Religion as Moral Innovation

In the Name of GodJolene H. Tan reviews John Teehan's In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence, in Evolutionary Psychology:

In the Name of God, by John Teehan, takes the evolutionary framework and applies it to the reading of religious texts. The result is a provocative discussion of the ubiquitous phenomenon of religious belief that can change the way we understand the role of religion in society. With a selected focus on the religious text of Judaism and Christianity—the Bible, Teehan persuasively argues that these religions evolved to solve the unique problems encountered as humans moved from small societies organized based on kinship, to larger complex societies made up of strangers. Religion, therefore, is an institutionalization of a moral code to implement large-scale cooperation beyond kin, in order to promote “social cohesion and individual striving” (p.192). Morality and violence, far from being contradictory concepts, are merely flip sides of the same coin.

Teehan’s analysis spans a wide range of material but his incisive and focused approach conveys arguments without overwhelming the reader. Drawing from the latest research in cognitive science, he provides a background of our evolved moral psychology (Chapter 1) and also explains the psychological basis of religious belief (Chapter 2). After setting the stage, the evolutionary lens is focused on the religious text of Judaism, as he examines the portrayal of Yahweh (God) through the Hebrew scripture and the Ten Commandments (Chapter 3), as well as on Christianity, with emphasis on the gospel teachings of Jesus Christ (Chapter 4). Finally, he addresses the critical issue of religious violence as culminated by the events of September 11 (Chapter 5) and tries to synthesize the lessons of the previous chapters with the environment of the modern day to show how a moral system that avoids the discussed pitfalls may be forged (Chapter 6).

Whereas the mention of religion and evolution in the same breath is usually accompanied by fierce criticism or emotionally charged arguments, Teehan’s take is refreshingly neutral. He sidesteps metaphysical issues of the existence of God, and instead discusses our evolved predisposition to believe in supernatural agents and the resulting conception of God. In particular, our instinct to view supernatural agents in the ontological category of person, and our ability to conceive of some minimally counter-intuitive super traits (e.g. invisibility, immortality, prescience) as plausible, led to the representation of God as a “full access strategic agent”—a divine moral enforcer who is privy to all moral lapses and capable of dealing out divine punishment.