The Biology of Religious Behavior - The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion

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The Faith Instinct is a compact treatment useful for a beginning course introducing evolutionary ideas into religion with its over endnotes and compact index. The last chapter on the future of religion claims that religiosity is, in fact an inherited instinct, though less overtly expressed in educated elites and secular states today, and that religions are becoming progressively more moral and less militaristic.

rioloboul.cf | The Biology of Religious Behavior | | Jay R. Feierman | Boeken

I hear echoes of Edmund Burke. The other two books under review are the results of meetings. The Evolution of Religion Evolution consists of 50 short papers from an international gathering held in Hawaii in The Biology of Religious Behavior Biology was based, in part, on a symposium on this topic held in Italy in It has 15 chapters, which are longer than those in Evolution.

Three authors contribute to both volumes. There are conflicting chapters on whether religions are really evolutionarily adaptive or byproducts of other adaptive or psychological mechanisms also preoccupations of the other two books. Authors with all sorts of backgrounds and various levels of expertise focus chapters on a bewildering diversity of topics such as fire walking, paradise, adolescents, war, sexual selection, Hare Krishna, Sartre, and the soul.

Lots of intriguing ideas are presented but, understandably, little closure is reached. The lack of an index makes using the book to compare contrasting approaches to similar topics virtually impossible. There are too many ideas to highlight, so I will just mention one from the chapter by David Kydd. Some major ones in human evolution, such as use of fire and invention of the handaxe, could have led to supposing that departed ancestors watch over the implementation of their innovations in the next generation. Thus a supernatural niche is born.

While an intriguing idea, as a scientist I wondered how to test this and the myriad other ideas thrown out in this volume, so I turned with some hope to the section of papers on methodology. This was rather disappointing. There are, however, some occasional insights suggesting that the field is as primitive as many of the religious practices described in the book.

Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion

For example, Gibson and Barrett note p. Having taught a Psychology of Religion course for several years now, I find that much of this literature is of limited application to evolutionary and biological questions. Most of the field is dominated by social psychologists wary of evolutionary and biological approaches to religion. Finally, in a book purportedly on science, and evolution certainly is a scientific field, in 50 chapters I found only a dozen tables, many containing no data whatsoever, no graphs, and not even photos or drawings of religious phenomena.

A photo of Darwin is on the cover of the book, however. Turning to the Biology book, I had greater hopes, since the volume was more derived from biology and human ethology in particular. Again, however, the wealth of ideas discussed stands in sharp contrast to the limited testing of them. How it is to be tested is not discussed. I wonder if water dowsing would fit. In the Biology book I found two chapters that presented graphs and quantitative data in addition to one chapter containing a simplistic diagram of feeding behavior along with a strange diagram of string patterns purportedly comparing DNA and sacred texts, cell function and human societies.

For a book focused on religious behavior there was not a single photograph or drawing of actual behavior other than on the dust jacket. The two chapters with graphs both focused on cooperative behavior. One was a computer simulation, but the other chapter, by Yamamoto, et al. Some of the interesting results were that the evangelicals and atheists both preferred to play preferentially with those holding similar beliefs, but evangelicals more so than atheists. On the other hand, both groups shared equally with others across all belief groups, but atheists were more generous to atheists than were evangelicals to co-religionists.

The experiment was an informative test of ingroup vs. Finally, the Biology book does contain a quite useful and thorough 31 page index.

But this also allowed for gathering some informative data. Given the fact that the book largely ignores the kind of descriptive analyses of human behavior in natural settings that he pioneered, this is understandable. But there is also no citation of E. Wilson or sociobiology. Ecology is not in the index, nor are Reynolds or Tanner, authors of an excellent book, chapters of which I assign to my students, that look at religious practices cross culturally and throughout the lifespan.

But then again, Charles Darwin, who wrote considerably on religion and morality, is not in the index either! In fairness, however, Darwin is mentioned in the text in several places.

2. Science and religion in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism

Many distinguished authors took part in these volumes. Much traditional scholarship and comparative religious information is provided, though rarely systematically. From the evidence in these books the evolution and biology of religion, as a field, has some way to go before it can be considered scientific. Neither book, I fear, will be effective in convincing scientists that the field is making useful advances, or convincing traditional scholars of religion or social science that evolutionary and biological approaches provide more useful stories about religion than those they are using already.

And this is a pity, as I am convinced that consilience, as E. O Wilson envisions it, is at the basis of understanding the human condition. What is going on, it seems to me, is that the field of religion and evolution is in its second infancy, having never matured from its first one.

In This Article

A major failing, in my view, is the avoidance of taking a good look at the history of thoughtful discussion of evolution and religion in the past. Many of these failed due to the lack of appropriate methods and conceptual clarity, as was true of writings around the same time on animal minds and play. But many of these writers had, as in the fields of evolution of mind and play, some very useful ideas that were not recognized as such for many decades. I fear the same is true with religion. The 19 th century writers had no predecessors to build on. Those of the 21 st century do not have quite the same excuse.

Consider just one example. There has been much recent interest in the study of religion from the perspective of Darwinian evolution. The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion offers a broad overview of the topic, written by internationally recognized experts. In addition to its primary focus on religious behavior, the book addresses other important aspects of religion, such as values, beliefs, and emotions as they affect behavior. The contributors approach the evolution of religion by examining the behavior of individuals in their everyday lives.

After describing various religious behaviors, the contributors consider the behaviors with reference to their evolutionary history, development during the lifetime of the individual, proximate causes, and adaptive value.

Is Religion Biologically Hardwired?

Happily, this foray into understanding religion from a biobehavioral perspective demonstrates that, at the biological and behavioral levels, what unites the different religions of the world is far greater than what divides them. Jay R. For close to 20 years he was a medical consultant for psychosexual and behavioral health issues in Roman Catholic priests in numerous dioceses and religious orders throughout the United States and the English speaking world. Name: Jay R. Feierman Highest Degree: M. Voland and W. Schiefenhovel, eds.

Wolf, ed. Author of numerous scientific articles in the bio-behavioral sciences. International scholars describe the parallel biosocial evolutionary history of religious behaviors, their basis in brain development, causes, and adaptive roles. For example, closing one's eyes in prayer in monotheistic religions is viewed as akin to animal expression of submission to higher-ranked animals.

General and academic audiences, upper-division undergraduates and above.


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It is a strong testimonial to recent dynamics in the field of revolutionary religious studies. Those interested in bringing the scientific study of religion beyond outdated, disciplinary stagnations are recommended to enter this fray! All in all, this is a tightly argued book, with a thesis that fills a void; it should be lauded due it taking up the idea of religion from a broad perspective, and not simply from a singularist perspective instead, which is often the omission of former attempted analyses.

Philosophy of religion courses would well benefit from this title, as it make valuable connections among various religions, opening up the possibility for further ecumenical dialogue. For this, it should be suited well for upper-division college courses as a supplementary text.


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This is a textbook that I shall assign to my students because it gets so much right so many times. For the philosophical theologian the focus is also on the ontological nature of the referent and on the complexities of the self - world correlation where genuine sacred folds perennially punctuate our encounters with the heart of nature. Philosophy of religion courses would well benefit from this title, as it makes valuable connections amongst various religionsm opening up the possibility for further ecumenical dialogue.

For this, it should be used well in upper-division college courses as a supplementary text.

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