Geckos abound in these parts during the summer. It’s a wonder to observe their ability to walk on virtually any type of surface. Until recently it was one of the mysteries of nature. We didn’t have a very good idea of how they climb like Spiderman. The science section in Tuesday’s edition of The Times contained a brief article highlighting the work of a scientist, Shihao Hu, who has figured out how it works. Apparently the toes of the gecko are covered with microscopic hairs, and each of these tiny hairs splits into hundreds of nanobranches, giving the gecko thousands of points of contact with any surface. Amazing. The mystery has been solved, but that does not diminish our sense of wonder. It’s one more reminder of the power and beauty of natural selection.
Back when I was religious, we in the church used to talk about the “mysteries of faith” A prime example is the doctrine of the Trinity– God is one, yet the godhead contains three distinct but equal “persons.” One can have a lot of fun pondering this “mystery.” Theologians even write lengthy treatises on the distinction between the “economic Trinity” and the ” immanent Trinity” (or “ontological Trinity.”) The problem of course is that the “mystery” of the Trinity is not a mystery at all. None of this means anything. While the mystery of the gecko’s climbing ability is based on something real we observe in nature, the mystery of the Trinity is not based on any observation or empirical evidence of any kind whatsoever. You can’t watch the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit interacting and then describe what you saw. There’s nothing to go on.
Religion misuses the term mystery. You just can’t make stuff up and then, because you have no explanation for what you made up, chalk it up to mystery. In my experience the “mysteries of faith” often become a burden to the faithful who struggle to get their heads around things like the Trinity or the “real presence” of Christ in bread and wine, and then feel like they are sub-standard believers because they can’t fathom the theologians’ supposedly profound insights. It’s nuts.
Leaving the crazy metaphysics behind doesn’t make the world any less wondrous. Quite the contrary. Looking at the world from a naturalistic perspective is far more interesting than anything theology could possibly dream up.
Let me close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Dan Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell,” where he talks about developing an “awestruck vision of the world.”
“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both it’s glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” (p.303)
Question from a reader: “Surely people have doubted their religions for centuries, yet all of the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Perhaps it is our more recent understanding of science that has helped fuel the growth of religious dissent. How is it that we can still have so many people DEEPLY devoted to religion in the face of all we know?
Well, the short answer to the last question is that old habits die hard. And religion is a very old habit–a habit which evolved tens of thousands of years ago while the human brain was still developing. The human brain tends to naturally believe in gods because in our prehistoric past belief in the tribal myths conferred various survival advantages.
On one level, humans have a natural tendency to over-infer agency; we are predisposed to see threats to our existence everywhere. We tend to assume the worst–that the stick shaped like a snake is, in fact, a snake. A noise in the underbrush could be a predator. Natural selection of course would favor individuals who successfully avoided predators. And that’s a big reason why humans today still see agency everywhere, even where it’s not. The old Christian hymn “This is My Father’s World” expresses this primitive impulse: “In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.”
Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes also discovered that devotion to the gods was an effective tool for tribal cohesion. The threats and rewards of religion motivated people to sacrifice and even die for the tribe. In the prehistoric world of almost constant inter-tribal conflict, the tribe with the strongest religion would survive and the genetic algorithm for religiosity would proliferate. It’s a little bit of an over-simplification, but not much.
So why do people still believe? Because belief is in our DNA. Science, however, having emerged long after the human brain evolved does not come naturally to us.
In your question you said that all the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Actually that seems to be changing fairly quickly. In the parts of the world with access to better education, religion is stagnating or declining. There are very few believing Christians left in Western Europe. Religious Buddhism (as opposed to the non-theistic philosophy) hit a wall in Japan a long time ago. And this week the Southern Baptist Convention reported a loss of members for the fifth year in a row, which is astonishing for this powerhouse evangelical denomination. I think it’s a pretty clear indication of where the culture is going.
My latest TV addiction is The Borgias on Showtime, an historical drama portraying the exploits of the infamous family of Pope Alexander VI in the late 15th Century. Great writing, great acting, great production values. It’s just fun to watch. With all the church-sponsored wars, torture, heretic-burning, and papal children, this mini-series just might do more to discredit organized religion than the writings of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens) Sure it’s historical fiction, but I don’t think they have really had to embellish the dark side of Christian history all that much. The show should help dispel the myth that the Church has been mystically guided and protected by the Holy Spirit through the centuries.
But while I was watching the show this question came to mind: Is religion the problem or the symptom? What I mean is– would all the crusades, inquisitions, and witch-hunts of history have happened anyway, regardless of what religion was in power? Let’s say Christianity did not become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, but Mithraism or the cult of Osiris instead. Would Galileo still have been declared dangerous for putting forth a view of the cosmos that conflicted with the conventional wisdom?
Homo Sapiens is an intensely and incorrigibly tribal species. We naturally look for ways to define “the other.” And religion has been one of the most potent expressions of our tribal tendencies. I’d be willing to bet that for most believers today, the tribal identity of their religion matters far more than the metaphysical claims. And that, of course, is one reason atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers are so often perceived to be such a threat. Our ancestral past has generally conditioned most people to viscerally condemn and ostracize those who threaten the tribe. Most people don’t want to be sitting in the home team bleachers wearing the colors of the visiting team.
Well, the days of the Borgias are clearly not entirely behind us. There are still plenty of religious folk who would like to impose their ways on others. Last week I read in The Times that Buddhists and Muslims are now fighting in Myanmar. Buddhists?! I thought they were supposed to be peaceful. Go figure.
But the quickly increasing numbers of skeptics and doubters gives me hope. Maybe we as a species are slowly and painfully maturing. Maybe we are gradually shedding the parochial tribalism of the past as we come to understand that the only hope for the future of our fragile planet is to recognize all humans as members of the same tribe.
The Japanese are among the least religious people on the planet–even less religious than Scandinavians. Yet, when a child is born in Japan, the parents will more than likely dress up in formal kimonos and take the baby to the local shrine to be blessed by a Shinto priest. Marriages, on the other hand, frequently take place in wedding chapels that look like churches, complete with a pseudo-Christian marriage ceremony, while funerals are almost always conducted by a Buddhist priest. And there are other widely observed rituals as well, such as the holiday, “Seijinnohi” which marks the passage to adulthood for young people.Of course other cultures around the have analogous rituals. The former East Germany instituted a Communist rite for young people to compete with the Christian confirmation ceremony.
The universality of ceremonies and rites of passage suggests that the need for ritual predates religion. Indeed, burial sites from other hominid species such as homo habilis show evidence of ritual behavior. Religions clearly did not create their ceremonies and sacraments by divine decree; they merely tapped into a market for ritual that was already there.
Take baptism (or christening) for example. Very few people probably think that baptism has anything at all to do with the salvation of a baby, even though that’s the party line. There is simply an understandable and universal impulse to express joy and gratitude over the gift of new life. The particular theology surrounding the rite is ancillary.
The need for rituals, ceremonies and rites of passage is probably so deeply engrained in us as a species, that we’ll never get rid of it, even if most of humanity eventually becomes non-theistic. This is just part of who we are. Western Europeans mostly don’t go to church and don’t believe in God any more, but they still like Christmas as much as anybody.
So we probably don’t have to worry that the Jehovah’s Witnesses will ever take over the world. Their hostility towards birthdays and other holidays is a fundamental denial of human nature. That’s no fun.
Oh, and for the record, I would love to see Darwin Day (February 12) added to the mix of holidays.
In the weeks since my apostasy more than a few believers have asked me something along these lines: “How can you give up the beautiful Christian vision of humanity’s divine purpose and exchange it for the grim world of Darwinian selection where the strong survive and the weak die? It seems so empty.”
Well first of all, natural selection describes the world we actually find ourselves in. Living according to reality seems like a better course to take than basing one’ s life on unfounded metaphysical claims and wishful thinking.
Secondly, natural selection is not simply “survival of the fittest.” There’s much more to the story of life on our planet than “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. These types of reactions suggest that Darwinian thought is still widely misunderstood. Yes, the brutal elements of life are the result of the struggle for survival. But religion doesn’t have any more palatable answers for the violence in nature. Who’s God rooting for anyway? The lion or the zebra? He “made” both the predator and the prey.
But if life comes with a lot of ugliness, it also comes with much beauty. Our sense of aesthetics, too, is the result of natural selection. Altruism, love, courage, devotion to friends and family, creativity–all of these attributes evolved in our ancestral past long before religion ever came on the scene, and they can be amply explained without recourse to myth.
Speaking only for myself, I can tell you that learning to look at the world through Darwinian lenses has brought me more feelings of transcendence in recent months than traditional religion ever did. Evolution teaches us to appreciate our proper role in the world, as a unique but fragile species that really has not been around all that long. Genesis teaches us that humanity has “dominion” over the earth. Evolution teaches us that we are related to all life forms on the planet.
One night in Japan year ago I was sharing a couple rounds of after-dinner sake, sitting on the tatami at the home an older friend. Out of the blue he said, “Mike-san, have I ever told you what I was doing when the war ended?” No, he hadn’t. I really knew nothing about his younger days. “I was in the Navy training to be a kamikaze pilot. But the war ended before I could fly my mission. It’s almost incomprehensible now, but at the time I could think of no higher honor. I wanted to die for the emperor. Then when the war ended and the emperor renounced his divinity, I felt utterly lost.”
In his latest book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, E.O. Wilson describes the power of myth to bind people together and inspire sacrificial behavior. All cultures have had creation myths and other narratives that have provided a sense of group cohesion and made the tribe stronger. Once upon in the ancestral past, it may have been impossible for a group to survive without such myths. The story of my Japanese friend is an example of how powerful those myths can be and how the yearning for an explanatory narrative must be deeply implanted in the human psyche. He was a not a dumb man. Quite the contrary. He was highly educated, a polyglot, and after the war ultimately went on to enjoy a successful career. Yet, somehow, in his younger days, a sense of tribal loyalty overrode his talent, his intelligence, and even his desire to live. Scary.
Creation myths and religious narratives may have been necessary in our tribal past, but the world has clearly become too small for them now. All over the planet people with competing mythical narratives threaten the survival of all of us. Iranian leaders have said they want to wipe out Israel. Muslims and Christians are killing each other in Nigeria. India and Pakistan, both armed with nuclear weapons, have an uneasy coexistence. And in the U.S. we have plenty of Christian fundamentalists who would like to hasten Armageddon.
The choice is pretty clear: cling to our myths and wreck humanity, or find a new narrative that helps us see all of humans as members of the same fragile tribe. The narrative of evolution would be a good place to start.
Picking up on yesterday’s post about the demise of theology…
Within the past twenty years or so we have seen an explosion of new insights about the origins of homo sapiens. Fields such as evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics and paleoanthropology are challenging many long-held assumptions about human nature. For the most part, however, theologians and preachers have been completely absent from the discussion. Almost every week the NY Times’ science page reports important new findings from these fields of study. Yet the preachers I watch on television and follow online never reference the knowledge revolution that is going on around them, despite the fact that there are implications for almost every core doctrine of Christian orthodoxy: creation, the “fall,” redemption, free will—-just to name a few.
- If Jesus died for the sins of humanity, was his atoning death efficacious also for all hominid species? What about Neanderthals, homo erectus, or homo habilis? Did they need saving too? If not, why not?
- If original sin is limited to homo sapiens, why is that so, and when did original sin take root?
- At what point in the evolutionary process was a “soul” inserted into the genus Homo?
It seems like these would be questions religious people might like to ponder, but the conversation has not been happening. Theologians and preachers routinely assert that God endowed us with “free will” so that we can “freely” respond to God’s love, but any discussion of free will that does not also address neurochemical and genetic issues is utterly pointless.
And why aren’t seminaries and other schools of religion offering mandatory courses on the neurology of belief? Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain would be a good place to start. It seems that people preparing for a career in the belief business might want to know at least a little something about the role neurotransmitters play in religious experience.
It’s not happening because those engaged in theology have largely decided to live in an intellectual isolation of their own choosing.