As scientists celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, David Panisnick once again revisits the creation/evolution debate and considers the evolutionary origins of religion.
The Honolulu Community College professor teaches a religion course on creation and evolution every spring at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. The course also examines the biological origins of mysticism and enlightenment, morality and guilt, sacrifice, hierarchy and purity rituals.
The notion that the Bible is God’s literal word is a modern American idea stemming from the 1920s, he says. Europeans have no trouble reconciling Christianity and evolution. Nor do Catholics, who teach that the Bible is allegorical.
Panisnick’s students review the 1987 Supreme Court ruling that creationism is not science, that it is religion and thus has no place in the science classroom. “In court, science always wins,” he says. “The last version of creationism, intelligent design, seems to be starting to fade. I don’t know if anything will take its place.”
The course considers how Christians have responded to Darwin over time, but Panisnick’s favorite part comes when he flips the question and applies Darwinian principles to religion.
“Religion is 60,000 to 100,000 years old. Applying Darwin’s law of natural selection, if certain beliefs last thousands of years, they must confer some kind of advantage to the people who have them,” he proposes.
Whether it’s Christian faith in an all-knowing god or Confucian belief in the presence of ancestral spirits, the sense that someone is watching can affect behaviors in ways that contribute to keeping a community together, he explains. Kosher dietary laws make perfect sense in a world without refrigeration. Even religious intolerance can afford protection—a little xenophobia might have protected Native Americans from diseases introduced by westerners to disastrous effect.
The question for modern theologians (and policy makers) is whether tenets that proved advantageous 3,000 years ago still apply today. That’s why Panisnick encourages students to consider a double major combining religion and biology.