Religion and the Human Prospect, by Alexander Saxton (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006, ISBN 1-58367- 133-1) 240 pp. Paper $19.95.
This astonishing book offers a profound and novel vision of religion’s place in human life. Alexander Saxton brings his historian’s perspective to such disparate fields as sociology, theology, and evolutionary psychology, weaving a credible, nuanced account of how faith has served the human community and why it may do so no longer.
Saxton the historian views religion positively. With E.O. Wilson, he holds that religious belief gave early humans greater confidence and social cohesion and argues that developing religion has continued on net to benefit humanity. But, sometime around 1945, everything changed. Saxton the futurist has little use for religion. For him, such contemporary crises as nuclear weapons, overpopulation, and environmental degradation demand responses that faith cannot elicit, but which a scientifically informed humanism just might. Saxton closes with a call for an end to faith that Sam Harris might well endorse. (Saxton even echoes Harris’s judgment that religious liberals are part of the problem, not the solution.) It is sobering when a thinker who has credited religion with so much concludes that it now “works . . . to the detriment of the species.”
I have one quibble: Saxton takes for granted that secularization was an Enlightenment project that collapsed with the fall of Marxism. While this becomes the platform for a cogent account of postmodern fideism, I think it leads Saxton to underestimate the degree to which secularization continues moving forward outside the United States. Still, that does nothing to detract from his larger, stunning thesis. Highly recommended.