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Ever watchful eye  

06 May 2016

Adam Ford considers the theory that a fear of God is evolutionary


God is Watching You: How the fear of God makes us human
Dominic Johnson
OUP £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10


“SHE didn’t deserve to die!” says someone to camera, after a fatal accident. We are left suspecting that the news reporter has fished for the remark — and left wondering where “deserving” comes into the story at all. This attitude to disasters erupts out of the same shadowy realm of folk morality as labels some victims of war “innocent” civilians, and causes children to wail “It’s not fair” when they feel that an injustice has been done. At its worst, it explains the lethal destruction of a tsunami or an earthquake as God’s punishment for the sins of either the locals or the tourists.

We like to believe that we have grown beyond the days when God was seen as a hanging judge, obsessed with punishing wrong-doing, watching our every move, and making sure that we suffer our deserts. We prefer a God of love. It is not long since the behaviour of children was controlled with the wrathful threat “God is watching you.” But are we right to give up believing that “we reap what we sow”? The question goes back to Job.

In God is Watching You, Dominic Johnson gives an account of his research into evolutionary biology and his subsequent belief that religion is a positive product of evolution and not an accidental by-product, as argued by Richard Dawkins and other atheists. Religion can be shown to be an evolutionary adaptation for improving our humanity by suppressing selfish behaviour and increasing cooperation among neighbours.

The wrathful God of Leviticus, Eastern laws of karma, and the strange superstitious behaviour of top athletes are all consequences, the author believes, of a deep-seated human belief in a system of supernatural rewards and punishments. Successful societies depend on being able to control selfish, anti-social urges, and religion internalises and reinforces the conviction that there is a payback for all our behaviour. Ever since the development of language and a theory of mind (the ability to guess what others are thinking), our behaviour has become more complex: our habitat is no longer merely woodland or savannah, but “a social maze of gossiping humans”.

God is Watching You is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the roots of religion, but it is not the easiest of reads. We are introduced to a great deal of academic psychological research from around the world, to game theory (such as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”), and to the fraught debate about whether evolution can work at the group level or is restricted to individual survival.


The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.

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