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In the Name of GodReview - In the Name of God
The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence
by John Teehan
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Review by George Williamson, Ph.D.
Dec 28th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 52)

In In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence, John Teehan sets out an evolutionary-psychological account of the connection between religion, morality and violence.  To do this, he works to create a plausible extension of evolution as it happens at the biological level, to cover behavior at the cultural level where human beings act as self-aware agents in a social environment.  To avoid the twin obstacles of caricatures of evolutionary reasoning ("so ... belief in God helps you make more babies?") and simplistic views of religion, Teehan consults recent research into cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, as well as religious scholarship.  What results is an intriguing and cogent theory that promises a significant advance in our understanding of the place of religion in human history and society.

The account of morality that Teehan develops through naturalistic and evolutionary considerations presents moral systems as a solution to a problem encountered by human groups when they develop beyond a certain size.  For human beings -- as no doubt for other social animals, if to a lesser extent -- the pursuit of reproductive opportunities occurs in some form of social environment.  Due to the lengthy period of human infant dependency, the social relationships necessary for reproductive success are extensive and complex, requiring considerable skill in negotiating with members of the opposite sex, as well as members of the same sex, for access to resources and reproductive partners.  To successfully reproduce oneself in this social environment demands a subtle appreciation of, and respect for, the interests of other individuals, or in short, a sophisticated sense of altruism.  Teehan therefore regards evolved morality as a code of behavior necessary to promote social cohesion and to discourage behaviors that undermine it.  This stand-in definition of morality may not satisfy philosophers, but it will serve as a basis from which to develop an account of moral psychology.  In the following discussion, I will employ 'co-operation' as a proxy for this view of morality, since at the very least, it seems pivotal in the evolution of behavior, sociality and morality.

The problem for which morality is a solution is this: to account for altruism or cooperation, it is necessary to connect attributes and behaviors that directly service individual reproductive fitness with attributes and behaviors that are not at all obviously driven by the individual's reproductive fitness. The motivation for cooperative behavior has been explained in evolutionary terms through notions such as kin selection, but these can account for cooperation only within groups of limited size.  For small groups of closely related individuals who know their degree of kinship with other individuals, cooperation makes sense, since any given individual shares many of the genes that are thereby promoted.  Hence, it even makes sense for one to sacrifice oneself for the children of a sibling because to do so is to help a large portion of one's own genes to make it into the next generation.  But with the increasing size of social groups, it is inevitable that encounters between complete strangers will become a regular occurrence.  At this point, cooperation with another individual may turn out to be simple self-sacrifice, as that individual may share none of one's own genes, and the prospects of having the favor returned are uncertain since one may never encounter this stranger again.  What could motivate one to take the risk of cooperation in this case?  Obviously, accounting for such cooperation is necessary to explain how large social groups of human beings can function.

Ultimately, Teehan presents religious morality as one of the more comprehensive solutions to this problem, in that it functions to promote and guarantee the group cohesion necessary to motivate cooperation among strangers, and thus explains naturalistically the intimate connection between religion and morality.  Reciprocity can account for cooperation in groups that are larger than kin but in which it is still possible for individuals to track their encounters with other members of the group.  The presumption that cooperation will be repaid at some point with cooperation can be justified where one can know of another individual their tendency to reciprocate or to cheat and not repay a good turn.  This can be expanded further by including indirect reciprocity.  In social groups where one can be known by reputation as a cooperator or as a cheat, cooperation can function productively with relatively little risk of pointless sacrifice.  Further, there may be material or status rewards for being known to be a cooperator, and in contributing to the fitness of one's community, one may also improve the prospects of one's own kin. 

Once reciprocity is in place, cooperative behavior can expect a boost from culture.  If culture is fundamentally information transmission, biases that govern information transmission can serve to entrench cooperative behavior.  The sheer frequency with which a behavior occurs effectively transmits information about its successfulness, as does the behavior of the more prestigious members of the community.  Where cooperation is common and practiced by the leaders of a group, these biases reinforce the desirability of cooperative behavior.  Further, just as feelings of sexual attraction arise with and facilitate the process of mate choice to ensure reproductive fitness, certain emotions may develop around reciprocity.  Feelings of guilt or shame accompanying uncooperative behavior, as well as feelings of outrage at cheating, can function to motivate cooperation.  Such emotions may also serve as cues to another's willingness to cooperate, or their likelihood of cheating.  In short, an evolved psychology of moral emotions could make credible commitments possible where knowledge of our track record or reputation as cooperators is not available -- that is, with strangers.

Teehan's case for the role of religion in evolved morality turns around two points of interest, the conception of deities and the function of ritual and other characteristic religious behaviors.  Teehan draws attention to the typical conceptualization of deities as persons who possess many anthropomorphic characteristics, but also counter-intuitive features that distinguish them as supernatural, such as being omnipresent.  One of these counter-intuitive features is omniscience of the intentions of other persons.  That human persons must act socially with imperfect strategic information as to others' intentions is what causes the problem for large-scale social cooperation.  By contrast, supernatural persons possess perfect strategic information, making them ideal cheater detectors, who are able to hold accountable those who do not reciprocate cooperative behavior.  But why should anyone trust to the efficacy of this divine overseer?  Just as the moral emotions serve as signs of commitment to cooperative endeavors religions typically demand signs of commitment in the form of costly sacrifice and ritual observance.  Having made these investments in belonging to an in-group, individuals can be expected to be less likely to waste this for momentary gains obtained by cheating.  Hence, the signs of belonging to a religious community can serve as indicators of one's reliability not limited by the size of the community.

That's the basic outline of Teehan's account of the evolution of morality.  The test of this theory is to be able to detect the predicted evolutionary concerns in religious moral traditions, and Teehan spends a large portion of the book examining, first, Judaic religious ethics and second, Christian religious ethics.  The centerpiece of the book is a brilliant analysis of the Ten Commandments to reveal their underlying evolutionary logic.  For example, the fifth commandment, to honor one's parents, might seem to go against the logic of evolution in recommending the investment of resources in the past rather than the future generation.  But Teehan suggests that the implied parallel between parents and God effectively connects kinship and the moral centre of the community (the divinity), which serves to reinforce the moral value of the group.  Conscious of the need for a nuanced and sophisticated conception of religion, Teehan takes pains to develop a credible picture of religious morality, by engaging with Biblical scholarship.  A major stumbling block to understanding Christianity through this theory is that, while the theory pictures religion as establishing a cooperative in-group regulated by morality, a common view of Christianity holds that the salvation it offers is universal, open to all (thus, seeming to undermine the in-group / out-group distinction) and that its moral teachings extend the dictum 'love one's neighbor' all the way to 'love one's enemy' (apparently reciprocating cooperation even to cheaters, thus defeating the point of having an in-group).  Things, of course, are not so simple: what emerges from Teehan's analysis is a complex account that carefully teases out the ways in which Christianity constructs an in-group, while yet maintaining its distinctive teachings.

As the subtitle indicates, however, Teehan is concerned with the evolutionary origins of violence as well, and argues that violence is also implied in his analysis of religious morality.  Remarking on the wide-spread tendency to distinguish good, pure religions from the misguided acts of violence done in their name, Teehan claims that religious violence and religious morality spring from the same source in the evolved psychology of reciprocity.  The same pro-social behaviors that regulate life in a cooperative group have a corollary in the exclusion and suspicion of outsiders.  On Teehan's account, morality develops as a way of promoting cooperative behavior, but does so by establishing an in-group / out-group divide, where the in-group is taken as generally trustworthy and the out-group is taken to be a potential risk or danger for the members of the in-group.  To test this aspect of his theory, Teehan looks for expressions of hostility and suspicion toward outsiders that parallel the promotion of pro-social behavior in religious moral traditions.  Anyone who has bothered to read the holy books of the Abrahamic religions can guess what he finds.

Having presented his theory, Teehan explores its implications in the last chapter of the book.  Here, he touches on the implausibility of there being 'one true religion', since recognizing religious morality as a product of a common evolved psychology entails that everyone gets their religion from exactly the same source.  Mind you, the likelihood of every religion asserting its superiority seems also to follow from the in-group / out-group division essential to his account of religious morality.  He also argues that his account ensures morality without the need to claim a transcendent source for it, as religious moralists typically do.  Further, he weighs in on debates over the future of religion (Can religion be eliminated?  Is it here to stay?), since his analysis seems to weave religion and the social nature of humanity together.  Teehan can't resist taking a shot at the New Atheists here either, and for the predictable reasons.  Even while he has just explained how religion gives a particular 'edge' to violence, and documented the numerous religious pronouncements of hatred toward outsiders, once again it turns out that it is really the aggressive critiques of religion by atheists (the ultimate out-group) that are disturbing the peace.

Well, never mind that -- it's probably just a concession to fashion.  On the whole, this is a fascinating book, an easy recommendation and good, accessible read.  And it doesn't hurt that it is also mud in the eye to anyone who claims there are no credible accounts of morality outside of those given by religion.


© 2010 George Williamson


 George Williamson, University of Saskatchewan


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