Darwin’s Cathedral and the Two Faces of Religion

I recently finished reading David Sloan Wilson’s marvelous book ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ that suggests (and provides a wealth of evidence to support) the idea that religion in all its institutional, emotional, and prescriptive aspects ranks as a major evolutionary adaptation and a trait that evolved because it conferred major advantages in evolutionary terms on those who believe in a specific religion’s tenets. Specifically, he shows how religion can create group level selection: social groups with religious beliefs out-compete those that lack them, primarily because religious practice bonds the group, punishes free riders and thereby overcomes the principle problem with group level selection: individuals cheat. 

But he quotes two passages from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible that resonated powerfully with as the two faces of religion, as the two faces of modern Israeli policy, and indeed in modern day America, the two faces of Christianity:

‘When an alien that resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt‘ Leviticus 19: 33-34

When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you as forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as booty the women, the children, livestock and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not the towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as your Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do the abhorrent things that they do for their Gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.’ Deuteronomy 20:10-18

David Wilson explains both in terms of their group level evolutionary selection: order within the settled group, including outsiders, who have effectively joined the group,  and treating them fairly; and murderous annihilation against nearby competing out-groups. I still find the latter quote profoundly at odds with the Golden Rule and indeed the whole basis of Christianity, as I was taught it as a child and in school. I think the dichotomy evident in these quotes needs very careful attention by religious groups or we will continue into ‘wars of religion’ such as wracked Europe in the 17th century.

This is David:

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Religious Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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