Believers, Atheists, and Human Survival

Alexander Saxton

The disasters of the past decade serve notice that our present century will be remembered—should there be anyone left to remember it—as the century in which humans (our species!) confronted the crises of ecological burnout and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. How we handle the crises will determine the future of life on Earth. My purpose in this essay (and the book it derives from) is to explore the role of religion at this determining juncture.

Unlike natural cataclysms that wiped out dinosaurs and great lizards sixty million years or so ago, those of the twenty-first century are products of cultural evolution. They were designed by science and technology to promote the growth of industrializing societies. It might seem, then, that science and technology ought to possess the skills and will needed to resolve these problems, but, as to the will, at least, we have no such assurance. On the contrary, our political/industrial apparatus remains so locked into the short-range profits—and long-range mythology—of growth as to be incapable of any initiative that might subordinate growth to survival.

I will begin by setting this inquiry in historical context. From historians and anthropologists, we learn that religion has been universal in human societies, although with varying degrees of intensity. The nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries marked a period of recession, often referred to as the “Era of Secularism.” After the Second World War, this yielded to a powerful and apparently worldwide resurgence of religion. Opinion surveys tell us that a big majority of our fellow dwellers on planet Earth today are religious believers. For many of our contemporaries, indeed, religion seems the only imaginable resource by means of which humans can hope to escape the impending devastations of ecological burnout and nuclear/biological warfare. Is there substance to such hopes? Could religion work as a catalyst, a saving resource—that is, could it intervene in these crises adaptively for human survival?

My own stance since childhood has been that of nonbeliever, yet I expected to find in religion an attachment to humanity at large, a sense of shared obligation for life on Earth. I thought the fact that a majority of humans are believers—leaving aside the validity of what was believed—ought in itself to make religion a natural channel for collective efforts to save the human species. I was mistaken. I did not understand how much of religion’s power is used up in making war against evil empires. The conclusion I actually arrived at is that religion could (and did) function adaptively through most of human history, but that it cannot—and will not—do so in the upcoming crises of the twenty-first century.

My answer obviously stands against those who defend and celebrate religion. Yet it also diverges from positions frequently taken by critics of religion. To them, my answer may sound contradictory or counterintuitive, and, since I am ultimately on their side, I need to clarify our differences. In the following sections, I will attempt, first, to pinpoint the assumptions and implications of my own argument and, second, to show how this argument actually strengthens the atheist critique of religion.

Historical Argument and the Truth or Falsity of Belief

Students of long continuities in culture such as language, social morality, and religion usually begin (if they have kept up with recent developments in evolutionary psychology) by positing an evolved “capacity” at a very early human or prehuman stage. Accounts focusing on religion, then, need to develop a hypothetical explanation—hypothetical because the events long preceded empirical evidence—of how that capacity generated the specific behaviors we call “religion.” Next comes the cultural complex: religion in relation to language and morality, gender relations, hunter/gatherer technology, and so forth. All this evolves meanwhile through millions of years, till it arrives at the historical period when empirical evidence at last becomes available. The hypothetical episode that opened the entire sequence can then be validated (in a general sort of way) by triangulating backwards.

Essentially, this is a historical approach. One of its peculiarities is that it remains neutral as to the truth or falsity of religious belief. Consequently, it can be—and frequently is—used by both atheists and religionists. Yet neither of them can be neutral concerning the truth or falsity of religion, which makes for a major source of confusion. Atheists will be tempted to insist that since religion is false, it must work dysfunctionally in history; whereas believers arrive more or less inevitably at an opposite set of conclusions. Since believers and nonbelievers nowadays are familiar with Darwinian concepts, a similar confusion is likely to invade their judgments of terms such as adaptive and maladaptive. I refer to my own case by way of example. As an atheist, I would be eager to report that religion never worked adaptively in respect to human dominance or survival. I am prevented from doing so, however, by the following considerations. Religion is probably as ancient in cultural evolution as language or morality. All three played crucial roles. Social scientists generally consider language the sine qua non of social order and ascribe comparable status to morality and religion. Evolved cultural capacity thus appears as the definitive adaptation by which humans climbed to the top of the global food chain. Given that it played so important a part in the process, had religion proved maladaptive or dysfunctional, it would either have phased itself out long ago or destroyed the species in which it resided.

Whether morality derives from religion, or vice versa (or neither), are questions we need not pursue in this paper; still, the fact that both are culturally very ancient and closely related adds a web of additional confusions to those already inherited from the true/false dichotomy. Critics of religion (atheists included) often make the accusation that religious hierarchies have tended to justify (and sanctify!) gender and class exploitation. The accusation is accurate; doubtless many of us also agree that support for gender or class exploitation is morally repugnant. Yet, to identify this as maladaptive or dysfunctional amounts to a shortsighted misreading of the historical record. Through most of its time span, our species existed at the brink of starvation. Human life, as Hobbes insisted, was nasty, brutish, and short. Economic exploitation under such circumstances functioned as a survival mechanism. Without it, there would have been no elites liberated from the daily grind of food production and thus privileged with the leisure and resources to construct culture—including religion and science. Economic exploitation was never easy to maintain. We know it has been sporadically resisted through all recorded history. The support of religious establishments, with their power to condemn dissenters to punishment on Earth and eternal damnation thereafter, may well have supplied the increment by which ruling classes maintained themselves. If so, we owe in part to religion those achievements of human culture that are now endangered by ecological crisis and nuclear/biological warfare. And if this be true, we have no choice but to conclude that religion, as a force in cultural evolution—at least at that historical juncture—was working adaptively.

Suppose we apply a similar analysis to the problem of war. Wars between rival social groups—tribes, city-states, nations, empires—have been a major ingredient of cultural evolution. Religion
augmented this process by being divisive—that is, by empowering each group of contestants to perceive its opponents as dupes or agents of the evil empire. The effect was to escalate economic or political disputes into holy wars and crusades. At first glance, this might seem negative or dysfunctional, and it is nearly always so represented by critics of religion. Yet, since war stimulates technology and technological development expands the collective culture, a longer-range outcome will be to enhance the global dominance of the entire species. Doubtless, this is reprehensible in a moral sense; yet it has been powerfully adaptive. In our own era, one need think only of radar, rocketry, jet propulsion—or of the computer culture! Thus, religion and war, yoked together, function adaptively within a certain time period. Since the period is historical, the assertions I make about it can be validated against empirical evidence. Historical periods may be long or short, but (by definition) must have beginnings and endings. This one, indeed, was very long, since it began with the origin of the human species. When did it end?

The turn came at the end of World War II, when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made clear that weapons of mass destruction were capable of destroying life on Earth and when, soon afterwards, pioneer ecologists like Rachel Carson (among many others) began showing that industrial technology, which had seemed so useful and desirable, was in fact eroding the planetary ecosystem. The bottom line, then, is that religion could remain adaptive, or beneficial, only so long as warfare could be carried on without butchering the entire human species, and only so long as industrial technology could be pushed without contaminating the natural world in which biological life is based. When those conditions changed, religion ceased being adaptive and became dysfunctional.

Why Historical Argument Strengthens the Atheist Critique of Religion

True/false and historical arguments are both essential to the case against religion. Although they work in different ways, they will not necessarily be contradictory or mutually exclusive. Scientists critical of religion generally rely on true/false arguments. These stand on strong ground when directed against fundamentalism. Since it was Christian fundamentalism’s campaign to impose creationism and intelligent design theory that triggered the ongoing debate about religion, true/false arguments have held center stage in the media for the past several years and proved impressively effective in thwarting the fundamentalist assault. Yet the truth is that fundamentalist doctrines make easy targets, especially for scientists. A critic who is also an atheist is obligated to push further by challenging not just religious fundamentalism but religious belief itself. Belief responds to such challenges by withdrawing to its main citadel, which is fideism: “I believe because I have an inner vision truer than any worldly knowledge.” This amounts to claiming transcendental connections that supersede knowledge drawn from empirical experience (such as science).

From the believer’s point of view, fideism transcends the true/false question. For the atheist, it recommends a shift to historical forms of argument.

Ironically, religion’s persuasive power rests not so much on declarations of faith as on the empirical fact of its universality, customarily attributed by believers to divinely inspired intuition. Any effective rebuttal, therefore, must begin with a secular explanation of how religious belief gained universal acceptance. But this involves recycling a segment of the historical argument.

When, from various conceptually possible starting points, belief actually takes root in human consciousness, there will then exist at least one individual who gives credence to a spiritual (read anthropomorphic) force in nature. To have access to such a supernatural presence—simply as belief—enhances the success and survival power of believers. No other validation is needed. The believer wastes fewer calories in terror and despair. Small margins accumulate into larger advantages at hunting and gathering, mate selection, and tribal leadership. Belief enhances the begetting of children and life expectancy. Spouses, children, and close relatives will be more likely than any others to absorb the sacred teaching. And, since we are now deep into the era of cultural evolution, news of this new development—no longer dependent on genetic transmission—spreads by all the multiple channels of cultural diffusion. Belief is epidemic within the band. The band conquers (or absorbs) neighboring bands not yet possessed of the glad tidings. During the long subsequent era of cultural interaction with phenomena such as gender/class exploitation and warfare (here I am simply filling out the model sketched in the preceding section), religion becomes a powerfully adaptive factor in the ascent of our species to the top of the global food chain.

I argued earlier that religion had remained beneficial (i.e., adaptive) through most of history. Truth or falsity under those circumstances made no difference to how it actually worked. Only in our own era, when religion became dysfunctional, would the true/false dichotomy become a hot-button issue. The shift occurs because fideist claims of transcendental links that supersede empirical knowledge now suddenly stand out as obstacles to human survival, because they undermine confidence in science.


The historical argument that I have outlined makes it possible to explain why religious belief, although illusory, became universal in human societies; why (and how) it worked over a long time span to enhance the survival and dominance of our species; and why the crises of the twenty-first century reverse that historic role.

It is precisely religion’s greatest contributions to global domination—its privileging of the human over all other species and its division of true believers from the rest of humanity—that now become factors in the cycle of disasters. I expect it is too late to escape them. The question is whether human culture can survive and how deeply traumatized it may become in the process. Not to survive terminates history. History, as an ongoing narrative, may reach its own terminal moraine without ever disclosing religion’s truth or falsity; but this cannot apply to human actors in history, especially those of recent time. Their choices will govern life’s future on Earth. Doubtless, many will make a choice by striving to save our planetary ecosystem. Yet, unless some also opt to pursue the true/false question with their earthbound fellow travelers, our chances of collective survival will not be good.

Further Reading

  • Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton/Mifflin, 2006.
  • ———. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell. New York: Viking, 2006.
  • Harris, Sam. The End of Faith. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
  • Hauser, Marc. Moral Minds. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
  • Hauser, Marc and Peter Singer. “Morality without Religion,” Free Inquiry 26, no. 1 (December 2005/January 2006): 18–19.
  • Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd. Not by Genes Alone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Saxton, Alexander. Religion and The Human Prospect. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006.
  • ———. “‘Sir John’ Templeton’s Foundation and the New Trinitarianism,” Free Inquiry 27, no. 4 (June/July 2007): 27–34.
  • Wilson, Edward O. The Creation. New York: W.W. Nor
    ton, 2006.

Alexander Saxton

Alexander Saxton is professor of history emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti- Chinese Movement in California (1971, 1993), The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America (1990, 2003), and Religion and the Human Prospect (2006).

The disasters of the past decade serve notice that our present century will be remembered—should there be anyone left to remember it—as the century in which humans (our species!) confronted the crises of ecological burnout and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. How we handle the crises will determine the future of life on Earth. My …

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