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John Teehan

Empathy, Cruelty, and Religion: An Evolutionary-Cognitive Perspective

Cosponsored with the Judaic Studies Department

March 4, 2012

Academic Building A G008, 5:00 PM


Cognitive science argues that religion serves to cultivate our evolved moral psychology. This psychology evolved to address conflicts that stem from the pursuit of survival and reproductive success on the part of individual members of socially complex species. In such species, individuals must master not only basic survival skills but also the complex skills required to promote cohesive social environments. Evolved-cognitive models of altruism suggest the human mind has a set of cognitive-emotional predispositions that facilitate in-group cooperation, resulting in an implicit moral bias toward members of the in-group and against those of the out-group. Cognitive scientists recognize, however, that the evolved mental tools that give rise to altruistic behavior do so by their affects, either excitatory or inhibitory, on the empathetic systems in the brain. Religion triggers this implicit in-group/out-group distinction that research shows differentially triggers these neural systems—fostering either empathy or cruelty. This research provides a fresh perspective into the complex relationship between religion, morality, and violence.

This talk will present the basics of an evolved cognitive model of both morality and religion and argue that these mental tools have shaped Judaic and Christian moral traditions. This claim is exemplified by a cognitive-critical analysis of Biblical moral teachings.  This allows us insight into the power of these texts to generate both empathetic and cruel behavior.



John Teehan is Professor of Religion at Hofstra University. He holds a Master’s degree in Psychology from Queens College and a Doctorate in Philosophy from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), in addition to numerous articles on the implications of evolution for morality and religion, and on the moral naturalism of John Dewey. He is currently interested in how evolutionary-cognitive science impacts on issues in the philosophy of religion, in particular the problem of evil and the justification of belief; he has lectured widely on these topics.


Teehan, John. Empathy, cruelty, and religion: a cognitive-scientific perspective. Science and the World’s ReligionsVol. 2., Patrick McNamara and Wesley J. Wildman, Eds. Praeger. pp.123-156, 2012.


Video starts about 7 minutes and 20 seconds in.

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Rich Media Playback:http://bustream.binghamton.edu:8080/ess/echo/presentation/68221427-8d76-461c-b324-653f5ae23953

Podcast Playback:http://bustream.binghamton.edu:8080/ess/echo/presentation/68221427-8d76-461c-b324-653f5ae23953/media.mp3



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