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Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and…
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Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2002)

by David Sloan Wilson

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Can evolutionary methods be used to study the development of religion? David Sloan Wilson, a renowned evolutionary biologist, proposes that religion evolved because of the advantages it confers on those who share in it. Religion may even have contributed to humanity’s rise as the dominant animal on earth. By studying religious concepts in their group settings (religions are well known for their in-group morality and out-group hostility), Wilson places the evolution of social behavior, and religion in particular, on the same playing field as biological entities.

Group selection long ago became passé among evolutionary biologists, but it may be time for its revival. In the 60’s, it was believed that evolution takes place entirely by mutational change. Since then, it has been shown that evolution also occurs along a different pathway: by social groups becoming so functionally integrated that they become higher-level organisms in their own right. So why aren’t groups—particularly religious groupings—receiving the attention they deserve in the evolutionary field?

Wilson wants to study religious groups in the same way biologists study guppies, bacteria, and other forms of life. Does the rational choice theory fit religion? Functionalism? Using Calvinism as his primary case study, he determines that characteristics of social groups can be predicted via group selection theory.

Intelligent and cutting edge, Wilson does have something to say, but this is not an easy read; it reads like a university thesis, scholarly and reference-infested. It’s not because the theory isn’t fascinating, but because I had a hard time concentrating on the presentation, that I ranked it only three stars. ( )
  DubiousDisciple | Oct 28, 2011 |
In the US it seems that half the poeple are reading Richard Dawkins "God Delusion " and the other half are trying to prove Evolution a fraud , its nice to find something that explains religion without picking on it - and knows there is more to religion than American Evangelicals, Jihadist Muslums and Deepak Chokra.
I am a committed Atheist , but I see using religion as a scapegoat for societies ills as being phony, and would rather understand religion as a phenomenon. ( )
3 vote CelleryStalker | Mar 21, 2008 |
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But now at least he understood his religion: its essence was the relation between man and his fellows.
--Issac Bashevis Singer
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Religious often compare their communities to a single organism or even to a social insect colony.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0226901351, Paperback)

God or evolution? Though the debate about our origins has swirled in epic controversy since Darwin's time, David Sloan Wilson bravely blends these two contentious theories. This has been tried before, of course, mainly by religious intellectuals. What makes Darwin's Cathedral stand out is that Wilson does not pursue the classic "intelligent design" argument (evolution is God's hand at work), but instead argues that religion is evolution at work.

Wilson sees religion as a complex organism with "biological" functions. He argues that the social cohesiveness of religion makes it analogous to a beehive or a human body--and, in fact, religious believers sometimes employ these metaphors. He writes, "Thinking of a religious group as like an organism encourages us to look for adaptive complexity.... Mechanisms are required that are often awesome in their sophistication." To Wilson, therein lies the astonishing complexity of religion, just as in the biological world.

Following Wilson's argument requires understanding the rudiments of evolutionary biology; a smattering of theology, history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology is helpful, too. But the reasoning isn't as challenging as Wilson warns in the introduction. For educated readers, it's an accessible book.

In just 260 pages, Wilson can't begin to do justice to the broad swath of intellectual work he's cut out for himself. And ultimately, the book's main failing is its simplicity. In addition, his approach to religion is so clearly an outsider's that he is unlikely to win many converts. Adaptive-mechanistic explanations of forgiveness and altruism may be intriguing to the atheist in the ivory tower, but they are likely to elicit little more than a bemused and passing interest from believers. --Eric de Place

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:24 -0400)

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"From Calvinism in sixteenth-century Geneva to Balinese water temples, from hunter-gatherer societies to urban America, Wilson demonstrates how religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone. He also includes a chapter considering forgiveness from an evolutionary perspective and concludes by discussing how all social organizations, including science, could benefit by incorporating elements of religion. Religious believers often compare their communities to single organisms and even to insect colonies. Astoundingly, Wilson shows that they might be literally correct. Intended for any reader, Darwin's Cathedral will change forever the way we view the relations among evolution, religion, and human society"--Jacket.… (more)

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