Joshua Mauldin: New Books at CTI

George Graham and Dominic Johnson have recently published important books they wrote as research fellows at CTI. In The Abraham Dilemma: A Divine Delusion (Oxford University Press), Graham sheds light on the psychological concept of religious delusion. In God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes us Human (Oxford University Press) Johnson analyzes religion as an evolutionary adaptation that is central to human society. Johnson was a CTI Senior Research Fellow during the 2012-13 Inquiry on Evolution and Human Nature, while Graham was a CTI Research Fellow during the 2013-14 Inquiry on Religious Experience and Moral Identity.

Both books are noteworthy examples of social science that is sympathetic to religion without assuming a theological or religious perspective. Graham develops a conception of religious delusion as an alternative to that of Freud, who famously saw religious belief itself as delusional. On Graham’s view, delusion should not be equated with ‘false belief,’ both because many religious beliefs are not empirically falsifiable, but also because many religious beliefs are beneficial to a well-lived life, regardless of whether they are true. “Theism, in particular, may infuse and reinforce much that is valuable in a life, valuable not just prudentially but morally. The theistic convictions of a person may help to produce or motivate valuable actions and meritorious attitudes that even the most doctrinaire anti-religionist should admire.” (Graham, The Divine Delusion, 19)

But if religious delusion isn’t defined simply as false belief, how should it be understood? Graham provides several case studies to illustrate why it is important not to give up the concept of religious delusion, which helps distinguish religious beliefs that harm a person’s well being from those that support it. This means that psychiatry includes an ethical moment, as normative considerations of human well being come into play in the meaning of delusion. “Psychiatry should not and cannot help but be in the business of assisting people to get certain of their beliefs and values in proper normative order, broadly understood. This is not a bad thing. It is a good thing, although it can be and, alas, often has been conducted in an unjustifiably morally authoritarian and insensitive manner.” (Graham, The Divine Delusion, 23)

Graham’s point underscores the value and indeed the necessity of interdisciplinary inquiry. It turns out that the concept of religious delusion—surely of interest to theologians—calls for dialogue between psychiatrists and ethicists. As Graham notes, rigid disciplinary boundaries are not helpful here: “Moral and prudential values and norms blend non-dichotomously with mental health norms in the present book’s understanding of religious delusion and a well-lived life—a psychiatrically healthy life.” (Graham, The Divine Delusion, 23)

In God is Watching You, Dominic Johnson explores the evolutionary benefits of religious beliefs amongst human groups, in particular the tendency of religion to encourage cooperation. Beliefs about the possibility of divine punishment can curb various inefficiencies that inhibit cooperation. Human groups have various ways to punish asocial behavior while rewarding that which is pro-social. But there are cases when no one is watching and free-rider problems arise. At these points belief in a supernatural divine being who punishes deviant behavior can be very useful in encouraging people to behave.

Johnson provides interesting insights regarding the implications for the secularization thesis as well as for the actually existing secular societies in some corners of the globe. Johnson notes that secular societies have increasingly turned to police surveillance, perhaps as a replacement for the watchful eye of a God in whom they no longer believe. “In the United Kingdom, there are estimated to be up to 6 million cameras on the streets—more than in all of China, and one for every eleven people.” (Johnson, God is Watching You, p. 219) What this means for the future of religion in secular societies is unclear. Perhaps the watchful eye of the state will suffice as a tolerable alternative to a watchful God. Or perhaps a resurgence of religion will replace the apparatus of state surveillance.

Religion will likely endure because of the need for societal trust. It turns out that atheists are among the least trusted members of society, even in secular countries. “Other studies found that—get this—even atheists do not trust other atheists (it takes one to know one, perhaps!).” (Johnson, God is Watching You, 215) It appears that human beings are hard-wired by evolution to think that belief in God and trustworthiness are somehow intertwined.

The possibilities for interdisciplinary inquiry are immense. Johnson has offered a framework that calls for responses from evolutionary biology, political science, theology, and ethics, to name a few. What are the moral and political implications of the adaptive value of religion? Should society be in the business of encouraging religious belief and practice? Are secular societies in trouble? Is religion reducible to the human need to deter asocial behavior and to facilitate cooperation? Only a wide-ranging discussion across many scholarly disciplines will suffice to answer such questions. Thankfully, both George Graham and Dominic Johnson have modeled precisely the kind of interdisciplinary approach that is required.

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