Summary of contribution from invited speaker, Paul Taylor, on the question:

"Why do we believe in god?"

November 26th 2005

Opening Parable

Opening the curtains of their hotel bedroom on the first morning of their holiday, Jill enthuses to Jack: "Another new town I can't wait to explore where the museums and bars are, and which way is the beach." Fingering an old dog-eared guide-book, Jack replies: "I don't see the point of going to all the trouble of wandering around town, when all the information we need is in here. We can just read this book instead."

The attitude of this unlikely holiday-goer typifies those who prefer to resort to a document or doctrine when faced with questions about how the world is, rather than actually exploring, investigating and examining what is out there.


The question asked here can only be a contraction of "Why do those who believe in god(s) do so?", given that not everyone does. It invites an investigation into how people end up with the beliefs they have, rather than a philosophical battle as to the worth of the arguments for the existence of god(s).


Traditionally, philosophical discussions about relgious belief have focussed on the validity of the classical arguments for the existence of god(s). These arguments have been endlessly discussed and are highly dubious if not fatally flawed. The alternative approach to this question offered here reflects developments in philosophy and other disciplines, such as psychology, anthropology, archaeology and biology, in recent decades.

The most fruitful and promising way to throw light on this and a huge range of other human social, psychological and moral issues is to bring to bear the explanatory framework and empirical findings of evolutionary research. No serious investigator of biology can doubt the fact of evolution, and no theory as to the mechanism of evolution has had the astounding success of Darwin's theory of natural selection, bolstered in the 20th century by findings in molecular biology to become neo-Darwinism (Dawkins, 1989).

Natural selection (including sexual selection) makes sense of how living things have evolved and are still evolving, and abolishes any need for teleological explanations in biology. To explain something in terms of purpose or an end-in-view is to explain it teleologically. Such explanations disappeared long ago from the physical sciences, and with Darwinism, they disappear from biology too (Dennett, 1995).

Humans are apes. We share a vast genetic legacy not just with other apes but with countless other species. This legacy is not limited to anatomy and physiology, according to workers in the field of evolutionary psychology (Wright, 1994).

The set of conditions faced by early human populations in the Pleistocene epoch, from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, and the problems posed by it led, among other things, to that peculiar composite of adaptive apparatuses, the human mind. In evolutionary terms, the modern human will not have had enough time to altogether discard the psychological toolbox painstakingly acquired during that long formative period.

In his book, Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer argues that the usual accounts of religious belief and behaviour fail to provide coherent and comprehensive explanations for the bewildering variety of phenomena. By drawing on evolutionary research and ideas, he offers a vastly more insightful account of religions.

Note on Ensuing Discussion

Most objections to the idea that religions could be explained by evolutionary theory relied on the argument from personal experience. The snag with this gambit is how to persuade anyone that events inside your skull, however dramatic, can tell us how the universe works or whether it contains gods.


Further Reading




Paul Taylor 2006