Saber-tooth Psychology

Why Darwinism Can’t Explain Religion

Is faith in God just a holdover from our evolutionary past? That’s what some scientists are saying, but their explanations are more like science fiction.


Eric Metaxas

If there’s one area of science that shows how ill-equipped naturalism is to make sense of the world, it’s evolutionary psychology—the study of how evolution shaped the way we think, feel, and act. Even among outspoken Darwinists, this field is known for sensationalism and outright nonsense.

Take one study from Newcastle University that claimed to explain why boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink. The scientists’ answer? Because tens of thousands of years ago, our male ancestors had to watch for predators silhouetted against the blue sky, while women had to focus on gathering berries, which are usually pink. I’m not kidding. This was published in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal.

Several of our writers here at BreakPoint have dubbed this brand of pop-science “saber-tooth psychology,” because of the way the tales unfold: “Humans engage in such-and-such activity today because long ago, it gave our apelike forebears a survival advantage against hungry saber-tooth tigers.”

Whether it’s explaining how evolution made us promiscuous, why homosexuality confers a survival advantage, or how rapists are just acting on their genes, the fables that scientists dream up to account for human behavior range from silly to deeply troubling. And media attention creates its own kind of natural selection, aptly summed up as “survival of the most headline-grabbing.”

That’s why you get articles like the one on the popular science news site “Live Science,” explaining how evolution produced religion. See if this sounds familiar: Once upon a time on the African Serengeti, our Australopithecine great-great-grandparents heard a rustle in the tall grass. Those who shrugged it off were frequently killed and eaten by lions. But those who got spooked and ran away survived to pass on their genes.

It’s sabre-tooth psychology alright—just with real lions. But the story continues: Scientists tells us the instinct that led early humans to decide the rustle in the grass was not the wind but a predator, gave rise not only to a population of paranoid primates, but to our belief in the supernatural—and in God!

How? Kelly James Clark, a research fellow at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, explains that this instinct—what he calls a “hypersensitive agency-detecting device”—causes people to see intention behind not only rustling grass, but behind daily phenomena, like the weather, disease, and failed crops. Gradually, humans began detecting agency everywhere, and came to believe that supernatural beings inhabited the water, sky, and earth. Nature came alive with “gods, ancestral spirits, goblins and fairies,” he says, and these formed the basis of religious belief, or what Clark calls “the god faculty.”

So religion today, he concludes, is the product of a suspicious, long-ago rustle in the grass on the east African plain.

C. S. Lewis had a wonderful word for this kind of explanation: “Bulverism.” Instead of confronting an idea like religion on its own merits, he said, a bulverist simply assumes the idea is wrong, then proceeds to explain why people believe it.

Here’s another problem with saber-tooth psychology: As Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out, it assumes too much. If our brains and the thoughts in them evolved for survival value and not for truth value, why should we trust our own ability to understand the distant past? Mightn’t our “monkey minds” deceive us about that, as well as about religion?

So when you hear these kinds of stories, ask yourself what the storytellers are assuming and how those assumptions affect their theory. Remember, when it comes to evolutionary psychology, some science writers wouldn’t know a tall tale if it snuck up and bit them in the tall grass.

Editor’s note: Kelly James Clark contacted us to explain that one can get a misleading impression of his views from the few quotations from a lengthy interview. Clark argues that while humans may have developed the faculties by which we cognize God on the Serengeti, that it doesn’t follow that religious beliefs mediated by these cognitive faculties are irrational. In fact, he is writing a book defending belief in God against such charges of irrationality.

For more on Clark’s views, read “Is Atheism Irrational?” at Big Questions Online.


Further Reading and Information

Saber-tooth Psychology: Why Darwinism Can’t Explain Religion
Evolutionary psychologists go to great lengths to support a naturalistic story for the human instinct to believe in God. But there is one trustworthy Source we can count on to explain why we are the way we are. Check out the resources listed below to dig deeper on this subject.



Morality and Monkey Business: Evolutionary Psychology
Chuck Colson | | September 7, 2010

Evolutionary Psychology: A Secular Natural Theology
Chuck Colson | | June 26, 1998

Should You Trust the Monkey Mind?
Joe Carter | The Gospel Coalition | February 12, 2014

God in the Dock
C. S. Lewis | William B. Eerdmans | August 2014

The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved
Elizabeth Palermo | | October 5, 2015

Is Atheism Irrational?
Kelly Jams Clark | Big Questions Online | January 28, 2014

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.