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The Crux Project Archives: Philosophy


If scientific naturalism is correct, then the scientific naturalist is on the brink of extinction.

by John D. Martin

If worldwide fertility rates reach levels now common in the developing world (and that is where they seem headed), within a few centuries, the world’s population could shrink below the level of America’s today. Of course, it’s unlikely that mankind will simply cease to exist for failure to reproduce. But the critical point is that we cannot reverse that course unless something happens to substantially increase fertility rates. And whatever might raise fertility rates above the replacement level will almost certainly require fundamental cultural change.
—Stanley Kurtz, “"Demographics and the Culture War," Policy Review

Throughout the 1990s, scientific studies of religious communities began to deliver solid evidence that religious belief has significant benefits for believers in terms of health and longevity, as well as reproductivity. When the findings of these studies were made public, they received widespread notice in the United States press, appearing in national newspapers too numerous to list, on the broadcasts of CNN, and eventually in the pages of monthly magazines such as Christianity Today. Pastors around the country copied the newspaper and magazine articles that announced the beneficial influence of religious belief on health and dutifully pasted them on their local church bulletin boards. Chuck Colson reported the findings in his Breakpoint radio broadcast as evidence of the inherently religious nature of human beings, suggesting that the healthy effects of any kind of religious belief pointed to a human need to acknowledge and worship the Creator, however imperfectly this worship might be expressed. At the turn of the century, word on the street was that religious belief could positively impact your health.

Perhaps the best-known research into the religion/health connection is that of Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University, who demonstrated a statistical increase in health and a decrease in mortality among those of his patients suffering from chronic or life-threatening illnesses who also professed strong religious convictions. Criticism of these studies done by a medical scholar at Stanford University in 1999 made the valid point that the studies' findings may demonstrate only that religious beliefs have beneficial effects on patients' frames of mind by promoting optimism, hope, and moral attitudes that foster healthy behavior. Even so, the benefits of religious belief on health remained unchallenged by the Stanford research review, and that review eventually did away with the possibility that the benefits of religion in decreasing patient mortality could have been a statistical illusion. The effect, the review concluded, was real. In a 2001 editorial for the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dr. Koenig reaffirmed his earlier findings on the importance of religion as a factor that can affect the outcome of patient care. Those in the medical profession, and in the general populace, who are of a non-religious persuasion found these findings startling, to put it mildly.

Less startling, perhaps even expected, are the findings that religious persons of all types tend to have larger and more stable families. This data comes to us from census figures and population studies done around the year 2000, the results of which have been published in various social science journals in the past two years. In the article from which the quotation at the start of this essay was drawn, Stanley Kurtz discussed four recent books that drew on the same population data and reached the same conclusion: without a return of the traditional family—or some other, more disturbing development (like, for example, eugenic fetus-farming)—that would restore fertility rates to pre-1972 levels, the human race is headed for a population implosion. One important observation contained in the research of the authors Kurtz reviewed in his article is that those nations where the birth rate has fallen beneath the replacement rate are, not coincidentally, those nations where traditional religious beliefs have declined the most severely and been replaced by some form of philosophical materialism (the idea that nothing exists beyond physical matter). Throughout the industrialized world, exceptions to the decline in population are found only in strongly religious communities. The modern “advanced” nations have, in their acceptance of a materialist perspective on reality, embraced a philosophy that actually dooms them to extinction.

In a related vein, the results of long-term studies on family stability published since the turn of the century indicate that religious belief and participation in a faith community significantly contribute to family stability. Children raised in religious households not only have fewer psycho-social pathologies, such as suicide, substance abuse, and violent behavior, they also exhibit a higher proportion of socially beneficial behaviors, such as charitable giving, establishing strong friendships, and volunteerism. This last point also has a number of public policy implications. Recent studies linking the decline in charitable giving in the U.K., the Netherlands, and Canada to the decline in religious belief have raised concern for the future of charitable giving of all kinds. A religious upbringing, the data clearly indicates, produces people who are not only better able to survive in human society, but who are more likely to contribute to the well-being of others. The decline in religious belief will mean, in the long term, that the human race will be fewer in number, psychologically and physically weaker, and less prone to help each other out. 

Such studies have rather grim implications for the atheists of the world. To put it as bluntly as possible, non-religious persons, in purely evolutionary terms, experience a significant selection disadvantage in terms of longevity and reproductive success. The irreligious live shorter lives, less healthy lives, produce fewer offspring, and provide less stable, less healthy family environments for those offspring. If, in evolutionary terms, reproductive success is all that "matters"—and, strictly speaking, reproductive success is all that can matter in evolution, since it means the difference between survival and extinction—then the evidence indicates that religious believers of all sorts enjoy a very significant selection advantage over non-religious persons.

At least, there can be no doubt about this fact if we are intellectually honest and logically coherent thinkers, and it is in these two respects that scientists like Richard Dawkins are unqualified failures. Taken from an interview that he gave to Skeptic online some years back, this is his response to the suggestion that religion as a meme (a term he coined back in the 1976 to characterize ideas that spread from mind to mind like genes in a gene pool) has the edge over atheistic materialism:  

Religion is a terrific meme. That's right. But that doesn't make it true and I care about what's true. Smallpox virus is a terrific virus. It does its job magnificently well. That doesn't mean that it's a good thing. It doesn't mean that I don't want to see it stamped out.

The ridiculous religion-to-smallpox comparison aside, there is a basic logical problem with Dawkins’ position in that, as far as evolution is concerned, survival and reproductivity are all that matters. By the logic of his own belief in evolution as the only explanation for the origins, nature, and ultimate fate of humanity, Dawkins really has no intellectually solid ground for his protest against the success of religion as a meme. If his own definition holds, then the "meme" must also be subject to selection pressure, and the meme that best contributes to the survival of its carriers is assured of survival and further reproduction. In order to justify his own intellectual prejudice against religion—which, as I shall make clear below, is entirely founded on ignorance and intellectual dishonesty—he has to resort to ideas that have no meaning in a truly materialist universe: "good" and "truth." If we are to be intellectually consistent and thorough philosophical materialists, there can be no "good" or "evil" in the world of living organisms. There can only be what contributes to survival and what does not. There can also be no "truth" that is not physical and observable, either directly or through some sort of technological instrument. The only intellectually honest and consistent statements that a materialist can make about religious belief must be observable. 

So what are the observable effects of religion? Contrary to the claims of atheists from Lucretius to Dawkins, one of the most immediately observable effects of religion is that it creates civilizations. The great civilizations of the modern world directly owe their existence either to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam or to the religions of the East: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, India, and Japan also owed their existence to the religious impulse, and from that impulse came the first great achievements in science, the visual arts, and literature. The proof that religion is nothing at all like smallpox can be found in the great museums and libraries of the world. In fact, the better comparison would be between that aggressive and painful disease and anti-religious thought. The few attempts to create civilizations on purely atheistic or anti-religious bases (National Socialist Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China and their various satellite nations) have always resulted in tyranny, repression, and mass murder on scales unseen in religious societies. It is no coincidence that an atheistic political ideology destroyed more human lives in seventy years—and that without making any significant contribution to human culture—than all political ideologies based on traditional religions could be blamed for destroying in the past thousand years. On the basis of observation alone, it is clear that the absence of religion, if it continued long enough, would lead to the absence of human civilization in all its forms, and, most likely, to the extinction of the human species. Religion is not only "a terrific meme," it is precisely the meme we need to have a human race that survives on more than a spear-to-mouth basis. 

Biblical theism produced, directly or indirectly, the mental framework responsible for all of the technological and scientific achievements on which our modern civilization depends. Whether we compare contributions to physical survival or the success of ideas, religious beliefs in general and belief in the God of the Bible in particular enjoy a clear selection advantage, what we can call "survival of the metaphysically fittest." If we are to trust that the observable, measurable effects of religious belief give us reliable insight into the true nature of ultimate reality, then objective observers must conclude, on the basis of the evidence alone, that the continued survival of the human race will depend on the preservation of the religious impulse. Theologically, it only makes good sense that the Author of Life would instill in us the religious impulse in order to preserve us physically, since our mortal lives are the seeds of our eternal lives, made possible solely through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The longevity and reproductive advantages enjoyed by religious believers simply ensure that at any given time in any given civilization, the number ready to hear the Gospel and inclined to believe it will be maximized, in turn assuring the eternal survival of the human race. Biblically, this, too, only makes sense. We were made, the first book of Moses tells us, "very good," and thus it makes sense that the God who made us so would restore us to that condition and keep us that way—forever. •

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