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Jeffrey Schloss and Michael Murray (editors)


Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

In the last fifteen or twenty years critics of religion have been very active in seeking evolutionary explanations for religious belief, usually with the implication that the demonstration of such explanations is enough to disprove the truth of religious claims. If it can be shown that religious experience emerges naturally from the way our minds function, and that there are evolutionary reasons why this should be so, there is no need to take the content of religion seriously.

Although the editors of this book don't say so openly, I get the impression that they want to counter such views. Most of the twenty-odd contributors they have assembled say, in one way or another, that theism may be true even if belief in God is an evolutionary product. Only two authors, Paul Bloom and David Sloan Wilson, don't follow this line, and even they are pretty muted in their criticism of religious belief.

On the other side of the fence we are told repeatedly in different ways that science and religion are compatible. Michael Murray, one of the editors, says this in two chapters, one of which is co-authored with Andrew Goldberg. Indeed, some of the authors go further and claim that even to practise science properly requires a theistic standpoint. Del Ratsch writes; 'Indeed, it may be the case that although we can think in superficially atheistic ways, really thinking about the cosmos may be an irreducibly theistic undertaking.' Jonathan Haidt says that religion is needed on utilitarian grounds for a fully moral society. And Christian Smith thinks that monotheism as developed in Judaism and Christianity was required for the development of benevolence and the recognition of human rights. (He doesn't seem to be aware of the role of universal compassion in Buddhism, a religion that lacks theism.)

My main complaint about the book is that it seems to have a concealed agenda. It is of course legitimate to seek to present an alternative to the anti-religion views of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Pascal Boyer and others, but that is not what the editors say they intended to do. Yet the way the contributors have been chosen strongly suggests that it was. I should have preferred them to say so up front. As it is, Schloss's introduction is written in such academic language, with so many qualifications, that I was unclear exactly what it was he was saying. Most of the contributors also appear to be writing for their academic peers, so the appeal of the book to the non-professional reader is fairly limited.

17 June 2009

%T The Believing Primate
%S Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion
%E Schloss, Jeffery (editor)
%E Murray, Michael (editor)
%I Oxford University Press
%C New York
%D 2009
%G ISBN 978-0-19-955702--8
%P 365pp
%K religion

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