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John Teehan is the author of In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence, and has published and lectured widely on the impact of evolutionary theories on moral philosophy. In this comprehensive interview, John talks in depth about some of the themes in his book: how our moral minds may have been shaped by evolution, and how such a perspective can inform upon our understanding of religious violence.
Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write ‘In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence’?
John Teehan: I’ve always been deeply interested in the study of morality. Not simply in terms of what we ought to do, how we ought to live—although those are essential questions—but also in terms of why do we have the values we have, how do moral traditions develop. This lead me into a study of moral psychology, and in particular evolutionary psychology. If we want to understand how we got where we are today in terms of morality, then trying to understand the origins of moral behaviour seemed to be the way to go. Evolutionary studies of morality, while still controversial in many ways, have become rich sources of insight into our moral nature, and there is a growing body of empirical work to support these insights—it is truly a fascinating look inside the moral mind. As I began to explore evolutionary strategies for developing morality it struck me how much these sounded like strategies employed by religious moralities—particularly Judeo-Christian systems. So I decided to look more closely at these traditions using an evolutionary perspective. If our moral minds have been shaped by evolution, and those same minds have shaped our religious moral texts, such as the Bible, then it seemed to me that we should be able to detect the influence of our evolved psychology in the pages of the Bible—that is, the moral traditions we find in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament should be expressions of our evolved moral psychology.
The other driving concern in writing this book was to get a better sense of religious violence. We so often hear that the atrocities committed in the name of religion are not really the fault of religion; that religious violence is an abuse of religion, a corruption of what is actually a moral and peaceful faith. This just did not ring true to me. From an evolutionary perspective morality serves the interest of the group—it promotes giving and selfless behaviour toward those who are part of my group; it does not extend to those outside the group—at least not in the same way. This in-group/out-group divide is a major factor in the inhumanity people are capable of showing to those we consider the “other.” Well, if religious moralities are expressions of our evolved moral sense, then this in-group/out-group divide should be present as well—and if so then the violence done in the name of God is not an aberration, it flows from the moral logic embedded within religion itself. I believe this may give us another way to get inside the problem of religious violence.
PE: What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
JT: The central claim of my book is that religious moralities are built upon a shared moral and religious psychology and that this is a product of our evolutionary history. The differences between various religious traditions result from our evolved psychology being shaped by the particular historical and cultural conditions that gave rise to the different world religions. And I believe if we go through the Bible with this evolutionary approach, this is just what we find. In fact I argue that much of what we find in the Bible makes more sense if we understand it as an expression of our evolved psychology than if we understand it as an expression of a morally perfect God.
Religious moralities, then, are actually records of different human cultures struggling to establish stable communities, and to promote codes of conduct that allow individuals to live together peaceably. If this is true then it changes the status of moral claims made by religions. If all religious moralities are expressions of our evolved psychology then no religion can claim a privileged position, or ultimate authority; no religion can claim to be a more authentic expression of “God’s will.” Each is an experiment in living that has proved successful in the past—in particular cultural and historical conditions. But to then claim that a particular religious teaching continues to have worth, the argument needs to be made that it continues to promote stable and just communities—this is how one must defend a religious position, not by citing some passage from the Bible or the Qur’an to support it.
I also believe that this approach alerts us to the potential within religion to generate violence and hatred. Religious violence is an intrinsic aspect of religion. This does not mean that religions are simply violent institutions, because religions also have the potential to generate deep commitments to treat each other ethically and justly. But we need to be aware of what the conditions are that trigger those different aspects of religion. Religion is so deeply entwined with our emotional nature and our moral intuitions that we cannot afford to be ignorant of the psychology that lies at the heart of religion.
PE: And what is it that draws you to this topic?
JT: My abiding concern is with the question of human flourishing—what constitutes the good life for humans; how do we construct societies that promote the flourishing of each of its members. Personally, I have developed a secular perspective on these issues, but throughout human history and for much of the world today, it is religion that people turn to for guidance on these questions. Given the power of religion to shape human behaviour, and its role in issues of social justice, whether you are a believer or a skeptic, a deeper understanding of religion seems to be crucial.
Also I find the resilience of a religious worldview to be fascinating. After centuries of rational criticism, historical study, scientific advancement, religion continues to exert significant power over the human mind—why is that? The suggestion that believers are somehow intellectually or morally deficient, and so continue to cling to outdated beliefs, just does not fit with the demographic profile of vast numbers of believers, nor does it square with experience. This suggests some more intimate connection between religion and human nature. Understanding this connection sheds light on both religion and what it is to be human. This clearly impacts on any study of human flourishing—even if the religious worldview is false.
PE: What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
JT: My hope is that it will promote a critical discussion of religion as a source of moral authority, and its role in the public square. The public discussion of religion today is dominated by the extremes—on both the religious and anti-religious sides of the spectrum. Conducting the discussion on those terms is neither productive nor intellectually responsible for it works with simplistic notions of religion; it takes slices of the complex, complicated, messy set of beliefs and practices that is religion and treats those slices as if they represented the whole. I think many people recognize this problem but unfortunately a common response to that extremism is not much better. That is, to reject the extremes and treat religion as something generic and innocuous and dismiss the differences between religions as simply matters of faith to be tolerated. This too is a simplistic view that cuts off any critical discussion of religion—that is, if we criticize what some religion says then we are siding with the extremists and being disrespectful. We need a more mature attitude toward religion, and we need to expect/demand a more mature response from believers. To criticize, to ask critical questions, is not a sign of disrespect; to demand religions defend themselves in the forum of ideas is not to attack faith—it is the way a democratic society operates. Democracy respects the right of each individual, each tradition and worldview, to have a voice in the public square—but that voice is one among many and no voice can be given a privileged status, or expect immunity from criticism, without undermining the democratic nature of society. We need to find a way to bring religious faith into the public dialogue that does justice to the complexity and significance of religion and still respects the values inherent in democracy. My greatest hope is that my book might contribute to that goal, and I conclude the book with a discussion of this issue.
PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
JT: The book was written with two audiences in mind. I want it to be read by academic professionals— in religious studies, philosophy, cognitive science—and the work is based on and supported with cutting edge research in all these fields. However, I want the book to reach beyond the academy because these issues reach beyond the academy. I think the topics covered in the book will be of great interest to many people; I think people are ready for a reasoned critique of religion that avoids the extremes, and clearly the role of religious morality/violence is one that touches us all—whatever our beliefs. So the book was written with a more general audience in mind. I try to avoid unnecessary jargon, I provide an introduction to evolutionary and cognitive psychology that I believe will be accessible to non-professionals, and I use numerous examples to try to make these ideas as clear as possible.
PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
JT: I would say Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. This is an important work, written in admirably clear style, that addresses the role of what I refer to as the in-group/out-group mentality in triggering violence and prejudice—of both the religious and the secular sorts. Sen does not work from the perspective of evolutionary psychology but he presents an analysis in line with such a perspective, and then offers some insightful and practical proposals for how to mitigate the dangerous power of this mentality. While I cannot claim credit for this book I do credit Sen for influencing my thinking on how to respond to religious violence, and I make ample reference to his work in my conclusions.
PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?
JT: I am continuing to explore the implications of the cognitive science of religion. This approach to religion does not entail atheism, but neither is it consistent with many traditional religious perspectives or beliefs. I would like to see just what a scientifically responsible theology would look like. How exactly does a cognitive study of religion impact on religious belief? One issue I am particularly interested in is the problem of evil—a perennial issue in religion. How can God, understood to be all powerful and all good, be reconciled with a world filled with so much evil and suffering. Philosophers and theologians have been struggling with this issue for thousands of years. Evolution raised the challenge to a new level by presenting a picture of creation in which suffering and death—on a species level, as well as an individual level—was part of the package. Theologians, of course, have answers to this challenge, though none that I have found compelling. The understanding of religion set out in my book raises, I believe, an even more serious challenge. For now we can see that so much of the evil in the world, at least what we would call moral evil, flows from the same psychological tools that give rise to religion and religious morality. If you want to claim, as some theologians do, that God has shaped our cognitive evolution in order to reveal himself to us, he has also shaped it in a way that gives rise to hatred and violence. It seems that this raises new difficulties in justifying the moral character of God.