"To Be Read" Book Review Column: David Sloan Wilson, "Darwin's Cathedral"

Dec 8, 2003

Religion, I think most of us would say, isn't about much if it isn't about belief in a personal God. When I say "most of us" I don't pretend to speak for human kind in all its varieties of belief. I am thinking of people I know, students I have taught, countries I have visited and in whose churches I have worshiped. Religion is founded on the assertion that human beings are not living out a massive and dreary accident. We live and make our choices because an infinite creator chose to create us. That belief is the first and fundamental belief.

Allan Sandage, the astronomer of the Hubble constant, believes precisely because "Life is not a dreary accident."1 Edward Harrison, in Masks of the Universe, believes that the true God is an unknown God: "Given that the Universe and God are one and the same unknown and unknowable reality-the cloud of unknowing-then we cannot doubt the existence of God, because the existence of the Universe is beyond doubt."2 On the other hand Karl Rahner believes that God is not unknown. Rather "man is the event of God's self-communication."3 Whatever the subtle modulations we find in these and other expressions of belief, the grounding assertion of religion is that there is a God and this God is in some way personal.

Religion is the womb within which belief in God usually arises and is sustained. Yet religion, at least in our day, is a problem. More than a problem, it is a scandal. How remote from the earnest assertions of astronomers, philosophers, and theologians are the mutual murder pacts of Jews and Palestinians, the mutual anathemas of Christians and Muslims, the belligerent certitudes of fundamentalists of all kinds. It is hard not to wonder if the evils of the religious haven't gone a long way toward making religion itself evil. In this context the question inevitably rises: must there be religion for there to be faith? What good is religion? David Sloan Wilson, in Darwin's Cathedral,4 answers that religion is good. God, however, is unnecessary, a benevolent fiction. He cites Isaac Bashevis Singer to point out that the essence of religion is not God but "the relation between man and his fellows." Not too many years ago there was a curious movement in Germany called "religionless Christianity." Wilson's book is about godless religion.

Wilson's argument is addressed to his professional colleagues; the rest of us are invited to overhear. What we overhear is less about religion than about the application of evolutionary theory to human groups. In fact, it is hard to see, in the early chapters, why this is a book about religion at all. The descriptive data come from religion, but the approach reduces religion to one form among many of human groupings.

So how does evolutionary theory apply? Evolution, as we know, is about how some individuals survive and others don't. Darwin's Cathedral is about how some groups survive and others don't, specifically, how some religions have survived and others haven't. Using Calvinism as his first example of "an adaptive belief system," he concludes that such a belief system works best (1) when the consequences of prescribed behaviors (rewards and punishments) are well known; (2) when its prescriptions do not benefit some at the expense of others in the group; (3) when the beliefs that justify its demands are easily learned and applied; (4) when social control is internalized rather than left to external sanctions; and finally, (5) should it resort to fiction to inspire action, when the fictions are judged by the actions they inspire rather than by their correspondence to reality. (98-100)

Adaptive belief systems, Wilson continues, are systems that have "secular utility." He illustrates secular utility by describing first the water-temple system of Bali, then Judaism, and early Christianity. The Bali example is curious, but too complex to describe here. Biblical Judaism and early Christianity are more accessible. The Jews of the Bible were commanded, Wilson notes, to be fruitful and multiply, in other words, to be biologically successful. And they were also required to follow one code of conduct among themselves and another in their relations with members of other groups. Double standards are typical of religions and ethnic groups in general. Unfortunately, it is hard to disagree. Judaism, he points out, has been able to maintain its cultural identity for millennia by culturally isolating its members, by maintaining a high degree of genetic relatedness, and most importantly by demanding internal cooperation: "Jewish communities throughout history have been legendary for their absence of crime, poverty, alcoholism, and other problems." (140) Early Christianity pretty much piggy-backed on the network of diaspora Jews in the Roman Empire. Its important difference from Judaism was its appeal to all ethnic groups. Christianity imposed its own strict moral demands, demands similar in their strictness to those of the Jews. Strictness in both instances was attractive. To early Christians it gave structure to life within a Roman world that was in moral chaos.

But didn't Christians emphasize charity and forgiveness to all? Not quite, says Wilson. Christianity gives only the appearance of indiscriminate altruism. The early Christians may have cared for the Roman sick and poor, but just as in the cases of Calvinism and Judaism, they maintained clear distinctions among those in good standing, those in poor standing, and those outside. "Those in good standing received the benefits of altruism that they were also expected to give. Brethren in poor standing were subjected to an escalated series of punishments ending in exclusion. . . . The early Christians did indeed extend a charitable hand to outsiders, in part to bring them into the church, but not to the degree that charity was practiced within the church. If there was truly no distinction between conduct toward insiders and outsiders, the first tiny Christian communities would have evaporated in no time. (156)

There is a local irony to Wilson's hard sociological facts. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, in, of all years, 1914, Andrew Carnegie gathered a group of religious leaders, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish to discuss "How Religion can be made to function for Peace." The group called itself "The Church Peace Union." He endowed the group with two million dollars, and appealed to them to administer the money in the cause of peace through arbitration of international disputes. His words betray a startling confidence in the power of religion to play its part in the abolition of war: After the arbitration of international disputes is established and war abolished, as it certainly will be some day, and that sooner than expected, . . .the trustees will divert the revenues of this fund to relieve the deserving poor and afflicted in their distress. . . . 5

Carnegie is naive not only about the possibility of abolishing war, but about the capacity of religions to bring it about. As Wilson makes clear, "The first requirement for organizing a group into an adaptive unit is to define the group and isolate it from the rest of society so that in-group and out-group behaviors can be regulated separately." (208). In Wilson's evolutionary analysis, religions exist and are vital in virtue of their disunion. They emphasize and cultivate those norms and aspirations that make them other. Perhaps this is why Carnegie's Church Peace Union has suffered two name changes since the fateful year of its founding. The original name was a misnomer from the beginning. By the early sixties it had "lost its ability to define an encompassing range of goals tied to ethics in foreign policy and international relations," and so from 1962 to 1986 Carnegie's foundation was known as The Council on Religion and International Affairs. And then in 1986 religion was taken out of the title altogether, and Carnegie's Church Peace Union became what it is today, the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, reflecting "the expansion of our audience" and better reflecting "the purpose and goals we have before us."6 Religious and political leaders may dream of a time, says Wilson, when religions will encourage a sense of our common humanity, but history and contemporary events seem to be proving to us that such dreams ignore the divisive social forces that substantiate religions.

At any rate, in evolutionary terms religion, religions, do not seem the likely social structures to bring about the abolition of war, as we are so unhappily made aware by the news of each day. As Jared Diamond said in his review of Wilson's book: I deny a religious need to kill members of out-groups, and I accept a secular need to do so under extreme circumstances, where the alternative would be worse. I remain uneasy about relying on religion to justify morality: today, as in the past, it's too small a step from there to justifying the killing of adherents of other religions.

Wilson concludes with a comparison of religion and science. "Science," he says, "is unique in only one respect: its explicit commitment to factual realism. Virtually every other human unifying system includes factual realism as an important and even essential element but subordinates it to practical realism when necessary." (230) In other words, the values of factual realism are not adequate to support a "unifying system," i.e., a group of ordinary human folk. On the other hand, religion, as a symbolic system, adds to factual realism the beauty and the power to motivate action. Religions must be committed to practical rather than factual realism because beauty and power disappear when religion is seen in its purely factual reality. One who thinks he is engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil cannot tolerate the discovery "that he is merely playing a role in the economy of his church." (231) But if this is so, then Wilson is forced to pose to himself the crucial question: Is it possible to accept a purely factual understanding of religion, while at the same time retaining religion's "sense of motivating beauty"? (231) Wilson's answer is yes: "Some of the most beautiful and moving elements of religion come not from cosmic struggles and invisible gods but from the vision of a better life on earth." (231)

This doesn't hack it. It's an assessment of religion that fits our politically correct world in which the infinite variety of religious beliefs induces in us a bland and non-committal acceptance of them all. This is not faith. And it seems impossible that religion could sustain its beauty and motivating power if it is not inspired by a faith that it is sustained by the generous hand of an infinite God. I return to Jared Diamond, who returns me to the astronomers, philosophers and theologians with whom I began:

I accept the possibility of scientific explanations for almost every mystery of the natural world but not for the greatest mystery of all. I still have no scientific answer, and expect there never to be one, to that challenge which Paul Tillich posed to me and my skeptical classmates: "Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?" Religion will thrive as long as there are human beings alive to reflect on the mystery of the First Cause.7

1 Dennis Overbye, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe (HarperCollins, 1991): 393.
2 (New York: Macmillan, 1985) 268.
3 Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, translated by William V. Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 19780; Chapter IV, passim.
4 Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
5 Charles S. McFarland, Pioneers for Peace Through Religion: Based on the Records of the Church Peace Union, 1914-1945. (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1946) : p. 22.
6 Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs Annual Report 1988-1989, "The Carnegie Council: The First Seventy-Five Years": 23, 31.
7 "The Religious Success Story," The New York Review of Books, November 7, 2002. pp. 30 ff.

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