Evolutionary Origins of Religious Violence

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In a recent interview for Philosopher’s Eye, John Teehan claims that one “driving concern in writing [his 2010 book In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence] was to get a better sense of religious violence.” He points out that “the violence done in the name of God is not an aberration, it flows from the moral logic embedded within religion itself.” This moral logic centres on what Teehan calls “an in-group/out-group divide”. Religious systems of morality evolve to uphold standards of non-violent conduct within a select group. They fail to prohibit violence towards those outside the group, and often justify it.

But Teehan has relatively little to say about an extremely common and violent feature of religion: the ritual of human sacrifice. René Girard has studied this aspect of religion since his 1972 work Violence et le sacré (Violence and the Sacred). Girard’s explanations also employ evolutionary models (Michel Serres has gone so far as to refer to Girard as “the Charles Darwin of the human sciences”), but his findings are far more disturbing than Teehan’s.

Humans differ from other animals, Girard argues, because of their extreme appetite for vengeance. When violence is done to a person, he/she develops a strong urge to do violence in return. Reciprocal violence can easily tear human communities apart, unless they develop what Girard calls the ‘scapegoat mechanism’. The violent crimes of the whole group are ritually blamed and reciprocated upon a single victim. The act of sacrificing the scapegoat vents the community’s vengeful feelings and gathers it around a unified violent purpose. But in order to find the scapegoat guilty of everybody’s crimes, the community must believe in an elaborate system of non-natural causation. This is the origin of religion.

Thus, on Girard’s account, violence is the very foundation of religious belief. On Teehan’s account, by contrast, it is an accidental consequence of its in-group/out-group logic. Those of us who believe that evolutionary theory can help us to understand the origins of today’s religious violence had better determine whose view is closer to the truth.


Cognitive Science and the Naturalness of Religion

Religious Belief and the Epistemology of Disagreement

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