Liberation, as many others, recently noted that it seems to be more and more difficult to criticize Islam. The situation is not that different than in the U.S. shortly after 9/11 when 25 to 35 millions people wanted to buy an American flag while in a average year, consumers purchase about 2 million house flags. The Terror Management Theory (TMT) explains the increase in patriotism and the concomitant decrease in tolerance of dissent since September 11 as defensive reactions against existential fear elicited by the images of death. Navarette and Fessler challenge this explanation and report experiments that contradict TMT’s predictions. In doing so, they provide an entertaining and pedagogical example of how evolutionary psychology can enlighten social psychology.

At least three points deserves to be mentioned. First, TMT relies on the concept of a "survival instinct", which is far too general to be an adaptation. As Navarette and Fessler note : “if Alaskan salmon were oriented towards self-preservation and driven by a survival instinct, they would remain in the ocean during the breeding season, safely distant from the gaping jaws of the predatory grizzly bears lining the banks of the streams that lead to their breeding grounds.” They quickly generalize: “Organisms respond to specific stimuli in ways that have consistently been associated with fitness-enhancing outcomes over evolutionary timescales (Dawkins, 1989; Tooby and Cosmides, 1992; Williams, 1966). Organisms such as salmon might be afraid of predators, but almost certainly not death, hence it may be sensible to talk about a “predator-avoidance instinct” (if one must use that under-specified term), but it makes no sense to talk about organisms having a survival instinct.

Second, like many non-evolutionary theories (psychoanalysis for example), TMT sees anxiety as a problem rather than a cognitive device to deal with specific adaptative challenges (there would be much more to say about an evolutionary approach to medicine: pain or fever for instance are solutions, not problems !). As Navarette and Fessler put it : “It would be quite astonishing were natural selection to produce a psychology in which, instead of orienting the organism to pressing adaptive challenges and motivating behavior that addressed them, anxiety regularly produced a paralytic state that could only be relieved through time-and attention-consuming mental gymnastics.” If the function of anxiety was to push us to create and entertain warm thoughts about an afterlife in order to forget a danger, we would all be dead!

Third the authors emphasize, as others like Pascal Boyer, that religion often generates as much anxiety as it allays: vengeful ghosts, nasty spirits and aggressive gods are as common as protective deities. But one need not look to such exotic examples to illustrate this point. “Protestant evangelists in the Calvinist tradition have long emphasized the doctrine that humanity is naturally depraved, and is headed for an eternity in torment, save for the few “elect” whom God has called; for the true Calvinist, one can never know whether one has been so selected, and no degree of virtue will save those who have not. Catholic Christianity is equally ambiguous as to the assurance of a secure afterlife, arguing that even believers can never know if they are eternally secure until judgment day. According to the New Testament, even Jesus Christ, rather than exclusively providing comfort to his followers, taught: “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? And in Thy name have cast out devils? And in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me” (Matthew 7:22-3, King James Bible).”

Note that here, the naïve adaptationists (“folk functionalists” would be more appropriate) who haunt the social sciences and the strong adaptationists (like Sober & Wilson who think that religion is a biological adaptation) get together. They both would reply that, maybe, death is not the relevant elicitor. However, they would add, religion helps to secure social cohesion. And again they would miss a crucial point : cultural phenomena do not need to be functional to exist. For sure, there’s a relation between religion and coalition, but it is not a functional one, it is an epidemiological one. Because of our particular psychology is seeking cues of coalitions, religion - being very culturally variable - often becomes a particularly salient signal of commitment. But since coalition can create social fission (secession) as often as group integration, religion is not strongly linked to social cohesion.