Sunday, August 10, 2008

Proximate vs. Ultimate Explanations of Religion

One question that must be asked with respect to Wilson's multi-level (group) selection approach to religion is how much of the religious experience do his tools explain?  Before answering this question, it is probably wise to follow Wilson's example and clean up the distinctions between proximate and ultimate causes.

Religions are hard to pin down to a single function - whether this be community, economic (rational) choice, or any other casual explanation.  While religion may be much more than community, "this statement might be true at the proximate level, but not at the ultimate level," (Wilson, 2002, pp. 170).

By proximate level, Wilson means the direct individual reasons motivating a behavior, ie pleasure from s e x, or contentment from love.  The ultimate level is the selective advantage behind these actions, ie babies, more robust environment to raise children.  

By postulating an ultimate cause for religious tendencies, Wilson avoids having to directly explain specific  features of  religious belief.  His theory just needs to show selective advantages for belief.  In this task, scale becomes an important issue.  Wilson advocates using the congregational scale (single church groups) rather than a denominational, or larger, scale.  This choice will likely require some appeals to complexity theory to explain the emergence of larger structures.  Biologists are quite comfortable with this, so it shouldn't be problematic.  Perhaps the extension of scale will provide an opportunity to tie in approaches like Pascal Boyer's (2001) religion as no-longer adaptive, or the Gould like view of religion as a spandrel.

However, I suspect it will be some time before the utility of the metaphysical and supernatural questions religion raised can be openly tackled.  Thus, I don't at all think Wilson's work undermines the value of religion.  Knowing the reason for love doesn't undermine it's value.  Knowing the evolutionary underpinnings of religion should only strengthen how it can be leveraged. Some may reference Christ's spiritual solitude on the cross as evidence that a hands off god is still functional while others may proceed to other conclusions.  Whatever answers resonate, religious tendencies are a fundamental component of our existence.  As such they have implicit effects in everything that is done, especially in terms of group dynamics.

Boyer, P. 2001. Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books

Wilson, D. S. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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