1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

This paper evaluates the role that evolutionary psychology can play in examining the rationality of faith in the Christian sense. It is argued that because evolutionary psychology enables us to understand human nature, it can help us understand what faith is. I argue that faith is not a universal human instinct that all religions tap into. Rather, we must understand how the early Christian community used the basic building blocks provided by human nature in a particular way. It is argued that it is a misunderstanding of the nature of faith to assert that faith is intrinsically irrational. However, evolutionary psychology cannot tell us whether or not faith is rational.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

Evolutionary psychologists are advancing into new habitats of late: it has been argued that even logic and mathematics are ultimately reducible to evolutionary biology.1 The first instinct of theologians may be to defend our shrinking territory, which has already been encroached by other disciplines over the years. An alternative is to form an alliance with the newcomers. The main aim of this paper is to establish that evolutionary psychology can indeed be of assistance to theologians, but it cannot, by itself, answer the central questions posed by theology. I will not present a general survey of evolutionary psychology and religion. Instead, I will focus on one fundamental question of Christian theology, to see what light evolutionary psychology can cast on that question. The question is whether or not faith, in the Christian sense, is rational. The aim of this paper is not to offer a definitive answer to that fundamental question, only to establish how far evolutionary psychology can help us to proceed with such an inquiry.

It will be noted that I write of ‘faith in the Christian sense.’ There are certain beliefs and methods of arriving at beliefs that are common to everyone in society. We all accept that the world is round and that Scotland is to the north of England. Although there is no similar consensus about who is the greatest soccer player of all time, or whether the Emperor Nero was responsible for the fire of Rome, there is at least a consensus for what kind of evidence is appropriate to appeal to in discussion of such issues. Then there are certain beliefs and methods of arriving at beliefs that are peculiar to particular religious communities. When we learn that someone is a member of a particular religion, we know that there are certain claims they will almost certainly be committed to, since such claims are constitutive of their particular community, and that these claims are not being offered on grounds that are likely to seem conclusive to society at large. In order to promote tolerance and mutual understanding, it is helpful to promote the idea that all religions are equally credible (or equally incredible), and the word ‘faith’ can play a useful role in doing so. Christianity, historically the dominant religion in Europe, bases its peculiar claims on faith, and so to apply this word to other religions is to grant them equal status to the dominant religion. Thus, in the United Kingdom, any religious school is called a ‘faith school’, and it is understood that such schools will cater primarily for members of a particular ‘faith community’. One takes the beliefs of a community, subtracts those that are not peculiar to it, and whatever is left over is its ‘faith’, a set of beliefs regarded as non-negotiable by the community, but not advanced on grounds compelling to the society as a whole.

There is no urgent reason why we should search for some alternative to ‘faith school’ and ‘faith community’ when engaging in political discourse, provided we are not blind to the element of fiction that is involved. However, to suppose, without examination, that all religions in fact have the same epistemology would be a dangerous assumption. In the words of the late Herbert McCabe:

Have you ever thought of the extraordinary unconscious arrogance of Western Christians who think that they are being broadminded and ecumenical when they talk about the ‘Great World Faiths’: Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on? This is wrongly to try to squeeze these religions into a Christian mould. Buddhists don't think they have a great world faith. They are not the least interested in faith … Jews are, of course, and so are Muslims, but they really belong to the same family as Christians, and it is Christians who make a great fuss about faith.2

Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists may not appreciate being told that their religions are based on faith because, in the eyes of many of its defenders and detractors, faith has an element of irrationality about it. Consider the following passages from Sam Harris' The End of Faith:

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Read in the right way, this passage seems to render faith entirely self-justifying: perhaps the very fact that one believes in something that has not come to pass (‘things hoped for’) or for which one has no evidence (‘things not yet seen’) constitutes evidence for its actuality (‘assurance’). Let's see how this works: I feel a certain, rather thrilling ‘conviction’ that Nicole Kidman is in love with me. As we have never met, my feeling is my only evidence of her infatuation. I reason thusly: my feeling suggest that Nicole and I must have a special, even metaphysical connection – otherwise how could I have this feeling in the first place? I decide to set up camp outside her house to make the necessary introductions: clearly, this sort of faith is a tricky business.3

… the truth is that religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern – specifically in propositions that promise some mechanism by which human life can be spared the ravages of time and death. Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse – constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility and candor.4

If faith is, by definition, unjustified then it must indeed be unconnected to the usual constraints of rational discourse, since these are sources of justification. If this is what faith is, then it is without doubt intrinsically inimical to rationality. Harris is not unaware that this definition of faith would not find universal favour amongst theologians. He cites Paul Tillich as an example of a theologian who would dismiss unjustified belief as mere ‘idolatrous faith’, but Harris is not much impressed by this:

Of course, anyone is free to redefine the term ‘faith’ however he sees fit and thereby bring it into conformity with some rational or mystical ideal. But this is not the ‘faith’ that has animated the faithful for millennia … My argument, after all, is aimed at the majority of the faithful in every religious tradition, not at Tillich's blameless parish of one.5

As Harris reads the Letter to the Hebrews, it endorses a view of faith as belief without justification. I can imagine that some Christian intellectuals, such as Kierkegaard, and some ordinary Christians would approve of what he says. The question is whether Harris does indeed read the passage ‘in the right way.’ Would the author of Hebrews recognise the thrilling conviction of Nicole Kidman's undying love as an example of faith, and if not, why not?

The fact that the author of Hebrews provides an explicit definition of faith does not solve the problem. In his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, Wittgenstein advanced the famous problem of rule-following: whenever we apply a word, we see ourselves as bound to follow a rule, but what grounds our confidence that we and others will continue to agree on how to apply that rule to future cases? Hebrews provides some examples of ‘things unseen’ in which we should have faith, such as the creation of the world by God, but when we come across another example of something unseen, how are we to judge whether it is the right kind of unseen thing?

The question is not merely whether in fact the author of Hebrews would approve of the Nicole Kidman example: to impute divine powers to an actress might be seen as blasphemous. The issue is whether there is some mechanism that governs the inclusion of God's creation of the world and the exclusion of belief in Nicole Kidman's undying love as an act of faith, such that one is justified and the other is not.

In discussing our expectations that people will agree on how to apply mathematical rules, Wittgenstein raises the possibility that such consensus is ‘a fact of our natural history’.6 Suppose I am explaining to a child what sweetness is: it is what sugar lumps, strawberries and cola have in common, not when you look at them, but when you taste them. I am confident that, based on just these examples, the child will be able to tell that chocolate is also sweet but coffee is not because I am confident that, as humans, our tongues react in the same way to those foods.

The thesis of shared human nature is, of course, much older than evolutionary psychology. However, evolutionary psychology can boost our confidence that such a thing exists, and help us understand to what extent reactions to our environment are specific to our culture, and to what extent they are natural to all human beings. If our reaction to a certain kind of event is clearly grounded in features of human physiology that we share with other primates, then it is reasonable to suppose that we share these physiological features and the associated responses with ancestors common to humans and other apes, and thus that they are also shared with all intervening generations of human beings. The heart has reasons of its own, certainly, but these days, the mind can understand perfectly well what those reasons are and why they carry such force. It is hardly news that we are a product of nature and nurture working in tandem, but with evolutionary psychology, we have a scientific basis for placing any given human response on the nature or nurture side of this boundary, thus confirming or denying our intuitions that certain fundamental features of human nature are bound to apply in a constant fashion as time goes by.

In fact, one important point to be learned from evolutionary psychology is that cultural variation is itself natural.7 All apes go through a lengthy period of socialization, and different communities of the same species pass on different social habits. We are not governed by overwhelming and uncontrollable instincts – like other apes, we have natural tendencies to respond to certain stimuli in certain ways, but one thing we share with other apes is the ability to choose between competing urges and, to a certain extent, control them.8 What we need to understand is how the New Testament community used the basic building blocks of natural human urges to produce the intuitive response that we call faith. Unless one is prepared to reject the proposition that humans and other ape species share a common ancestor, I do not think it can be denied that evolutionary psychology can aid New Testament research in this way at least, provided we proceed carefully.

But the current popularity of evolutionary psychology is owed to a hope that it can provide much more than this. Much of the appeal of evolutionary psychology lies in the hope that as well as telling us about the way we do behave, it might also provide us guidance as to how we should behave. One might hope that evolutionary psychology could tell us not only what faith is, but also, whether or not it is rational.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

The attraction of evolutionary psychology has been beautifully presented by one of its leading opponents, Jerry Fodor, as he attempts to warn us against its lures.9 We often feel unhappy in the world, and have a sense that our unhappiness is part of a general malaise. Evolutionary psychology proposes an explanation: our mind evolved to cope with a different world, a world where we were hunters and gatherers. When we understand the misfit between the world we live in and the world we were meant to live in, we may find a way to be happy.

When I was a child, I was knocked off my tricycle by a playful dog. For years afterwards, whenever I saw a dog I felt a strange churning in my stomach, and would either stand rooted to the spot or run away. This was deeply unpleasant. I turn to a text-book of evolutionary psychology and read that when danger is sensed, the body releases nonadrenaline, causing blood to clot more quickly in case of wounds, the heart to speed up and the liver to release glucose ready to flee or fight. There is a natural impulse either to run away and escape or freeze and escape detection. This is adaptive behaviour if it enables me to deal with a genuine threat, but maladaptive if it is out of proportion to the danger.10 I cannot out-run a dog, and attempting to do so only increases the chance that it will treat me as its prey. Furthermore, fear of dogs leads me to respond to what is in fact non-threatening behaviour, such as tail-wagging and licking, as if it were a threat.

A friend of mine is a hunter. One day, he saw a snake heading towards him, ready to strike and, without pausing to think, shot and killed it. According to his description, his quick reaction saved his life. Obviously, his fear functions properly whereas mine does not, and proper functioning of such reactions is the key to psychological health. I should renounce my cowardly fear of dogs and take up the life of a happy hunter, and then I will discover fulfilment. After all, according to my text-book of evolutionary psychology:

In the light of Darwinian psychology, mental health can be seen as the proper functioning of an adaptive emotional system,11

and my sense of fear is functioning properly when it is being used to help me be an effective hunter. This is precisely the type of thinking that Fodor wants us to resist. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may not have enjoyed opera, but that is no reason why we should not.12

Fodor is certainly not denying that we share a common ancestor with other species of apes, nor that there is some true story about the role fear and other such traits played in the reproductive success of our ancestors. The beauty of the theory of evolution is that it explains how something that appears purposeful – the development of life forms – is the result of a non-purposeful process. Fodor's worry is that the attraction of evolutionary psychology relies on our surreptitiously personifying evolution (e.g. as Mother Nature), and then supposing that certain activities are worthwhile because they are what Mother Nature intended us to do. Knowledge of human history simply does not constitute knowledge of a design plan for human beings.

The fact that evolution cannot be used to ground a notion of ‘proper function’ has been used by Alvin Plantinga as a consideration in favour of theism. He notes that ‘proper function’ and related concepts seem to be indispensable to biology as it is currently practiced.13 He considers and rejects various attempts to define ‘proper function’ from a purely naturalistic perspective as defective. In each case it is at least arguable that the definition picks out all and only those features in the actual world that naturalists would describe as having a proper function. Plantinga however is able to construct a possible-world scenario which constitutes a counter-example.14 In other words his arguments tend to show that although naturalists are able to construct a definition of ‘proper function’ that has the correct extension, they cannot construct one that is satisfactory from an intensional point of view. This is because, as Plantinga points out, goal-oriented activity seems to be built into the concept of ‘proper-function’.15 He concludes that the best option for biologists who are inclined towards naturalism is to say that the use of the concept of proper functioning involves our speaking of natural organisms as if they were designed: for naturalists, talk of the proper functioning of an organ can be nothing more than a useful fiction.16

I agree with Plantinga that the concept of ‘proper functioning’ makes no sense unless we are dealing with goal-oriented activity. Any process has an outcome, and perhaps a type of natural process may have a tendency towards a particular kind of outcome, but unless we have an agent with a goal, we have no basis for distinguishing successful from unsuccessful outcomes. However, what is essential to goal-oriented activity is not that there should be a designer, but that there be a user.

Suppose I use pieces of rock as weapons. The rocks may not have been designed for this purpose, either because nobody designed them, or because God intended these rocks to serve a purely aesthetic function. But once I use the rocks as weapons, some of them, in virtue of their size and shape, will fulfil this purpose better than others. We can then evaluate the rocks according to how well they fulfil their function.

Whatever activity I perform, I use certain body parts, even if I am unaware of the fact. To write this paper, I use my fingers, but in order to use my fingers, I must use my nerves to control them, and my heart to keep myself alive. If my arteries become clogged, my ability to perform any activity will be frustrated – I will cease to be able to use my body as I wish. Human biology, as a discipline, is ancillary to medicine, which in turn enables us to use our bodies to fulfil our goals. In virtue of my having goals that require my heart to operate in a certain way, it makes perfect sense for an atheist doctor to speak, non-metaphorically, about the proper functioning of my heart.

As well as considering the perspective of a user and a designer, we can consider the perspective of a mechanic. A user takes an object as it is, and uses it to achieve a goal. A designer puts together a new object in order to meet a goal. A mechanic takes some object as it is, an object already capable of meeting a goal to a certain extent, and modifies it so that its performance is improved. If I am growing a tree in an orchard and want to produce more fruit, then I look on a tree from a mechanic's perspective. The tree already exists, and I have to deal with it as it is. My goal is to modify the tree so that serves my purposes even better. To do so, I must understand those processes that already enable it to meet my current purposes fairly well, so that I can judge whether any modification to the tree will, from my perspective, be an improvement or a disaster. If, under the impression that since roots are inedible they are superfluous for my purposes, I cut them off, then I will have no fruit. I failed to take into account the proper function of the roots. But the mechanic is not bound to respect every aspect of the tree as it is – the mechanic can to choose modify the tree so as to produce seedless fruit, for example. To go from an object as it is to that object as it better meets our purposes it is not necessary that we have in mind a blue-print of that object as God, or Mother Nature, intended it to be, a blue-print that we are required to follow.

Evolutionary psychology can certainly tell us what human capacities we share with our non-human ancestors, and thus with all previous generations of humans. We can also construct narratives, with more or less credibility as the case may be, about how such human capacities were used by our ancestors in the quest for survival and reproduction. These narratives may be useful to us today insofar as they give us knowledge about the range of human capabilities, our limitations, and different ways in which human capacities can be used. However, we are not obliged to lead the lives our ancestors did. If it turns out that faith is a natural human instinct, it does not follow that faith is good, and if it turns out that faith is contrary to certain instincts, it does not follow that faith is bad. Of course, a Christian believer will naturally think that humans were designed to live by the light of faith, and that faith brings out the best in human nature, but applying insights of evolutionary psychology to New Testament study need not involve any commitment to the existence of God or, for that matter, any trust in the wisdom of Mother Nature.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

In The Naked Ape,17 a book that set the direction for much research in evolutionary psychology, Desmond Morris argued that religion is based on the need for a dominant male. Amongst chimpanzees, submission to a dominant male brings social benefits and psychological equilibrium. Human beings however are less inclined to offer uncritical submission to another human being. So, as well as tangible leaders whom we obey but also subject to criticism, we have created a class of intangible beings to whom we offer total submission.18 This thesis, presented by Morris in a few pages, has recently been expounded out at greater length by Jay D. Glass in The Power of Faith: Mother Nature's Gift.19 In one memorable passage, Glass presents ‘the Chimp's Prayer’, in which a chimpanzee's attitude to the dominant male is paralleled, line by line, to Psalm 23.20 Glass makes much of the fact that when chimpanzees are faced by a thunderstorm, the dominant male, (sometimes assisted by other high-ranking males) responds as though the storm were an individual threatening the group (amongst chimpanzees, making a loud noise is a way of issuing a challenge). The dominant male puts on a display of strength that acts as a counter-challenge to the storm, while the rest of the group cower. Glass compares this to a high priest worshipping a thunder-god.21 The comparison is somewhat confusing, since it is not usual for a priest to challenge a god. Still, the parallels to the story of the calming of the storm are clear enough: Jesus dominates the elements, protecting the disciples who, in turn, offer their submission to him. It is not difficult to see that there is some connection between the attitude of submission to an alpha-male found amongst chimpanzees and the Christian attitude of faith. The more interesting question is what use the New Testament community made of this human tendency, and here, both Morris and Glass are too simplistic.

According to Glass, since trust in a dominant male can have beneficial social effects,22 and since he human life is, to a large extent, controlled by our genetic inheritance,23 we should accept Mother Nature's gift gratefully: God does not exist, he says, but faith in God is programmed into us, and we should accept that.24 Morris too concludes that religion in some form is something that we ‘cannot do without’: we should try to tame it, but can never hope to abolish it completely.25 I have argued, following Fodor, that the notion of Mother Nature offering us gifts of wisdom is disreputable. Evolutionary psychology can help us to understand our own natural history, but this history is not a guide to our inevitable destiny.

Anyway, in this case there is reason to suppose that the proposed history is erroneous. Amongst chimpanzees, there is faith in an alpha male and perhaps (if one allows Glass the analogy between an alpha male challenging a storm and a priest engaged in worship) faith in a Storm God. Either way, we have faith as a response to something tangible. Morris and Glass are trying to explain the creation of and continued belief in non-tangible objects of belief. The explanation, says Morris, is that we are no longer satisfied with human leaders:

The old-style monkey-tyrant had to go, and in his place there arose a more tolerant, more co-operative naked ape leader … The total dominance of the Number 1 member of the group having been replaced by a qualified dominance, he could no longer command unquestioning allegiance.26

Research since 1967 has shown that the political lives of non-human apes are more complicated than had previously been realized, as Morris himself admits.27 When monkeys intervene in a fight, they always aid the monkey who is already winning. Consequently, their hierarchies tend to be stable (hence Morris' reference to a ‘monkey-tyrant’). A chimpanzee may weigh in on the side of a loser, and chimpanzees admire leaders who are willing to step in to help an underdog against a bully. Consequently, their hierarchies are less stable over time: brute strength alone is not enough to make a chimpanzee an alpha male.28 There is even evidence that, amongst chimpanzees as well as humans, cuddling babies is a useful tactic when making a bid for leadership.29 An alpha-male chimpanzee may fail to be victorious in a fight, may run away screaming or hide up a tree, and retain his status.30 Only when he makes an act of submission to another chimpanzee, admitting defeat, does he lose his status.31 So, rather than a contrast between a monkey-tyrant and a non-tyrannical naked ape (i.e. human) leader proposed by Morris, we have a contrast between monkey-tyrants and non-tyrannical leaders amongst naked and hairy apes. Frans de Waals' studies of chimpanzee politics suggest that we are not hard-wired to demand omnipotence from our leaders, and so the failure of our tangible leaders to be omnipotent does not suffice to account for our creation of a non-tangible omnipotent being.

Morris and Glass both suppose that all religions have the same basic structure.32 I have already argued, following McCabe, that we cannot assume that there is a single psychological mechanism that underlies all religions. I am not denying that the instinct to submit to an alpha-male is universal, and that different religions have learned how to make use of this instinct. But, in the light of the evidence uncovered by Frans de Waals, it seems too simplistic to say that this overwhelming instinct is frustrated by the lack of suitable human leaders, and that all religion is simply the response to this frustrated but powerful natural drive. What we need to consider is how exactly the New Testament used this drive.

Christians make a fuss about faith because New Testament writers stated that faith is essential to salvation. Harris, as we have seen, supposes that this faith is, by its nature, cut off from sources of rationality and there are passages that can be used to support this view, notably 1Corinthians 1:20–25:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (Revised Standard Version).

This passage has succeeded in catching the attention of generations of believers because of Paul's delight in oxymorons. Pascal Boyer has argued that successful religions have beliefs that are counter-intuitive by the standards that are commonly recognised within the community, precisely because ideas that create a certain amount of cognitive dissonance are more likely to be remembered and passed on. Counter-intuitive ideas involve beings with inappropriate attributes, e.g. virgins who give birth, birds that talk and so on.33 1Corinthians fits this pattern, but Paul does not just choose any counter-intuitive suggestion: whether or not Paul believed in Jesus' virgin birth, it would not have served his purposes to inform or remind the Corinthians of that doctrine at this point. He is writing the letter in response to the fact that members of the Corinthian community are engaging in aggressive behaviour to establish their own dominance within the community. Paul wants to instil in them a palpable sense of the presence of Jesus, the ultimate leader, in whose presence everyone is submissive. He does so not by describing Jesus triumphant and reigning, but by focussing on the figure of Jesus defeated.

As we have seen, even amongst chimpanzees, an alpha-male may suffer a defeat but retain his status, provided he does not make an act of submission. What is striking is that there are passages in the New Testament that emphasize that the crucifixion was not merely a temporary set-back, but an utterly humiliating event, and that Jesus' exaltation comes not despite, but because of his humiliation.

In Mark's Gospel Jesus acknowledges that God has abandoned him, and dies with a loud cry. Then in Mark 15:39, he is hailed by the centurion as Son of God precisely when he accepts defeat. If Jesus had died defiantly, one could understand that a Roman centurion might feel reluctant admiration for a brave enemy who refuses to acknowledge defeat, but as it is, the acclamation of Jesus as Son of God overturns all our instincts about how one attains the status of dominant male. We find the same pattern in Philippians 2:5–11. Jesus is exalted by God because he was submissive to the point of humiliation.

This cognitive dissonance is possible precisely because of our capacity, as humans, to respond not just to our immediate environment, but to a broader picture of the world. It is not as though Paul pointed to a random victim of violence and demanded the Corinthians respond with faith. The reader of Mark's Gospel has been carefully prepared for the moment of crucifixion. Within the Christian drama of fall and salvation, a drama already familiar to Paul's readers in Corinth, it makes perfect sense to see Jesus' defeat on the cross as a triumph, and afterwards, one learns a new way of looking at triumph, defeat and status.

In some British universities, grades are given using the Greek alphabet, and border-line grades are also given, combining two adjacent letters –α/β indicates that the paper is worth an alpha, but only just. A distinguished theologian told me that one of his examinations was graded an α/δ, a grade that makes no sense in the grading system. He concluded that the examiners wished to indicate a unique mix of absolute brilliance and utter stupidity that was ‘certainly better than a boring old β.’ Christ, we might say, is presented in the New Testament as an alpha/delta male, combining both extremes.

Morris and Glass treat religious faith as a deep-seated primitive instinct, something hard-wired into all human beings. Then all any religion needs to do is tap into that deep well of raw feeling. I am arguing that Christian faith is more like an attempt to reconfigure our hard-drives, to evoke a basic human response, but in a highly counter-intuitive situation. Boyer is correct that cognitive dissonance makes an image or story more memorable, and in this case, the dissonance is not a matter of confounding our expectations about the physical environment, it is a matter of reversing the anticipated social response.

Because of my childhood experience, my intuitive response to dogs is one of fear. Fear of a common domestic pet would have a somewhat limiting effect on my social life, and so I have trained myself to develop different intuitions, learning to see dogs as mostly harmless. There were times when I had to make a conscious effort to develop the affection for dogs that, for most people, seems to come naturally. This has been a difficult process but worth the effort and was, I think, a rational choice.

Fear of dogs is not, strictly speaking, a belief about dogs, but a response that predisposes the body to certain kinds of action, including a propensity to form certain beliefs. When I was younger, I would interpret affectionate behaviour on the part of a dog as a sign of aggression, and believe that I was in danger when I was not. Then came a period when, although I knew that a dog's behaviour was playful rather than threatening, my physiological response was not in keeping with this knowledge. I felt fear although I knew there was nothing to be afraid of, and attempted, with difficulty at first, to master this fear. Although the fear itself is not a belief about dogs, my judgement that the fear is irrational is based on beliefs about dogs, beliefs that lead me to suppose that submitting to the fear would, on average, lead to false beliefs and stupid actions. It was not based on the fact that fear is an unpleasant sensation – unpleasant sensations have their role to play in human life. The suggestion taken from a text-book of evolutionary psychology was that fear is a healthy reaction if it is proportional to the level of danger: understanding whether fear is healthy involves not only looking at what is going on in my mind, but looking at my relations to external reality.

Maintaining Christian faith requires a similar level of sophistication and effort as mastering fear of dogs. As to whether it is rational to maintain Christian faith, that is another question.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

When my friend shot at a snake while hunting, was his response rational? He certainly did not weigh up the evidence, conclude that he was in danger, and decide to shoot. He acted instantly, and, as he tells the story, it was this that saved his life. His action was intuitive, but not, properly speaking instinctive: firing a rifle at a moving target is a skill one learns, not an instinct. We can deliberately hone our intuitions to achieve desired results; during World War II, Donald Davidson had the task of teaching gunners in the navy how to make a snap judgement about whether a ‘plane in their sights was friend or foe.34 What makes the behaviour of the hunter or the gunner rational is not that, in the moment, they weigh up the evidence rationally, but that their training has prepared them so that, in a suitable percentage of cases, their intuitive action is the best one.

The tendency to submit to an alpha-male is part of our tendency to form hierarchies – a tendency that is useful in situations requiring collaboration and instant decisions.35 Sports teams provide an obvious example. Players on a team must be prepared to follow the lead of the captain without hesitation, even if the captain's commands require unusual behaviour that one might not expect to be successful. If the captain's status is secure, followers will not engage in deliberation, they will obey intuitively. However, the very process by which dominance is established means that following the leader is likely to lead to the best action in most cases: the captain is usually chosen precisely because of proven ability and past success. Of course, someone might be chosen as leader based on nothing more than the impression they make: sometimes, ease of manner and pride of bearing are sufficient to raise the hopes of thousands. Still, within the realm of sports, we can understand why our intuitive judgements of someone's leadership qualities based on their body-language is likely to be correct a large percentage of the time. In an election, when we have time to make a reasoned judgement, it is another matter.

At the time of writing, English football fans are calling from the terraces for the return of former captain David Beckham, but manager Fabio Capello appears not to agree. One can contrast the sentimental approach of the fans with the cool rationality of the manager, but one can hardly accuse the fans of engaging in a rebellion against reason. Sometimes in sport, gut instincts are right and rational calculations are wrong. Fans’ loyalty to David Beckham is a perfect example of faith in an alpha-male, but Beckham has, after all, done a lot to earn that faith.

To treat faith in this manner is to accept that faith should not be identified with propositions. What is at stake is whether we follow and obey a leader, rather than whether certain statements about the nature of the universe are true. However, because the actions in question occur within the context of a personal relationship, faith naturally results in assent to certain propositions. The leader and followers are involved in a relationship with mutual commitments: God is bound to keep his promises, and Christians are bound to obedience. Robert Brandom has argued at length that propositional discourse is essentially a way of keeping track of commitments.36 This is a matter that could be discussed at greater length, but this is not the place to do so. I hope the reader will allow that faith, understood as submission to Christ, is a personal attitude that immediately results in a commitment to certain propositions.

If we wish to argue that since faith in Jesus is analogous to faith in David Beckham, faith in Jesus is rational, there are two difficulties. First, the marvellous deeds of David Beckham are available for anyone to see, recorded on camera. Since faith is not a process of rational calculation, it may be misleading to talk of ‘evidence’, but faith in David Beckham is inspired by a tangible stimulus. Hebrews certainly asks readers to have faith in things unseen, as Harris states, but this future-oriented faith is inspired by events of the past, ‘a cloud of witnesses’ as it is put in 12 verse 1. The point of Hebrews 11 is that although the ultimate promise of the Old Testament remains to be fulfilled, God has a good track record of fulfilling promises. For the original audience, the parting of the Red Sea was a fact of history, like England's winning the World Cup in 1966, a past victory of Yahweh that could be invoked to inspire confidence in his continued success.

For us though, belief in the parting of the Red Sea itself requires an act of faith: we do not read an author appealing to an accepted fact of history, but one part of scripture being used to support another. For the early Christians the resurrection of Jesus was a current event: Paul, after all, claims to have seen the risen Jesus. As such, Jesus' resurrection was a tangible stimulus to faith. Two thousand years later, Jesus' resurrection is, at best, a highly disputed historical event. This is precisely the gap that Kierkegaard tries to fill by appealing to the Paradox of Faith:

The paradox consists simply in the fact that God, the Eternal, came into existence in time as a particular man. Whether this particular man is a servant or an emperor is neither here nor there: it is no more adequate for God to be a king than to be a beggar.37

Kierkegaard, by ignoring the element of social reversal – the fact that the ultimate dominance of Jesus is established by an act of submission – misses the point of faith and only trivializes what Paul says. It is not that it would be no more adequate for God to be a King than a beggar, as Kierkegaard claims, rather it would be entirely inadequate for God to be a King, and certainly less memorable.

It would be a misinterpretation of Kierkegaard to see him as anti-intellectual. If anything, he is too intellectual. In the early Church, a profession of faith was a daring act because of the risk of martyrdom. Kierkegaard substitutes for this the intellectual daring of putting his credibility on the line by believing a paradox. He was, after all, trying to arouse some passion amongst his fellow Christians. But his conclusions can be a comfort to those who lack either his passion or his appetite for intellectual activity. Faith can become the name given to an excuse for subscribing to a belief system out of sheer intellectual inertia.

The tendency to use ‘faith’ as a general term applicable to belief in any religion compounds this. The danger for Christians is that they will come to think of faith as nothing more than what is left over of Christian beliefs when common human rationality is excluded. We then end up with a definition of faith like that of Harris, in which faith is defined by the absence of normal constraints on belief.

If, as I have argued, faith is, like fear, a response to a tangible stimulus, then without a tangible stimulus, there can be no faith. To make faith itself a substitute for a tangible stimulus fails to appreciate what faith itself is. What is required is some explanation of how we can recognise divine action in history, some sense of how God's presence is mediated through tangible events.

The second difficulty with the analogy between faith in Jesus and faith in Beckham is that Beckham's claim to dominance is based on past triumphs, despite occasional defeats. With Jesus, as I have argued, his claim to ultimate dominance stands out because it is made not in spite of, but because of, his public defeat. If, having put in place some means of identifying acts of God in history, we respond to God's apparent defeats as though they are really victories, then of course continued faith in God is guaranteed. The problem becomes apparent when we put different Biblical stories together. Jesus calms the storm, and Moses parts the Red Sea: wonderful deeds that inspire faith! Jerusalem is sacked by the Babylonians and Jesus is crucified: humiliating defeats that inspire faith! Jay Glass is one of a long line of people to point out the problem: this gives God a free pass: whatever happens, good or bad, is taken to reflect well on his leadership.38 It is hardly a hallmark of rationality to adopt a belief system such that, if it is wrong, you will never come to know that it is wrong. This does not amount to a disproof of the proposition that the cross was Jesus' ultimate victory. The important question is whether this is merely an ad hoc way of solving a credibility problem, or, as generations of Christians have claimed, a belief that makes sense of everything else.

My conclusion concerning the rationality of faith is then modest and unsurprising. To suppose that faith consists in disregarding evidence and believing whatever one wishes, a matter of trusting feelings precisely because they are ungrounded is a misunderstanding of the New Testament. It does not follow that it is rational to have faith – that depends on settling further philosophical and theological questions. The main interest of this article lies not so much in the conclusion, as the means that were used to reach it. In particular, I hope I have demonstrated by example the role that evolutionary psychology can play in New Testament hermeneutics, with due attention to its limitations.

Finally, let us return to Harris' example of an unfounded belief that Nicole Kidman loves me. If I have never met Nicole Kidman, such a belief seems to be no more than insanity. But suppose I do meet her and talk to her and come away with the impression she is interested in me: this could be an illusion, but it could also be that I am sensitive to early signs of love. Perhaps her behaviour towards me is somewhat hostile, and she drops heavy hints that my attentions are not welcome, but Hollywood films have taught me that, counter-intuitive as it seems, initial hostility is often a way of disguising a deep underlying attraction. Evolutionary psychology teaches that the search for love and glory is a constant feature of human nature. With my pursuit of Nicole Kidman, we know what kind of outcome would decisively confirm or refute my intuitions about her feelings for me. Furthermore, my feelings are the product of human nature, and in deciding how much weight to give my intuitions, I can study the past record of other men. Is there some masculine intuition that enables a man to recognise subtle indications of love that may be hidden by a front of hostility? If I were to conclude that in the past, men who have trusted such intuitions have had reproductive success, then I would have a rational endorsement of my crazy intuitions. I simply cannot make a similar judgement about the rationality or irrationality of faith unless I have some independent source of knowledge about God that would tell me whether faith was successful in the past. I am not suggesting that there cannot be such a source of knowledge – traditionally, this is why Christian theologians have relied on historical or philosophical apologetics – but one could not expect evolutionary psychology to fill that gap. Evolutionary psychology, I have argued, is useful for theologians because it gives us confidence that we have understood human nature. What it cannot offer is any means of assessing whether we have failed or succeeded in our efforts to understand the divine nature.39

  1. 1 William S. Cooper, The Evolution of Reason: Logic as a Branch of Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

  2. 2 Herbert McCabe, Faith Within Reason (London: Continuum Books, 2007), p. 34.

  3. 3 Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004), p. 64.

  4. 4 Ibid., p. 65.

  5. 5 Ibid., p. 65.

  6. 6 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. Trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978), p. 61.

  7. 7 Frans de Waal, Our Inner Ape (New York: Riverhead Books, 2004), pp. 154–156.

  8. 8 Ibid., pp. 232–236.

  9. 9 Jerry Fodor, ‘Why Pigs Don't Have Wings’ in The London Review of Books, 18th October 2007. On-line version: [] accessed 04/02/2008.

  10. 10 John Cartwright, Evolutionary Explanations of Human Behavior (New York: Routledge, 2001), p.77.

  11. 11 Ibid., p. 75.

  12. 12 Fodor, Op. cit.

  13. 13 Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.196.

  14. 14 Ibid., pp. 199–211.

  15. 15 Ibid., p. 214.

  16. 16 Ibid., pp. 211–215.

  17. 17 Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (New York: Random House, 1967).

  18. 18 Ibid., pp. 178–181.

  19. 19 Jay D. Glass, The Power of Faith: Mother Nature's Gift (Corona del Mar, California: Donnington Press, 2007).

  20. 20 Ibid., pp. 121–122.

  21. 21 Ibid., pp. 101–102.

  22. 22 Ibid., p. 94.

  23. 23 Ibid., p. 52

  24. 24 Ibid., p. 193.

  25. 25 Morris, The Naked Ape, p. 181.

  26. 26 Ibid., p. 180.

  27. 27 Desmond Morris, preface to Frans de Waals, Chimpanzee Politics (London: Jonathan Cape, 1987), p. 15.

  28. 28 De Waal, Our Inner Ape, (2004), p. 79.

  29. 29 De Waal, Chimpanzee Politics, p. 99–100.

  30. 30 Ibid., pp. 88–89.

  31. 31 Ibid., pp. 62–63.

  32. 32 This is explicitly stated by Glass, op. cit., p. 68. It is implicit in Morris, The Naked Ape, since he deals throughout with religion only at the generic level.

  33. 33 Pascal Boyer, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 34–36 et passim, and his Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origin of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 62–65 et passim.

  34. 34 E. Lepore, ‘An Interview With Donald Davidson’ in Donald Davidson, Problems of Rationality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), pp. 241–244.

  35. 35 De Waals, Our Inner Ape, p. 64.

  36. 36 Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 141–199.

  37. 37 Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. D. Swenson and W. Lowrie. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 528.

  38. 38 Glass, The Power of Faith, p. 158.

  39. 39 My thanks to an anonymous referee and my colleague Adolfo Leyva for drawing my attention to many errors in a previous draft.