Religion, Atheism and The Evolution of Symbolic Thought.

In a break from the usual, this is an informal short philosophical essay (attempt!)  on some things I have been thinking about lately. This is not an attack on atheism or religion.  Disclaimer – I’m agnostic.

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  (our species, Homo Sapiens, emerged a mere 120,000 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.