenophobia on the other.

      These natural tendencies are apt to be weaponize by clever people for political ends.

      Maybe if people make Sam aware of the post he might respond. As I say, this isn’t an attack on him or any individual. It’s just an examination of the premises of the argument.

      Thanks again 🙂

  2. I went to a funeral last week, it was a beautiful and peaceful cermony in honor of a loved old woman. Part of the beauty, holieness and comfort lay in the traditional psalms and biblereadings. Pretending that there were any real truth behind some of the usual claims made about meeting ones dead spouse in heaven and beeing littarly with angels will only ridicule all of it.
    Science, and particular the scientific study of different underlying psychological traits in religion will help us understand human behavior and spiritual needs.

  3. I think it was Geoffrey Miller who, on Twitter, said that adaptive mythological beliefs are metaphorical truths whereas maladaptive mythological beliefs are delusions.

    I think that’s a good way to put it.

    I mean, Santa Clause was, historically, a bishop who argued about the divinity of Christ at a church council. But mythologically he’s a cheerful representation of moral causality or perhaps the conscience. So Santa belief is, in that sense true. But St. Nicholas probably doesn’t use time warp tech to give presents on Jesus’ birthday.

    The question, in my mind, that needs to be asked (C.S. Lewis asked it) is what if some metaphorical truths are in fact true true. Like, Jordan Peterson’s convinced that we automatically belief in a highest conception of the good, but that believing in God (who is ineffable) keeps us from totalitarianism and nihilism. So it’s an adaptive myth. But what if the cosmological argument is sound?

    When you said:
    “In the same way that I think religion should stay out of science, I think science should stay out of religion. Fight to keep that separation distinct yes, but not to erase one or the other. That’s as illogical as postmodernists denying the biological basis of human nature.”

    I’m of two minds about it. I think scientists should study religious people (including beliefs and practice). The difficulty, in my mind, is that individuals from different religions and non-religions have different notions of flourishing (both objective and subjective) so studying Buddhism’s effect on well-being vs Mormonism’s will be dependent upon the researcher’s understanding of those ultimate questions. But such research is still, in my opinion, valuable.

    And, I do think that religious people should/could do science. And that they won’t be able to help ‘mixing the two’ in a certain sense. For instance, a Christian who really really believes that diligence is a virtue and that obtaining knowledge of the natural world is a gateway to knowledge about God is likely to publish a lot more in his/her field than one who just sees science as a job and perceives church activity as the field of divine engagement.

    Disclosure: I am a Christian.

    P.S. I had a quote in my mind, I’m remembering, for months and I was certain it was Richard Dawkins. And I searched for it, looked through all his books (I thought it was from the intro to the Selfish Gene). When I suddenly remembered the exact quote, “Those ignorant of their biology are the most enslaved by it.” The only place in the whole world where it was was your Twitter page. But I hadn’t been on Twitter in a long time. It was surreal. Anyway, that’s a great quote.

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