My personal reflections on this blog take inspiration from the Bahá’í teachings.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Response to "Religion and Ethnocentrism: Is Religion Adaptive"

Dan Rhoads kindly invited my comments on his new post, "Religion and Ethnocentrism: Is Religion Adaptive". My response to his stimulating essay is posted below. It also appears as a comment on Dan's Migrations blog.


Thanks for letting me know, via my blog, of your post, and inviting my comments. I'm delighted you did that, taking it as a welcome and encouraging compliment.

The essay you've written after attending Allen MacNeill's class gives an impressively interesting and thoughtful survey of some of the issues arising from the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary biology perspective. Congratulations on the effort you put into it.

The increasing attention evidently being given to religion amongst evolutionary scientists and in other scientific fields is highly a positive development which must lead to gains in understanding of the nature of religion, a phenomenon that plays a central role in civilization and individual psychology. In particular, science is beginning to demonstrate that religion is in essence a single phenomenon, from the viewpoint of its role in human nature, albeit that numerous "religions" and "sects" provide an endless variety of examples of the phenomenon. When this realization takes hold more widely in society, it promises to alleviate the tribalism (as you call it), that bedevils adherence to religion in a globalising world. Such a realization is analogous to the realization resulting from scientific study that biologically there is no such thing as separate races amongst humanity, which dealt a death-blow to racist concepts and ideologies. It has been proven that biologically, regardless of superficial differences, mankind is one. It seems it will soon be demonstrated scientifically that in religious propensities, too, mankind is essentially one. One other contextual point I want to make is that although my perspective is that of a religious believer, I have the utmost respect for science, and consider that its clear findings should be readily accepted.

As your account shows, religion and the dynamics of social life have been closely intertwined from the earliest times down to the present. The story (history) of religion and the story of social evolution go hand in hand. Religious doctrines, practices and institutions have glued societies together. Religions have served to confer legitimacy on kings and rulers, provided a common language and symbolic models whereby the people as a whole could understand their place in belonging to their societies, and offered social occasions, such as collective worship services, where people formed a sense of solidarity with one another beyond groupings of family, occupation and class. As is often noted in this context, the word religion comes from a Latin word which literally means to tie, fasten, or bind. One of the primary functions of religion, then, is to bind people together. (Its other primary function is to strengthen the psycho-spiritual wholeness of the individual.)

It is pretty much a universal law that the survival of individual entities is best ensured by being part of a larger group. The cell can best survive as part of a body. The individual animal can best survive as part of a pack, flock, or troupe, etc. Survival for most human beings is nearly impossible if cut off from society. This factor drives the evolutionary process in the direction of larger and larger agglomerations of entities.

Describing religion as a feature of tribalism is correct insofar as it applies to the tribal stage of social evolution, but religion has also been central to the life of the larger groupings that emerged when tribes banded into city-states, nations and empires. The survival-value of religion is not limited to tribes, but arises from its unifying efficacy in societies of small scale or large. In fact, religion has often taken the lead in promoting larger groupings and wider loyalties. Christianity at its inception was a movement with a mission aimed at overcoming all forms of artificial barriers between people. As St. Paul wrote to his fellow-Christians, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." This expressed a spiritual conception parallel to the multi-tribal material civilization of the Roman Empire. In the end it proved to be a more effective conception than the Roman pantheon, eventually winning an Emperor to its side, and a large proportion of the populace. When Islam appeared on the scene, it went even further in promoting wider loyalties. Muhammad's teachings were very explicit not only in upholding the ideal of all under Islam being "one in spirit", to use St. Paul's term, but also in laying out laws and social structures giving practical effect to this vision. A nation state is a society existing in a particular territory, that is able to maintain its unity while accommodating people of various ethnicities and religions. An archetypal model for such a society was Arabia under Muhammad. This is too big a subject to go into in detail, so I will have to be content with flagging it as an area for investigation.

I have reservations about the statement you made that: "Since the expansion of the Judeo-Christian model of monotheism, not much changed for a while, until notable a shift towards secularization." This statement appears to overlook the huge contribution of Islam to the developments that produced modern civilization. Unfortunately this contribution continues to be under-recognized in the West. Not long ago I read substantial a book by a French historian (whose name escapes me right now), that managed to survey the gamut of cultural developments in Europe since the Renaissance without once mentioning the debt that Europe owes to Islam. I submit that this Euro-centric blind spot of Western scholarship seriously undermines Western understanding of religion. Its no accident that the Renaissance began in Italy, a part of Europe in close contact with the Islamic world through trade and geographic proximity. What has this got to do with the present discussion? Islam fills in an important missing link in the story. Religion consistently has a progressive, boundary-expanding effect, but this fact is obscured when the progression of religion in the West is assumed to be Judaism, to Christianity, to Enlightenment humanism. I suggest that the impulses that lead to the Enlightenment came out of the Islamic world.

Regarding your conclusion, I'm 100% with you in applauding decency, science and the rule of law. Yet the historical experience of humankind that has given us these concepts was thoroughly imbued with religion. The concepts may be termed secular in the sense that they are not bound up with the doctrines of any religion in particular, and in general are subscribed to by any modern sensible person. On the other hand, they are "religious" concepts because they are in the domain of thought that religion has always dealt with, and are an outcome of historical movements that originated in religion. Increasingly it is being seen that humankind has a common religious heritage. The most far reaching proposals and plan of action for overcoming the boundaries of nationalism and all forms of prejudice and discrimination in the world today are those of the Baha'i religion. The core impulse of religion is not towards tribalism, but towards ever-greater unity.

Regrettably I haven't had time to adequately clarify/justify all of my statements above, but I hope that overall my response does not disappoint as initial feedback. I've been taking a break from blogging interactions because of OOS and the need to deal with various challenges. But I'm very glad that such a stimulating correspondent as yourself has prompted me out of hibernation. Thanks for your kind best wishes. My greetings too, for your health, wealth, and happiness!

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Dan said...

My apologies for the fact that Wordpress' spam filter appears to have caught your comments as spam - I've corrected that mistake.

And thanks for the response, I'm about to start reading it straightaway!

Dan said...

Thank again for the feedback, and I'm glad to hear that I was well-received on the whole! As to some of your points that caught my attention:

1 - Religion and Secular Science: Indeed, as you note, the way in which I contrasted these two concepts is not entirely correct, as they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We, as people, tend towards both belief in god and acceptance of science on the whole, and we modify our views of both to accomodate the other. I do think that this marginalizes god (in the scientist's mind) and scientific information (in the theist's mind), and that the result is grudging acceptance of science on the whole, along with the increasing abstractness of our various gods.

I think that this is a critical part of my concluding paragraphs that I could have better elaborated on, and is also the most speculative...

2 - The references to "one spirit" in early Christianity and Islam that you make are another interesting direction to take this discussion, I agree. I am less familiar with early Islam, unfortunately, and the idea that it strongly influenced the Englightenment and the Renaissance is entirely new to me. Very interesting...

3 - On the historical origins of secular ideas in religion, well, yes that's true: but can a secular ideology be capable of replacing a religious ideology? Or, at least, can Spinoza's God replace the idea of a personal God. This is very speculative, and based heavily on my own personal biases however, as with #1.

4 - You stress however that "The core impulse of religion is not towards tribalism, but towards ever-greater unity" - now on this I disagree, of course. I think that religion is adjusting to a changing world by enlarging the community of fictive kin to be more and more inclusive, but religion traditionally has served to unite people only within the direct group. Originally, that group was the tribe, then it became the city, then the state or nation, or the race, etc., under specific creeds. Soon it may be all of humanity - but it seems more likely that it is in human nature is to identify and work against an adversary or opponent. Whether this is more politics or psychology is up for debate, but religion certainly works in favor of this phenomenon.

Clearly I'll need to do some further reading... But in the meantime, I do indeed value your reasoned critiques! (I don't want to just assume that I'm correct, but see how they stand up to alternative worldviews). :-)

Best wishes to you and yours,

John Bryden said...


Thanks for coming back with those further observations. I must admit, I had a sense of struggling through fog in trying to identify the key relevant issues for comment. But -- aha! -- the points you've mentioned in return, immediately crystallized my thoughts. As you well know, this is the wonderful power of discussion. So, quite a bit springs to mind, but it will have to wait, as this is the start of a working day for me. I plan on posting further comments at Migrations rather than here, so that any other readers can follow the whole thread. Cheers. - John