Fuentes takes seriously the experience of particular persons and communities but, unlike William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Fuentes’s book doesn’t take into account the specific testimonies of such persons or communities. His underdeveloped and rather abstract references to “religious experience” are not particularly satisfying. It would have helped if he had incorporated what the philosopher John A. Smith calls the “religious dimensions of experience”—a more accommodating concept than Fuentes’s “religious experience.” Fuentes might also have considered what Karl Rahner called “the experience of self-transcendence” involved in any true act of knowing or loving.
Fuentes argues that early human beings evolved to become highly social, meaning-making animals, who at some point began to have beliefs about supernatural agents. These beliefs were later taken up and extensively developed by religious institutions that arrived with the development of complex, large-scale societies between four thousand and eight thousand years ago. Fuentes rejects the two dominant evolutionary theories of religion. One of these holds that religion evolved because it was biologically adaptive; the other views religion as an accidental by-product (a “spandrel” in the language of Stephen Jay Gould) of cognitive and social traits that were themselves biologically adaptive. Neither of these approaches provides a satisfying account of the centrality of religion in the lives of so many people. Religious experience and beliefs offer ways of addressing a human need. Once their basic material needs are met, human beings naturally strive to go beyond the mere here-and-now and to relate themselves to larger purposes and schemes of meaning. Belief in transcendent reality thus provides the foothold for the later development of institutional religions, with their rituals, codes, and practices.
Fuentes’s own social and ethical concerns are on display in his chapter on economics, which he defines as “an organized system of activity involving the production, consumption, exchange, and distribution of goods and services.” Here he strongly challenges the assumption, common in modern and modernizing societies, that free markets are the most “natural”—and therefore the most rational and efficient—way to organize an economy. The dominance of free-market ideology is rooted in a widespread cultural acceptance of the myth of Homo economicus, according to which human beings are best understood as rational economic actors always seeking to maximize their self-interest. Fuentes reminds us that theories of behavioral ecology that describe “market competition” as pervasive in nature miss the richness and complexity of actual animal behavior. He worries that an uncritical acceptance of free markets as “natural” leads us to treat massive global inequality as “inevitable.” Though some part of us may still believe that real human beings are more complex and less predictable than Homo economicus, this reductive model is now “deeply ingrained in [our] communal psyche.”
The rise and growth of permanent large-scale settlements, cities, and then nations brought with it a shift from egalitarian to hierarchical social orders. Adam Smith argued that modern markets would produce a more extensive distribution of wealth, but today a global market economy coexists with massive inequality. Fuentes is not an economist and he does not propose his own alternative economic theory. His goal is simply to undercut the widespread view that human beings are essentially selfish, that free markets are the most “natural” way to organize economic systems, and that radical inequality is just the way things have always been—and always will be. Fuentes urges his readers not to passively accept current inequalities: “We made them, and we can change them.”
The last chapter of Why We Believe focuses on matters of the heart. “Love” and related terms have many meanings even within the history of Western culture. Love has been identified with eros (desire), philia (friendship), agape (self-gift), or with some combination of these. The strongest part of this chapter is its discussion of compassion; the weakest, its treatment of sexual love.
Fuentes argues that the evolution of biological, psychological, and behavioral traits made possible the emergence of maternal-offspring attachment and therefore enhanced the likely survival of human newborns, who are exceptionally immature. He theorizes that the maternal-offspring bond eventually facilitated the pair bonds of mating couples, and then extended further to promote a broader array of social and physiological bonds within the larger group. Drawing on the work of the anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, Fuentes argues that evolution has produced in us a strong “affective hunger” that leads us to form social bonds far beyond what we see in any other species. Our ancestors extended compassion not only to their own offspring but to other members of their groups. Archeological evidence indicates “the emergence of consistent caring behavior that kept at least some of the injured, sick, and aged alive and part of the community” and produced a capacity to care for others “unrivaled in any other species.” Our strong in-group social cooperation, however, can sometimes be accompanied by hostility toward those outside the group.
Sex and marriage are the most controversial topics addressed in this book. We tend to draw sharp lines between sexual attraction, parental care, friendship, and other deep attachments, and often experience these kinds of relationship as fundamentally different from each other. But Fuentes claims that, “aside from slightly different hormone levels and other physiological responses related to sexual activity, romantic love is not biologically different from any other kind…. The idea that romantic love is distinct from other deep attachments is a product of cultural beliefs and worldviews, not our biology.” Fuentes argues that a great deal of anthropological literature challenges the assumption that we are naturally ordered to form exclusive, lifelong procreative pair bonds. (Catholics might think here of Pope Paul VI’s teaching about the “unitive” and “procreative” ends of sex.) According to Fuentes, sexual pair bonds are characterized by mutual sexual attraction that is preferential but not necessarily exclusive, reproductive, monogamous, or even marital. When he refers to marriage as “a recent occurrence in human history,” he seems to mean the natural history of our species rather than recorded history.
Fuentes rejects normative traditions that confine sexual activity to marriage, though he would perhaps be willing to have marriage continue as one lifestyle option among others. This is the direction in which Western cultures have been trending for decades. These anthropological observations are valuable for underscoring the challenges faced by those of us who endorse monogamy and would like others to do so as well.
We might respond to that challenge by first asking how Fuentes moves from the “is” of diverse human social and sexual practices to the “ought” of moral standards. For most of recorded human history, there was no awareness of—let alone commitment to—human rights. These, too, are the “product of cultural beliefs, not our biology.” Belief in human rights is also “a recent occurrence in human history.” But rather than discount human rights for being of relatively recent vintage, we regard our belief in them as evidence of moral progress. Why can’t we say the same about the development of monogamous marriage, especially since the historical record shows that polygamous relationships have usually allowed powerful men to dominate their wives (and concubines)? More fundamentally, the social and ethical norms governing sexual behavior cannot be derived from knowledge of either our evolutionary past or our contemporary sexual proclivities, many of which reflect the impact of market forces, consumerism, and social media. Fuentes’s chapter on economics is sharply critical of the radical individualism of free-market ideology, but his chapter on love seems to endorse a radical individualism in sexual matters.