Show Hide image

Why humans find it hard to do away with religion

The new atheists decry religion as a poisonous set of lies. But what if a belief in the supernatural is natural?

An American scientist visiting the home of Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist and refugee from Nazism who was a leading figure in the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb, was surprised to discover a horseshoe hanging over Bohr’s desk: “Surely you don’t believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, Professor Bohr?” he asked. “After all, as a scientist . . .”

Bohr laughed. “I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring one good luck whether you believe it or not.”

Dominic Johnson, who tells this story, acknowledges that Bohr might have been joking. But the physicist’s response captured an important truth. Human beings never cease looking for a pattern in events that transcends the workings of cause and effect. No matter how much they may think their view of the world has been shaped by science, they cannot avoid thinking and acting as if their lives are subject to some kind of non-human oversight. As Johnson puts it, “Humans the world over find themselves, consciously or subconsciously, believing that we live in a just world or a moral universe, where people are supposed to get what they deserve. Our brains are wired such that we cannot help but search for meaning in the randomness of life.”

An evolutionary biologist trained at Oxford who also holds a doctorate in political science, Johnson believes that the need to find a more-than-natural meaning in natural events is universal – “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” – and performs a vital role in maintaining order in society. Extending far beyond cultures shaped by monotheism, it “spans cultures across the globe and every historical period, from indigenous tribal societies . . . to modern world religions – and includes atheists, too”.

Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.

It’s a conclusion that is anathema to the current generation of atheists – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others – for whom religion is a poisonous concoction of lies and delusion. These “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.

But what if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings? For anyone who takes the idea of evolution seriously, religions are not intellectual errors, but ­adaptations to the experience of living in an uncertain and hazardous world. What is needed – and still largely lacking – is a perspective in which religion is understood as an inexhaustibly complex variety of beliefs and practices that have evolved to meet enduring human needs.

God Is Watching You is a wide-ranging and consistently interesting attempt to redress this default. Vividly written and packed with arresting examples, the book shows how belief in supernatural sanctions can temper short-term self-interest and foster social solidarity. An important piece of evidence is a groundbreaking study by two psychologists, Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan, which describes the “dictator game”, an experiment in game theory in which subjects are given a sum of money and the freedom to split it as they please with an anonymous person. As the choice is secret and there are no negative consequences, the response of Homo economicus would be to keep all the money for himself. In fact, few people respond in this way. Numerous studies have shown people giving away roughly half of the money, and those who have been exposed to religious concepts and beliefs usually hand out more.

Interestingly, a follow-up experiment found that fear of supernatural punishment was more effective as an inhibitor of selfish behaviour than hope of supernatural reward. A deity watching over our wrongdoing makes for a claustrophobic picture of the world, and the idea that people are best controlled by fear suggests an unattractive view of the human animal. Yet it does seem that belief in a punitive God can act as a remarkably powerful curb on individual behaviour for the sake of social order. Many will object that the morality that supernatural beliefs enforce is often highly repressive. No doubt this is true, yet it is hard to see what grounds new atheists can have for denying that illiberal moralities can have evolutionary value. After all, very few societies have been liberal for long. Liberal values may turn out to be no more than a blip in the evolutionary process. Though the current generation of unbelievers chooses to forget the fact, this was the conclusion of many earlier atheist thinkers – communists, positivists and assorted social engineers – who flirted with evolutionary ethics.

Citing other experimental studies showing similar results, Johnson develops a forceful case for the evolutionary role of religion in cementing social co-operation. In doing so, he has added a chapter to the long-running debate about how science relates to religion. Inevitably, his argument is less than watertight. For one thing, by no means all religions focus on a supernatural being whose principal concern is with the punishment of wrongdoing. In the ancient Greek pantheon the gods may be as fickle and unpredictable as human beings, if not more so: Hermes, the patron of thieves, merchants and orators, was celebrated for using trickery to outwit people and other gods. The Roman and Babylonian civilisations promoted many practices involving the supernatural but their gods were not especially moral or concerned to penalise those who violated canons of good behaviour. Johnson is aware of this problem:


If supernatural punishment is about reducing selfishness and promoting good behaviour and co-operation, then a remaining puzzle is why there are some supernatural agents who do not merely fail to punish, but punish the wrong people. Why, for example, were some of the Greek gods so jealous, vengeful and vindictive? Why in the Book of Job did a perfectly good God exact apparently unjustified and arbitrary punishment on an innocent victim? Why are there even supernatural agents that work against each other? God and Satan is one obvious example, but the phenomenon is found elsewhere. The Greeks could appeal to one god for protection against another.


Though he concedes that these examples “seem to cut against the grain” of his theoretical framework, Johnson believes they are outliers. “What matters is the overall trend . . . Capricious gods are no more of a problem to a theory of supernatural punishment than the presence of corrupt politicians to a theory of democratic government. With enough selection, or enough elections, the things that matter shine through.” In other words, evolution will ensure that the religions that prevail will be those that enable social co-operation by promoting a belief in supernatural punishment. The trouble is that this is a blank cheque, rather than a falsifiable hypothesis. Understanding religion as an evolutionary adaptation is unavoidable if you think of the human animal in Darwinian terms. Asserting that evolution favours religions to which divine punishment is central is another matter. No one has ever identified a mechanism of selection amongst religions, and it is unclear whether any such mechanism would operate on individuals, social groups or some combination of the two. These are problems that beset all theories of cultural evolution. In the end, such theories may be not much more than misplaced analogies and misguided metaphors.

Johnson is on stronger ground in suggesting that a need to find meaningful patterns in random events may be hard-wired in human beings. Here the historical record of atheism is instructive. Johnson devotes a longish chapter to what he calls “the problem of atheists”, arguing that, like the rest of humankind, they are “inclined to supernatural thinking”, which lives on in them in the form of “superstitious beliefs and behaviours”. This may be so, but it is not the most important way in which atheists have continued to be governed by the needs that religions have evolved to satisfy. Practically without exception, the atheist movements of the past few centuries testify to a demand for meaning that has led them to replicate many of the patterns of thinking distinctive of monotheism, and more particularly of Christianity.

For Christians, human history isn’t an endless succession of cycles – as it was for the ancient Greek and Romans, for example – but a story, and one of a distinctive kind. Unlike practitioners of polytheism, who seek and find meaning in other ways, Christians have found sense in life through a mythical narrative in which humankind is struggling towards redemption. It is a myth that infuses the imagination of countless people who imagine they have left religion behind. The secular style of modern thinking is deceptive. Marxist and liberal ideas of “alienation” and “revolution”, “the march of humanity” and “the progress of civilisation” are redemptive myths in disguise.

For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide,
a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.

Atheism need not be an evangelical cult. Here and there one finds thinkers who have truly left redemptive myths behind. The American journalist and iconoclast H L Mencken was a rambunctious atheist who delighted in lambasting religious believers; but he did so in a spirit of mockery, not out of any interest in converting them into unbelievers. Wisely, he did not care what others believed. Rather than lamenting the fact of incurable human irrationality, he preferred to laugh at the spectacle it presents. If monotheism was, for Mencken, an amusing exhibition of human folly, one suspects he would have found the new atheism just as entertaining.

Certainly there is an element of comedy in the new atheist mix of proselytising Darwinism and ardent rationalism. There is no way in which a model of the mind inherited from Descartes and other rationalist philosophers can be squared with the findings of evolutionary biology. If you follow Darwin in thinking of human beings as animals that have evolved under the pressures of natural selection, you cannot think that our minds are primed to seek out truth. Rather, our ruling imperative will be survival, and any belief that promotes this will have a powerful attraction. This may be why we are so anxious to discern a pattern in the drift of events. If there is none, our future will depend largely on chance – a dispiriting prospect. The belief that our lives unfold under some kind of supernatural direction offers a way out, and if this faith enables us to live through disaster, that it may be groundless is irrelevant. From an evolutionary perspective, irrational belief isn’t an incidental flaw in human beings. It has made us what we are. In that case, why demonise religion?

Johnson concludes that dispensing with religion may be an unwise move. “To assume that this complicated old machine we have found in our evolutionary garage is of no use, and to fling it on to the scrapheap of history seems rather hasty,” he writes. “We might need it later.” In fact, the logic of his argument points in a very different direction. If religion is an evolutionary adaptation, converting humankind from it isn’t so much unwise as simply impossible.

The irony of the new atheism is that it is pre-Darwinian. Making sense from the chaos of human events, religions provide something that science cannot offer, but which most people still desperately want. Accordingly, the new atheists have turned science into a religion: a gospel of enlightenment that can deliver the world from darkness. Possessed by this ersatz creed, which has all of the flaws of conventional religion and none of the saving graces, our crusading unbelievers are comically oblivious of their own need for faith. It takes a genuine scientist like Bohr to see and state the obvious.

God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human by Dominic Johnson is published by Oxford University Press (304pp, £18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

Show Hide image

How Roger Moore made James Bond immortal

Roger Moore, James Bond actor, has died at the age of 89. 

Unlike every other actor to play James Bond, Roger Moore was already a star when he came to the role. Not a star of motion pictures admittedly, although he had topped the bill in some minor films, but a star in television. The lead of the adventure series Ivanhoe (1958-59) and The Saint (1962-69), the latter of which brought him international fame and reportedly made him the highest paid actor on television.

It was a far cry from his beginnings. Although he lived much of his life abroad (it has been said, for tax reasons, something the actor himself denied) and was regarded by many as the archetypal English gentleman, Moore began life as a working-class Londoner.  Born in Stockwell in 1927, the son of a policeman and his wife, he grew up in a rented three room, third floor flat in SW8, and attended Battersea Grammar School. There, he later insisted "looking as though I was listening", was the only subject at which he excelled. Battersea Grammar was, despite the name, then an overcrowded local school boxed in by the buildings and sidings of Clapham Junction Station and made dark and noisy by the still expanding railways.

As both Moore and his friend and fellow film star Michael Caine have observed, their backgrounds in urban South London are almost identical, something that has never fitted with public perception of either of them. The difference was, as again both noted, that when it came to National Service Moore, unlike Caine, was picked out as officer material and trained accordingly, in the process acquiring the accent he would carry for the rest of his life.

The common, near universal, ignorance of Moore’s origins (although he himself was never shy of them, writing about his family in his various books and discussing them in interviews) says something significant about Roger Moore the public figure. Despite being a household name for decades, an international film star and latterly a knight of the realm, he was, if not misunderstood by his audience, then never really quite what they assumed him to be.

This extends, of course, into his work as an actor. Moore was often mocked by the unimaginative, who saw him as a wooden actor, or one lacking in versatility. Often, he was somehow self-deprecating enough to play along. And yet, the camera loved him, really loved him and his timing - particularly but not exclusively comic - was extraordinary. To see Moore work in close up is to see someone in absolute control of his craft. His raised eyebrow, often mocked, was a precision instrument, exactly as funny or exactly as surprising as he wanted it to be.

It is more accurate, as well as fairer, to say that Moore was typecast, rather than limited, and he made no secret of the fact that he played his two most famous roles, Simon Templar in The Saint and James Bond 007 as essentially the same person. But he would have been a fool not to. Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R "Cubby" Broccoli’s EON productions wanted Templar nearly as much as they wanted Moore.

They had thought of the actor for the part of 007 as early as 1961, before casting Sean Connery and before Moore had played The Saint, so it was not just his success as Templar that made him suitable. Yet both producers knew that audiences in both Britain and America loved the way Moore played Templar, and that if that affection could be translated into ticket sales, their series would be on to a winner.

It was a gamble for all involved. George Lazenby had already tried, and as far many were concerned, failed to replace Connery as James Bond. When it came to 1971’s outing in the series, Diamonds Are Forever, David Picker, head of United Artists, which distributed Bond films, insisted that Connery be brought back for an encore before EON tried a third actor in the role, re-hiring Connery at a then record $1.25m and paying off actor John Gavin, whom EON had already cast. That’s how high the stakes were for both the Bond series and Moore’s reputation when he stepped into the role for 1973’s Live and Let Die. The film was a huge success, so much so that EON rushed out its sequel, The Man With The Golden Gun the next year, rather than after two years as it had planned.

The reason for that success, although the film has many other good qualities, is that Moore is brilliant in it. His whip-thin, gently ironic and oddly egalitarian adventurer, capable of laughing at himself as well as others, is a far cry from Connery’s violently snobbish "joke superman". It’s been said that Connery’s Bond was a working-class boy’s fantasy of what it would be like to be an English gentleman, while Moore’s was essentially the fantasy of a slightly effete middle-class boy who dreams of one day winning a fight. It’s a comprehensive reinvention of the part.

That’s not something that can be achieved by accident. One shouldn’t, however, over-accentuate the lightness of the performance. Moore’s Bond is exactly as capable of rage and even sadism as his predecessor. The whimsy he brings to the part is an addition to, not a subtraction from, the character’s range.

Moore expanded Bond’s emotional palette in other ways too. His best onscreen performance is in For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which the then 53-year-old Moore gets to play a Bond seen grieving at his wife’s grave, lecturing allies on the futility of revenge ("When setting out for revenge, first dig two graves") and brightly turn down a much younger woman’s offer of sex with the phrase "Put your clothes on and I’ll buy you an ice cream". None of which are scenes you can begin to imagine Connery’s Bond pulling off.

Moore was not just a huge success as Bond, he remains, adjusted for inflation, the most financially successful lead actor the series has ever had. He was also successful in a way that guaranteed he would have successors. What he gave to the part by not imitating Connery, by not even hinting at Connery in his performance, was a licence to those who followed him to find their own way in the role. This, along with his continued popularity over twelve years in the role, probably the only reason the series managed to survive the 1970s and the EON’s finally running of Ian Fleming novels to adapt to the screen.

Actors have received knighthoods for their craft for centuries, but when Moore was knighted in 2003, there was some push back. Moore was understandably seen as not being in the same category as an Alec Guinness or a Ralph Richardson. But the citations for Moore's knighthood indicated that it was for his decades of charity work with Unicef that he was being honoured. It’s yet another of the misconceptions, large and small, that aggregated around him.

Moore himself was always clear that it was the profile playing James Bond had given him that made his role with Unicef possible, let alone successful. When asked about pride in his charity work, he always responded that instead he felt frustration. Frustration because as with, for example, the UN’s iodine deficiency programme or Unicef’s work with children with landmine injuries, there was always so much more work to be done than could be done.

It was an answer that, along with his energetic campaigning, at the age of 88, to ban the use of wild animals in zoos, pointed to the biggest misunderstanding of all. Moore was known for playing frivolous characters in over the top entertainments and this led to him being perceived by many, even by those he enjoyed his work, as essentially trivial. Ironically, such an assumption reveals only the superficiality of their own reading. The jovial, wry interviewee Sir Roger Moore was, beneath that raised eyebrow, a profoundly serious man.

0800 7318496