Evolutionary Psychology and Religious Violence

Hector Avalos

In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence, by John Teehan (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4051-8381-9) 258 pp. Paper $16.47.


Evolutionary and cognitive psychology are now at the forefront of explaining the origin and function of human morality. In this book, In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence, John Teehan, an associate professor of religion at Hofstra University, offers a provocative discussion about the role of these exciting sub-disciplines of psychology in explaining religion and violence.

The book consists of six chapters, the first of which introduces the basics of evolutionary and cognitive psychology. The principal thesis is that “evolution has designed the human mind in such a way that we possess a set of mental tools that shape our moralities and our religions” (p. 4). The central premise is that the human brain is the basis of the moral dimensions of our behavior. This chapter also introduces the importance of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and indirect reciprocity in moral systems. In chapter 2, Teehan focuses on the moral functions of religion and deities.

Application of his thesis begins in chapter 3, which focuses on Judaism. Teehan expends considerable energy explaining the Ten Commandments on the basis of evolutionary psychology. He says that he aims to provide “an alternative mode of interpretation” that illuminates the adaptation of these commandments in different environments while being “guided by the ultimate goal of group cohesion serving reproductive success” (p.102). Chapter 4, which focuses on Christianity, argues that this religion represents a new in-group rather than the universalistic religion that is often claimed.

Chapter 5 compares Judaism and Christianity and also applies the lessons to the violence seen on September 11, 2001, which Teehan views as a continuation of what we see in ancient versions of Judaism and Christianity. In Chapter 6, he offers final conclusions and suggestions for how to counter religious violence. Critical thinking and becoming more conscious of the effects of creating in-groups and out-groups, even by the New Atheists, are among the pleas Teehan makes.

Having published a book on how “scarce resource theory” can explain religious violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from ancient to modern times (Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence [Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2005]), I find much with which to agree. I agree that the concept of an essentially peaceful religion is a myth. Religions contain the potential for both constructive and destructive forms. I agree that a key to understanding religious violence lies in evolutionary psychology. I agree that Christianity is a new in-group and not so universalistic. As such, Teehan illustrates that we can come to some very similar conclusions by using a secular approach to religious violence.

As a biblical scholar, however, I find the applications of Teehan’s theories to be less useful when looking at biblical texts. As Teehan himself notes, the biblical texts are too complex to apply one neat theory to all of them. One problem is that Teehan opts for a “canonical” approach, which looks at texts in a broader canonical usage. I see this approach as not only outdated, but developed for apologetic purposes by Brevard Childs, among others. Some biblical scholars, including myself, see canons as largely constructs of modern scholarship and churches rather than as descriptions of what existed in antiquity.

Second, there are enormous gaps in the bibliography pertaining to biblical violence. For example, there is no mention of The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2004), the massive anthology by J. Harold Ellens, a psychologist. Also missing is Raymond T. Westbrook’s monumental A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2003), which is crucial for cross-cultural testing of claims that evolutionary psychology makes about the benefits of specific types of laws (e.g., retaliatory laws).

Moreover, there is no awareness of the philosophical implications of Teehan’s own definition of “faith”—“an ultimate concern” (á la Paul Tillich) rather than “belief without evidence” (p. 219). This definition has been used by William T. Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence, 2009) to argue that there is no such thing as religious violence.

Insofar as the Ten Commandments are concerned, there is little awareness of how they fit within slave-master/lord-vassal societies. Such societies aim to serve the interests of the masters and don’t necessarily seek to promote social cohesion or reproductive success. The commands of lords such as Yahweh and Christ to subjects can be socially destructive because lords can often demand more than “servants” can produce (see 1 Samuel 8:11–17). Maladaptation, in general, does not get much attention from Teehan when studying these commandments.

In sum, this book is very useful in exploring the potential of evolutionary psychology in explaining religious violence. The application to the Bible, however, needs more appreciation of the lord-vassal/master-slave models that are at the core of biblical law and society.

Hector Avalos

Hector Avalos is professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Avalos is one of the few openly atheistic biblical scholars in academia. He is the author or editor of nine books, including Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (Prometheus Books, 2005), The End of Biblical Studies (Prometheus Books, 2007), and Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Bliblical Scholarship (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).


In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence, by John Teehan (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4051-8381-9) 258 pp. Paper $16.47. Evolutionary and cognitive psychology are now at the forefront of explaining the origin and function of human morality. In this book, In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins …

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