Religion is Caused by Misfiring Genes
Updated: Jul 27
“It’s natural selection overshooting that produces religion.”
- Alex Rosenberg
“Religion can be seen as a by-product of the misfiring of several of these modules...”
- Richard Dawkins
Alex Rosenberg is a Duke University Professor of Philosophy and Richard Dawkins is a former Oxford University Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. Both of them see the complexity of human life, morality and human behavior as being the result natural processes driven by physics and natural selection. Therefore, to them, religion must also be a result of natural selection. However, in at least this one case, they think natural selection got things wrong.
While Richard Dawkins sees natural selection as the master builder that optimizes species, he does acknowledge there is at least one area where it failed. It seems that religion was caused by one of these genetic failures – a misfiring of brain modules. The implication seems to be that without this flaw, we would all be more genetically perfect and there would be no religion. Mr. Rosenberg seems to make a similar claim – natural selection went too far, overshot somehow and caused religion.
This is an interesting perspective. However, does it make sense? Lets’ ask a few simple questions.
Can natural selection make mistakes?
How could natural selection result in misfiring or overshooting? Isn’t the idea that genes randomly mutate, mutations are inherited and beneficial mutations result is the survival of the species? If so, how could genes make a mistake?
Alister McGrath points out that, to Darwinism “everything is accidental.” To pure Darwinism, religion would be neither normal nor abnormal – it just is.
What beliefs are caused by genetic mistakes?
If a belief or the desire to believe something is the result of overshooting or misfiring genes, then are Mr. Rosenberg’s passion for scientism and Mr. Dawkins’ passion for natural selection also the result of errant genes? Why would it only be belief in religion that’s errant and not everything? Did genes also err in making people Democrats, music lovers and Chicago Bears fans (no offense Chicago)?
Where’s the evidence?
Neither Rosenberg nor Dawkins provide scientific evidence for their claims that religion is the result of genetic overshooting or misfiring. As a Philosophy Professor, we may give Alex Rosenberg a pass. However, as a scientist, it’s reasonable to hold Richard Dawkins to a scientific standard. That’s what Alister McGrath does.
Alister McGrath is a Theology professor and was one of Richard Dawkins’ colleagues at Oxford. However, McGrath also earned a PhD in molecular biophysics. He points out that Dawkins’ claim doesn’t live up to scientific standards.
“The main criticism of this accidental by-product theory is the lack of serious evidence offered on its behalf. Where’s the science? What’s the evidence for such a belief? We find speculation and supposition taking the place of the rigorous evidence-driven and evidence-based arguments that we have a right to expect.”
As a scientist, it doesn’t make sense for Dawkins to make scientific claims without scientific support.
Did natural selection select religion?
Since the majority of people on the planet do believe in God and/or are religious, did natural selection select religion? And, if it did, why try to fight against natural selection? If religion was selected by natural selection, surely it benefits the survival of humanity in some way.
If Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Dawkins see natural selection as the source of religion, as they do, why would they oppose belief in God? Does natural selection not always result in that which is beneficial?
Alex Rosenberg and Richard Dawkins are intelligent people. However, their claim that religion is the result of genes overshooting or misfiring just doesn’t make sense.
Genes don’t make mistakes. Beliefs aren’t the result of genetic mistakes. The idea that they are isn’t supported by science. And, even if genes were tied to beliefs, it would be more logical to conclude that religion is beneficial to humanity rather than harmful. After all, most people on earth do have religious beliefs.
Richard Dawkins states that natural selection ultimately never fails: “Natural selection works because it is a cumulative one-way street to improvement.” So, if we measured the appropriateness of religious belief using natural selection as the standard, belief in God and religion would be seen as a success – not a failure.
 Alex Rosenberg, The Atheists Guide to Reality, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 2011), 211.  Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2008), 209 and 200.  Dawkins advances the idea that natural selection results in genetic improvement but the by-product of beneficial mutation could be non-beneficial. However, in either case, natural selection would have been the ultimate cause.  Alister McGrath & Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007 56.  Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion?, 56.  Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 169.