The author argues that religion and violence are not the mutually exclusive agents people believe them to be. He hopes “an evolutionary understanding of religion” can help society rise to the challenges of much contemporary violence.
It is necessary to recognize this complex, rather scientific book’s parameters. I did not find it to be about God’s presence and action, for example. What the book focuses upon is human evolution, psychology, ethics and religion (particularly the monotheistic religions). Teehan cautions readers early on that nothing he says “should be taken to entail that there is no God.”
Yet, I suspect many will wonder what Teehan personally believes when it comes to God, or faith, or concrete moral values. It may not be this book’s purpose, but I’ll bet students bring these questions up to him.
Which leads me to ask what audience Teehan intended to address. Will the book prove too basic for fellow scholars, too technical for nonexperts? Maybe university students will constitute the audience; at times the book reflects a classroom lecture style.
In simplest terms, Teehan holds that violence undertaken in religion’s name “flows naturally from the moral logic inherent in many religious systems.” However, he says, “this does not mean that religions are violent belief systems,” for “religions are also inherently powerful sources of morality.”
Teehan says that “to go from, ‘There is a source of violence inherent in religious psychology’ to, ‘Religions are intrinsically hostile’ is an unjustified leap in logic.”
Evolution “infused our moral instincts” with an in-group/out-group mentality, says Teehan. Evolution “designed us to see acceptable moral behavior as that which my group designates as acceptable.” An evolutionary factor underlying this attitude is the preference for kin and one’s group expressed by our early human ancestors — a preference viewed as essential for survival.
In Teehan’s analysis, the world’s monotheistic traditions are not immune to such moral instincts. These traditions encompass “predispositions to favor kin and a genuine altruism toward those in the group,” along with a “predisposition to fear or distrust those outside the group,” he says.
Kin selection’s “flip side” is “xenophobia,” Teehan makes plain. He means, I take it, that people come by a distrust of outsiders rather naturally.
As my reading progressed, I began asking whether the human family and its religions are fated to violence in the author’s estimation. I found, gratefully, that there are steps we poor humans can take to rise above our more lethal instincts. I only wish Teehan’s discussion of such steps constituted a larger focus of his book.
One recommendation is to put our powers of “critical reflection” to work. And Teehan encourages acknowledgment of the harm done by dehumanizing and demonizing “outsiders.”
Once we begin to reflect “on our desires and how those desires contribute to or damage our relationships,” it is possible to start down a path toward “taking some control over our emotions and moral intuitions,” according to Teehan.
It can be deduced from “In the Name of God” that efforts to promote genuine interreligious understanding are all to the good. Teehan also exhorts 21st-century citizens to begin looking upon “the ‘other’ as ‘us'” and to mute “the perception of us versus them.”
He hopes an understanding of evolution and violence will enable more mature evaluations of terrorist activities. He cautions, I should note, against employing the label “Islamic terrorists,” since terrorists calling themselves Islamic are not simply that; other factors contribute to their actions.
Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service’s documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.