Monday, June 2, 2014

Wilson and Wade on the nature of European religion

Nicholas Wade writes,
"In his book Darwin’s Cathedral [David Sloan Wilson] argues, with the help of several case studies, that group selection can indeed explain many features of religion.

"His thesis is that human groups function as units subject to natural selection when behavior within the group is regulated by a moral system or religion. Supernatural agents are an essential part of the moral system because they operate as the sanction that enforces it. Well-functioning groups coordinated by such a moral system out-compete other groups. The social coordination provided by the moral system enables groups to secure resources and other items of value that would be beyond the reach of individuals.

“Wilson’s concept draws on several works already described here, such as Durkheim’s theory of religion as the embodiment of society and Boehm’s description of egalitarianism among hunter gatherers, as well as his own research on group selection. He distinguishes between what religion achieves— the social coordination for which religious behavior was selected— and what its practitioners feel, which he acknowledges is entirely different. ‘Since writing Darwin’s Cathedral, I have spoken with many religious believers who feel that my focus on practical benefits misses the essence of religious experience, which is a deeply felt relationship with God ,’ he writes.  But there is no necessary connection, he points out, between an end that evolution has favored and the means it has arrived at to get there. People fall in love in part to have children, he notes, ‘but that doesn’t remotely describe the subjective experience of falling in love.’ Similarly, the experience of communing with the deity is one of many benefits that make people practice a religion.

“Wilson rejects the view of many social scientists and others that belief in the supernatural and nonrational elements of religion should be seen as some kind of mental aberration. To the contrary, religious belief ‘is intimately connected to reality by motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world— an awesome achievement when we appreciate the complexity that is required to become connected in this practical sense.’

“One of the ways in which religion connects to reality is through its use of sacred symbols. These symbols evoke emotions, and emotions are ancient, evolved mechanisms for motivating adaptive behavior, often doing so beneath or partly beneath the level of consciousness. “Sacred symbols organize the behavior of the people who regard them as sacred,” Wilson notes. It’s this organization— not the implausibility of certain elements in a religion’s sacred narrative—that should be seen as the criterion of a creed’s effectiveness. The adaptedness of religious beliefs “must be judged by the behaviors they motivate, not by their factual correspondence to reality,” Wilson says."  Wade, Nicholas, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 1255-1277). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Comment:  In The Disenchantment of the World, a Political History of Religion, Marcel Gauchet argues (among other arguments) that while Christianity was necessary to the creation of Western Europe, it is now superfluous in that all of Christianity’s practical virtues have been incorporated into its culture.  As to its impractical attributes, like the worship of God and the rituals Wilson is quoted as describing, they are as harmless as any other fad or fancy and can be safely tolerated.  While Nicholas Wade does not single out Christianity, it was Christianity which (according to Gauchet) was vital to the creation of Western Europe and perhaps (if we can overlay Wade upon Gauchet) we might now suggest that Christianity is still vital, not perhaps to any further development of Western Europe, but to the well being of its citizens. 

Freud argued (consistent with Wade) that there is indeed a moral overseer that governs our behavior, but whereas Wade calls it a belief in God or gods, Freud called it the Superego.  Wade, I suppose, will propose that Religion has ongoing viability.  Freud believed that we should reject the Christian input to our Superegos and substitute something more rationale, something Freud himself was willing to suggest (if memory serves me -- although I can't recall what it was). 

The sort of Christianity that has always interested me involves a church in which the pastor is heavily steeped in theology and philosophy and capability of debating all the interesting issues.  I would have enjoyed being in Jonathan Edwards' church, for example, but Wade isn't interested in that sort of Religion, and perhaps most American Christians aren't either.  They are more interested in the sort of Christianity Wade describes, one in which a church becomes unified by its rituals and customs.  Alas, if Wade is right, I don't seem to be a Christian at all.

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