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An Evolutionary Defense of Dogma and Religion

July 2nd, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Criticizing organized religion is easy to do. In fact, it is a favored pastime for many evangelical and post-evangelical Christians who can only see institutionalized religion as "dead." George Valliant is providing such critics some scientific firepower to go along with their theological arsenal in his new book, Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith.

In his book (which I have not read), Dr. Valliant "lays out a brilliant defense not of organized religion but of man’s inherent spirituality. Our spirituality, he shows, resides in our uniquely human brain design and in our innate capacity for emotions like love, hope, joy, forgiveness, and compassion, which are selected for by evolution and located in a different part of the brain than dogmatic religious belief. Evolution has made us spiritual creatures over time, he argues, and we are destined to become even more so. Spiritual Evolution makes the scientific case for spirituality as a positive force in human evolution, and he predicts for our species an even more loving future."

Dr. Valliant clearly thinks that the emotions are the only valuable aspect to religion, which he made very clear in his On Point interview today. Such emotions reside in the limbic system, which is the more primitive section of the brain. The dogma and institutionalized religion stem from the neocortex, which is the purported rational section of the human brain and which evolved later.

Dr. Valliant wants to defend faith. But he wants faith without dogma, spirituality without religion. Thoughts, apparently, are only appropriate for scientists. I presume, after all, it was with the neocortex that Dr. Valliant made his (important and interesting!) discoveries. And I presume he made his discoveries within the context and systems of the scientific establishment (which has been brought to you, once again, by the neocortex--a neocortex he has declared disruptive and harmful in matters of faith).

In short, it seems Dr. Valliant has a priori ruled out dogma and religion as sources of positive good, and has built his science around that presupposition. Yet such a move seems counterintuitive given the process of evolution, wherein humans ostensibly reach higher and higher planes. On issues of faith and religion, Dr. Valliant would have us reject the higher evolution of the neocortex in favor of the limbic, a reversal of the evolutionary process. If anything, the evolution has pushed us toward dogma and religion; as with all of society, as we attain higher levels (if such a thing is possible), deeper evils will be possible (think the nuclear bomb), a principal as true of organized religion as it is of technology.
Dr. Valliant's error is not because he is too firmly committed to the principles of evolution. It is because he is not committed enough.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.