- In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan
The violence of 9/11 and its aftermath have raised in a new way the question of the role of religion in the contemporary world. It has given urgent meaning to the “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom have argued flatly, as Hitchens put it, that “religion poisons everything.” Some of the power of their position comes from their deep commitment to science, as practiced in the university, and the sharp contrast they make between the methods and knowledge of science and the absolute and dogmatic perspectives of religious traditions which generate intolerance, fanaticism, and violence. As they accurately point out, 9/11 is only the most recent event in the long history of violence perpetrated by religious persons in the West. And unlike many thoughtful persons of faith, they have argued persuasively that this violence does not belong to apostates who represent an aberration of religion (which, in essence, is actually peaceful), but that it emerges naturally out of the exclusivism that marks the very essence of religion. The unique contribution that John Teehan’s book makes is that, while he shares the “new atheists’” view of science and their claim that violence is inherent in the logic of religion, he also recognizes that religion is not going to wither away but is here to stay. Furthermore, he is able to show the extraordinarily positive contributions religion makes and, even more importantly, he offers a compelling pragmatic proposal about how we might move forward to enlarge the positive contributions of religion, while minimizing its intolerant and destructive tendencies.
Most of Teehan’s text is an attempt to clarify how and why religion is morally ambiguous. In the first chapter, he examines the origin and functions of morality. He does this by organizing and explaining the result of current work in cognitive psychology and evolutionary studies of the brain that have examined moral development. He appeals to the principle of evolution, namely, the idea that the current human gene pool includes those genes from early humans that functioned to promote action protecting the survival and reproduction of those genes. This includes genes relevant to the physiology of the brain, with its capacities for perception, belief, emotions, aims and so on, just as much those that give shape to muscle and organ and bone structure. This has implications for moral behavior, for it means that human brains today embody what Teehan calls “a universal template” shaped by evolution in moral contexts of [End Page 289] the past. This template in turn shapes deep and fundamental human emotions and intuitions in new moral contexts, powerfully influencing interpretation of what is happening and how best to respond. This, of course, raises issues of genetic determinism and the role of culture, and Teehan addresses these matters, showing how human creativity has given specific cultural content to this template. But in spite of the variety of cultures, he argues that all moral systems have a similar structure (or grammar) due to the underlying template. For example, the most powerful moral impulse humans have, no matter the culture, is to nurture and protect their offspring, those who carry on their genetic stock; this is called “kin selection,” the protection of family. The next level of moral concern, direct altruism, is characteristic of small groups that include but go beyond the family, groups of persons who know each other well; in such groups, assistance is expected to be reciprocal—I’ll help you and yours if you help me and mine—and if reciprocity is not forthcoming, one is considered a cheater and exploiter and is subject to punishment.
At both of these deepest levels of moral intuition, Teehan argues, we see moral ambiguity arising, since these moral structures create a divide between an in-group and an out-group, those worthy of moral concern and those who are not. Human history...