Blackwell Public PhilosophyΛə

Edited by Michael Boylan, Marymount University

In a world of 24-hour news cycles and increasingly specialized knowledge, the Blackwell Public Philosophy series takes seriously the idea that there is a need and demand for engaging and thoughtful discussion of topics of broad public importance. Philosophy itself is historically grounded in the public square, bringing people together to try to understand the various issues that shape their lives and give them meaning. This “love of wisdom” – the essence of philosophy – lies at the heart of the series. Written in an accessible, jargon-free manner by internationally renowned authors, each book is an invitation to the world beyond newsflashes and soundbites and into public wisdom.

1. Permission to Steal: Revealing the Roots of Corporate Scandal by Lisa H. Newton

2. Doubting Darwin? Creationist Designs on Evolution by Sahotra Sarkar

3. The Extinction of Desire: A Tale of Enlightenment by Michael Boylan

4. Torture and the Ticking Bomb by Bob Brecher

5. In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier by Thomas I. White

6. Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: Ethics and Liberal Democracy by Seumas Miller

7. Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genesby David Koepsell

8. Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals by Jean Kazez

9. In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan

For further information about individual titles in the series, supplementary material, and regular updates, visit


To Patricia,
who makes everything I do possible


To Megan and Daniel,
who make everything I do worthwhile


This work is the end result of years of writing and speaking on these topics. Some of the basic ideas were first published as “The Evolution of Religious Ethics” in Free Inquiry 25, no. 4 (June/July 2005), and then were expanded upon in “The Evolutionary Basis of Religious Ethics” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41/3 (September 2006): 747–774. Comments and suggestions provided during the peer review process certainly contributed to refining those earlier musings.

Also important to the development of my thinking on these issues was the feedback I received at the numerous conferences where different stages of the book took shape. Conversations with Robert Hinde at the Religion, Cognitive Psychology and Evolutionary Psychology Conference, sponsored by the New England Institute, were not only enjoyable but shaped some of the discussions in Chapter 6. The Moral Brain: Evolutionary and Neuro-scientific Perspectives Conference, at Ghent University, Belgium, directed by Johan Braeckman and Jan Verplaetse, was a wonderful opportunity to explore the possible impact of neuroscience on religious psychology, and conversations with Adrian Raine, William Casebeer and Randolph Nesse all raised questions that spurred me to further refine my thinking.

I also benefited greatly from an academic leave from Hofstra University which allowed me to spend a semester studying the Law and the Hebrew Bible, with Danna Nolan Fewell at Drew University. That course of study, along with Danna’s aid in negotiating the voluminous literature on the topic, and her comments on the material that became Chapter 3, allowed me to wade more confidently into the world of Ancient Judaism, and limited whatever missteps I may have taken.

During the writing of the book I received more support than I can acknowledge. Arthur Dobrin was a constant source of encouragement throughout the long gestation period of this work. Stephanie Cobb not only provided an insightful review of my writing on Christianity, but was an invaluable source of support throughout the final stages of the project. I need to thank Stan Nevins for starting me on the philosophical path that brought me here. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Patrick Alexander, Balbinder Bhogal, Ann Burlein, Julie Byrne, Steven Clarke, Hank Davis, Chris DiCarlo, Warren Frisina, Terry Godlove, Deena Grant, Stewart Guthrie, Joseph Henrich, James Levy, Linda Longmire, Pete Richerson, William Rottschaefer, Azim Shariff, David Livingstone Smith, and Tim Smith, for their comments on various sections, chapters, and ideas in this work; an additional thanks to Stewart Guthrie for his help in working through some of the issues in Chapter 2. The flaws that remain in this book are of course mine, but they would have been embarrassingly greater without these contributions.

I also benefited from the comments provided by various readers at Wiley-Blackwell, and I greatly appreciate the editorial support and advice that Jeff Dean provided along each stage of development; this helped me turn an undisciplined manuscript into a book.

I also owe more thanks than I can express to my wife, Patricia, without whose support, encouragement, and great patience, this book would not have been written.


In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history. (Charles Darwin, 1859)

Charles Darwin showed great restraint in extending the process of natural selection to the human animal. He clearly saw there was nothing to prevent an application of the evolutionary process to the history of human beings, but Darwin was a cautious man and not prone to making claims that outran the available evidence. Still, he could see that his theory had the potential to reform the human sciences radically. What makes the above quotation from On the Origin of Species so prescient is that in 1859 psychology had just taken its first steps toward becoming an empirical discipline. It was then barely distinguishable from philosophic speculation on the mind, on the one hand, and the crude, initial research into brain physiology, on the other. Yet Darwin foresaw the possibility of approaching the study of the human mind from a whole new perspective. Rather than treat the mind as some sort of disembodied “thinking thing,” as Descartes termed it, that transcended the natural world, Darwin recognized a much more intimate integration of mental powers and the brain. By situating the mind in nature it too could be conceived of as a product of natural selection.

This approach to psychology was immediately tantalizing to nineteenth-century pioneers of the new discipline. However, the move toward first Freudian and then behaviorist psychological paradigms forestalled the full application of the Darwinian method to the human mind – even though major figures in both of these traditions saw themselves as developing a naturalistic theory of mind that had some connection to evolution, at least as they understood evolution. There were other efforts to bring psychology in line with evolutionary theory, but it really was not until the 1970s, with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s seminal work, Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, that the application of Darwinian processes to animal behavior, including the human animal, became a full-fledged research project. Wilson’s work set off almost as much controversy as did Darwin’s, as people responded to what they perceived to be the biological determinism inherent in the approach.

We need not rehearse the various stages of this controversy – a controversy that still rages in one form or another. What we are interested in here is that one result of the efforts to refine and improve the theoretical approach set out in Wilson’s work was the emergence of a new discipline: evolutionary psychology. Here, at last, we find Darwin’s prediction coming to fruition.

The foundational premise of evolutionary psychology is that behavior, belief, emotions, thinking, and feeling are all functions of a fully embodied brain. As the brain is a physical organ, it, like all other physical organs, has an evolutionary history. The brain that we have today is the product of evolutionary processes that shaped this organ in response to environmental selection pressures. Evolution, as we know, does not work by making dramatic, wholesale changes in organs or organisms. It works in slow, piecemeal fashion, shaping the physical structure on a strictly “as needed” and “as far as the materials already available will allow” basis. Given this view of brain evolution we can expect the brain to be a composite organ, whose constituent parts and powers arose in response to problems that needed to be addressed in order for humans to survive and reproduce successfully. If this is accurate, then the brain we work with today is a collection of task-oriented, problem-solving mental tools – tools, however, that were designed to respond to an ancient environment. Evolutionary psychologists believe that this evolutionary history has left its marks on our contemporary behavioral and cognitive patterns. Therefore, to understand how the mind works today we need to try to understand what tasks it needed to solve in order to allow our ancestors to survive.

This view of human nature runs directly at odds with two theories that continue to exert influence on psychology. One is the “rational actor model,” in which humans are conceptualized to be motivated by a rational maximization of their own interests. As you might imagine, this is a model favored by many economists. The other view conceives of the human mind as a “blank slate,” waiting for experience to write upon it. In this view, the mind is a general purpose intellectual device that is maximally flexible in response to the directions of culture. Both of these views are undermined by evolutionary psychology, which holds that the mind is populated by a number of cognitive and emotional predispositions that channel the input from the environment into identifiable cognitive and behavioral patterns, patterns that are now being revealed by the cognitive sciences. These evolved patterns do demonstrate a kind of rationality – if we understand them as ultimately responses to evolutionary challenges – but this is not the same thing as acting rationally, as might be predicted by the rational actor model. We will have ample opportunity to demonstrate that an evolutionary approach to human behavior is a better explanation and predictor of that behavior than a rational model, as there is a growing body of literature, much of it conducted by economists, to support this claim.

More controversial, and continually contentious, is the proposition that the human mind comes prepackaged, as it were, with a series of mental tools. These mental tools are expressed differently in different environments, but by their very existence they overthrow the blank slate view of human nature. Now, part of the controversy stems from a healthy debate over just what the evidence can support. That there is such a debate, and that it is often heated, is to be expected in response to such a relatively new discipline, and one that treads on so much turf claimed by other disciplines. However, it is undeniable that part of the heat in this debate is generated by the fact that this view of human nature – the very idea that there might be a human nature – smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.

I will admit up front that I find the evidence and the arguments in favor of an evolutionary psychology completely persuasive. If we want to develop a truly scientific study of the mind, and of human behavior, then we must start with the premise that these can be studied naturalistically. If we work with that premise, known as methodological naturalism, then we must apply the best theory we have for explaining the living world, and that is evolutionary biology. Now, as many will be eager to point out, methodological naturalism does not entail metaphysical naturalism. Methodological naturalism says that science must take as its proper domain only those objects that can be studied through empirical means – that is, objects that are part of the natural, physical universe. Therefore, if we are to develop a scientific psychology we must seek to understand the mind as part of the natural, physical universe. Metaphysical naturalism says that the only things that exist are things that are part of the natural, physical universe. In that case there can be nothing more to the mind than what can be understood in physical terms. This metaphysics also rules out religious concepts such as an immaterial soul and gods.

Obviously, making a distinction between the two is important, particularly in a work about religion. When it is said that methodological naturalism does not entail metaphysical naturalism, this means that just because science can work only with natural objects it does not follow that there are no non-natural, or supernatural, entities. There may in fact be non-natural realities that are beyond the scope of science. I accept this distinction without any qualms. Nothing I say in the following chapters should be taken to entail that there is no God. But the methodological approach I employ requires that we bracket any commitment to the existence of such a being. I believe this is also required of a scientific approach. We should apply the methods of science as rigorously and extensively as we can. Once this is accomplished, then it is fitting to ask how the findings of science can be reconciled (or not) with belief in God. I agree that no matter how effective science may be in explaining the universe naturalistically, it does not logically exclude the possibility of a non-natural realm and/or supernatural entities. However, I do believe that the findings of the sciences – physical, social, and historical – can impose constraints on what we may claim about such non-natural possibilities.

The thesis this book intends to develop and defend is that evolution has designed the human mind in such a way that we possess a set of mental tools that shape our moralities and our religions. More specifically, I contend that religious moral traditions are cultural expressions of underlying cognitive and emotional pre-dispositions that are the products of evolutionary processes. They evolved because they helped us in our struggle to survive and reproduce. In effect, we all possess common moral and religious cognitive frameworks that give rise to identifiable patterns in our moral religious traditions. This thesis does not deny the great cultural diversity in both morality and religion found throughout the world, and throughout history, nor does it deny the possibility for true moral innovation. However, it does imply that the power of culture to shape human behavior, while impressive, is limited – and in fact, as we shall see, there is good evidence to support the claim that the human ability to create culture is itself a result of evolved mental tools. It also implies that effecting a lasting moral innovation is harder than we imagine.

I believe that the project of uncovering the evolved psychology beneath religious morality is not merely an academic project, because religion is not merely an academic subject. Religion is one of the most powerful forces in human history, and its power makes itself known in ways both dramatic and intimate in our world today; unfortunately, the impact of religion is often divisive and violent. If we want to truly understand religion’s ability to influence human events, we need to grasp its psychological bases, and to take a scientific approach to religious psychology means using our best theories of how the mind works.

Chapter 1 sets out the bases of our evolved moral psychology. In it I try to describe how evolution has shaped the cognitive and emotional predispositions that give rise to morality. I do not claim to be doing anything original in this chapter, and those well versed in the literature may want to skim through it. But what I am attempting in Chapter 1 is not simply to provide an introduction to the uninitiated (although I am trying to do that) but also to pull together some of the best and most recent research from evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience – disciplines all grounded in an evolutionary context, and which together constitute cognitive science – and organize it in a way that presents a cognitive framework for human morality. While this discussion is far from exhaustive, it is rather detailed. I beg the reader’ s patience, but the topic is complex and I believe we need a solid foundation in moral psychology in order to proceed with our study.

With that moral framework established, in Chapter 2 I turn to the evolutionary bases of religious belief. I am fully aware that talk of a scientific theory of religion will raise suspicion in scores of religious studies professionals that I am going to move forward with a conception of religion lacking in nuance and sophistication. I am certainly going to try to avoid that. However, within the discipline of religious studies the very term “religion” is passionately contested. An important aspect of this contestation is the insistence that “religion” is itself a relatively recent concept, and one shaped by Western sensibilities and experiences. To apply this term to the experiences of people not part of that modern, Western worldview is a problematic move, even more so when we try to apply it to ancient peoples. What complicates things even more is that even within a Western perspective “religion” denotes such a wide range of experiences, practices, beliefs, and traditions that we must be very careful not to reduce the richness of religion by privileging any one aspect of it. Furthermore, even within a religious tradition, how that tradition will be understood and lived by its various adherents is so varied that it is not possible to identify a core set of elements that constitutes any particular religion. In other words, there is no essence to a particular religious tradition that allows us to say that, for example, “this” is real or true Christianity.

I recognize the worth of all these points. Discussions of religion – in public debates and even in books by respected intellectuals and supposed religious authorities – often work with a simplified or overly generalized conception of religion, and this is an obstacle to a clear understanding of the nature and workings of religion. In my discussion of religion I hope to clarify and qualify what I am referring to with enough nuance to do justice to the topic. I do not expect this to satisfy everyone. But I believe that an attitude of intellectual generosity is required of readers on any complicated topic – and by this I mean we must be careful not to read too much of our own theoretical presuppositions into the work in front of us. This does not mean we should not bring a theoretically informed reading to the text, but rather we should be careful of conjuring windmills to battle. Whether or not what I refer to with the term “religion” or “religious” matches your understanding of the term, what is really at stake is not how we use terms but the phenomena at hand.

For example, I focus largely on religious texts and I work with the premise that these texts are accorded a moral authority that shapes behavior. Now, this is obviously not true for all believers, nor is it an equally relevant claim for all religious traditions, but it is true that the texts have been accorded moral authority and have been used to shape behavior, and that they continue to do so. This is the point that is important for my purposes. I make no larger claims about the centrality of the texts to behavior or of belief to religion. The fact that religious beliefs play a role in shaping behavior, for at least some people, and that religious texts shape belief, for at least some people, is I believe a sufficiently significant fact in its own right to justify a serious evaluation.

So, in Chapter 2 I bring together some of the cutting-edge research on religion coming out of the cognitive sciences. My focus is on the evolution of cognitive predispositions that give rise to belief in gods and to beliefs about gods. As with Chapter 1 the contribution of this chapter is not to present any original findings but to organize the fascinating work being done on this subject into a serviceable model of the cognitive framework for god-beliefs. The significant event for the purposes of this book is that the framework for our morality and the framework for god-beliefs, under certain conditions, become entwined, so to speak, and give rise to belief in gods as moral agents – parties interested in the moral affairs of humans – who can assume the roles of moral legislator and moral enforcer. This underlies the development of religious moral traditions.

Having set out the framework for religious moral traditions, I then set out to detect the elements of these evolved cognitive frameworks within diverse religious traditions. In Chapter 3 I test this thesis by applying an evolutionary analysis to Judaism, specifically, to Judaic ethics as expressed in the Mosaic Law. I first explore the character of Yahweh, as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, to see how this portrayal fits the evolved framework for god-beliefs, and then I examine how the moral law of Yahweh follows the contours set out by our evolved moral psychology.

In Chapter 4 I engage in the same exercise but look at Christianity. Here the focus is the character of Christ, as a divine being whose portrayal fits within the framework for god-beliefs, and the moral teachings of Christ, as set out in the Gospels and elaborated on in the letters of Paul. Christianity is an important test case because it has been claimed that Christian ethics are an explicit repudiation of the type of ethics that flows from evolutionary sources. An evolved morality makes reciprocation a key moral motivation and focuses special moral concern on those in one’s community; Christ advocated an ethics in which one is to do good without thought of reward, and which extends to the whole human race. Such an ethics, it is held, could not have evolved. So, the key challenge in Chapter 4 is to demonstrate how even Christ’ s teachings fit within an evolutionary framework.

In Chapter 5 I turn to the grave problem of religious violence. This is a deeply troubling phenomenon for us all, but it is a particularly difficult one for believers to have to face. Religion is often presented as a force for good in the world, and yet it is too often implicated in some of the greatest evils of which humans are capable. A popular, and understandable, strategy for reconciling these facts is to exonerate religion by distancing it from the violence done in its name, to shift the focus to the individuals who abuse religion by twisting its good teachings to their own corrupt ends. I argue that this move is unwarranted. As we develop an insight into our evolved religious moral psychology, we will see that the same processes that generate the pro-social, constructive morality found in religion also generate prejudice and violence. It is not a question of whether religion, or any particular religion, is peace-loving or violent; they are both, inherently. The issue then is to understand the conditions that trigger one or the other response. I seek to explicate this position by again reading the religious texts of Judaism and Christianity from an evolutionary perspective.

I conclude this chapter applying the insights we have gained into religious violence to a case study: the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the response to them. The purpose of this exercise is to argue that the evolved psychology that gave rise to religious texts is not something we outgrow. We can see it at work in the moral mindset of the major players involved in 9/11, both the terrorists and the President. To make this case I first spend some time showing how our evolved moral and religious frameworks structure Islam, as well as Judaism and Christianity. This unfortunately is a comparatively brief and concise evaluation, given limitations in time, and the author’ s expertise, but sufficient, I believe, to make the case that the thesis of this book is applicable to all three monotheistic traditions. (Whether it is applicable to non-Western, religious traditions must be left an open question, although my sense is that it is, although the details of the analysis would likely be quite different.)

In the sixth and final chapter I try to elucidate some of the lessons to be gained from the evolutionary analysis of religion, ethics, and violence. I consider what this analysis says about the nature and authority of religious morality, as well as what it says about the possibility of doing without religion. I conclude by trying to draw out some practical, albeit general proposals about how we might use an evolutionary understanding of religion to respond to the dangers of religious violence, and what might be the prospects for developing a moral system that accesses the best that religions can offer, while avoiding the worst.

Before proceeding I want to make one more point about the project I am engaged in, that is, reading religious texts, in this case the Bible, from an evolutionary perspective. An evolutionary reading of these texts does not necessarily conflict with the readings of other hermeneutical approaches; in fact it often is consistent with other approaches, although at other times it may suggest a very different understanding. But even in those instances of compatibility, an evolutionary perspective can make a contribution by uncovering the psychological processes that generate particular social and behavioral patterns that find expression in religious texts and that shape the production of the texts we have. What I am presenting, but not claiming to originate, is a new method of Biblical criticism that employs the methods and conclusions of the cognitive sciences, a cognitive-critical method for textual analysis that may be considered an extension of the historical-critical methodologies.

The developing cognitive sciences, grounded in sound evolutionary thinking, are opening up a new phase in our study of religion. I believe the frameworks set out in this book allow us to gain insight into the workings of the religious mind and offer a fresh perspective on religious texts that may allow us to better understand the complexities and contradictions we find throughout these texts. It is my hope that this new perspective on religion may be translated into a more effective response to the roles religion plays in the world today.