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Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has put forward a functional theory of religion which holds that religious belief and practice are “good” for believers in biological terms. In his view, religious beliefs are attached to reality via this benefit, even though they are fictional in a strict sense. He claims that his group selection-based explanation of religion does not undermine religious belief, but rather encourages us to value religious systems and to “pay them homage with overflowing belief.” Tim Morris examines Wilson’s proposals and explores Christian responses to them in terms of Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture categories. Mr. Morris is Professor of Biology at Covenant College.


The last decade or so has seen a rapid expansion of interest in evolutionary explanations of the origins of religious belief and practice. An extensive literature and a diverse array of proposals have resulted from this renewed interest.1 One helpful typology2 of the various evolutionary accounts of religion now on offer divides the proposals into three categories: those that focus primarily on religion as a non-adaptive extension of various human cognitive capacities and tendencies,3 those that focus on religion as a biological adaptation that developed originally and persists now because it provides net reproductive benefits for religious individuals or groups,4 and finally those accounts that posit that religion is essentially a cultural innovation that is not rooted specifically in either generic cognitive capacity or biological fitness.5

One prominent account of religion as a biological adaptation has been put forward by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He proposes that religious belief systems such as Christianity have biological “cash value,” in that religious belief systems help to solve the “fundamental problem of social life.” This “fundamental problem” can be simply posed: Groups containing individuals that engagein cooperative and pro-social behaviors are likely to do better than groups containing individuals that engage in anti-social behaviors. However, on an individual level, to make sacrifices for the benefit of another individual is a disadvantage in terms of one’s own reproductive success such that individual pro-social behavior will not be evolutionarily sustainable. Religious belief and practice can solve this problem, Wilson posits, by reducing the individual costs of in-group altruism so that cooperative pro-social behavior will be maintained within the group, and thus the selective advantage of groups of altruists over groups of non-altruists is able to get biological traction. Thus in his view, religious belief has a biological, adaptive function, and for this reason it deserves our admiration and even possibly our participatory embrace.6

Developing apt Christian responses to Wilson’s account or others being proposed is complicated by a variety of thorny issues that arise when Christians consider scientific accounts of religion: the nature of scientific endeavor, the concept of “nature” and “the natural” in the context scientific explanation and in the context of God’s purposes and actions in the world, the use of science for theistic as well as for atheistic apologetics, and the reactionary dynamics of evolution/creation disputes. In this paper I will attempt to address various aspects of these issues while interacting with David Sloan Wilson’s specific proposal for explaining the nearly universal phenomena of religion in human culture. In so doing I hope to stimulate thinking about broad principles for Christian responses to such proposals as well as to explicate a variety of specific responses that arise from different Christian habits of thought.

Philosopher of science Del Ratzsch has suggested that scientific proposals can be examined helpfully under three categories: the theory put forward, the data it rests upon, and the non-empirical shaping principles or background beliefs that might be involved.7 I will begin therefore by discussing Wilson’s proposals using these three elements as headings. I will then briefly examine a variety of possible Christian responses to Wilson’s proposals. Some responses arise from core Christian convictions that are likely shared by all Christians. Other more varied responses are shaped in various ways by different views among Christians concerning the nature of nature and status of human cultural activities such as science and religion. I will make use of elements of Richard Neibuhr’s classic Christ and Culture typology to facilitate discussion of these varied responses.8 Finally I will conclude the paper by giving some of my own responses to Wilson’s proposals that are shaped by my location within the Reformed Christian tradition.

The Theory

Wilson’s theory of the natural history of religion has an interesting natural history itself. Wilson has long supported the idea that there are multiple levels at which natural selection operates in the biological hierarchy. He holds that selection at different levels might be of greater or lesser importance depending on the particular trait or organismal characteristic that is in view. The particular level of selection for which Wilson has accepted a kind of stewardship is that of group selection. Group selection theory fell on particularly hard times in the mid twentieth century, and Wilson wants to see it restored to its proper place among a range of selection levels. From a group level perspective, he argues that even individual organisms can be understood as a group of traits/organs that are selected for and function as a group—successful as long as they are bound together as a functionally adaptive unit. Even chromosomes in the genomes of organisms reflect the combination of individual gene selection and selection at a group level based on the physical ties that a chromosome provides for the genes it carries. Further then, a group of individual organisms that work together in a coordinated adaptive fashion may have many of the characteristics of an organism. If examined as a unit with reference to a specific trait, the group may be seen to operate as a functiona lunit and thus be subject to selective pressures at a group level, thereby qualifying as a group organism. Group members then will be subject to in-group individual selection operating at the same time that between-group selection is operating at the next level in the biological hierarchy. The most successful groups will find ways to preserve in-group cohesiveness while also attaining an organization that is effectively adaptive in out-group competition.9

Wilson argues that consideration of group selection is relevant to the emergence of religion because religion is centrally concerned with pro-social and altruistic behavior. Altruism—the phenomenon of an individual organism apparently behaving in ways that aid the reproductive success of others at its own expense—has generated quite a bit of interest in evolutionary biology. The obvious challenge is to understand how behavior that does not appear to maximize an organism’s own reproductive fitness can be sustained in a selective environment. Wilson points out that altruism taken on a strictly individual level will likely be found only to be apparent—that is, it must actually lead to the direct reproductive benefit of the individual in some way. However, a consideration of altruism in the context of group selection may lead in a different direction—genuine altruism by individuals with regard to other individuals in a group might make sense if it contributes to the overall fitness of the group relative to other competing groups.

The major difficulty with this group-level solution for the existence of genuine altruism is the problem of “cheaters” or “free riders” within the group. In a group context, individuals that benefit from the altruism of others in the group, but who avoid being altruistic themselves, will have a significant advantage. If such cheaters are allowed to “prosper,” eventually altruistic individuals in the group would be out-competed by others in the group taking advantage of them, and ultimately as a result, in-group altruism would not be maintained to provide any traction in out-group competition. Thus, for genuine altruism on an individual level to survive, there must be some low-cost mechanism to control in-group free riders.10

In Wilson’s view, this is where functional religion comes in: successful religions potently organize groups for cooperative activities that benefit the group as a whole while also providing the absolutely essential function of free rider control. While structuring collective action and controlling and penalizing cheaters might be accomplished by non-religion-based programs, Wilson argues that secular enforcement activities are likely to be more costly in terms of the use of group resources, thus diminishing the overall benefit derived from cooperative behavior. The genius of religion in Wilson’s view is in providing low-cost structuring and enforcement mechanisms via internalized beliefs and moral codes which are often bolstered by concepts of supernatural surveillance and supernaturally mediated punishment. Groups with religious systems that inculcate cooperative behaviorand solve the “free rider” problem in this low-cost manner will thrive in comparison to groups that have no such system. Wilson thus proposes that religion is designed to “cause human groups to function as adaptive units.”11

The Data

Wilson marshals a wide range of data in support of his proposal. He mines data from rival evolutionary theories of religion, social science-based theories of religion, and several historical works on religion—showing how group-selection based interpretations go a long way toward providing satisfying explanations for a wide variety of otherwise “irrational” religious phenomena. Basically any principle in a religious system that appears to foster in-group cooperative activities yielding “secular” benefits can be used as data in support of his theory.

In many cases he uses traditional “secular utility” measures to show that the in-group beliefs of various religious systems yield obvious evolutionary benefits for one group relative to other groups. The growth of the early church through its direct encouragement of large families (reproduction) and church members’ care for one another (differential survival) through the two major plagues that swept the Roman empire in the early centuries of Christianity are given as examples.12 He refers to studies of the role that Korean churches in the U.S. have played in providing a variety of tangible benefits to new immigrants who join the church groups.13 He examines the quasi-religious practices of several hunter-gatherer groups which encourage sharing of rare resources like meat for the good of the group. He presents details of a complex religious system operating on the island of Bali, which results in a highly coordinated system for crop rotation and water resource management that he claims would be impossible in a purely secular system. Regarding this adaptive religious system, Wilson says: “The water temple system of Bali perfectly illustrates the . . . theme . . . because it combines a religion that is extravagantly other worldly with one of the most basic human activities required for survival and reproduction—the acquisition of food.”14

In Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson also devotes an entire chapter to an examination of the birth of Calvinism in Geneva in the 16th century. He says that as a good biologist, he aims to “study Calvinism in its natural environment” and drawing from historical accounts, he presents an extensive case for a group-level adaptationist interpretation of the birth of Calvinism. He finds Calvinism’s “cultural genome” in the catechism John Calvin produced, an analogy consistent with the fact that writing a catechism and insisting that everyone learn it was among Calvin’s earliest acts in Geneva. Calvin’s catechism of 1538 encourages obedience to rulers, commands a variety of unselfish activities for the good of others, prohibits actions that would exploit the goodness of others and is especially clear that leaders in the church are under the same if not more rigorous standards. The authority behind all these horizontal people-people injunctions is bolstered by a series of claims about God-people relationships, a strategy which provides a powerful and economical way to put people in a “for the good of the group” compliant frame of mind. An unswerving belief in an omnipresent God who sees all and who will bless and punish according to what he sees provides a very effective surveillance and incentive system at low cost to group resources. Altruism is reinforced and the free-rider problem minimized by specific Calvinistic beliefs. He concludes that Calvinism is best understood as a “cultural adaptation to [a] recent environment,” that is adapted specifically to the needs of reformation era Geneva.15

Wilson also presents an analysis of forgiveness to show that a behavior that at first might seem counter-intuitive from an evolutionary perspective actually makes sense when examined as a complex cultural adaptation forged by multiple levels of selection. Based upon close examination in several different religious contexts, Wilson argues that forgiveness is actually designed to foster in-group cooperation and cohesiveness while accentuating out-group suspicion if not outright hostility. In the case of Christian forgiveness, he insists that, far from a blanket requirement in all cases when a Christian is wronged, forgiveness is actually governed by a complex set of if/then statements. For example, according to Wilson, if a person was allied strongly with the Christian group, then forgiveness was extended freely. If a person persisted in behavior that was bad for the Christian group, forgiveness was denied. If a group member left the group, then condemnation and consignment to hell was the order of the day rather than forgiveness. If a person was considered to be allied with Satan (for example, the Roman authorities during the time of extreme Christian persecution) then forgiveness was not given. If a person was a potential convert of low moral status (for example, a prostitute), then forgiveness was assured freely, but if a person was a threatening member of the Jewish religious establishment who was unlikely to convert, then harsh words rather than assurance of forgiveness was in order. These conditional rules governing the application of forgiveness, Wilson claims, are carefully designed to bolster in-group loyalty, cooperation, and conflict resolution, while fostering successful out-group competition. Forgiveness, then, he claims, turns out to be a prime example of his functionality of religion argument.16

Finally, in terms of data presented, after completing most of the text of Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson wanted to be able to ensure that his work did not suffer from any unconscious sample bias. To address this he developed a process for randomly selecting religious systems that appear as entries in a recent sixteen-volume encyclopedia of religion. An essentially random sample of 35 religious system entries were examined as to whether

their explicit behavioral prescriptions, theological beliefs, and social practices . . . are . . .designed to provide a set of instructions for how to behave, to promote cooperation among group members, and to prevent passive freeloading and active exploitation within the group.

Wilson reports that the religions examined in his survey do support his central thesis and thus “sample bias” is not a legitimate criticism of his more detailed work on a relatively few examples.17

Shaping Principles and Their Impact on Wilson’s Work

Contemporary philosophers of science have recognized that scientific work involves not only empirical data and theory construction, but also a variety of judgments that involve complex social and cultural “worldviewish” elements and background beliefs. Philosopher of science Del Ratzsch describes the situation as follows:

Since humans are integral beings, theorizing, evaluating and so forth involve multiple aspects of one’s self. In some cases they involve even deep worldview commitments. This broader self-involvement in one’s scientific activities is neither completely avoidable nor regrettable. It is simply the way human persons work, and science being a human pursuit reflects this integral character as well.18

We humans cannot even in principle avoid having various of our broad metaphysical and value convictions play some role in our science. Our senses and our reason are not simply detachable from deeper streams that flow within us, so we cannot construct a “pure” science employing only those detached faculties.19

The political, social, philosophical, even psychological characteristics of various periods and people have served as sources of various shaping principles. Such principles are often unstated, and in some cases scientists are not even aware that they are employing them. The principles are simply buried deeply in the structure of what scientists of a period “feel” is or is not reasonable, sensible, or plausible, and they operate on that level.20

These shaping principles will be more or less prominent depending on the particular scientific discipline being pursued. It is not surprising that background beliefs about human existence and meaning can be expected to be especially influential in studies of human behavior, and this is illustrated in Wilson’s scientific work on human religious behavior.

Although there are a number of shaping principle-type commitments that can be identified in Wilson’s work, his commitment to two specific shaping convictions is especially prominent. Firstly, it is clear that Wilson’s naturalism is more than just a commitment to practical methodological rules in doing science and developing scientific explanations. He is a metaphysical naturalist who does not believe that anything exists outside the natural world. In its essence, religion must then reduce to empirically accessible horizontal social interactions because he is committed to the impossibility of a factually real vertical supernatural dimension to religion.21 Secondly, Wilson is adamant that as a metaphysical naturalist he need not remain on the sidelines of ethical discussions, restricted by naturalistic fallacy critiques from making any “ought” recommendations in terms of human behavior. In fact he says that his interest in religion stems from his admiration for many of the humanist sentiments he sees expressed in various religious systems. He professes concern, too, for the welfare and flourishing of the human species, and he wants to make positive contributions toward meeting the basic human needs for meaning, purpose, and hope. He believes science can ultimately provide definitive direction and hope in its naturalistic mode.22 These two commitments, to atheistic naturalism and to naturalistic humanism, have strongly influenced the development of Wilson’s proposals far beyond a narrow assessment of the contributions that group selection theory might make to an understanding of the social dynamics of religion.

Firstly then, his commitment to atheistic naturalism forces him to add an extra component to his group selection theory of religion that has broad implications for human “knowing” in general, including the scientific knowing he is claiming to use to explain religion.

[M]uch religious belief is not detached from reality if the central thesis of this book is correct. Rather it is intimately connected to reality by motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world—an awesome achievement when we appreciate the complexity that is required to become connected in this practical sense. It is true that many religious beliefs are false as literal descriptions of the real world, but this merely forces us to recognize two forms of realism: a factual realism based on literal correspondence and a practical realism based on behavioral adaptedness. An atheist historian who understood the real life of Jesus but whose own life was a mess as a result of his beliefs would be factually attached to reality but practically detached from reality.23

In more narrow terms he could have claimed simply to be showing that religious beliefs have certain effects on the way groups operate in human cultures without making broader claims about the falsity of all religious beliefs involving supernatural realities. But since he has argued that religious beliefs are adaptive and since as a metaphysical naturalist he also assumes that these beliefs have no correspondence in what he calls factual reality, he must argue that human belief-forming processes are not attuned to the truth about things in a fundamental way.

At the same time though, Wilson obviously has a high view of scientific epistemological authority and thus wants to preserve space for scientific factual realism in his evolution-based naturalistic epistemology. He presents science as a human group activity involving a clear-thinking, fair-minded community of scholars who, uniquely among all other human groups, are committed to factual truth as the highest ideal. In his view, the fact-detecting power of science can be accessed by the articulation of “well formed hypotheses that make different predictions about measurable aspects of the world.” Once a well formed hypothesis with specific predictions is on the table, scientists can roll up their sleeves and get about the work of evaluations that, in the end, will orient their beliefs with factual reality. Thus he says that the goal of Darwin’s Cathedral is to “treat the organismic concept of religious groups as a serious scientific hypothesis”24 and therefore to place his functional religion proposal before the factual realism-oriented scientific community.

But what exactly is the basis for his confidence in the factual uniqueness of the belief-forming processes operating in the “science group”? He asserts that scienceis “unnatural” and unique among human functional groups in its explicit intention to be mercilessly factual in its focus.

It is interesting to speculate that science is unique in only one respect: its explicit commitment to factual realism. Virtually every other human unifying system includes factual realism as an important and even essential element but subordinates it to practical realism when necessary. Only science in its most idealistic sense of the word, attempts to eliminate the trade-off by taking the advancement of factual knowledge as its explicit purpose. One could say that factual knowledge was the god of science. In every other respect science might be just like all other unifying human social organizations, including religion.

A number of implications follow from this speculation. First science emerges as an unnatural act. The human mind is probably far better at subordinating factual realism to practical realism than the reverse. The ideal of the true scientist, who weighs only the facts without regard for the practical consequences, is about as attainable as the ideal of Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha. The best science can do as a social organization is to implement a system of beliefs and practices that steers people toward the ideal. Of course we know that scientific culture is packed with sacred symbols, self glorifying statements and reasonably effective social control mechanisms. It might seem I am disparaging science by comparing it to religion in this way. On the contrary, I think science might profit by becoming more religious along certain dimensions, as long as it remains nonreligious with respect to its stated goal of increasing factual knowledge. Science needs an effective structure that implements a spirit of communitas as much as any other human unifying system.25

In the end it seems Wilson has to assume that the psychological commitments of scientists to get at the sober truth about things somehow ensures a high level off actual realism in the science group consensus. But he has argued extensively that human intentionality and human brain functions are mechanisms for transforming environmental information into adaptive phenotypes and that what is going on in human brains need not be factually truth-oriented in order to be adaptive in evolutionary terms.26 Reliably discerning when scientists are in factual realist modea nd when they are in practical realist mode may be more difficult than it would at first appear and at least deserves more of an argument than Wilson provides. It is one thing to insist that science is substantially in factual realist mode when the settled conclusions of the science community can be used to build an airplane that flies reliably. But many scientific theories, including the theory Wilson is proposing, do not have quite the same “but does it actually fly” test of factual realist success. In these cases especially, Wilson has given good reasons to doubt that human intentions, adaptively functioning brains, and group consensus can in themselves deliver factually realistic accounts most of the time.27 Thus, having declared that human belief-forming machinery is effectively and universally put in motion by factually false religious “realities,” he proposes no solid firewall that would keep this realization from burning through to erode confidence in the “factual realism” that he claims is the business of science. It could be that successful arguments for such a firewall can be made but Wilson makes none.28

Wilson’s second major shaping principle-type conviction, his humanist ideals concerning the dignity of human beings and the good of promoting human welfare, leads to an attempt at developing scientifically defensible, that is factually realist, concepts of purpose, design, value, and morality within a naturalistic framework. He believes proper appreciation of adaptation and group selection can do this kind of heavy lifting.

Biologists frequently express a feeling of awe, bordering on religious reverence, toward the intricacies of nature; the cryptic insect that exactly resembles a leaf, the fish that glides effortlessly through the water, and the amazing physiological processes that allow organisms to defy the forces of entropy. The organismic concept of groups makes possible a similar sense of awe toward religion, even from a purely evolutionary perspective.29

[P]eople who stand outside religion often regard its seemingly irrational nature as more interesting and important to explain than its communal nature. Rational thought is treated as the gold standard against which religious belief is found so wanting that it becomes well-nigh inexplicable. Evolution causes us to think about the subject in a completely different way. Adaptation becomes the gold standard against which rational thought must be measured alongside other modes of thought. In a single stroke, rational thought becomes necessary but not sufficient to explain the length and breadth of human mentality, and the so called irrational features of religion can be studied respectfully as potential adaptations in their own right rather than as idiot relatives of rational thought.30

So human recognition, via evolutionary biology in this case, of what nature is up to should lead to awe and respect for adapted entities and their means of adaptation regardless of rational connection to factual reality. By recognizing that pro-social moral behaviors are adaptive, Wilson argues that we have grounds for moving beyond the “naturalistic fallacy” such that in human society we can reject the “is”of self-seeking individual selection and value the “is” that is adaptive at the group level. Thus we can choose to treat the group level “is” as the “ought” we should encourage in the interest of humanist ideals.

However, to reign in unwarranted optimism, Wilson offers frequent example sand warnings about the “dark side” of group selection; that is, in the larger picture, the engine that drives in-group cooperation is success in out-group competition. He often points out that his theory predicts that the degree of in-group peace and cooperation is matched to the degree of out-group hostility and conflict.31 Ye the himself returns constantly to an optimistic stance that implies that better understanding of evolutionary principles involved can somehow lead to a better world from a humanist standpoint. But here again, as with the case in his epistemology, Wilson offers no argument for how human intention, the proximate cause in this case, can be assumed to transcend the machinations of ultimate evolutionary causes and thus play a “real” role in solving the out-group hostility problem.

It is somewhat unclear whether Wilson’s humanist hope rests ultimately in the inevitable adaptive direction of evolution toward refining cooperative group arrangements or whether he places more hope in science to help guide wisely humans to a better way. On the one hand, he seems to find reason for optimism simply in the plethora of cultural variations that humans can produce. The implication is that because the multiplicity of these variations increases the raw material available for winnowing by natural selection, the chances that better solutions for social life will emerge are increased. In this mode, nature is doing the real work although humans are involved in producing variations and can appreciate the job nature is doing in retrospect. On the other hand, he seems to find reason for optimism in scientific insights that will allow us to manage the evolutionary process for humanist ends either by supplying solutions ourselves or by influencing the adaptive environment in which evolution will work.32 What is especially interesting in all this is that Wilson seems to think that his extension of group selection theory into broad discussions of a naturalistic basis for human meaning, valuing, knowing, and working for the good is just a normal part of the scientific discussion. And although he tries to present his work as a kind of validation for religion, the terms of the validation make it clear that scientific naturalism carries the ultimate authority. While he admires the adaptedness of religions, it seems that once the “unnatural” process of science identifies the ends that nature really has “in mind” in designing religious systems, it is science that frames human ideals properly and it is ultimately science again that provides whatever power we might have to design more effective ways to attain these ideals.

Locating Christian Responses to Wilson’s Proposals and Program

Christians may respond to different elements of Wilson’s evolutionary proposals in a variety of ways (more below), but the vast majority would promptlyreject two central features of Wilson’s program: the (factual) falsity of the super-natural realm and his picture of human society as essentially a naturalistically “closed” system in terms of morals, meaning, and knowledge. Christians believe in the existence of the personal triune God of the Bible who as an all-knowing and all-powerful Creator upholds and guides His creation. This God not only rules but by His Word and Spirit, but also He significantly discloses Himself and His purposes in various ways. Christians believe that humans have rebelled and are under judgment for sins. Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the incarnate God delivers humans who believe from the judgment they deserve and that those saved by Christ’s sacrifice will rise from the dead to spend eternity with Him. These elements of “classical Christian belief” uphold the “open” transcendent character of human existence and thus the transcendent character of human morality, meaning, and knowledge.33 There is purpose and design in nature by reason of its relationship to a God whose purposes ultimately drive history. According to God’s purposes, humans were brought into being for a vertical relationship with God, for worshipping, serving, and depending on God’s grace and through that vertical relationship are called to a variety of horizontal relationships that involve knowing and doing. These human horizontal relationships have real significance in themselves but are rooted ultimately in the reality of vertical relationship with a God who transcends His creation and also works immanently in it. Thus because of God’s purposes accomplished in the Incarnation of the Son and the revealing work of the Spirit of truth in the world, human societies are not naturalistically self-contained and “closed” moral or epistemological systems.

So while Christians would generally agree in their rejection of Wilson’s meta-physical naturalism, they might disagree about the manner and the extent to which his metaphysical naturalism might be detached from his insights into the way religious belief and religious groups develop and operate in the natural world. The disagreements Christians might have over responses to Wilson can often be traced to different mindsets in regard to the nature of “the natural world” and the purpose and character of human cultural activities in it. To facilitate discussion of these different mindsets, I will make use of categories of cultural response set out by theologian Richard Neibuhr in his classic book Christ and Culture.34

The liberal Christian tradition has tended to view cultural development as a major means by which God orchestrates the progressive realization of human, moral, and spiritual qualities that allow natural beings to supersede nature, to out-grow competition based on narrow self interest, and to relate properly to one anothe rand to deity.35 In this way of thinking, modern science is a major part of this “progressive realization,” and this high regard for science, typically combined with a view of scriptural authority much diminished from more traditional Christian views, adds to the relative authority of the consensus views of the cultural science. Thus Wilson’s scientific insights concerning how we got to this point and his recommendations for how we can use this information to work for a better future would be appreciated. Christians from this perspective would find the least to question in Wilson’s proposals and might think that Wilson has reasonably described the natural means by which God drives the moral development that is the essence of religion. Wilson’s moral optimism, emphasis on horizontal human interaction, and identification of practical religious universals would all be appreciated by those tending toward the liberal Christian tradition.

In contrast, Christians with traditions that tend toward cultural separatism and toward seeing God’s work primarily in terms of supernatural deliverance from the natural world will find the least to appreciate in Wilson’s proposals.36 The instinct for cultural separatism is often combined with an emphasis on God’s supernatural actions over against natural processes and a strong emphasis on literalist biblical hermeneutics in regard to origins questions. From these perspectives, scientific explanation in terms of natural process can often seem to be in direct competition with convincing displays of God’s power and with scriptural truth. Thus Wilson’s categorical rejection of the reality of the God of Christianity may be taken as just a more obvious example of the overall godless direction of the cultural science, and his natural explanations can be seen as an affront to the power and work of God. For these Christians, the tendency is to opt out of mainstream cultural science and to criticize it from outside the scientific community using biblical tools and any other tools that might come to hand to further expose the godless bankruptcy of the cultural science. There would not be much point in examining Wilson’s proposals except to expose their errors.

For many Christians these first two positions represent the ends of a spectrum of Christian responses that runs from an overly facile Christian accommodation to culture at one end to an overly reactionary opposition to cultural ideas at the other end. The instinct of many Christians is to seek some kind of middle position that makes space for cultural scientific work and natural explanations and at the same time provides a legitimate sphere for the operation of specifically Christian convictions. The dominant “middle” ways of relating nature/science and supernature/Christianity is to see them functioning either in potentially complementary parallel tracks or alternatively at different levels of reality—a natural level that is relatively self-contained but is nonetheless incomplete on its own and a supernatural level placed on top of the natural.37

In the parallel tracks version, there are two complementary modes for understanding reality and for organizing human activity. The two modes operate side by side: the natural track, which includes science with its own rules of inquiry, explanatory style, and natural law concepts and the supernatural/theological track with its rules of inquiry, explanatory style, and unifying principles. The two tracks operate relatively independently so that science will be pretty much the same for Christian and non-Christian. Biblical revelation is useful for thinking in the super-natural/theological track and legitimates the nature/science track but is not directly relevant to it. Christian shaping principles are at work, but they operate primarily from outside science by providing motivations for scientific study or the basis for noting the broadly construed complementary features of the two enterprises.38 From this perspective, Christians as scientists may or may not be skeptical about the role of group selection in religious belief and behavior, but they would try to make their judgments about it from within science according to empirical data and the rules of scientific inquiry. If they become convinced that Wilson has made a strong scientific case, they might step back from the science to note that there seems to be a variety of loosely complementary elements between Christian teachings about moral systems and adaptive morality as described by Wilson’s science. As scientists they might take issue with Wilson’s conflation of metaphysical naturalism (which does not belong in the domain of science) and methodological naturalism(which in this view is often considered the hallmark of the scientific domain).39

According to the second “middle” position, the two levels of reality view, reality includes both the natural and the supernatural (as in the parallel model) but there is a vertically layered pattern to reality such that supernature/revealed religion/Christianity is rooted in and rests on “top” of a nature/science/natural religion layer. This leads to different levels of explanation depending on the layer one is examining and/or operating in. The fully natural bottom layer to created reality operates according to natural laws and is fully amenable to exploration according to naturalistic modes of thought and explanation. But in this view, there is more to life than the natural and God gives supernatural gifts, supernatural revelation, and supernatural grace to allow humans to supersede the natural and to attain a level of human fulfillment that encompasses the natural but is supernaturally more. From this perspective, the cultural science is considered to be a relatively self-contained system at a natural level—right reason and methodology without reference to anything supernatural will lead to a fairly complete natural picture, possibly including even some natural understanding of deity. These natural insights may point in various ways to a higher supernatural plane, but this insight will not be brought to its fullness without supernatural revelation and the supernatural infusion of grace “from above.” Revelation/Grace will grant understanding of “higher truths” about humans and deity, and these higher truths will be found to be rooted in or in hindsight to be suggested by natural scientific truths, even if these higher truths do not grow in any necessary fashion out of scientific truths.40 For example, one might hold that natural processes in human evolution could account for human religious capacity, while supernatural revelation would be used to account for the content of religious belief.

While strongly taking issue with Wilson’s metaphysical naturalism, many in this tradition would consider that his accounts of the natural history of religion and moral development may be good so far as they go in terms of nature. That is, God may utilize something like what Wilson describes to develop the natural religious foundation that revealed Christian religion is able to build upon, extend, and refine. So the natural forms of religion and their attendant natural forms of morality are not all that can and should be said about religion, and it is a Christian’s responsibility to develop a synthetic understanding of supernature and nature as they apply to religion by giving proper attention both to science and to divine revelation. Wilson’s story, minus his metaphysical naturalism, would likely be somewhat satisfying on the natural level for Christians taking this “middle” approach but would be incomplete in terms of the whole picture of reality from a Christian perspective.

My own responses to cultural enterprises in general and to Wilson’s proposals in particular spring from my particular location in the Reformed Christian tradition.41 These responses are rooted in five principles that receive particular emphasis in this tradition Firstly, God’s revelation in Scripture speaks to all areas of life. Although the particular focus of Scripture is the redemption to be found in Jesus Christ alone, scriptural authority is not limited to a narrowly defined religious realm. Secondly, God’s purposes in history include the human development of the potentials in His creation (science for example), and He calls and equips all humans to do this culturally-mediated work. Thirdly, humans have rebelled against the rule of God and thus all humans are prone to various forms of idolatry in all their activities. We are all tempted consistently to worship creatures and their powers rather than the Creator and sustainer of all things. Fourthly, God is the sovereign ruler of all that is. This principle is incompatible with the idea that nature is an autonomous system that operates itself according to its own natural laws, and it insists that God may accomplish his purposes through ordinary or extraordinary means with equal glory.42 Answers to questions concerning how He accomplishes His purposes can be faithfully sought by careful study of His Word and His world together. Fifthly, while God offers to all a surpassing kind of saving grace that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ, He provides for all a more general preserving kind of grace usually referred to as common grace. The operation of this common grace in a fallen world restrains the full impact of human sin and rebellion and also positively enables Christian and non-Christian alike to pursue the God-given human vocation of cultural development.43 Because of God’s common grace, the social chaos that would result from the unfettered reign of evil among humans is tempered in various ways. Common grace also promotes human flourishing so that even in a fallen world, positive social arrangements and attainments in the arts and the sciences, for example, can enrich human life.

In general cultural terms then, these principles lead to a positive disposition toward cultural work that extends to the persons engaged in various cultural tasks as well as the products they generate. Further, in more specific scientific terms, these principles make clear that there is no inherent competition between processes that unfold in regular “natural” ways and the reality of God’s faithful and purposeful rule. However these principles also engender a level of circumspection and even a proper wariness of the direction of cultural activities and their products based on the reality of idolatry and its distorting impact on human patterns of thought and cultural expression. In the sciences in particular, there is a proper wariness of the development and cultural normalization of various forms of naturalistic idolatries. The Scriptures, though, can be relied upon to help Christians check their own idolatrous tendencies and to shape their own cultural activities while also providing the resources for making judgments concerning the impact of idolatry on the cultural activities and products of others. However the use of the Scriptures, for these purposes especially, always carries with it the proviso that they inevitably will be applied in an imperfect manner and thus a humble and non-dogmatic approach ought to be a given.

From this perspective, neither blanket separation nor accommodation nor arrogant Christian presumption is an appropriate way for Christians to approach cultural activities. Also from this perspective, the parallel model described above seems to encourage an overly dualistic approach to cultural activities which compartmentalizes specifically Christian conviction in the religious/theological track while leaving the natural track relatively untouched by Christian thinking. Further, the vertically layered reality model described above seems to underestimate the power of idolatry to distort the use of right reason and right method in the natural realm and in the development of explanations at the natural level. And both of these “middle” approaches may tend to discourage the use of scriptural teaching to frame and inform cultural tasks. From the perspective I am advocating, Christians are to respect, appreciate, and assess all cultural tasks and products specifically as Christians. This includes being mindful of the impacts of pride and idolatry in their own work and assessments as well as in the work of others. They should bring all they know as Christians to all the cultural work they do, a maxim that specifically includes all they know from scriptural revelation.

In applying this point of view to Wilson’s proposals, I can find much to appreciate, specifically as a Christian, in Wilson and his work. I find Wilson’s obvious delight in nature and its study invigorating and appealing. His specific delight in the complexity of systems in which multiple factors are operating simultaneously in an interactive manner resonates with many of my own delights in molecular biology. His description of the sociology of science in the ups and downs of group selection theory is helpful, and his accounts of and interaction with studies of religion in a variety of disciplines is insightful.

Further I find Wilson’s specific proposals regarding group selection to be legitimate elements of the cultural activity of science, deserving of full consideration and careful critique. As a Calvinist, I appreciate Wilson’s insights regarding the intertwined and interactive nature of individual beliefs and social responsibility to be found in Calvinism right from the beginning. And while I disagree with his exegesis of Christian forgiveness, his analysis does provide insight into the various ways the Christian commitment to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us can be subverted.

Finally it seems to me that some aspects of Wilson’s proposals concerning group selection and altruism could fit quite easily into Christian accounts of the operation of God’s common grace. In Reformed theology, though the operation of special grace is understood from Scripture to be a direct supernatural work of the Spirit of God, the operation of God’s common grace is recognized in both ordinary and extraordinary processes and events. Thus any social system or religious tradition or biological mechanism that appears to restrain evil, encourage civility or promote cultural development could be a candidate for consideration as a means of common grace. Wilson’s principles of group selection as applied to human religious systems could thus be a description of one kind of “how” in the operation of God’s common grace.

But while I think there is much for Christians to consider profitably in Wilson’s work as it is given, I believe Christians would do well to reframe the questions he addresses along the following lines: The Scriptures claim (see Romans 1, for example) that all humans have some knowledge of the Christian God but that without the revelation of God in Christ, this knowledge is inevitably distorted and leads to various forms of idolatrous belief and practice. The Scriptures also claim (see Romans 2, for example) that all humans have moral sensibilities by which they approve or disapprove of various actions, and this moral conscience restrains evil in various ways and produces guilt when its dictates are ignored. Taking these claims seriously might reframe the issues Wilson addresses in several ways.

Firstly, rather than starting from the assumption that all beliefs in reference to supernatural beings are patently false, Christians would assume that these beliefs are rooted in the reality of the existence of the Christian God. From this perspective the content of religious beliefs become interesting and valid subjects of careful study as matters of factual reality. Christians can seek for the fragments of truth about the true God and His service that might be present in other religions and which might help refine and enhance Christian understanding of God’s work in His world. From this perspective, in contrast to Wilson’s, human religious belief-forming machinery is attuned to factual truths, and though distorted by rebellion against God, is not entirely misfiring in terms of truths about reality. Although such a Christian perspective raises a variety of other epistemological questions (concerning revelation for example), it avoids the particular epistemological quandary that Wilson falls into with his attempts to distinguish practical from factual realism.44

Similarly, a Christian perspective would encourage study of both the biological “cash value” of moral systems as well as the content of the systems themselves, but the questions asked would be nuanced in a different direction: How might God’s common grace have operated to bring about what appear to be quite similar moral codes even in groups with widely divergent religious convictions? How do these various moral codes benefit the groups that hold to them both in biological terms as well as in other ways? How do the moral codes compare to traditional Christian understanding of moral behavior and what might account for differences? And in Christianity, moral codes act as both a guide for behavior, but also “the law” is said to function to demonstrate human need for a transcendent Savior because humans find it impossible to fulfill “the law” themselves. Are there any echoes of this dual role for a moral code in other religions, and how do these echoes or (lack thereof) impact community life within the group? Wilson’s proposals would seem well worth examining closely with these questions in mind, but certainly a Christian taking the perspective I am advocating would want to extend considerations well beyond evolutionary adaptation as the “ultimate” explanation.

Some Concluding Remarks

In his discussion of Christian Smith’s book Moral Believing Animals, Wilson bristles at certain passages that suggest that there is no compelling reason to exclude theistic perspectives from the scientific discussion of human nature and behavior. Smith believes that the exclusion has more to do with conformity to the socially constructed rules of contemporary academic culture than to clear thinking about how science, itself a complex human phenomenon, is conducted.45 Wilson responds:

Passages Passages such as these [suggesting that theistic perspectives should be considered in the discussion] made me wonder if Smith was more intent on justifying his conception of theism than his conception of people as moral believing animals. If so he is indulging in an intellectual form of creationism and Oxford University Press should reclassify his book as theology. If not, then he should be happy to reject his conception of theism in favor of an evolutionary account that succeeds by normal scientific standards.46

I was surprised at Wilson’s categorical rejection of the idea that theistic perspectives might be productively included in scientific discourse for two reasons. First, although it is clear that Wilson holds his own views quite strongly, he is by his own admission committed to being a “bridge builder.” And this is not just a claim. He expends considerable effort in his writing to bring different points of view (and the people who hold them) together at points of agreement, and often he attempts to show that differing emphases can actually contribute unique elements to a larger unifying story. This is consistently his style both within evolutionary biology and in reaching out to groups outside the natural sciences. But here he seems to make no attempt at bridge building in regard to theistic perspectives—in contrast to his usual habits, he just bluntly rejects Smith’s contention. Apparently on this issue, only banishment from science or total capitulation to a naturalistic perspective will do.

A second reason Wilson’s response to Smith above is surprising is his use of a strict demarcation position (scientific discourse as entirely separate from theological discourse) that flies in the face of his earlier and quite enlightening discussion about the “fuzziness” of categories.47 In the last chapter of Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson discusses the merits and demerits of various definitions that are proposed to distinguish religious groups and religious activities from other kinds of human groupings and activities. In this context, he agrees that definitions are often helpful as far as they go, but in many cases where “fuzziness” really exists, the usefulness of definitions has limits. In these cases, he states, “Understanding intrinsically fuzzy sets requires acknowledging and studying their fuzziness as an interesting property in its own right.”48

The scientific study of religion and the various shaping principles involved—whether religious, theistic, naturalistic, or otherwise—are distinguishable in someways but also are intertwined inevitably in others and thus appear to provide a prime example of the “fuzzy sets” to which Wilson refers. If so, then the way forward, that is, the way toward “acknowledging and studying” set fuzziness “as an interesting property in its own right,” is not simply to assert a naturalistic playing field for all comers as Wilson seems prone to do. The way forward may be to acknowledge the reality of shaping principles, to encourage all comers to do their work according to their acknowledged shaping principles, and to be as transparent as possible when presenting their work. Would a richer, more satisfying picture of religion emerge in a scientific community ordered in such a way? I think addressing this question empirically would be a worthwhile venture.

Cite this article
Tim Morris, “David Sloan Wilson’s Group Selection Theory of Religion: Analysis and Possible Christian Responses”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:2 , 197-216


  1. An excellent current overview of prominent proposals in the field and discussions of theirimplications can be found in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Re-flections on the Origin of Religion, eds. Jeffrey Schloss and Michael Murray (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2009).
  2. Jeffrey P. Schloss, “He Who Laughs Best: Religious Affect as a Solution to Recursive Coop-erative Defection,” in The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, Critiques, eds. Joseph Bubulia,Richard Sosis, Erica Harris, Russell Genet, Cheryl Genet, and Karen Wyman (Santa Margarita,CA: Collins Foundation Press, 2008), 205-215.
  3. For example, one set of proposals of this type posits that various aspects of religion developas a result of “hyperactivity” with regard to innate cognitive mechanisms for detecting agencyin one’s environment: Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion(New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Justin Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?(Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004); Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained (New York: BasicBooks, 2001). For other examples of proposals in this category, see also Lee A. Kirkpatrick,Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion (New York: Guilford Press 2004); RobertN. McCauley and E. Thomas Lawson, Bringing Ritual to Mind (New York: Cambridge Uni-versity Press, 2002).
  4. See, for example, Joseph Bulbulia, “Religious Costs as Adaptations That Signal AltruisticIntention,” Evolution and Cognition 10 (2004): 19-38; William Irons, “Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment,” in Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, Randolph Nesse,ed. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation 2001), 292-309; Dominic D. P. Johnson and JesseBering, “Hand of God, Mind of Man: Punishment and Cognition in the Evolution of Coop-eration,” Evolutionary Psychology 4 (2006): 219-233; Dominic D. P. Johnson and Oliver Krüger,“The Good of Wrath: Supernatural Punishment and the Evolution of Cooperation,” PoliticalTheology 5 (2004):159-176; Richard Sosis and Candice Alcorta, ”Signaling, Solidarity, and theSacred: The Evolution of Religious Behavior,” Evolutionary Anthropology 12 (2003): 264-274.
  5. See for example, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007);Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking Press2006); William Durham, Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity (Palo Alto, CA:Stanford University Press 1992).
  6. This is the basic argument of Wilson’s 2002 book, Darwin’s Cathedral (Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 2002). See pp. 232-233 for a parable concerning the true “sacredness” of reli-gion with which Wilson concludes the book.
  7. Del Ratzsch, The Battle of Beginnings (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 120-127.
  8. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951).
  9. Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral, 12-19.
  10. Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of UnselfishBehavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
  11. Darwin’s Cathedral, 21-25, 96.
  12. Ibid., 147-157.
  13. Ibid., 164-169.
  14. Ibid., 164-169.
  15. Ibid., 86-124.
  16. Ibid., 189-218.
  17. David Sloan Wilson, “Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses About Religion with a Ran-dom Sample,” Human Nature 16 (2005): 419-446.
  18. Del Ratzsch, The Battle of Beginnings (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 126.
  19. Ibid., 119.
  20. Ibid., 126.
  21. David Sloan Wilson, “Beyond Demonic Memes,” eSkeptic, <> (accessed November 10, 2009).
  22. David Sloan Wilson, Eric Dietrich, and Anne B. Clark, “On the Inappropriate Use of theNaturalistic Fallacy in Evolutionary Psychology,” Biology and Philosophy 18 (2003): 669-682.
  23. Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral, 229.
  24. Ibid., 1.
  25. Ibid., 230.
  26. Ibid., 69-79, 227-233.
  27. This criticism is based on my understanding of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary ArgumentAgainst Naturalism. A succinct presentation of this argument can be found in James K. Bielby,Naturalism Defeated? (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 1-12. See also a similar cri-tique by Marjorie Grene in The Understanding of Nature: Essays on the Philosophy of Biology(Boston, MA: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1974), 28-29.
  28. See Bielby, Naturalism Defeated? for a variety of such proposals.
  29. Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral, 4.
  30. Ibid., 123.

  31. Wilson’s discussion of the necessary connection between in-group cooperation and out-group hostility is reminiscent of the dynamics of the second law of thermodynamics in livingorganisms. In biology, if an organism is stuck in a closed system and is unable to exportdisorder (in the form of heat), then disorder will inevitably build up in the organism leadingto its destruction as an orderly functional entity. Orderly life in biology is ultimately main-tained because disordered heat is exported constantly from the terrestrial environment toouter space. The group selection picture of altruism and its religious component seems tooperate in a similar fashion in that in-group moral order is maintained because there is a“bad behavior” sink provided by out-group competition. If the analogy with thermodynam-ics holds, then as human populations grow on planet earth, there would have to be increasedhostility between groups in order for in-group pro-social behavior to be maintained. In thisscenario it seems our only hope for a net gain in good behavior on planet earth would be thediscovery of extra-terrestrials on whom we could export earthly bad behavior!
  32. For examples of both sources of optimism see Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral, 216-233; JonathanGottschall and David Sloan Wilson, eds., The Literary Animal (Evanston: Northwestern Uni-versity Press 2005); David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone (New York: Bantam Dell,2007), 1-35, 82-99.
  33. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press,1998), vii.
  34. Like many useful typologies, the one that follows uses some degree of caricature to accen-tuate differences between views. My purpose is not force people and positions into tightcategories but to provide several sets of sensibilities and instincts that may help readersfurther understand and analyze their own and others responses to Wilson’s proposals andothers like them.
  35. This is patterned after Niebuhr ’s Christ of Culture type.
  36. This is patterned after Niebuhr ’s Christ against Culture type.
  37. These two are patterned after Niebuhr ’s Christ and Culture in Paradox and Christ aboveCulture, respectively.
  38. 8This is basically the approach that John Polkinghorne recommends in his writings. See forexample, John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998).
  39. In science, methodological naturalism usually refers to the principle that all explanations or theories are to be constructed in reference to natural causes and natural events.
  40. Niebuhr related this motif most strongly to Roman Catholic Thomist perspectives.
  41. For a variety of recommendations concerning Christian perspectives on the natural sciences from this “location,” see Tim Morris and Don Petcher, Science and Grace: God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2006).

  42. Ibid., 115-154.
  43. For more on common grace, see Abraham Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper:A Centennial Reader, ed.James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing 1998), 165-201.
  44. It is ironic that some might take offense at the assertion of the exclusivity of the essentialtruths of Christianity but take in stride without offence Wilson’s claim that all religious be-liefs involving supernature are patently false in terms of factual reality.
  45. Christian Smith, Moral Believing Animals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 95-123.
  46. Wilson’s review of Christian Smith’s book can be accessed on the Metanexus Institute’sonline magazine Global Spiral at <> (accessed November 10, 2009).
  47. Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral, 220-222.
  48. Ibid., 221.

Tim Morris

Covenant College
Mr. Morris is Professor of Biology at Covenant College.