It has been a major struggle for the scientific community to understand the persistence of religious belief. After centuries of writing by rationalist thinkers, it remains a mystery why so many continue to believe in the old gods. The survival of religion has been though revolution, political and economic change and every conceivable alteration of consciousness throughout the ages. “Common sense” would then say that religion, in some very real sense, is true, is righteous and factual if it has survived so many changes.
Buckert, however, holds that the only way to explain this persistence, short of admitting there is much truth behind it, is that it assists humanity in adapting to changing environments: in short, making religion part of the Darwinian universe. This review will revolve around the methods used by the author in deriving his conclusion, really on the basis that his treatments of the specific cases are so lacking in detail as to be purely superficial. Hence, the real meat of the book lies in methodology, the “suggestion” of alternate ways of looking at religion.
Buckert begins by making the claim that nearly all researchers on religion hold: that there are undeniable similarities among all religions, regardless of their background or geographical origin (4-6). There is the ubiquity of prayer and sacrifice, the saturation of symbol and other forms of communication within groups, and ultimately, the creation and maintenance of group solidarity, itself an important ingredient in winning the struggle for survival (13).
Ultimately, the book makes a single argument: religion makes sense because it assists in the struggle for survival. Even institutions such as self sacrifice and the rejection of competition among certain religions are in fact adaptive behaviors that maintain the solidarity necessary to function in a hostile world. There is no specific reason who religion and religious ideas specifically are necessary for this, nor does this explain the persistence of belief, though it may offer a suggestion as to its ancient origin–which are two different arguments.
One interesting (and irritating) feature of this book is that there is no real “argument” given in the standard sense, rather than a series of suggestions loosely held together by what might be called “popular Darwinism. ” This singular suggestion, that religion “works” for maintaining solidarity is certainly nothing new, and offers such a superficial view of disparate religions that it remains merely a suggestion, a means of planting doubts among readers who are followers of a certain religious system.
Religions such as Christianity or Islam are described in one or two sentence snippets, clearly “sacrificing” detail for the sake of a smoothly running argument, the ultimate drawback of this work. Giving this thesis in more detail, the author brings this thesis to bear on such objects as guilt, hierarchy, meaning and gift giving–all of these exist in the realm of biology and the world of problem solving within the context of group solidarity, itself a biological mechanism.
Again, all of these are described in a few lines, providing a superficial context for the generalizations upon which the book is based. Guilt, for example (cf 103-105), is the beginning of problem solving. Natural disasters, disease, etc. are inevitably met by questions such as “why us? ” Hence, guilt fixes blame so that the group can then go about the business of reinforcing its solidarity to fix the problem. Uses of guilt and shame are constant to punish deviants and maintain solidarity, not to mention reinforcing the world of hierarchy and authority relations.
“Meaning” is offered, on the most general level possible, as finding a purpose in a universe of “infinite complexity” (26). Of course, Darwin himself could also serve these ends. “Sacrifice” is treated in an interesting, yet radically general way, as the utilitarian doctrine as sacrificing the part for the whole. In other words, the author uses the example of an animal chewing off its own foot to get out of a trap. Human sacrifice is something like that. This is the basic structure of the book and the method of generalization.
“Generalization” here is deliberately called a method because the argument only works (or at least works smoothly) when it functions at a high level of generality. A specialized study of religious systems will bring out so many deviations from this general scheme as to render it useless. Hence, it must remain at a superficial level. What is the most significant element of the book, however, is the methodology itself. The best way to understand the flow and structure of this work is to grasp the methodological assumptions that are inherent in it.
None of these assumptions are argued for, and it is assumed that readers will agree a priori. a. Objects in the natural world create the consciousness not just of peoples, but of communities. Consciousness is not considered an autonomous object and free will is rejected implicitly, consciousness is created by the existence of objects in space and time, and hence, is controlled by them. b. Putting this differently, Buckert assumes that consciousness is a material object, itself part and parcel of the world of cause and effect.
This is tantamount to holding that the religious objects of worship or fetish are not actually real, but are artifacts, in fact, residual categories, of the enslavement of consciousness to the world of matter and competition. Even more, that all religions are like this and have the same root, regardless of the background, geography or time period in which they develop. c. The beliefs and methods of the modern scientific mind and their conclusions are assumed to be true, and hence, any treatment of religion (or any social phenomenon whatever) must conform to their demands.
In other words, instead of couching his phrases in terms of religion according to “natural selection,” Buckert phrases his approach in terms of “facts” and “truth” about the world of material bodies and cause and effect, within which consciousness develops and takes its course. Needless to say, this approach undercuts his own claim to objectivity and scientific rationalism. d. Another major methodological assumption here is that all thought patterns, or patterns of consciousness require a cause, and this cause is provided by group solidarity and the struggle for survival.
Putting this differently, each pattern of consciousness, that is, any systematized belief system must have its roots in evolutionary biology to be made sense of. This is to say that any thought pattern that can be traced throughout time in some superficially similar pattern must have a cause with roots in biology. Of course, this means that group solidarity is itself a biological function and hence, all forms of thought that reinforce such solidarity. e. A striking claim made implicitly throughout the book (and made the bedrock of the argument) is that religious claims are ultimately false.
Better, not so much false or true but beyond such evaluations because the purpose is survival and competition, rather than claims of truth or falsity. Of course, religious devotees regularly make truth claims, and many of these claims are directly detrimental to their survival or flourishing. The answer to these claims can be found in the “Escape and Offerings” chapter (chapter two), where the author holds that when one can see sacrifice as beneficial (cutting off an arm that could infect the whole body, for example), the personal sacrifices of martyrs, etc, can be explained (34-38).
This is the “fallacy of equivocation,” since one is using the word “sacrifice” in two very different senses and contexts. One might see the utility in sacrificing one to save the whole, but this has nothing to do with explaining the desire for martyrdom or the sacrifice of millions in persecutions of religion. “Sacrifice” is here used in two different senses. f. States of consciousness such as guilt or reciprocation make no sense unless placed in a Darwinian context.
This is merely the thesis restated. But implicitly, this argues that states such as guilt are residual categories of the evolutionary process, and hence, are not real, they are epi-phenomena at best. The argument comes down to justifying one’s own feelings of guilt by claiming that these guilt feelings assist in the development of group solidarity, and hence, it is acceptable that I feel them. Again, this is equivocation, making the jump from the collective to the individual within the same argument.
In fact, equivocation is just as much central to Buckert as anything else, since the entire structure of the book is a regular back and forth between the animal world and the development of human religion. Hence if it can be justified in the animal kingdom, it is justified in human society, and if in human society, then the individual. g. Finally, Buckert fails to see the self-referential argument involved. If thought processes are part of the biological process and creative of social solidarity (or are derivative from it), then the Darwinian consensus of the modern scientific establishment also then falls into this category.
Such a consensus assists biology in developing its rhetorical weapons, its receipt of grant money and its social prestige. How are these not nearly identical to the present argument concerning religion? In conclusion, the Buckert book here under review is a series of logical equivocations and false parallelisms. Ultimately, the book might have worked if the field of ancient religion had been its specific base (and it the author’s field, after all), rather than seeking to answer the question of the persistence of religion over time.
Religion in its primitive, polytheistic sense might fit Buckert’s thesis. However, the existence of a sophisticated Christianity in the High Middle Ages, on the other hand, does not so fit. Developed, literate religions such as Islam have created as many barriers to group solidarity as catalysts, and hence, the argument breaks down. One might conclude that since modern societies have developed new means of reinforcing group solidarity, this method of explanation then fails (a priori) to explain why billions still believe.