Part 3: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t?
”Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.”
– Albert Camus
Let me start with this: It may be the case that the unbelievers, the nonreligious, the atheists, the debunkers of superstition, the falsifiers of the supernatural, and probably most apostates, are all wrong; that it is the inherent nature of man to experience, embrace, and be comforted and informed by spirituality and faith and a sense of the transcendent, and that, therefore, it is the nonbelievers who are denying natural law, which ironically, through their philosophy, and to the extent religiosity is a “natural state,” would thereby be an aberration; i.e., supernaturally-challenged. “Faith” and “belief” in the supernatural and the paranormal, contrary to the perfectly logical arguments against the possibility of such phenomena, may be both “natural” and “normal.” If any of this is true, then maybe we Humanists, atheists, and freethinkers need to revisit, reexamine and rethink what we mean by “Natural Law,” since adherence to any of the major religions may be a completely natural phenomenon. Maybe it’s we nonbelievers who are out of sync with nature.
I’m sure many of you are somewhat flummoxed at the foregoing proposition. And that’s an understandable reaction. Your discomfort is most likely attributable to your cool, detached, rational intellectualization of the historical, cultural and social influences that have evolved into the religions we know of today. And of course that is also the traditional means by which religion is deconstructed by nonbelievers, with most of the emphasis on its negative aspects. But this is not about the metaphysicists or the logicians or the historians, or even the scholars of religion. This is about recognizing a part of human nature – the operative word here being “nature” – in the way it manifests faith and belief in an external transcendent entity, however defined, as a matter of biological evolution, brain chemistry, and, perhaps, even quantum physics.
But neither is this about materialism or scientism. David Hume begins his essays in the “Natural History of Religion” with this (with my underscores added):
“As every enquiry, which regards religion, is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular, which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature. Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion. But the other question, concerning the origin of religion in human nature, is exposed to some more difficulty. The belief of invisible, intelligent power has been very generally diffused over the human race, in all places and in all ages; but it has neither perhaps been so universal as to admit of no exception, nor has it been, in any degree, uniform in the ideas, which it has suggested.“
Eat, Pray, Survive
On May 22, 2011, my hometown of Joplin, Missouri, was savagely attacked by an EF-5 tornado, with wind speeds estimated between 261 and 318 mph. Several of my family members live there and, thankfully, none were hurt. However, my niece and her family lost their home, or, as shown in the adjacent photo, most of it. The pictures and video of the extensive damage, about one-third of the city, were painful for me to see; childhood memories made unrecognizable by the fury of wind. The city will no doubt recover, as most cities do after natural disasters.
From recordings made during the storm, and in interviews after it had passed by, most all of the victims invoked some reference to prayer, with the occasional mention of “a miracle” thrown in as they stood amidst the terrible destruction. Of course, what they really meant was that they, and their family and friends, had pleaded for and were granted safety from physical harm, or even death. This, they attribute to Devine intervention. Their prayers worked, miracles happened, and they survived.
Being a Humanist, I found myself empathizing with these folks. They were, after all, looking for an explanation for the inexplicable, while, at the same time, trying to shield themselves from the anguish and grief that always attend such tragedies. I could feel their pain and it was made more intense because this city was my home for the first eighteen years of my life. And that pain was intensified after I saw the extent of the damage up close and personal.
But I was not always empathetic. When tragedies like this had struck in other places where, with declarations of prayers answered and miracles performed, I was more of a mind to mock and ridicule. After all, I knew what the religionists were afraid to admit, that there is no supernatural force that answers requests to perform magic tricks, no wizard behind the curtain. I’m not too proud of that now. A non-theist with attitude is a New Atheist, I tell myself. The intolerance and disdain of religion by the Gnus are not desirable attributes for a Humanist; not this one anyway.
But the bigger question here is what causes an almost ubiquitous appeal to some greater power in times of tragedy and thereafter by those affected. Superficially, the cause seems to derive from the local culture, a tribal kind of thing; the nurture aspects. But I think it runs deeper than that. I think it’s an integral part of human nature and that it rests on the cusp of the physical and the psychological.
Dr. Frankenstein Meets Dr. Newburg
A new science has come to the fore in recent years. It’s called “Neurotheology,” and it is purported to be the scientific study of religious or spiritual experiences and feelings by fusing the fields of psychology and neuroscience. One of the most prominent leaders in this new science is Dr. Andrew Newberg, who is Director of Research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Newburg has written a number of books on neurotheology, including, “How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist,” “The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience,” co-authored with the late Dr. Eugene G. d’Aquili, and “Principles of Neurotheology,” which is a compendium of his research since 1999.
Dr. Newburg bases his research on brain scans, seeing what areas of the brain light up when the subject is engaged in a variety of religious/spiritual activities like prayer and meditation. Some of the subjects have included Franciscan nuns, Tibetan Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues. The significance of these studies is to show how the brain facilitates spiritual, religious, or mystical experiences. By Dr. Newburg’s account, the hardwiring of the human brain not only makes religion possible, but also makes it capable of being passed on through our genes (not memes) as a physically distinct mechanism of cultural transmission. If so, then religion, spirituality, and mysticism have been selected by our prehistoric ancestors as an adaptive behavior, thus making those concepts a legitimate part of our evolutionary heritage.
Dr. Newburg has identified several areas of the brain he says play a key roil in religiosity. The frontal lobe, the area right behind our foreheads, Newburg says, helps us focus on prayer and meditation. The parietal lobe, located near the backs of our skulls, is the seat of our sensory information, which Newberg says is involved in that feeling of becoming part of something greater than oneself. Then there is the limbic system, located in the mid-brain, that regulates our emotions and is responsible for feelings of awe and joy, among many others.
Alas, the neurological community is not too enthusiastic about Neurotheology, claiming that the findings so far are ambiguous and inconclusive. Newburg’s neuroimaging, say critics, could as easily be identified with sexual arousal, or in reaction to, say, the climactic end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Of course, the religious community sees these results as a validation of the teleological argument – Devine Design – our brains being God-given and all. And, indeed, Newburg has been called an accommodationist and a religion apologist by some atheists. That said, work by other scientists in this new discipline of neurotheology has produced some other results worth noting.
Survival by Natural Selection
Very early on, I suppose our ancestors must have first had a kind of profound sense, a feeling if you will, of a higher power, something far beyond themselves, a felt presence, a connection to nature, the universe. Then, along with this sensation of “transcendence,” their evolving brains must have began considering how best to help assure their own survival, which, in turn, must have lead to their ability to imagine, and then to the concept of causality. Into this mix comes language and with it the means of communication between and among their kin/clan/tribe and inter-personal socialization.
Early humans also had to impute meaning and purpose to the events going on around them and then devise strategies for dealing with them. They must have had faith in the answers they devised, which were then combined into a system of beliefs.
These predicates – the feelings of transcendence, the need for survival, understanding causality (etiology,) the ability to imagine, the use of language, the security provided by socialization, and the capacity to give it all a coherent meaning – is a really good recipe for organizing and establishing religion.
But how much of this is subject to biological evolution? From what I’ve been able to find out, Cognitive scientists now generally believe that religion is natural part of mind-brain duality. There is disagreement, however, as to the mechanism or mechanisms involved. Some scientists hold to the “Dual inheritance theory” (DIT), also known as gene-culture co-evolution, to show how human behavior is a product of two evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Under DIT, culture is defined as information in our brains that got there by social learning, (“memes?”) whereas cultural evolution is considered a natural selection process that acts on cultural information in the same way as genetic evolution.
A Wikipedia entry titled, “Evolutionary Origin of Religions,” (slightly edited by me,) explains it this way:
“Human contact with the environment as of all creatures is through the sensory mechanism. The greater the number of senses, the greater is the comprehension. In the case of humans, the message reaches the brain and there it is given meaning in the light of individual experience. The meaning consists of the explanation that the brain provides. When natural causes are not available for comprehending an experience, the brain has to assume imaginary causes and often these are of a supernatural kind. Shared by a group through language, the generally acceptable explanation gains credibility and becomes part of the social consensus and its religion. In time, the advance of scientific knowledge based on experimental validation gradually, often after initial social resistance, replaces the unsubstantiated or supernatural explanation as a part of cultural evolution. Beliefs, like the belief in God, that cannot be falsified by experiment continue to form religious belief, the strength of which is drawn essentially from emotion.”
But beliefs are also useful in enhancing, if not protecting, basic human needs. Back in 1950’s a psychologist named Abraham Maslow developed what he called a “Hierarchy of Needs.” The hierarchy was depicted graphically as a pyramid with the most important needs at the base then in decreasing level of importance to the top. (Maslow was also a founder of “Humanistic Psychology” and, in 1967, was named “Humanist of the Year” by the American Humanist Association.)
The first three levels of the hierarchy – biological and physiological needs, safety needs, and belonging and love needs – lend themselves to a system of spiritual or deistic beliefs. But at the root of these needs is survival. Our biological purpose in life is to reproduce and to live long enough to teach our offspring how to survive. However, we humans take this a step further and, by way of our religion, believe we can survive even after death.
Seen in this light, when the victims of Joplin’s tornado, or any other disaster, say they prayed, that meant they hoped to survive. And when they exclaimed “miracle,” that was a declaration of their own survival or of their loved ones. Even those who died were said by their relatives to have “gone to a better place,” or “to be with God/Jesus/The Lord,” thereby asserting the need for survival posthumously. (Of course, we nonbelivers know there is no afterlife.)
Such appeals to the supernatural, when driven by a genetic mandate to survive, are therefore perfectly natural. And this, in my view, is the raison d’etre for religion that has came down through the ages. There was a kindly eye in the sky watching over the oppressed, the infirmed, the imprisoned, the slaves, those facing hard times, and even the rank and file of the common man; what the French called the “Third Estate.” When trouble is a-coming, the religious go a-praying.
Getting Your God Genes to Fit
In his 2005 book, “The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes,” molecular biologist Dean Hamer, chief of the Gene Structure Regulation Unit of the National Cancer Institute, claims that not only is human spirituality an adaptive trait, but that he has located one of the genes responsible, a gene that just happens to also code for production of the neurotransmitters that regulate our moods – the VMAT2 gene.
Dr. Hamer’s findings are based on a study involving 1,001 men and women who were asked to take a standard personality test, which included a section that measures a trait called “self-transcendence.” Self-transcendence is defined as the ability to get so wrapped up in an experience as to lose one’s sense of self, a feeling of being connected to the larger universe, and an open mind to events not readily explainable. Using this trait as a measure of spirituality, Hamer found that the VMAT2 gene was present in those who scored high on the self-transcendence test. Moreover, Hamer found a correlation between the sequence of the base pairs in this gene and the degree of spirituality reflected in the self-transcendence test.
Dr, Hamer is quick to caution, however, that having the VMAT2 gene, and the feelings of self-transcendence that are apparently triggered by it, does not mean that an individual will become an adherent of a formal religion. Nonetheless, this study shows that our most profound feelings of spirituality may simply be the result of the synaptic dance triggered by a certain cocktail of brain chemicals (called monoamines) that are, in turn, governed by our DNA.
Not all geneticists agree with Dr. Hamer, of course, and even he would agree that the self-transcendence phenomenon is probably much more complicated that the workings of a single gene. That said, it may be the case that those who have the VMAT2 gene (with the right sequence of base pairs) are more likely to be religiously inclined than those whose VMAT2 gene is deficient, or dormant, or absent.
Of course, religious belief also draws upon the emotions like love, fear, and gregariousness, which are deeply embedded in the limbic system and these emotions were the result of sociobiological conditioning and social sanction. Now, since individual religious belief comes, in part, from the “reasoning” provided by the neocortex, it is often at odds with faith. Thus, reason is pre-empted by emotional drives. However, the religious feelings generated in a religious setting such as a church is emotionally different from individual spirituality even though the congregation is composed of individuals. Belonging to a collective religion, it seems, is culturally more important than individual spirituality though the two often go hand in hand.
From an evolutionary perspective, the selective advantage here, argues Dr, Hamer, is that the mood-altering enzymes, the aforementioned monoamines, associated with belief and spirituality also produce a sense of optimism. He writes (“The God Gene,” p.12):
“At the psychological level, optimism is the will to keep on living and procreating, despite the fact that death is ultimately inevitable. At the physical level, studies show that optimism seems to promote better health and quicker recovery form disease, advantages that would help us live long enough to have and raise children and pass on our genetic heritage.”
There is some antidotal evidence to support this notion. We know from history, for example, that many nations banned religion in an effort to become pure secular states. France, for example, had a brief experiment with this during the French Revolution. They called it the “Cult of Reason.” But, the rebellion against this ill-conceived program to eradicate religion was so strong that it lasted only seven months, when it was then replaced by a state religion, the “Cult of the Supreme Being.” (Not too creative, those French.) We know too that both the former Soviet Union and Mao’s China outlawed religion and prosecuted violators. Despite the dangers, however, estimates run as high as fifty percent of the population of those countries who continued their religious practices. Clearly, the drive to sustain the religious experience as a way of meeting the need for survival is often stronger than the threat of harm. Religion, it seems, is much more than just a coping mechanism, more than being an activist for a cause. It is a need for connectedness; a joint spiritual imperative.
I’m no scientist, much less a geneticist, but these findings, even if they are only half right, support the notion that belief and faith in something beyond ourselves, some force out there in the ether, is an integral part of human nature and, arguably, a catalyst for our need for community. Therefore, non-believers, non-theists, critics of religion, and cynics who would lambast the faithful for believing in a higher power are effectively attacking human nature, even human evolution itself. They are the ones in wheelchairs mocking those who can walk.
In part 4 of this series, “God on the Brain and Other Weird Stuff,” I will examine more of the neurology and mind-body duality associated with the feeling of religious experience along with some aspects of quantum theory that impact on the realness of reality and its implications for our relationship to each other and the universe.