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How to write about religion: a (foot)note

How to write about religion: a (foot)note

Nick Spencer argues that Matt Ridley’s ‘The Origins of Virtue’ fails to treat religion with the intellectual effort it deserves. 19/11/2019

In my never ending quest to find the answer to life in books, I have recently read Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue. Ridley has had a varied and colourful career. A member of the House of Lords since 2013, he had also been a journalist, an author, a zoologist, and the Chairman of Northern Rock in the run up to the Great Crash. The Origins of Virtue, now nearly 25 years old, was his second book. As it says on the tin, it explores how moral ideas and behaviour evolved, arguing that the magic of selfish–genery, reciprocal altruism and game theory can transmute the base material of genetic selfishness into the gold of co–operation, generosity and trade.

The book is a thoughtful and wide–ranging effort, encompassing evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, and economics, with just a dash of religion. Readers who encounter it in the edition that I did, which carries a prominent quote from Richard Dawkins claiming it as effectively volume two of The Selfish Gene, might be led to expect a Dawkinsian contempt for religion. Ridley shares his friend’s views on the subject, though religion is largely absent from the book.

Largely but not entirely, for it is, of course, impossible to write about the origins of ethics without at least noting Christian ideas and thinkers. What is interesting about the book in this regard, however, is not what Ridley notes but what he footnotes. The book’s 253 footnotes are crammed with useful references. “Wynne–Edwards, V. C. 1962. Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour. Oliver and Boyd, London.” “Blurton–Jones, N. G. 1987. Tolerated theft, suggestions about the ecology and evolution of sharing, hoarding and scrounging. Social Science Information 26:31–54.” And so forth.

I found two footnotes pertaining to religion. This in itself is hardly a problem in a book that doesn’t dwell much on the topic. What is revealing is the content of the two footnotes. The first pertains to the sentence, “Christians should pause before they feel superior: they teach that you should practise virtue to get to heaven – a pretty big bribe to appeal to their selfishness.” (p. 132), and reads:

“Ghiselin, M. T. 1974. The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. University of California Press, Berkeley. The point about Christianity has been well made by the newspaper columnist Matthew Parris.” (p. 275)

The second refers to Christianity’s failure to live up to Jesus’ (well, allegedly St Paul’s) command to love all people, citing, “The Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Thirty Years War…”, of course (p. 192), and reads:

“Hartung, J. 1995. Love thy neighbour. The Skeptic, Vol. 3, No. 4; Keith, A. 1947. Evolution and Ethics. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.” (p. 278)

That Christian ethics is a bribe to get to heaven or that the Crusades are the paradigmatic example of Christian behaviour is the kind of claim that would be red–penned in a sixth former’s essay (as, incidentally, is an almost comical claim he makes elsewhere in the book (p. 222) that “Christianity preaches virtue, but few Christians are without sin.” Few?) A few moments with the most basic of primers in Christian ethics, or theology, or history – let alone a few hours spent exploring Studies in Christian Ethics or the Journal of Catholic Thought – might have helped a little here. But unlike the other 250 or so footnotes citing the academic literature in game theory, economics, or zoology, that’s apparently not necessary. A notably anti–religious newspaper columnist and a devotedly anti–religious magazine are, it seems, all you need when writing about religion.

Terry Eagleton began his famously savage review of The God Delusion with the sentence, “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue is infinitely better than The God Delusion but it suffers from the same mix of arrogance and ignorance that dismisses religion as not worthy of intellectual effort, and then damns it for offering only the flimsiest of intellectual straw men.

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 Image: Jose Diez Bey/

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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Posted 19 November 2019

Atheism, Education, Ethics


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