“If religion is not about God, then what on earth is it about (for heaven’s sake)?” asks Loyal Rue at the beginning of his groundbreaking book, Religion Is Not About God. His answer:
“It is about us.”
Specifically, religion is about adaptation:
“It is about manipulating our brains so that we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively. Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.”
This is a naturalistic view that embeds religions within the larger natural systems of the cosmos, conceiving of them as cultural entities that play a part in our cultural evolution.
The part they play has to do with a current hot topic in the study of religions called group selection: groups that are able to organize around common goals out-compete groups that cannot, leading to enhanced reproductive fitness for its members (Wilson, 2002).
It was once thought that group selection was rare or even non-existent. It seemed so easy for individuals to “game the system” to their own ends that the necessary level of group harmony could hardly be achieved. It now appears, however, that human culture is a prime example of group selection, and religions may well be the key. By creating “overlaps of self-interest” (Rue’s term) between individuals and groups, religions galvanize societies, bringing about sufficient harmony for group selection to flourish.
Religions aren’t always beneficial, however. Those once adaptive can become maladaptive. For example, if a religion leads a people to outstrip the limits of their environment, they will ultimately suffer. Rue fears this may be the case in our current era. The world’s religions must create the conditions for sustainable living, else they will go extinct (and we along with them).
The epic of evolution
Rue is serious about his naturalism. The first hundred-and-sixty pages of the book are given over to a detailed history of the evolution of human nature, starting with the big bang. This story firmly embeds religion within the natural systems of which we are a part, and grounds the argument in human cognitive and emotional systems. It also paints a wondrous picture of humans as natural entities emerging seamlessly from the cosmos: “We are geological formations… star-born and earth-formed.”
Particular emphasis is given to the evolution of behavior. Humans appear to have basic default settings for behavior, which Rue calls “intuitive morality”, but this can be (and nearly always is) augmented by cultural influences. Whenever culture fails to motivate behavior, we may resort to the default. Religion functions to organize our behavior beyond intuitive morality toward prosocial values, so that we can achieve group-level harmony.
Self-esteem and goal hierarchies
Of crucial relevance is the function of self-esteem in this process. Religions play on the strings of human nature in part by influencing which things matter to our self-esteem. This in turn influences our “goal hierarchies”, or lists of priorities. Ultimately, it is the function of religion to influence our goal hierarchies toward prosocial, cooperative values. When religions fail, we may experience an “outbreak” of intuitive morality; and when they succeed, we achieve an alignment of personal and collective fulfillment.
The twin teloi: Personal wholeness and social coherence
According to Rue, at the highest level of generality, human goals can be broken down into two basic aims:
“The general strategy of our species is to achieve personal wholeness and social coherence – that is, to develop healthy and robust personalities while at the same time constructing harmonious and cooperative social groups. To the extent that we succeed in these vital projects, we enhance our prospects for reproductive fitness.”
These are the “twin teloi” (after Greek telos, or goal).
They do not easily work together. As mentioned earlier, it is often advantageous for individuals to “game the system”, seeking short-term gain by taking more than their fair share of resources from the group while giving back less. To guard against this constant threat, a society must use either external force (i.e. police action), or internal motivation (Wilson, 2002). The latter is far more efficient.
Religions create internal motivation by influencing the goal hierarchies of individuals, attaching self-esteem penalties to gaming the system and self-esteem boosts to cooperating with it.
Myth: Integrating the twin teloi through a root metaphor
So, how do religions accomplish this? They do so, according to Rue, by combining into a single compelling narrative ideas about how things are (cosmology) and which things matter (morality). When these merge together, the latter acquires the force of the former. This process “renders the real sacred, and the sacred real.”
This single compelling narrative comprises the core of a mythic tradition, and within this core is root metaphor. Abrahamic religions use the root metaphor of God-as-person, ancient Greek tradition used logos, Hinduism and Buddhism use dharma, Chinese religion uses Tao, and so on. The root metaphor provides the organizing dynamo.
“When the root metaphor of a mythic tradition is ingested, one apprehends that ultimate facts and values have the same source. In mythic insight, the ultimate explanation is also the ultimate validation.”
For example, in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic myths, which use the root metaphor of God-as-person, all ideas about how the world came to be and how we ought to live are grounded in the creative will of God. This produces a strong motivation to behave as God wills (i.e. as the religion says to behave).
So mythic narratives do the heavy lifting, but why do people care about a religion’s myth? How do they come to eat and breathe it? This is the role of all the other trappings associated with religions, which Rue breaks down into five ancillary strategies. The five are: intellectual, aesthetic, experiential, ritual, and institutional strategies. Through these, religions drench their communities in their myths. They bias the working memories of followers by the sheer frequency of encounters with the myth, as well as by the memorability of religious experiences. A myth that is all around you is on your mind on a lot; so is one with which you’ve had a profound experience. A working memory thus biased toward a myth ensures its influence as you go through decision-making processes, thereby encouraging the prosocial behavior promoted by the myth (Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007).
Only religions do this?
Religions play the part of prosocial facilitator, but Rue does not necessarily claim that only religions can do so. There is evidence that large-scale secular and atheist societies may also flourish if they develop adequate corresponding social structures (Zuckerman, 2008). Nevertheless, religion has played a dominant role in history in facilitating societies that function on a large scale.
Religions manipulating me? No thanks!
With all this talk of religious traditions biasing working memory and influencing goal hierarchies, it can easily sound like we are but puppets on strings. Is that the case?
The larger scientific field is instructive here. According to gene-culture co-evolution (also called dual inheritance theory), human behavior is a product of the interaction of two evolutionary processes: biology and culture (Gintis, 2011). Whatever the “self” is, it is made up of genes and cultural memes interacting much like a violin and a violin piece. You can’t have music without both elements coming together into a seamless whole. In just the same way, we are a seamless whole of genes and culture. We are their “music.”
It makes no sense to speak of the violin piece manipulating music. Music simply emerges by the coming together of violin and piece. By the same token, it is incoherent to speak of cultural memes manipulating “us.” The memes that comprise us may be religious or not, but either way they are an essential part of us, not some outside force pulling our strings like a puppet master. We are our genes and memes.
Rue himself likes to use a similar metaphor:
“Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.”
Failing religions: Intellectual plausibility and moral relevance
It was said earlier that religions can fail in their function. How so?
There are two chief crises that may get a faith in trouble: plausibility and relevance.
Intellectual plausibility becomes a crisis when a people no longer take seriously a religion’s chief claims about how reality works. For example, a literal reading of Genesis, where God creates the world in six days, is no longer plausible for many today.
Moral relevance reaches a crisis when a religion’s claims about how we ought to live no longer function, or lead a people off a cliff. Rue fears today’s world religions may be doing the latter. Without adequately encouraging sustainable living, they are leading us dangerously close to an ecological cliff. What must evolve in days to come are religions that bias our goal hierarchies toward ecological integrity.
A call for eco-centric religion
The book culminates in the possibility of religious naturalism, a meta-myth encompassing various specific traditions that are both religious and naturalistic. This would combine the evolutionary cosmology of contemporary science with an eco-centric value system:
“An eco-centric morality… treats the integrity of natural systems as an absolute value, implied by the principle that any vision of the good life presupposes life, and that life presupposes the integrity of natural systems.”
What root metaphor might serve to power such a meta-myth? None currently serves. Our culture has not yet developed “some device to warrant the assertion of natural values without introducing extra-natural realities.”
Yet Rue is optimistic. He believes that eventually we’ll come to see nature itself as our object of ultimate concern.
At this moment today, there is a growing movement of religious naturalism. However, it is “not yet a robust mythic tradition because the ancillary strategies are not in place to exert a full-court press on behavior mediation systems.” Intellectual strategies are mostly in place, but others lag.
The book is therefore, in a way, a call for specific traditions to fill this gap.
Rue lays out the challenge:
“…naturalists universally accept that the real is natural and the natural is real, but religious naturalists will be known by their personal responses to Nature. It will be the work of ancillary strategies to instill a pattern of eco-centric piety by shaping attitudes and educating the emotions. Religious naturalists will then be known by their reverence and awe before Nature, their love for Nature and natural forms, their sympathy for all living things, their guilt for enlarging ecological footprints, their pride in reducing them, their sense of gratitude directed toward the matrix of life, their contempt for those who abstract themselves from natural values, and their solidarity with those who link their self-esteem to sustainable living.”
Criticism and conclusions
There are many controversial claims in Rue’s book. It is a visionary synthesis, and that inevitably means some ideas will bear fruit while others wither.
One point worth a quibble is that Rue often invents his own terms, even when describing subjects outside his own field. This makes one wonder whether experts on the subject would agree or disagree with his typologies.
Another questionable issue is the religions under its purview: detailed analysis is given only to certain major, organized world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). This begs the question of whether the book’s claims apply equally to ancient polytheistic religions and indigenous religions.
On the whole, however, the book is a masterpiece. Religion Is Not About God packs into one single volume more of the latest research on biology and religion than almost any other out there. The prose is not always the most engaging, but the content is worth the effort. The lay reader discovers a detailed yet elegant vision of religion as a natural phenomenon.
Will beholding such a naturalistic vision ultimately undermine religion? Rue responds:
“All I can promise from my own experience is that any existential losses incurred by naturalizing religious meanings may be fully compensated by an acquired sense for the mystery and sanctity of nature itself.”
Religion Is Not About God, by Loyal Rue
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press
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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Gintis, H. (2011). “Gene-culture Coevolution and the Nature of Human Sociality.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B(366), pp. 878-888.
Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2007). “God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game.” Psychologial Science, 18(9), pp. 803-809.
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. New York: New York University Press.