Jonathan Sacks on the Evolutionary Value of Religion

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a case for the evolutionary value of of religion in an editorial for the New York Times:

Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.

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6 Comments on "Jonathan Sacks on the Evolutionary Value of Religion"

  1. kowalityjesus | Dec 25, 2012 at 11:51 pm |

    I’ve wondered whether altruism is genetic, epigenetic, learned behavior, dietary, correlative with bacterial cultures, or spiritually connected/divinely inspired. Maybe its related to a boom and bust cycle, where societies naturally have a balance of altruistic and unaltruistic characters, eventually collapsing under too much unaltruistic stress. I can say with a fairly certain degree that it has little to do with income level, and of course nothing to do with skin color.

    The biblical story of Martha and Mary portends a strange relationship to altruism in Christianity. Martha was complaining that she was doing all the work while her sister Mary was sitting on her duff listening to Jesus. And Jesus was like, “Martha, Martha, quit whining. Mary has chosen the nobler path.” …With all due respect, the more bizarre or unexpected an anecdote/parable involving Jesus is, the more certainty we have of its authenticity.

  2. Oliver changed his name to Jonathan? The NYT piece is by


    • Good eye… he is also

      “the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords”.

      Which explains his bias.

    • Matt Staggs | Dec 26, 2012 at 7:48 am |

      Ha! Thanks, Simone! I must’ve had a little too much “Christmas Cheer” when I was scheduling that post. I appreciate the heads up. I’m fixing that right away.

  3. Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job.

    Who or what are they donating too? True, they may have higher levels of oxytocin, which can encourage altruism. This does not exclude a group of atheists, gays, pagans, etc from also generating high levels of oxytocin. Although, it may be more difficult for these groups to form due to the social engineering committed by these religious groups (1 more so than the others) for generations .

  4. God is an idea, among other things. All an Atheist can say is, I don’t agree with your idea. They can disprove materialist (fundamentalist) ideas of God, but not all believers are materialists. These arguments appear to non-fundamentalists as non-sequiters. They do absolutely no damage to people that don’t have a materialistic idea of God.

    Its an idea, with a long history, that for many people still serves a purpose. In societies with religious freedom God will be around for a long time. Even the Communists couldn’t completely kill off God.

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