Nov 14, 2015 | By

A New Evolution Debate – Does Religion Evolve?

As the recent flap over the remarks of Presidential aspirant Ben Carson demonstrates, the controversy between science and religion is alive and well. As usual, it is focused on the theory of evolution, which postulates that the world, and man, is the result of evolution by Darwinian natural selection and not the ordination of God. While many, myself included, affirm both perspectives as true — evolution is simply the natural unfolding of divine order — there are those in both religious and scientific communities that reject one or the other. These opposing polarized views continue to dominate the controversy. However, there are other aspects of the God vs. evolution dialogue that are worthy of discussion. There may even be room for common ground.

In recent years, some scientists have considered the extent to which there is a biological basis for the human religious impulse. Most have now accepted the idea that empathy, morality and love are human traits that have been developed and shaped by evolutionary processes. There are also suggestions that human linguistic and imaginative capacities, including symbolic representation and the experience of transcendence and awe, are built into the human cognitive and emotional structure by evolution and naturally give rise to religious sentiment. This sentiment is then shaped by human interactions in communities and assumes the form of religious rituals and myths. As culture changes through time in response to societal pressure and interactions with other cultures (sometimes in very destructive ways), religious myths and practice also change – they evolve in response to individual and societal experience.


Robert Wright has gone so far as to title his 2009 book The Evolution of God[1]. Wright suggests that God (or at least the human concept of God), has evolved throughout human history, and will continue to evolve. While this is an unsettling hypothesis for religious believers to consider, Wright is actually quite sympathetic to the value religion brings to human society and guardedly optimistic about its future. Religion has been the predominant source of moral order in human civilizations – and moral order has been the basis by which humanity has advanced. Only by learning to trust those beyond family can we engage in what Wright refers to as “non zero sum games” by which both sides benefit from cooperation. Materially and morally, humanity is much better off today than it was in past millennia, and religion has played a key role in this progress.

The evolution of God has, according to Wright, taken place through a process involving conflicts between increasingly larger groups of humans. The groups who are better able to commit to common goals and cooperate with their compatriots – as a result of a shared worldview and morality inspired by religion – are more successful and thus propagate that worldview. Thus we see a process of natural selection at work: variation in religious beliefs and selection in the form of competition against other cultures with different beliefs. Religion has evolved in ways that have helped humanity be more cooperative, and more successful. One recent headline expressed the view that “big societies need big gods.” Large societies depend on more abstract moral norms and thus benefit from “moralizing gods that care about how people treat one another and will punish those who are selfish and cruel.”[2]

While such a materialist explanation of religion might seem inconsistent with religious belief, this need not be so. One may believe, as I do, that God is infinite, constant and unchanging. Indeed, evolution is an inherent feature in his Creation and not some prior constraint. However, it is true that the state of mankind has been changing, and our receptivity and ability to understand an infinite God is therefore much in flux. It is quite reasonable to expect that human understanding of the Divine has evolved, as reflected in the various religious practices and beliefs through history.  As biological evolution is the unfolding of God’s natural order, so cultural evolution of religion is the unfolding of God’s moral order.

Our understanding of the Divine can be improved by being students of the tenets and history of other religions as well as our own. So too can our understanding of the physical world be improved by being students of empirical science, which provides the ideal tools for this purpose and should be viewed as an ally. This is not unqualified acceptance! Rejecting cultural materialism, its practices and worldview on the basis of religious belief is appropriate – but we should not at the same time reject materialist (empirical) science. This also does not mean we should necessarily accept a scientist’s conclusion – particularly if the conclusion is infused with metaphysical or moral speculation. But data and theories that have gone through scientific review and validation are the most reliable basis for understanding the physical world.

Wright concludes his book with a call for greater recognition of the shared monotheism in the Christian, Judaic and Islamic traditions and a hope that the universality of an expanded concept of Godhead could increase religious harmony in the modern world – something which he believes would be beneficial for mankind. Curiously, he adds an Afterward, discussing the nature of God, in the form of an extended dialogue between the respective views of atheists and believers. He argues that there is an analogy between the belief of scientists in an electron that cannot be seen but shows evidence of certain characteristics and the religious belief in a God that cannot be seen but may be evident in the moral order and the human capacity for love. “You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.”

This is not a very generous endorsement of any particular religious view, but Wright acknowledges that religious belief has value, both to individuals and to society. Significantly, he states that it is rational to be religious, a position that is at considerable odds with the fiery rhetoric of the new atheists! Wright is not the only scientist that acknowledges the benefits of religious belief. Indeed, there appears to be an evolutionary process underway in science, as research in evolutionary biology, sociology and psychology have increasingly documented personal and social benefits of moral belief and religious practice. As the irony in Wright’s quote above shows, however, this puts the materialist scientist in an awkward position. Some, like Wright, have become more solicitous to religion. Others are comfortable openly professing religious belief.[3] The views of religion within the scientific community are continuing to evolve.

Across our human civilization, it is reasonable to expect, and to hope, that as we learn more, experience more, and share more with each other, both our religious and our scientific understanding can be enriched. An evolutionary process is underway. For the materialist, this will continue to demand acknowledgement of the benefits of religion and hopefully inspire greater humility and acceptance of religious beliefs and believers. For the religious believer, this will require a willingness to seek common ground and increased understanding among religious groups as well as to learn and evaluate what empirical science has to say about the physical world. Humility will be required on all sides.

Francis Bacon, a father of the scientific method, put it this way: “Let no man think that one can search too far, or be too well studied, in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficiency in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling.”[4]


[1] The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright (2009), Little Brown and Company, New York.

[2]Why big societies need big gods”, By Lizzie Wade,, 27 August 2015 2:00 pm.

[3] For example, Martin Nowak and John Polkinghorne among many others. see:

[4] Excerpted from Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning; Colours of Good and Evil, originally published in 1597.



4 Responses to “A New Evolution Debate – Does Religion Evolve?”

  1. IdPnSD says:

    No, religions do not evolve. All religions represent laws of nature, which are unique, universal, and eternal over all time and all space of the universe. On the other hand science is all wrong, because it is based on assumptions which are invalid for both nature and engineering. Take an example from science – Newton’s first law – an object will continue in motion in a straight line with a constant velocity. We have never seen such an object on earth or in space. Thus Newton is wrong. It happened because he assumed isolated environment, which is not correct. The same can be said about quantum mechanics and relativity theory.

    On the other hand Vedas were known all over the world at one time. You can see its influences in both Bible and Judaism and all other religions. The foundation of Vedas is Yoga, yogic meditation, and yogic power. Vedas can be seen in nature, by anyone, if you acquire divine vision by using yogic meditation. Vedas talk about Soul Theory, Reincarnation, Destiny, Eternal recurrence, Birth maturity and death process, Yoga. Which are all laws of nature.

    You can find high level yogis all over the world, even now. Judaism describes many yogic power examples. Both Bible and Vedas say all objects are created by their individual souls. Destiny is clearly described in Bible. Reincarnation was there in Bible, but it was removed later. There are still many verses on reincarnation in Bible. Eternal recurrence is described in Bible, which was popularized by the German philosopher Nietzsche. Science has discovered the birth maturity and death process for all objects even for stars and galaxies.

    Since religions represent laws of nature they cannot be wrong and must be true for the entire universe and not just for earth. Also it means no religion can contradict each other. Thus religions cannot evolve. They represent absolute truths.

    • George Gantz says:

      Thanks for your comment, although I find it a bit confusing. I might agree that there is a universality to the human religion impulse, and that this impulse is calling our attention to an underlying objective reality, however this is not consistent with your statement “Since religions represent laws of nature they cannot be wrong.” Religions are often far from getting things correct, and many religious teachings contradict each other and lead to conflict. I believe the evidence that religions evolve, and that this process can bring us closer to a shared universal experience of objective reality.

  2. George Gantz says:

    Thanks, Jeff. Yes, Wright acknowledges the difference you point out between belief in electrons and belief in God. However, I would suggest that there are several ways of evaluating the correctness of religious views. This is a big topic for more detailed discussion in the future, so I just touch on a few thoughts here:

    1 – Does the religious view embrace and explain the empirical realm? Denial or rejection of our empirical experience is self-defeating, in my opinion.

    2 – Does the religious view offer generative capability to humans – that is, is it capable of contributing to the sustainable growth/advancement of the individuals and groups that adhere to it? What constitutes “growth/advancement” might vary, but within human society a religion has to be sustainable or it will die out.

    3 – Does the religious view embrace and explain the subjective realm of experience – our emotions, cognitions, insights, intuition and imagination?

    4 – Does the religious view provide a context for promoting right conduct and making good choices. Again, “right” and “good” are values that need to be specified – but we do know (and Wright talks about this) that successful religions (in the long run) promote empathy, trust, cooperations and love.

    5 – Does the religion offer a coherent sense of purpose for each individual life and for humanity, the world, the universe, the multiverse (if there is one)?

    Just a few preliminary thoughts… Thanks for the comment. – George

  3. Your posts always make me feel like I’m vacillating at a smorgasbord, indecisive as to where I should dig in. This looks good…

    “…[Wright] argues that there is an analogy between the belief of scientists in an electron that cannot be seen but shows evidence of certain characteristics and the religious belief in a God that cannot be seen but may be evident in the moral order and the human capacity for love.”

    There’s a not-too-subtle difference that proves the analogy false: Based on the assumption of the electron’s existence, scientists have predicted the outcome of certain experiments. Those predictions have been upheld, validating the atomic theory that includes the reality of electrons. No such prediction can be made based on the supposed existence of God; there is no experiment to validate religious beliefs, is there?

    One could question that the human capacity for love is anything more than an evolutionary advantage. The “moral order” is possibly the same. Events of recent days indicate the issue is in doubt as to whether some religious beliefs reflect anything other than an underlying human lust for power. In that context, I would agree that there is an evolutionary process underway. However, not all evolution results in viable species over the long run. I’ve seen no Neanderthals, lately, though there are some debatable specimens.

    Onward to the dessert table!

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