Above all gods

John Derbyshire at the NRO does an extensive review of Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct.  One of the subjects Wade’s book discusses is survival value of a belief in God. Throughout their existence as a species human beings have devoted a lot of time and effort to religious questions.  Assuming that that nature didn’t simply spin its wheels there must have been a payoff.  As Derbyshire puts it:


The topic of The Faith Instinct … is the natural history of religion. Darwin noted that a belief in “all-pervading spiritual agencies” is well-nigh universal among human populations. Why? Religious observances are costly in time, energy, and resources. Why has not natural selection purged out this wasteful behavior? From the point of view of species survival, is there an upside to balance or outweigh the wastefulness? If so, what is it? …

There are two current theories to explain the origins and persistence of religious belief. One says that religion is an accidental by-product of our extremely complicated cognitive equipment. … A tree, the sun, or a statue can then be believed to have volition and power. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom popularized this point of view in a 2005 Atlantic Monthly article (“Is God an Accident?”). Anthropologists Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer have presented it at book length. …

The other theory is that religion is adaptive. That is, on net, human beings who have religious instincts propagate their genes more successfully than those who don’t. The best-known exponent of this point of view is biologist David Sloan Wilson, whose 2002 book Darwin’s Cathedral laid out the adaptionist case for a general reader.

The adaptive approach — survival of the most pious, you might call it — has the smaller market share among researchers, mainly because it relies on natural selection working at the group level, a controversial notion long out of favor because of mathematical problems. Wilson and others have recently helped to revive group selection, so that the adaptive theory is now very much in play.

Thus religion helps humans survive because it fosters cooperation; individual sacrifice for the common good and imposes a time horizon longer than a single life. But as in everything there is the danger of choosing the wrong “frame”. Human spirituality is not necessarily equivalent to organized religion — and hence with group behavior — but since anthropologists and sociologists cannot measure the state of individual human consciousness, the light of evidence shines on proxy indicators like religious customs and artifacts. It’s what social scientists can measure, even though it may not be what they want to measure.  But  suppose religious practices are group expressions of an individual adaptations, then we may be reversing the arrow of causality. Religious history isn’t “natural selection working at the group level” but the social manifestation of natural selection working at an individual level.


Be that as it may, Derbyshire’s review of Wade’s book suggests that religion has an interactive relationship with society and technology. Form followed function. Hunter gatherers had egalitarian religions; agricultural saw the emergence of a specialized clergy; big polyglot empires brought forth monotheism. We worshipped according to the form of our society. But since our society has moved beyond those foundations the question for Wade was given the deeply rooted nature of the religious impulse, what form would it tend toward in the future? Were ethical religions or New Age type beliefs the wave of the future?

In a thoughtful closing chapter, Wade peers forward into the possible future of religion. He thinks that traditional religion has lost too many of its bouts against modernity and rationality, and needs some radical reworking if it is to fulfill human religious yearnings as it used to. He asks: “Is there not some way of transforming religion into versions better suited for a modern age?” If there is, can we discern the shape of whatever rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem?

Perhaps we shall dump the gods. Buddhism, after all, has no gods, at least in theory. Buddhists, though, as D. Jason Slone pointed out in Theological Incorrectness, behave uncannily like adherents of theistic religions. They pray to Lord Buddha, even though their doctrines say he does not exist — even though the entire point of their religion is that Buddha attained nonexistence! One of the odder things about religion is how little doctrine matters to believers. The founding stories of Mormonism (golden tablets, magic spectacles, ahistorical migrations) are at the high end of the preposterosity scale, and the scriptures are, as Mark Twain reported, “chloroform in print”; yet Mormonism is easily the most successful modern religion, with innumerable smart and accomplished adherents, impressive growth in numbers, and remarkably little attrition.

The various attempts to establish “ethical religions,” from Emerson’s Transcendentalism to Scientific Buddhism, have in any case fallen flat, offering only cold temples to their followers. A transformed religion, Wade tells us, must “touch all the senses and lift the mind . . . find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another.” The transformation, he says, needs to be similar in scope to the transition from hunter-gatherer religion to that of settled societies.

What may actually happen, it seems to me, will be a partial reversion to Paleolithic styles. The dissolution of the power relations that prevailed until just a generation or two ago — hierarchies of class, race, sex, age, and behavioral inclinations — has returned us to the egalitarianism of our remotest ancestors. Perhaps our religion will likewise regress.


If we are regressing, it is not to the time of the hunter-gatherers but to the Middle Ages. Socialism and Islam, to mention two of the most widespread belief systems of our day, are two of the most bureaucratic and dogmatic that ever existed. But Derbyshire’s intuition that religious practices may be changing can be compared against an actual modern datapoint. Ann Althouse and Andrew McCarthy have both blogged about Barack Obama’s references to God during the memorial service for the soldiers who were shot by Major Hasan at Fort Hood.  Obama offered a stub in place of a social consensus god. Althouse and McCarthy noted that Obama simultaneously disclaimed knowledge of the purposes of God while still seeming to know His will.  Pick a god, any god. “We’re a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses.” Pick a side and hope it’s the same side which God chose. “And instead of claiming God for our side, we remember Lincoln’s words, and always pray to be on the side of God.”

But the character of that God is nevertheless asserted in another paragraph. Obama said.

It may be hard to comprehend the twisted logic that led to this tragedy. But this much we do know — no faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. For what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice — in this world, and the next.

Althouse — if she is not being sarcastic — says the ambiguity may be one more proof of Obama’s nuance. She writes “did Obama purport to know what God thinks? … On first reading, my answer was yes. … On second reading, I saw the room to deny that Obama purports to know what God thinks. … Now, I am not saying this because I think Obama secretly shares Hasan’s evil beliefs about God. I’m saying it because I appreciate the subtle way in which the speech avoids claiming to know the mind of God. That is elegant and beautiful. Good religion.”


If Obama’s ambivalence is admirable as intellectual faith, as religion — as a belief system with group utility — it fails the first and most basic test: that of defining identity. There is no way to join a central group; each must go off into his own. And they are most of them equally worthy. “No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts.” But what about Islam?  Andrew McCarthy asks:

At his blog today, Andrew Bostom, a scholar of jihadism, cites the following passage from “Reliance of the Traveler,” a widely distributed manual of Islamic law produced by al-Azhar University in Egypt, the most authoritative interpreters of theology and sharia jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, the dominant tradition among the world’s Muslims … As Dr. Bostom points out, the first hadith referred to in the passage — the one in which Mohammed explains that Allah has commanded the Muslims to fight non-Muslims — was cited by Nidal Hasan in slide 43 of the June 7, 2007 presentation that Jonah discusses in his excellent column today.

The President, as befits the leader of a secular democracy spoke very little to religion, except to give them all a seal of good housekeeping. All told the emotional chords which President Obama chose to strike at the Fort Hood memorial had less to do with “religion” and group survival than individual spirituality. By relating anecdotes from the lives of each of the deceased and by assuring the audience that the perpetrator would Burn in Hell, Obama spoke to his audience less as members of a religion then as individuals in a human race whose instinct for the numinous goes back into pre-history.

Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic thought Obama’s speech was the greatest he had ever written.


Today, at Ft. Hood. I guarantee: they’ll be teaching this one in rhetoric classes. It was that good. My gloss won’t do it justice. Yes, I’m having a Chris Matthews-chill-running-up-my-leg moment, but sometimes, the man, the moment and the words come together and meet the challenge. Obama had to lead a nation’s grieving; he had to try and address the thorny issues of Islam and terrorism; to be firm; to express the spirit of America, using familiar, comforting tropes in a way that didn’t sound trite.

But rhetoric is no dry thing. It is employed for a purpose: to shame, to inspire, to unite, to destroy or to build. Whether it will be taught in rhetoric classes a century hence depends on how things turn out. Perhaps Obama’s ambivalent sentiment will last the longer. The doubts about what lies in the mind of God and the nature of  heaven or hell are still unlikely to be settled in a hundred years. But it will exist as an inexpressible thought, dreamt in every human tongue. Yet if rhetoric classes are to be taught at all, at least in the English language, the nation must survive in some form at least. And then the chances are that Macaulay and not Obama will be remembered whatever Ambinder might think. Man survives upon God, but societies rely upon gods to subsist. The men at Fort Hood either died as soldiers for a shared set of national myths or they died without them. The dead will buried, but whether their myths survive them is a question that only the living can answer.

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods. …

And in the nights of winter,
When the cold north winds blow,
And the long howling of the wolves
Is heard amidst the snow;
When round the lonely cottage
Roars loud the tempest’s din,
And the good logs of Algidus
Roar louder yet within;

When the oldest cask is opened,
And the largest lamp is lit;
When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
And the kid turns on the spit;
When young and old in circle
Around the firebrands close;
When the girls are weaving baskets,
And the lads are shaping bows;

When the goodman mends his armor,
And trims his helmet’s plume;
When the goodwife’s shuttle merrily
Goes flashing through the loom;
With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.


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