Mike Kueber's Blog

December 26, 2012

Evolutionary biology explains….

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 10:16 pm
Tags: , , , ,

A few days ago, there was an op-ed piece in the NY Times on one of my favorite subjects – evolutionary biology.   The piece, titled “The Moral Animal,” by British rabbi Jonathan Sacks begins with the premise that religiosity has been declining in Britain and America and then argues that this decline, if it continues, will not bode well for those countries.  What makes Rabbi Sacks’ argument unusual is that it relies on evolutionary biology.

Sacks’ starts his syllogism by stating that man often acts altruistically, even though evolution tends to favor selfish, ruthless behavior.  According to Sachs, this dichotomy results because, as scientists have determined, the human brain has two modes – “The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational….  The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive.  The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.”

Rabbi Sacks supplements the science of the two-speed brain by suggesting that religion tends to amplify the role played by the slow brain – i.e., reflective and rational:

  • “[Religion] strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.”

According to Sacks, the connection between religion and altruism is undeniable:

  • “[Research shows] that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes logically that, because altruism is undeniably a good thing (unless you ask Ayn Rand), religion is an essential foundation to a good America:

  • Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.”

My first thought in reading the Sacks op-ed piece was that his logic didn’t depend on the existence of God, but rather only on people’s belief in God.  That reminded me of the Karl Marx quote – i.e., religion is the opiate of the masses.    

On second thought, I was reminded of the old saying that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God.  And that, too, would be consistent with evolutionary biology.

Although Rabbi Sacks surprised me by making a non-theological argument, NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd made up for that omission in her column today titled, “Why, God?”  In the column, Dowd and her pastor struggle to understand why God would allow the Sandy Hook massacre to occur.

Good luck with that.



  1. I didn’t read Dowd. After years, I found that the only time one can use the word objective in regards to her is when discussing her objective. It is all about her. So, maybe I really missed something this time.

    Over and over again we Christians read and are told that we have to choose God and Jesus. We are not forced to believe. It is all about choice. That is at least one reason why we also need hope and faith. How can God give us choice, then not let us make bad choices? Even if one insists that God is “all good” and “all powerful”, this can only leave one explanation: God is not more powerful than God. It’s like trying to play yourself in chess and not see a trap you set for yourself as the other player… Or like trying to hide and scare yourself… God didn’t let Sandy happen. God let us have choice and we chose poorly.


    Comment by q — December 27, 2012 @ 1:31 am | Reply

  2. But q… pssst q… ahem, q!! why is choice good? really, don’t you like to have choices? do you really want one color of clothing? do you really want two foods (mana and quail for 40 years)? do you really want all drinks to taste the same? don’t you tire of the same temperature? don’t you like mountain and beach, plains and forest, calm and breeze?

    Comment by q — December 27, 2012 @ 1:37 am | Reply

    • Free will and choice are essential to being human. Coincidentally, I recently watched the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the closing monologue by Kevin McCarthy sounded very much like your comment about choice.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — December 27, 2012 @ 8:50 pm | Reply

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