Religion and the lack of civility

Nicholas Wade in his book, The Faith Instinct: How religion evolved and why it endures (New York: Penguin, 2009), argues that one evolutionary function of a religion is to bind a community together through common rituals and beliefs. In support of that claim, he points to Judaism which preserved Jewish identity even though the Jews lacked a nation state from the time of the Roman conquest until 1947.

Wade argues that Protestant Christianity performed a similar community creating and preservation role in the United States, causing adaptations in Roman Catholicism and Judaism that enabled those religions to fit within the American context without disrupting community identity. Ethical standards were enforced through incentivizing ethical conformance with the promise or threat of eternal reward or punishment. God was imagined to behave like the Santa Claus of song, keeping a detailed list of who has been naughty and nice.

In time, the dominant Christian ethos birthed American civil religion, a generic monotheism that emphasized God's providential care for the United States.

This is not a new analysis. Wade’s distinctive contribution is to situate the analysis in an evolutionary framework and thus to explain why religion has persisted. Wade’s attempt to differentiate the persistence of religious practice in the United States from its greatly diminished practice in Europe, beginning in the late eighteenth century, is not fully persuasive.

However, Wade’s analysis was the catalyst for two musings.

First, is the lack of civility in contemporary political life (cf. Ethical Musings post Why we no longer engage in civil discourse) the result of diminishing Christian practice and commitment? Wade draws that conclusion.

Instead of believing that the remedy is a return to Christian dominance in the American public square, perhaps our current lack of civility represents growing pains as the American culture shifts from white and Christian-centric to a more racially, ethnically and religiously pluralistic culture. Globalism, not narrowly conceived nationalism, is the future. If correct, then our lack of civility is only temporary and not a cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth about the imminent end of the world.

Second, if Wade is correct that religion has an important evolutionary function, then what new form of religion will emerge to bind a global community together?

Possible facets of the answer to that question may include:

·       Post-theism replacing theism, i.e., “God” being conceived in terms of an impersonal force, energy, light, or evolutionary process that is natural, not supernatural;

·       Ethics rooted in biology (e.g., reciprocal altruism and empathy) instead of divine command;

·       Rituals oriented around community events instead of sacred narratives;

·       Disappearance of institutional religion and professional religious leaders (clergy);

·       Conception of the human spirit strictly in terms of biology rather than positing a supernatural or eternal “soul” (cf. my article, Making the Ethereal Earthy: A New Definition of Spirit).

Religion has evolved in the past, changing from animism to supernatural monotheism. There is no reason to believe that the current major religions are the final stage in that evolutionary process. Instead of defending what appears to be dying cultural phenomena – institutionalized religion – perhaps the time has come to begin speculating about the next stage in the religious aspect of human evolutionary development.


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