In a recent book called In the Name of God, John Teehan explores the connection between evolutionary imperatives and religion, arguing that religions emerged to solve problems encountered by humans as they moved from small, kinship-based groups to larger more complex groups comprised of strangers. He argues that religion is an institutionalization of an evolutionary moral code—caring for kin (or like-minded believers) vs. fighting strangers (or non-believers) to protect one’s own. If this is true, and Teehan does make a compelling argument, what are the implications of a “divine moral enforcer” in present day culture? Sure, in the early days, frightening people with the threat of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity who can damn them for eternity may have been a successful, blunt head-trauma style of governance, but what about today? Do we still need religion to tell us who our friends are, or is it causing more problems than it solves?
As it turns out, in modern times, people we are not related to who do not share our beliefs may still be people we can get along with, even like. With the Internet, we are connected to people on the other side of the planet who can agree on basic standards of decency without the need for a religious doctrine or godly oversight. So why does religion persist in people’s minds as necessary for moral goodness, especially when it has been demonstrated over and over again that religion provides a justification for atrocity at least as often as it makes people behave themselves?
And then there is the striking lack of subtlety inherent to most major world religions. Good equals heaven while bad equals hell. There is no middle ground. This type of black and white thinking is behind so many of our most troubling social problems. Consider the two-party United States government. Dividing an entire country into two groups and then pitting those two groups against each other to duke it out lacks a certain nuance, to say the least. Every issue, from abortion to marriage rights to gun laws, encompasses a giant gray area. To set these arguments out as if there are only two sides does a grave injustice to the issue at hand, not to mention to the people who are supposed to pick a side. This black and white cultural dumbing-down has a startling resonance with the kind of us vs. them mentality Teehan observes in early humans and, subsequently, in their religions.
Of course, there are the moderates, people who identify with a particular religious group but don’t believe in the word of the holy book 100%. In a sense, from a religious perspective, those people are the least moral of all. They pick and choose what they please without any respect for the Word, which means that ultimately they are creating their own morality based only loosely on their religion. But aren’t these people simply trying to reconcile the religious tradition with the ever present gray area? Might we all be better off abandoning the religious tradition in favor of a more nuanced approach to group morality and community-building?
Whatever its evolutionary roots, religious morality is only one way of keeping people safe and showing them who their friends are. As we continue to evolve, culturally and biologically, our religions may evolve with us to better provide for the requirements of the modern world. Or perhaps they will give way to a more complex and education-based world view.