Reply to Nicholas Wade

November 16, 2009

To the Editor:

In his recent article about the evolutionary origins of religion, Nicholas Wade claimed that atheists would be reluctant to accept that religion might have conferred some adaptive advantages upon our ancestors. As one of the atheists whom Mr. Wade may have had in mind, I disagree.

If religious belief helped our ancestors survive and reproduce, perhaps because it increased group altruism in the face of territorial violence, this would not even slightly suggest that it is currently useful, much less true.

There are, needless to say, many traits that may have helped our ancestors propagate their genes that we would be wise to outgrow. Rape is also a universal feature of human life, and may have been selected for, but who would conclude on this basis that rape is morally defensible?

The tension between atheism and biology suggested in the article does not exist. In fact, there is no logical space in which it could exist. The reasons to doubt the evolutionary origins of religion have nothing to do with atheism; they relate entirely to the controversies over group selection to which Mr. Wade alluded.

Sam Harris
Los Angeles, Nov. 16, 2009

The writer is a neuroscientist and author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

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