Over at the ever-readable Café Philos -the only things missing there are the three ‘B’s: Bar, Barmaid and Beer- Paul Sunstone asks his readers: “Is Belief in Gods an Accident of Human Evolution?” Don’t ask me why it’s always humanists who come up with the most interesting questions, but it’s one reason to cherish them. As Paul says:

In order to make a row of arches, you must make a row of spandrels. The spandrels are a sort of unintended side effect of making a row of arches. In much the same way that you must make a row of spandrels when making a row of arches, some people — notably Scott Atran — have argued the notion of god is an evolutionary spandrel.

This sparked a whole herd of thoughts. Too many to post a comment, so I’m dedicating a post to the notion of God as an evolutionary by-product.

First, I always thought that evolution was a collection of ‘accidents’, some of which turned out to be actually useful, while others didn’t. But if the belief in God is categorised as an ‘accident’, it looks like evolution is divided into ‘useful’ adaptations and ‘accidental’ garbage. This gives evolution a goal -which it doesn’t have- and maybe even a moral content (“bad things come with good ones”), whereas evolution is utterly devoid of morals.

Second, if everything is an accident, the distinction between ‘arches’ and ‘spandrels’ is useless: it says more about the speaker, than about evolution. Sure, bad things come with good ones, but it’s the observer who decides what’s good and what’s bad, not evolution. It’s generally known among psychiatrists for example that people suffering from depression are much better at estimating their chances of success than ‘normal’ people. In this respect, it’s the ‘normals’ who are suffering from unfounded optimism. It’s the realists that are depressed. It is also known that the average person has a 10% chance of becoming clinically depressed. That chance however increases to 25% when the person is a writer, and no less than 75% when it’s a poet. It is also known that depressed people have more sex (it’s one of the explanations for the question: if depression is so bad, why hasn’t evolution taken care of it?). Now what is the arch and what is the spandrel? Poetry? Literature? Depression? Optimism? Less sex? Realism? ‘Normalcy’? Pick your preferred combination!

Third. It is assumed that the notion of God is a by-product of our ability to see ‘agency’ or assume causation in the world around us. That is a very large step, as the ‘spandrel’ to agency/causation is more likely to be paranoia than the notion of a God. If religious notions are a by-product of the capability to assume causation for example, it is much more likely that humans started developing idea’s about jinns, ghosts, the spirits of their forefathers, leprechauns, fairies and genies. Beings that are much ‘closer to home’ than notions of gods or a God, which bring about a load of theological contradictions and problems. Things that have to be discussed and consciously thought about.

This brings me to a sub-point (point π): secular people tend to see religion as one and the same issue, without distinguishing between Aberglaube and Glaube. The first is what comes naturally to humans, the second is much more cerebral, is usually hotly debated and often counter-intuitive. It’s not rare for Glaube to be an antithesis to Aberglaube. What Abraham does to God in Genesis 19:23 for example is unparallelled in religious history (hm, sorry, it’s not: Exodus 32:13, Mat 15:27) and runs counter to most ‘notions of God’. What Buddha thought out about suffering is totally counter-intuitive. Even when secular people can be excused for not noticing the difference, this doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Fourth, one may very well wonder if colors are a by-product of rods and cones (well, cones actually), or if piano music isn’t the beneficial by-product of the invention of copper wire, felt, woodworking techniques and elephant hunting. In a sense it is exactly that. But answering that question doesn’t tell you anything about Chopin or Rachmaninov. The question assumes that the notion of God is a relatively simple thing like the ability to assume causation. It is much more conscious and cerebral than that. Having said that: sure, if we weren’t hard-wired to be religious, we couldn’t be. Just as we couldn’t see colors without cones.

Fifth, the question seems to put people in the position of a victim: evolution, their genes made them do it. To turn the argument around: before we know it, atheism is classified as a genetic defect, and where will that leave us? Not where we want ot be. Even if atheists would be so, not as the result of choice, but as a by-product of genetic hard-wiring, it would be nothing less than blasphemy to assume a defect. Why? Genesis 1:27.

Sixth, I’ve blogged about this before: religion is a language. With that idea in mind, we might just as well ask: are metaphors ‘spandrels’ of language? To the literal-minded, metaphors make about as much sense as religion does. On the other hand: metaphors make for good jokes, literature and poetry (and depression). Why bother about spandrels at all? What problem is solved by categorising the metaphors, depression, poetry or notion of God for that matter as a spandrel? Sure, it serves to alleviate ‘Atheists Anxiety’: it’s just evolution, it’s only natural, we needn’t worry! But if you ask me, Glaube was invented to be disquieting.


2 Responses to “Spandrels”

  1. Well, it’s true that there are major difficulties reconciling free will and objective morality with atheism/materialism, but I’m not getting many of your other points.

    For instance, the ostensible “goal” of evolution is the successful maintenance of gene types. But this is just a short hand way of describing how the natural algorithms of environmental pressures and random biological variables end up expressing themselves. No real intelligence or forethought is being described.

    The distinction between “arches” and “spandrels” is pretty objective: the former directly contributes to gene replication, the latter does not.

  2. shirhashirim Says:

    The only point I wasn’t making, was the one about atheism/materialism and objective morality 😉 If you ask me, there’s no such thing as ‘objective’ morality, so everyone has a problem.

    I like your distinction between arches and spandrels in terms of what they contribute to instead of what they are the result of. That however, doesn’t take away the possibility that ‘arches’ can turn into ‘spandrels’ and vice versa, depending both on how evolution turns out and on how we look at it. That was the basic point I was making.

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