In the Name of God

John Teehan


“I contend that religious moral traditions are cultural expressions of underlying cognitive and emotional pre-dispositions that are the products of evolutionary processes.”

“The thesis this book intends to develop and defend is that evolution has designed the human mind in such a way that we possess a set of mental tools that shape our moralities and our religions.”

John Teehan’s book In the Name of God asserts that religion developed as a means to an end, a way to give power and importance to the communal behaviours essential to our development as social animals living in ever-larger groups. He supports this argument with both a thorough summary of the findings of contemporary evolutionary psychology and a careful analysis of the Bible, the central religious texts of Jews and Christians.

He uses the first to explain the second, making the case that social animals need a moral code that regulates their interactions, and that religions provide a powerful framework for delivering and enforcing whatever specific moral rules a society has developed. The rules themselves are not central; that rules exist, and are believed to be enforced by a powerful entity, a god, is central. In other words, it doesn’t greatly matter what the rules are, as long as there are rules, and rules that are taken seriously by the members of a group.

The problem — how do social groups expand in size without losing the commitment to community without which they cannot thrive?

Moral systems weaken as societies become larger and more anonymous. As early hunter – gatherer societies began to grow in size they were met by the problem of extension – how to extend the circle of moral significance to encompass and support a larger group.

One key insight is that moral concepts are rational responses to evolved, core emotions: “How do emotions help us to deal with the danger of cheats, defectors, and free riders? How do they support cooperative behavior and discourage narrow self – interest?” Teehan argues that moral emotions should be seen as a template, a “universal grammar” similar to the language-acquisition systems identified by Chomsky.

Among the elements of our moral grammar are kin selection, reciprocal altruism, indirect reciprocity (including concern for reputation and cheater detection devices), frequency-biased transmission, and prestige-biased transmission. This moral grammar generates judgments that are emotionally valenced, giving them great power in shaping human interactions, and it is expressed in a culture ’s moral systems.

For an advanced culture to grow and thrive, it must have some sort of moral system. Again, it matters little what the system is, only that it operates to enhance commitment: “If a society is to function at a level beyond the clan it must develop a system to effectively encourage and reward cooperation, and to discourage and punish defectors and cheats.”

What social agency encourages, rewards, discourages, and punishes? Secular systems of custom, law, policing, etc., can have little effectiveness for hidden or unseen actions. To do that, you need an enforcement agent who has extraordinary powers, a conceptual person with “minimally counter-intuitive (MCI) concepts, that are natural outputs of our evolved minds.” We call these agents “gods.”

Again, the specific characteristics of a particular god are not important, as long as your god can see right and wrong actions, and reward or punish them appropriately. This universality counters the relativist argument against moral evolution:

These MCI concepts, since they are constrained by structures of the brain characteristic of all humans, are not culturally determined but provide a universal template for religious representations; the supernatural beings we meet in various guises in the world’s religions are built upon this template.

Teehan writes that “we conceive of the mind of God in much the same way as we conceive of the minds of persons – but with some vitally important exceptions.” Our “Theory of Mind” operates, but with the enhancements necessary to make our god an effective moral regulator:

Gods, as “full access strategic agents,” occupy a unique role that allows them to detect and punish cheaters and to reward cooperators. In moral religions such gods are conceived of as “interested parties in moral choices..” They are concerned with social interactions and they are fully cognizant of the behavior and motives of those involved. The gods know who reciprocates and who cheats, and the gods remember.

Teehan summarizes his explanation of the origins of morality and the role of supernatural beings this way:

Religious morality provides a vehicle for extending the evolutionary mechanisms for morality, that is, kin selection and reciprocal altruism, via communal belief in supernatural beings, conceived as full-access interested parties. Belief in such beings is a natural outgrowth of cognitive processes that did not evolve for religious purposes but that channel human experiences in such a way as to lead to religious beliefs. Once such beliefs become culturally available they are in a prime position to support and extend our evolved moral psychology, thus making the development of larger and more complex social organizations possible.

An innate moral framework, based on core emotions, joins with our innate cognitive functioning, which we call reason, to create what we know as religions. With these tools, Teehan argues, we create the moral environment — the culture — needed for success in large social groups:

The synergy created by the integration of our religious cognitive framework and our moral cognitive framework sets the conditions for the rise of cultural institutions – that is, religions – with a potential to shape human affairs unsurpassed by any other force in history. Given this, it is not surprising that cultures throughout history, and across the globe, have developed ways of tapping into this psychology that fit their own particular circumstances.

One interesting insight, a consequence of Teehan’s view, is that much of the outrage and condemnation with which some individuals and societies greet atheism in particular and secularism in general is not a result so much of a sense of religious wrong but rather of a sense of decreased social commitment:

Because of the psychological connections between moral and religious frameworks, a simple act, such as swearing on a Bible, takes on real significance for it signals a commitment to the God that oversees the community ’ s moral bonds. From a strictly rational perspective we recognize, of course, that placing one ’ s hand on a Bible does nothing to guarantee moral conduct in office. But this is not an act with rational justification; it is an act that triggers the mechanisms for signaling commitment to the group’s moral code by signaling commitment to its moral Lord.

Surely the most controversial part of In the Name of God is Teehan’s contention that to function as an effective moral agent religion requires violence as much as love. He argues that religious murder, from the execution of a Sabbath-defamer to the Inquisition to genocide, is consistent with the psychological role religion plays in social cohesion.

He notes that “the predisposition to use violence, even lethal violence, in the pursuit of survival and reproductive success is part of the human condition, part of our evolved psychology, and is something we share with many non-human animals.” Our strong in-group/out-group awareness provides us with the means to overcome our strong moral strictures against killing our own kind — we utilize violence-releasing “triggers.” We have evolved violent responses to three groups: predators, prey, and parasites.

The “trigger” most relevant to our moral sense is parasites: “They threaten our health – they provoke disgust and trigger our contagion-avoidance system.” At its most extreme, this “trigger” unleashes a total cleanse, which, directed against other humans (members of the out-group) can manifest as genocide.

And, Teehan writes, “the same moral logic that sanctions violence against out-groupers supports the imposition of the death penalty toward in-group members,” since a criminal or ritual violation “may signal a break from the group that may cast the perpetrator into the category of the out-group.” And a newly-minted member of the out-group “becomes a potential threat and is outside the bounds of moral treatment.”

The violence in the Scriptures is not random or deranged. It fits the logic of moral psychology:

It is violence with a purpose, and that purpose aligns with the ends of an evolved moral sense. Evolved moral psychology serves to promote pro-social in-group behavior, and the Law imposes violent sanctions on those violations that most threaten in-group cohesion.

The so-called “New Covenant” of Christianity did not alter this fundamental trait, for “Christianity set a distinction between an in-group and an out-group, just as Judaism had.” Instead, “Christianity did set the boundaries of that divide differently than did Judaism. It had different requirements of its members and set out different signals of commitment.”

Teehan explains:

Since Christianity rejected the usual signs of group membership – for example, tribalism, ethnicity – doctrinal issues, that is, religion, violence, and the evolved mind, what constitutes right belief, assumed central importance. This changed things dramatically. … Doctrinal dispute turned violent … [This] is a common feature of Christian history, and regularly endorsed by its moral leaders.

As Teehan sees it, the universalism of Christianity — the idea that all may be saved by accepting Christ — does not create a universal community, a global in-group, safe from religious violence:

[Christianity] does not see all humanity as an actual group – although there is rhetoric to suggest this – instead, it sees all humanity as a possible group. All may join but those who do not constitute an out-group. And the rhetoric used by Christians, from Christ and Paul to Augustine and Luther, clearly and consistently designate out-group members as less than human, often as demonic.

Teehan rejects “the standard apologetic response is that the Church was not to blame, but rather the weakness of the humans who acted in the name of the Church must bear the responsibility.” This position, one which I have endorsed previously, is “a feeble defense,” according to Teehan:

Morality evolves as a means for establishing group cohesion to enable the group to respond to threats from other groups and to create conditions conducive to its members’ pursuit of their inclusive fitness.

And, more provocatively: “The Inquisition was not a perversion of Christian morality, it was an effective expression of that moral system.”

(I must note in passing that I think that Teehan’s claim that religion begets violence as a means of enforcing socially necessary moral sanctions requires careful parsing, lest it become a matter of mere definitional dispute. I agree with him to this extent: violence comes from human nature. That religion also comes from human nature does not necessarily mean that violence comes from religion, in the same way that a broadsword does not come from armour. But this is a complex topic, and one which I will leave alone for now without further comment.)

The first chapters of Teehan’s book will interest the student of evolutionary psychology. The middle section will engage Bible scholars. The final part, not addressed here, contains Teehan’s analysis of the implications of his conception of morality, and his suggestions for the practical application of his ideas to contemporary moral and social problems.

Something for everybody, in an interesting and readable book.


One thought on “In the Name of God

  1. Good Book and good review. Teehan does not touch on this but…I believe the spiritual dimension in the human psyche evolved, at least in part, as a response to the evolution of human conciousness and self awareness. These traits have immense adaptive significance – allowing us to forsee the future and our place in it – but they also were maladaptive in that we also became aware that there will be a time in the future when we will not be there. Religion provides a balance or solace to this uncomfortable realization. A raison d’etre and emotional well being. Mental health issues for Homo erectus would be just as relevent as they are to modern Homo sapiens.

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