Book review: In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan.
Price: US$16.47; NZ$39.97
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (May 3, 2010)
’In the Name of God is an excellent popular presentation of the scientific understanding of the origins of religion and morality. It also examines the origins of religious violence and opens a discussion on the way humanity may reduce these problems.
Some people will find it controversial. But not because some trends in evolutionary psychology have discredited themselves with extravagant claims. In this case the controversy will be because, as Teehan puts it, ’this view of human nature — the very idea that there might be a human nature — smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.’
However, the time is right. ’It is only within the last few decades that we have developed the tools that can give us a fair chance of setting out a scientific account of religious origins. In fact, I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.’ One could say the same about the scientific study of human morality.
Outline of evolutionary origins of morality and religion
Science sees the mind as a product of natural selection. And reproductive success involves more than biological causes. It also is dependent on a complex of other, social, skills and morality involves many of these.
The book begins with an excellent summary of current knowledge of moral evolution. It describes the origin of altruism and its development into reciprocal altruism and indirect altruism. The evolutionary origins and development of moral emotions and moral grammar are described.
With development of larger societies our evolved moral sympathies extended to cover large groups besides kin, clan and tribe. This involved an extended idea of the ’in-group’ to involve individuals who were previously in the ’out-group.’ There was also a need to identify those who were part of the new ’out-group. Religions provided ways of doing this by encoding moral ’laws’ and requirements. And by redefining the larger in-group using beliefs, traditions, taboos and ceremony. These also provided mechanisms for individuals to display their adherence to the in-group and so their trustworthiness for social interaction with other members of the group.
Origin of god-beliefs
Part of this approach to studying religion recognises the existence of gods. But in the minds of humans, not (necessarily) as objective entities. These concepts arose as part of our evolved strategy to over-interpret, and under-determine, stimuli. ’The human mind is designed to naturally, and automatically, interpret the world in terms of agents — that is, beings acting with intention.’
’Supernatural’ agents, gods, spirits, ghost, ancestors, etc., were a natural development. Some agents were defined to have special, counter-intuitive, powers, invisibility, access to one’s mind and thoughts, etc. (I like this description of ’supernatural’ — always a difficult word to define — as being ’counter-intuitive.’)
However, gods were anthropomorphised. Even today most believers adhere to belief in a largely anthropomorphic god. Hence the lack of support for theological and philosophical accounts of gods. ’The more that reflective beliefs about God move away from cognitively intuitive conceptions, the less influential those beliefs become.’ Gods that are radically different to people are incomprehensible and irrelevant to the ordinary believer. Teehan describes these popular or relevant gods as minimally counter-intuitive (MCI) agents.
So this scientific description portrays religion and gods as ways of solving the problem of extension of our evolved moral intuitions. To enable organisation and operation of societies larger than kin, clan and tribe. And for defining the boundaries between this larger in-group and the still existing out-groups.
Gods as full access strategic agents, knowing our inner thoughts and providing judgment and punishment became important to enforcement of order and social cohesion.
Judaism and Christianity
After describing this evolutionary model for development of morality, religion and culture Teehan sets out to analyse two historical religions. He chooses Judaism and Christianity as his examples, but argues the same analysis can be applied to other religions as well. In fact he does make a brief mention of Islam.
His analysis of Judaism relies largely on describing the Jewish concept of God (Yahweh) and moral law as outline in the Old Testament of the bible. Yahweh does satisfy the criteria for god beliefs generated from evolved cognitive channels. It is a minimally counter-intuitive full access strategic agent. One that judges, provides legitimacy to laws and customs, and punishes. Boy, does it punish!
And his analysis of the Ten Commandments shows how they arose from the needs of the contemporary society and the relationship of the Jewish people to surrounding tribes and people. They provided a code for social relations covering interactions with the larger in-group and the different interactions with those in the out-groups. Customs and taboos provided means for members of the in-group to display their adherence and therefore trustworthiness.
His analysis of Christianity is different and the universalism of the acceptable in-group and concentration on values rather than clan or race offers a challenge at first sight. However, Christianity quickly developed its boundary conditions as the religion moved from values to belief — to acceptance of Christ. This, with co-option of intuitions like purity both reinforced in-group social compliance and the demonization and hostility to the out-group.
Religious violence — the other side of moral coin.
In-group — out-group boundaries and their importance to religion provides an explanation for religious violence. This is the other side of the coin. The negative to the positive of social harmony and religious morality.
Teehan devotes a chapter to religious violence, its evolutionary origins and its importance and the problem it presents to the modern world. He sees this as a major justification for the scientific study of religion. Whatever our own individual beliefs, religions still exert powerful control throughout the world and we all suffer when this results in violence.
Solutions to the problems presented by religion
The book gets into a more speculative style when discussing possible solutions to the problems religion presents to today’s world. On the one hand he considers ways of reducing religious violence. But I am pleased he, on the other hand, also considers ways of dealing with the negative aspects of religious morality. It would have been so easy just to see religious morality as only positive. This is important because dogma and enforcement of ancient religious laws and customs means religious morality is often conservative and just not suitable for today’s societies.
Despite importance of our evolutionary history we are not trapped with the irrational intuitions. As an intelligent species we also have the ability to reason. Teehan does see solutions to these problems in rational thought. Despite recognising how flimsy this is in humans. Too often ’rational thought’ is just rearranging our prejudices. However, recent history does show moral progress despite religious conservatism. We no longer justify racism and slavery. We condemn controls on women and denial of their rights. Homosexuality is no longer considered evil. Our empathetic concerns often extend to other non-human animals.
So we can advance a more rational morality much more suitable for modern society than those conservative morals inherited from religion.
I see this as not just a rational, reflective approach to morality. Social education does lead to a change in our consciousness and like all learning this becomes incorporated into our subconscious. Just like riding a bike. Our intuitions for guilt, fairness and purity which we once co-opted to justify inhuman practices like racism and slavery, we now co-opt to support a more humane morality.
Teehan also that education of children is important. He sees education in comparative religion will do a lot to break down the in-group/out-group boundaries. If children can appreciate different cultures, different approaches to life, different moral codes, before reaching the age of accepting their own religious moral code as absolute this will do a lot to overcome religious hostility.
What about the non-religious
This is a book about origins and nature of religion and religious morality. I am pleased it goes further and briefly talks about prospects which involve the non-religious. But I would like to see the evolutionary analysis extend to cover other aspects of society, including non-religious movements and institutions.
Clearly today religion no longer plays the same role it did in the past to unite social groups, promote social cohesion and enforce the required social behaviour. We get along well in this in our post religious societies. But our evolutionary history still exerts an effect through our intuitions and cognitive psychology. Some of these will still be negative — we don’t have to hold religious beliefs to display in-group/out-group behaviour and violence.
On the other hand, we don’t need religious beliefs to enforce social cohesion and individual morality. And this is not just a matter of a wider acceptance of reason in modern society. I believe we still have something akin to the religious minimum counter-intuitive entity. We have a conscience and in many ways we experience it as almost an external minimally counter-intuitive full access agent. Almost anthropomorphic and aware of our innermost thoughts and feelings. We will sometimes even portray our conscience as an external being, perhaps sitting on our shoulder.
Perhaps many believers who feel their god is real and personal are thinking of their conscience. And perhaps non-believers who deny the existence of gods have an almost divine respect for their own conscience.
Austin Dacey develops this idea in his book The Secular Conscience. But I would have loved to see Teehan’s analysis extended to cover this idea.
In summary, this is an excellent book. It gives a good summary of current scientific understanding of evolution of morality and religion. It discusses religious violence as the other side of the moral coin. And there is a useful discussion of the problem of religion in modern society and ways we can overcome the negative aspects of our evolved moral and cognitive systems.
The evolutionary study of religion and morality is a new science, but already a fruitful one. This book provides the ideal introduction.