The eminent evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is also an articulate spokesperson for atheism and critic of religion. His most recent statement, “Yes, There is a War Between Science and Religion”, was published in the online magazine The Conversation.
I am also an evolutionary biologist who helped to pioneer the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective with my book Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. I often call myself an atheist, although that depends upon how one defines religion, a point to which I will return.
Those who are familiar with both Jerry and me know that we seem to disagree a lot—not just on religion, but on what seems to be the purely scientific topic of Multilevel Selection (MLS) Theory. But that’s not quite right. There is a large zone of agreement between us and staking it out can help to understand the zone of disagreement.
The Zone of Agreement
Jerry and I agree upon the need to stay within the bounds of Methodological Naturalism. What is the meaning of this two-word phrase? Naturalism is defined as “A viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes and supernatural explanations are excluded or discounted.” The word “methodological” softens this claim by acknowledging that there is no definitive proof of naturalism. Specific conceptions of supernatural agency can be rejected, such as the creation of the earth in six days, but other conceptions remain, such as a God that set the laws of nature in motion and did not thereafter intervene. This conception can never be disproven because it doesn’t make any predictions that depart from naturalism.
It is important to stress that when methodological naturalists reject supernatural explanations as a practical matter, this is not arbitrary or capricious. It is based on a long history of supernatural explanations that do make testable predictions failing again and again. As early as 1872, Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton was applying statistical methods to test whether prayer has any efficacy on such things as recovery from disease, lifespan, or newborn stillbirths. Here is a passage from his article titled “Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer”:
The universal habit of the scientific world to ignore the agency of prayer is a very important fact. To fully appreciate the ‘eloquence of the silence’ of medical men, we must bear in mind the care with which they endeavor to assign a sanatory value to every influence. Had prayers for the sick any notable effect, it is incredible but that the doctors, who are always on the watch for such things, should have observed it, and added their influence to that of the priests towards obtaining them for every sick man. If they abstain from doing so, it is not because their attention has never been awakened to the possible efficacy of prayer, but, on the contrary, that although they have heard it insisted on from childhood upwards, they are unable to detect its influence. Most people have some general belief in the objective efficacy of prayer, but none seem willing to admit its action in those special cases of which they have scientific cognizance.
So, Jerry and I agree on the need to remain within the bounds of methodological naturalism, which requires rejecting the major tenets of the Abrahamic religions as scientific truth claims, however useful they might be as meaning systems. Unless a religious believer is comfortable with the fact that religions are 100% human constructions, then there is a conflict between science and religion. That’s a pretty big zone of agreement!
Another important point is that new scientific discoveries might stretch the borders of methodological naturalism. Perhaps space aliens and psychic phenomena such as telepathy actually exist. Forces such as magnetism that operate at a distance were astounding when they were first discovered and perhaps we will be astounded again. Some spiritually oriented people place a lot of faith in this possibility, to use a word that Jerry likes to criticize as a defect rather than a virtue. But I am not among them. My interest is to understand all aspects of religion and spirituality in terms of natural processes that are already well established. I think that the gold lies buried beneath our feet, not in some territory yet to be explored. I expect that Jerry feels the same way.
The Zone of Disagreement
With so much to agree about, what is left for disagreement? Let’s begin with the curious fact that there is not one but two major definitions of religion. One is based on belief in supernatural agents. The other is Emile Durkheim’s definition:
A system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
It is amazing, when one pauses to think about it, how much non-overlap there is between these definitions. It is easy to imagine beliefs in supernatural agents that don’t even come close to forming a moral community (example: the flying spaghetti monster). And it is easy to imagine a moral community organized around things regarded as sacred that doesn’t invoke any gods. Jerry himself signals the inadequacy of the first definition when, after providing it, he adds “of course many religions don’t fit that definition.”
Durkheim is regarded as one of the fathers of sociology in addition to his great work on religion, which is still worth reading today. He helped to found the tradition of functionalism, which interpreted the features of human society as primarily for the good of the group. Functionalism reached its peak in the mid-20th century and then declined, in part because it was too axiomatic, as if every feature of human society must be good for the group, and said little about the process whereby groups evolve to be functionally organized units. It was largely replaced by the tradition of methodological individualism (there is that word “methodological” again) which sought to understand all social phenomena in terms of the actions and motives of individuals.
Much has happened during the last few decades to revive the tradition of functionalism and provide a robust alternative to methodological individualism. This brings us to the purely scientific zone of disagreement between Jerry and myself on topics such as MLS theory. But I don’t want to lose sight of the topic of religion. Here is a summary of neo-functionalism in relation to religion plus more.
1) We are a highly cultural species. Our behavior is governed by symbolic meaning systems learned and transmitted across generations, in addition to our genes. A meaning system is defined as a set of beliefs and practices that receives environmental information as input and results in action as output. A meaning system literally “makes sense” of the world.
2) Not everyone is religious, but all normal humans have a meaning system and could not function without one. However we define religions, they are a subset of meaning systems. It is therefore important to establish what we can say about all meaning systems.
3) Meaning systems are selected—by our own minds and by the environment—primarily on the basis of what they cause us to do. Call this practical realism, in contrast to factual realism, which is objective truth in the scientific sense of the word. The statement “mountains existed before people” scores high on factual realism but its practical value could be positive, negative, or neutral depending upon the context.
4) In general, the relationship between factual and practical realism is complex and context-dependent. Sometimes it is useful to know the world as it really is, but sometimes massive distortions of reality are more adaptive. We already know that this is true for our genetically evolved perceptual abilities. We only see a narrow slice of the light spectrum and hear a narrow slice of the sound spectrum. What we see and hear is highly rendered to enhance the adaptive value of the information (e.g., seeing discrete colors instead of a continuum). Our sense of smell is poor and we can’t sense some aspects of the environment at all, such as magnetic and weak electrical fields, even though other species can. It is humbling to think that our culturally evolved meaning systems are the same way!
5) This complex trade-off between practical and factual realism exists for all meaning systems, not just religions. If the big problem of religion is believing stuff that’s not out there, then the problem is much worse than that and extends to secular meaning systems as well. This is my first big complaint with Jerry and other atheists who single out religion for criticism, as if whatever counts as non-religious for them—perhaps even their own atheistic meaning system—doesn’t suffer from the same problem.
6) As an example, consider the book The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger and published in 1983. It shows that for most cultures, beliefs about ancestry and history are at least as important and relevant to action as one’s gods. What most cultures regard as their ancient traditions are much more recent fabrications that perform the same function as the gods. Other examples of adaptive fictions can be recited almost without end—including our beliefs about ourselves as individuals, orthodox economic theory, and Ayn Rand’s brand of atheism, which can be shown to be as fundamentalist in its structure as any religion. The bottom line: Almost everyone believes in stuff that’s not out there, regardless of whether they are classified as religious. A meaning system that scores high on both factual and practical realism is something that must be constructed in the future.
This concludes my summary of neo-functionalism in relation to religion plus more. Against this background, consider the last paragraph of Jerry’s article:
In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the “truths” undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.
I would come close to agreeing with this statement (with some caveats about faith detailed below) if it is applied assiduously to the adaptive fictions of all meaning systems–religious and secular, including one’s own. I suspect that Jerry would agree with me in principle—how could he not?—but putting it into practice is another matter. More humility and tolerance would be called for than he often exhibits.
Next, we come to science as a way of thinking that can somehow save us from wishful thinking and ancient superstitions. I share Jerry’s reverence (to use a religiously flavored word) for science. Individuals are largely unable to apprehend factual reality on their own. A very special social process is required. This social process is not “natural” and didn’t exist for long periods of human history. It could be snuffed out in the future. After all, both as individuals and cultures, it is far more “natural” to apprehend practical realism than factual realism. Nor is this a bad thing. Unless a meaning system that scores high on factual realism also scores high on practical realism, it isn’t worth wanting.
The core of a scientific meaning system is well known. Because we can’t directly apprehend factual reality, we must probe it by proposing and testing falsifiable hypotheses—a bit like blind people tapping with their canes. This is easy to understand but an elaborate culture is required to make it happen. The search for objective knowledge must be established as the cardinal norm. In other words, it must be sanctified. Appropriate behaviors must be reinforced and deviant behaviors must be punished. Chronic deviant behavior or even a single serious first offence results in exclusion. Scientists are more strict about enforcing their norms than most religions! Science therefore qualifies as a religion according to Durkheim’s definition, or a meaning system according to my definition. What sets it apart from all other meaning systems, however, is that it worships factual realism as its God. Thus, I am not proposing that science is “just” another religion or meaning system, because it is so distinctive in that one respect. Other meaning systems might adhere to factual realism in some contexts, but easily disregard it in other contexts.
I don’t know whether Jerry would agree with my thumbnail characterization of science. He will need to speak for himself. But I disagree with his characterization of science and I think that most serious historians and philosophers of science would as well. The main problem with Jerry’s account is that he thinks that scientists can easily rise above the biases of their own non-scientific meaning systems. He doesn’t acknowledge the problems that exist when the entire community of scientists is embedded within a non-scientific meaning system and is incapable of seeing beyond it.
Yet, we know that this is the case for Darwin and his contemporaries during the Victorian era. Nearly everyone back then assumed that European culture was superior to other cultures and that cultural evolution was a progression from savagery to civilization. Like the proverbial fish that can’t see water, the Victorians could only see what their culture made sense to them. It took Europeans who gained respect for indigenous cultures by living among them, such as Franz Boaz and Bronislaw Malinowski, to promote a view that in retrospect makes much more sense from an evolutionary perspective; that all enduring cultures are impressively well adapted to their respective environments. Even today, the human social sciences suffer from being WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic). A similar story can be told for scientific theories of sex differences during the Victorian era, persisting to the present.
What are the biases of our meaning systems, the cultural water that most of us can’t see? I nominate individualism, which begins to explain why Jerry and I disagree on the purely scientific topic of MLS theory. I propose that evolutionary biology’s individualistic swing—from the “theory of individual selection” in the 1960’s to “selfish gene theory” of the 1970’s, was part of a broader cultural shift that included methodological individualism in the social sciences and neoliberal economics. In all cases, the self-interested individual (or gene) is conceptualized as the fundamental unit to which all higher-level phenomena must be reduced. As UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “There is no such thing as society; only individuals and families”. Her individualistic meaning system made the concept of society literally disappear!
Like the biases of the Victorian era, the biases of the individualistic era are becoming obvious with the passage of time. Consider this passage from Richard Dawkins, written in 1982 :
We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin’s ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label “the selfish organism”, the position which, in its modern form, is dominated by the concept of inclusive fitness.
Never mind that Darwin was the first person to clearly see the need for group selection to explain social adaptations and that Hamilton, the inventor of inclusive fitness theory, was among the first to begin rethinking group selection in a positive light. This passage has all the zeal and revisionism of a patriotic history of nations. Nor was Dawkins the only one. Michael Ghiselin wrote “scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.” Richard Alexander described a scientific worldview based entirely on selfishness as the greatest intellectual revolution of the 20th century. And Williams ended his book Adaptation and Natural Selection with the words “I believe that it is the light and the way”.
MLS Theory provides a robust alternative to Individualism. To see why, let’s look at how evolutionary biologists such as Jerry study a solitary species such as the fruit fly. They anchor their analysis on the individual fly, because its properties have been shaped by natural selection. They spend a lot of time going below the level of the individual fly to study organs, cells, genes, molecules and the like, but always in terms of how these lower-level units are structured and coordinated to allow the survival and reproduction of the whole fly. Fruit fly biologists also go above the individual to study fly populations and flies as parts of multi-species ecosystems, but always with the adaptive strategies of the individual flies in mind.
This is a kind of individualism that can be justified by evolutionary theory, but only when the individual is the unit of selection–or vehicle of selection in the parlance of selfish gene theory; it is the concept of vehicles, not replicators that is most salient. In eusocial insect colonies such as the ants, bees, wasps, and termites, the analysis is anchored on the colony because it is the primary unit of selection. If multispecies ecosystems were the primary unit of selection, then it would become the anchor of analysis and species would be studied in terms of their role in sustaining the ecosystem, just as we study organs for their role in sustaining the organism.
In short, there is no warrant for axiomatically making the individual the analytic anchor. This is as wrong as the old-time functionalists axiomatically assuming that everything is for the good of the group. Instead, how we anchor the analysis depends upon the unit(s) of selection. There is no escape from this conclusion. Way back in 1966, G.C. Williams wrote:
It is universally conceded by those who have seriously concerned themselves with this problem that…group related adaptations must be attributed to the natural selection of alternative groups of individuals and that the natural selection of alternative alleles within populations will be opposed to this development. I am in entire agreement with the reasoning behind this conclusion.
The fate of individualism therefore rests upon the empirical claim that between-group selection is invariably weak compared to within-group selection. This claim has now been thoroughly refuted and the only reason that it seemed strong in the first place was based on the fallacy of averaging the fitness of lower-level units across higher-level units and calling it an argument against group selection. Today we have all the theoretical models, laboratory experiments, and field studies that we need to conclude that higher-level selection often prevails against lower-level selection, such that the higher-level unit becomes the anchor of analysis. The burgeoning literature on microbiomes provides an example. When selection acts at the level of multicellular organisms, it is also acting at the level of their microbial ecosystems, consisting of thousands of species numbering in the trillions of individuals. Only now are we beginning to realize how much these two levels of selection are entwined in the evolution of traits that we have mistakenly attributed entirely to individual-level selection—such as those fruit flies that Jerry studies.
But it is the human evolutionary story that is most transformed by MLS theory, starting with group selection at the scale of small groups during our genetic evolution and continuing with the cultural group selection of large-scale societies during the last 10,000 years. As Peter Turchin puts in his book Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans The Greatest Cooperators on Earth, “the central theoretical breakthrough in this new field is the theory of Cultural Multilevel Selection”. Turchin’s panoramic book covers all kinds of meaning systems, religious and secular, which cannot be understood without acknowledging their adaptedness at various scales above individual actors. This is why Durkheim’s tradition of functionalism now stands upon a strong scientific foundation and methodological individualism has lost its foundation—for good.
What’s a committed individualist to do in this situation? In an interview that I conducted with the evolutionary social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, he wisely remarked that if you want to find science denial in any person, just find what is sacred to that person. Religious believers find it extraordinarily difficult to accept evolution, liberal thinkers find it extraordinarily difficult to accept sex and race differences, and individualists find it extraordinarily difficult to accept MLS theory. It just comes too close to their cherished values. They are like a fish out of water.
Hence, I am not surprised that my zone of disagreement with Jerry spans not only religion but a purely biological topic such as MLS theory. What about the nature of faith? Faith is a requirement for all meaning systems because it is required to behave in uncertain situations. If we insisted on evidence for everything, we would be paralyzed. When Jerry places his entire faith in science and regards everything else as “wishful thinking and ancient superstitions”, especially with respect to their practical realism, he is acting on faith as much, if not more, than any religious believer.
You know there is a problem when a call to solve the problems of our age begins with a declaration of war. A more peaceful way to proceed is based on the following premises.
- We are not just another species. We are also an evolutionary process—cultural evolution—which vastly surpasses cultural evolution in other species.
- The concept of organism has a movable boundary that can extend above the level of the individual organism. This provides a scientific foundation for the idea that we are part of something larger than ourselves, which suffuses so many religious and secular meaning systems.
- The iron law of MLS is “Adaptation at any level of a multi-tier hierarchy requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels.” This is what Williams called “universally conceded” in the passage quoted above. It follows that all meaning systems that succeed in adapting human populations to their environments are likely to create problems at larger spatial and temporal scales. This conclusion holds for religious and secular meaning systems alike.
- The only way to solve problems at the global scale is to select policies with the welfare of the whole earth in mind. Many people already have a whole-earth ethic, which exists in both religious and secular formations, but MLS theory provides a stronger scientific justification for it than ever before and also a conceptual toolkit for becoming “wise managers of cultural evolutionary processes”
- All meaning systems that adopt a whole-earth ethic are welcome to join in the effort to evolve a planetary organism. A common goal, defined in terms of action, is the ideal starting point for integrating the plurality of meaning systems that lead to the common goal.
- A person’s meaning system is like their DNA: very important for their wellbeing, poorly understood, and not to be lightly trifled with. Evolving a meaning system needs to be a consensual process, not a conquest.
I develop this approach at book length in This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, which can be regarded as an update of The Phenomenon of Man, by the scientist and Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who thought deeply about evolution in relation to his religious beliefs. As I end the introduction to my book:
Our journey ends with a reflection on how the secular imagination and the religious/spiritual imagination can converge on the conscious evolution of our collective future. It is striking how these two imaginations often seem at odds with each other, yet both arrive at the same conclusion: that the concept of “organism” has a movable boundary, which must be expanded to solve the problems of our age. It’s as if two separate languages are being spoken, each of which apprehends the same reality in its own way but which are mutually unintelligible to most of their speakers. In my own journey, I have learned to speak both languages and to appreciate how they both add value to consciously evolving our collective future. I hope that by the end of this book, you will become bilingual as well.
This is why science and religion need not be at war.
 Durkheim, E., & Fields, K. E. (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. New York: The Free Press.
 See Chapter 2 of Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Gottschall, J. (2012). The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
 Cox, H. (2016). The Market as God. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 Wilson, D. S. (1995). Language as a community of interacting belief systems: a case study involving conduct toward self and others. Biology and Philosophy, 10, 77–97.
 McCauley, R. N. (2011). Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not. Oxford University Press, USA.
 Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2–3), 61-83-135. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0999152X
 Dawkins, R. (1982). The Extended Phenotype. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 6
 Ghiselin, M. T. (1974). The economy of nature and the evolution of sex. Berkeley: University of California Press. P 247
 Alexander, R. D. (1987). The biology of moral systems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. P. 3
 Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
 Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. See also https://evolution-institute.org/focus-article/reaching-a-new-plateau-for-the-acceptance-of-multilevel-selection/
 Yong, E. (2006). I contain multitudes : the microbes within us and a grander view of life. Ecco.
 Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. New York: Pantheon/Random House.
 Wilson, D. S., & Hayes, S. C. (2018). Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science: An Integrated Framework for Understanding, Predicting, and Influencing Behavior. Menlo Park, CA: New Harbinger Press. See also Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 395–460.