5 min read

Here's what Matthew Parris gets wrong on science disproving religion

Religion is not a by-product of evolutionary goals. Andrew Davison argues that our mental lives are more than a maelstrom of urges.

Andrew works at the intersection of theology, science and philosophy. He is Canon and Regius Professor of Divinity at Christ Church, Oxford.

A man covered in dried and caked mud stands and looks to the side, a steel chain is draped from his shoulders.
Man, experimental.
Mahdi Bafande on Unsplash.

In a provocative recent column, the opinion writer Matthew Parris tells us that science has disproved religion. That’s quite a claim to make in 1,100 words, settling a debate that goes back decades. (‘Decades’, I write, not ‘centuries’, as historians have discredited the idea of some perennial conflict between science and religion.) 

Parris’s argument is admirably clear: evolution has given us brains, which leaves them hardwired for evolutionary goals, and religion is simply a by-product. Evolution made us servile and grateful, so we imagine a God to thank and obey. ‘A driving need has always been felt by millions for a God-related hypothesis’, he writes. However, ‘today in the 21st century there’s an answer’: one that Charles Darwin ‘could have begun’ and which ‘we can complete’, thanks to the science of genetics.  

If our mental lives were really no more than a maelstrom of evolutionary urges, we couldn’t have a sensible conversation about brains and evolution, never mind religion and gratitude. 

I happily agree that our minds evolved; I don’t concede that means we can only think evolutionary thoughts. According to Parris, ‘once you accept that survival, procreation and teamwork are what natural selection has equipped us for, every human impulse is explicable in those terms.’ But are they? Take the example of procreation. Nothing about my life has been particularly geared in that direction, nor perhaps has that of Parris, but we both live using the brains evolution gave us.  

That’s because the evolutionary advantage comes from having flexible, ambidextrous minds. Natural selection has given us brains like Swiss Army knives, instruments that can do many things. Not just one. We survive better because we can think about many things in many different ways. 

It also seems that evolution has given us minds that are free. That’s somewhat disputed among philosophers and neuroscientists, and we certainly don’t know how freedom might emerge, but it’s not obviously false that it has. 

Evolution has given us minds that can track reality, minds that can respond to what we find around us broadly and freely. There’s no denying the role of desires and drives in shaping our thoughts and decisions. It’s just that neither drives nor desires necessarily overthrow our reason, at least not most of the time. The history of thought – especially at its most impressive moments – shows us people trying to think as clearly as they can, whether as philosophers, scientists, theologians, historians, or whatever. By and large, they succeeded. 

In fact, the claims that Parris makes requires us to believe that evolution has given us brains that are reasonably good at latching onto reality, brains that can think about all sorts of things in a generally accurate way. If our mental lives were really no more than a maelstrom of evolutionary urges, we couldn’t have a sensible conversation about brains and evolution, never mind religion and gratitude. 

Attempts to reduce our mental and social lives to evolutionary forces are also challenged by the slow pace of evolution. Widespread disbelief in God is a recent phenomenon, even then only in the West, and even there not overwhelmingly. It’s all very new by evolutionary standards. Our recent ancestors were generally devout, our contemporaries less so. That can’t be about genes, since genes hardly change at all over the span of mere centuries. 

Nor, to take up a couple of other points from Parris’, does recent history make it so clear that we’re genetically programmed to be grateful or obedient, given how quickly attitudes have changed on those matters of late: far faster than any genetic change would allow. ‘Natural selection has designed us to seek and serve structures of authority, to command and be commanded’, he writes, ‘and to find meaning, purpose and satisfaction in service to something (or someone) greater than ourselves. We are bred to bend the knee.’ If so, our genes have started doing a remarkably poor job of that, all of a sudden. 

Perhaps the most we can say is something like this: (1) our genes (allegedly) predispose us to belief in God, as some sort of irrational urge, (2) this enthralled such unfortunate figures such as Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Edith Stein and Elizabeth Anscombe, but (3) newspaper columnists and other public intellectuals are now, by Herculean effort, suddenly able to break free from those unconscious genetic forces and see clearly for the first time. Perhaps, but I’m not convinced.  

There’s little that isn’t enriched when explored in an evolutionary light. But we do evolution no favours, nor science more generally, by taking it as the arbiter of truth in every realm of thought. 

Parris brings his column round to the theme of gratitude, writing that ‘not believing in a God to thank does not blunt my regular and strong feelings of generalised gratitude… I say “thank you”, knowing perfectly well there’s nobody to whom my thanks are directed.’ He thinks that we are hard-wired for gratitude, which leads to religiosity, as an invalid assumption.  

G. K. Chesterton followed a similar line of thought in his book Orthodoxy, but I found it more convincing than Parris does, writing that the world bears the character of a gift, and a gift implies a giver. What Chesterton wrote towards the beginning of the twentieth century burst out again in French philosophy at the century’s end. 

There’s a school of philosophy (phenomenology) that likes to start its thinking from what it is like to perceive phenomena, and for the world to ‘appear’ to us. In France, phenomenologists started saying that one of the most fundamental characteristics of how reality appears is as something given to us. Along Chesterton’s lines, that made some of these writers really quite religious. I’m not saying that Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, or Jean-Yves Lacoste automatically trump Matthew Parris, but they do suggest that an argument from givenness to gratitude to God isn’t simply foolish.  

Evolution is fascinating and important. There’s little that isn’t enriched when explored in an evolutionary light. But we do evolution no favours, nor science more generally, by taking it as the arbiter of truth in every realm of thought. 

Evolution can tell us a great deal about nature and humanity, but there is growing resistance among scientists towards doing that in a way that elides detail or simplifies into oblivion. Moving from explaining to explaining away is a good sign that science is no longer being used responsibly.  

There is an evolutionary dimension to religion. But supposing that evolution explains religion, so that you no longer have to think about religious claims on their own terms, is no more rigorous that supposing that the evolutionary basis for smell means that nothing has a scent. 

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)