The agonising double binds of human existence

Mike Berger writes on the relevance of John Teehan's book 'In the Name of God'


I've just finished reading a recently published book written by John Teehan entitled 'In the Name of God'. While the book will not likely become a best-seller, it is too rigorous and non-polemical for that, it should be in the library of everyone interested in the role of religion and morality in history and in our future.

In essence the author takes a naturalistic lens coming from the perspective of evolutionary psychology to the examination of the major monotheistic faiths, especially Judaism and Christianity. Writing with quite exceptional clarity and subtlety he presents the evolutionary forces which shaped our emotional and moral nature and the fascinating story of how this resulted in the counter-intuitive emergence of religious thought which, once established, evolved into the mosaic of faiths populating our globe.

Despite its relative brevity, just over 200 pages, and the complexity of the material it is rich in historical detail and political contextualisation presented with admirable even-handedness in a field notoriously vulnerable to oversimplification, outrage and bias. All this Teehan accomplishes without pulling any punches or backing away from controversy.

Coming from a materialist perspective myself, but leaving a tiny bit of wiggle room for the unknown unknowns, I am well versed (short of deep professional expertise) in evolutionary psychology and its many cognate sciences relating to human collective behaviour, namely politics. At the same time my religious knowledge is sketchy to the point of non-existent. Intuitively I have rejected the fundamentalist, oppositional stance of the "new atheists" epitomised by Dawkins.

Chief amongst my reasons for such scepticism is the recognition that the social and personal role of religion extends beyond a belief in a supernatural, all-powerful being. What Teehan's book has done for me is to ground belief in the divine in evolved human nature and to outline its role, both positive and negative, in the dynamics of Man's complex and ambiguous relationship with his fellow humans. What do I mean and where does this take us?

To summarise a vast empirical and theoretical corpus of knowledge humans are part of the animal kingdom which inadvertently about 6 million years ago embarked on a novel evolutionary trajectory, that of extended cooperation, cumulative learning and culture. In place of the elegant simplicity of the impala or leopard, we became the Swiss jackknife of mammalian evolution: complex, multi-purpose, ambiguous, adaptable and at war with ourselves.

The painful co-existence of our only too obvious animal nature and our spiritual and universalistic longings are too well-known to bear repetition. That reality has involved the ruthless processes of differential survival which accounts for the contradictions of 'human nature' manifested in the juxtaposition of tender compassion with mind-boggling cruelty, justice with heartless exploitation and strivings for universal brotherhood co-existing with narrow tribal and identity politics.

These are not 'faults' in the process or the product but rather they have been dictated by the evolutionary path we have irrevocably embarked upon. The niche occupied by humans for millions of years demanded the capacity for tenderness, empathy and loyalty within the tribe and an equal capacity for hatred and cruelty towards others. Teehan points out that despite the universalist aspirations of the major monotheistic faiths they all contain extraordinarily bloodthirsty threats towards those outside or those from within the faith who reject the teachings and fellowship of the group.

The author takes great care not to present a static, essentialised depiction of religious thought or of any particular faith, a stance I endorse entirely. At the same time he firmly resists the idea that there exists a simple path to universal peace and brotherhood. Because, concurrent with sacralised belief systems, whether secularised or traditionally religious, is the assumption that only the wickedness, obstinacy and irrationality of those who do not think like you stand in the way of universal peace and happiness. And with this assumption we're immediately back in the bloody wars of yesterday and the vicious identity politics in the public space of the West mainly.

So here in a nutshell are the agonising double binds of human existence: too much compassion, you're supper. Too little altruism and cooperation you are rejected or your group falls prey to other better cooperators - with the same result. Too universalist and you stand for nothing and nobody will stand with you. Too tribal and you condemn yourself and your offspring and your tribe to endless struggle and misery.

So how do we escape these multiple double binds? Well there is no real escape, they are simply universal laws within which we are compelled to live. But we can mitigate the misery these inflict by using the two systems of cognition that evolution has bestowed upon us.

System 1 is the set of layered emotional and moral predispositions, varying from individual to individual, we have been talking about. It is vital to our functioning but can get us into deep trouble when triggered inappropriately. But this system responds to context. High conflict/high threat situations activate exclusivist tribal modes of perception in which group loyalty is paramount and self-interest also exerts a powerful attraction. Conversely, safe prosperous contexts may promote the emergence of more universalistic values of tolerance, compassion and justice.

Contextual influences can be demonstrated by modelling human-like, virtual agents on computers. We cannot realistically model the full complexity of reality but such techniques allow us to test intuitive suppositions. Furthermore, once certain modes of perception and reaction dominate within a society they are not able to change seamlessly and painlessly in response to changing circumstances. In fact the persistence of obsolete cultural patterns themselves contribute to dysfunctional choices, behaviour and bad outcomes.

System 2 thinking is used for analytical, introspective, logical, innovative and evidence-based cognition. It is part of the total human package. Very rarely can one system be activated fully with the total exclusion of the other. But System 2 cognition allows us to step back somewhat from the emotional triggers and to construct a more detailed, wider and deeper appraisal of our predicament from multiple different perspectives. That is precisely what Teehan's book is about and that is the province of scholarship, especially that carried out within the scientific tradition.

This is no panacea. But over time insights from the cumulative progress of knowledge and technology offers the prospect of adaptation to our challenges. In the local South African insecurity, unpredictability and inequality provide enormous incentives for tribal responses coupled with self-interest to the point of corruption and criminality - the full neopatrimonial state.

The broader population are well aware of the downsides to these developments but are struggling to withstand the relentless propaganda backed by intimidation and bribery, especially in the face of an apparently weak, confused and divided opposition. In response a form of white tribalism is re-emerging despite the inherent weakness of such a strategy and the recognition that it would run counter to world recognition of South Africa as a multi-ethnic, democratic state.

In response to the economic and social imperatives engendered by failure of governance and sharp drop in investment and productive, employment creating industry, the government is turning increasingly to the non-democratic bloc for support. Such expedient tactics may well buy some time but it will remain to be seen whether democracy can be sustained or that this will convert into a self-sufficient economy able to deliver the economic and social goods to provide real hope to the South African underclasses.

Mike Berger