Warmed without need of God's fire

Why Gods Persist
January 21, 2000

Religions persist and have many consequences for human society and creativity, some good, some bad. For example, faith traditions encourage compassion, but they have also sometimes led to the persecution of others.

Robert Hinde wishes to explore this persistence in the face of what he takes to be the unbelievability of religious dogma, at least to the modern western mind. In his view, "One possible answer is that religious observance results from pan-cultural human psychological characteristics." This recognition would preclude a purely negative view of religion, of the "God is a virus" kind, replacing it by an instrumentalist account, seeing religious beliefs and practices as means of meeting certain human needs.

Rather than attempting to give a first-order evolutionary account of religion, as if it were simply of direct survival value, Hinde looks to a second-order discussion, rooted in the context of the evolved human psyche and expressed in a variety of ways within particular cultures. For example, he sees religion as meeting a human need to attribute events to causes and so to understand the world. It assists the integration of what he calls the "self-system", leading to peace of mind. Religion also addresses the human wish for some form of continuity after death. Another important religious effect is providing encouragement for ethical behaviour, which may be made effectively when morality is attributed (wrongly in Hinde's opinion) to the prescriptive will of a deity. At the end of the book, Hinde considers, but does not solve, what might be an effective source of moral authority without religious underwriting, as part of a programme to retain the utility of religion without belief in its veracity.

Hinde says that he will concentrate on Christianity as the religion with which he is best acquainted, but in fact he ranges widely through the world faiths, including some tribal religions. His method is careful, scrupulous in avoiding telling simplistic Darwinian "just so" stories and scholarly in the wealth of reference to data in the realms of sociological, anthropological and psychological inquiry. A good deal of the latter material is of the "taller men wear longer trousers" genre, as when we are told that surveys show that gratitude is correlated with the magnitude of the gift or that belief in a helpful God ameliorates feelings of loneliness.

Hinde never minimises the ambiguity of investigations into multi-factorial situations, particularly troublesome in assessing the relationship between religious belief and health status. One of his eventual conclusions is that "religious beliefs depend on cognitive and emotional processes that operate in the secular world, and that they are associated with certain basic psychological propensities. They are fully compatible with Darwinian principles." There is much interesting material presented in this book, which will be of significance to anyone interested in the nature of religion, whether from the point of view of a believer or an unbeliever. There are, however, two background assumptions that considerably slant the discussion and control its conclusions.

One is the admitted bracketing out of the question of whether there is a transcendent dimension of the sacred and the tacit assumption that there is not. After all, one powerful argument for the persistence of religion is that it represents culturally diverse responses to this aspect of reality.

Hinde says, "I am not here repeating the old discussion as to whether God or gods exist", but one cannot adequately consider religion without being prepared to face that issue. One could write a somewhat similar book about why modern science persists (meeting, in its way, the human need to attribute events to causes, and so to understand the world, etc), but no scientist would regard the account as adequate if it did not countenance the belief that one reason lies in the increasingly verisimilitudinous exploration of the actual reality of the physical world.

Hinde takes a very unsubtle view of the nature of religious belief, as if it is always based on unquestionable revelation, literally interpreted, or else becomes just a metaphor for something else. The sophistication of theological thinking, including a necessary recognition of veiledness of the divine mystery, is simply not considered. Religious experience is much more diverse than Hinde takes into account. "Peace of mind" would hardly describe the life of the prophet Jeremiah, who continually protested to the God who had called him.

The second assumption is that Darwinian explanation, admittedly in a refined form, is to be the basis of understanding. To question this is not to deny an evolutionary understanding but to consider a wider context of reality within which that development took place. For example, Hinde's discussion of the origins of moral intuition is no more successful than that of other Darwinians. He denies that he is claiming that "what is natural is necessarily good", but he does not succeed in explaining where that prior notion of "good" has come from. If the context of hominid evolution is not simply the physical world, with its survival pressures, but instead a world with a dimension of intrinsic value, the response to that value could be the source of our moral knowledge. Such an enhanced conception of the nature of reality is what underlies all religious accounts of the world.

To understand why gods persist we need more than the one-dimensional perspective of a scientific approach. This very persistence of religion should encourage us to face the question of whether it does not have its own resources for understanding, which cannot be reduced to metaphorical accounts of something else.

Revd John Polkinghorne was formerly president, Queens' College, Cambridge.

Why Gods Persist: A Scientific Approach to Religion

Author - Robert Hinde
ISBN - 0 415 20825 4 and 20826 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and 14.99
Pages - 288

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