Monday, June 01, 2009

God on the Brain

So who created whom?

Recently several scientific articles have been published that describe how a belief in God and the idea of Creation may be "wired" into our brains, and that these beliefs may have evolved in us because they were beneficial to our survival.

Oddly enough, the first conclusion that comes to mind is that this means God is just a figment of our imaginations. But this is just another example of how our minds work. Belief in something is no proof it is false any more than it proves it is true; it is simply belief. Our beliefs may be based on observation, logical deduction, and reasoning, or they may be based on faith, superstition, or whatever innate sense we have of right and wrong. Belief can even be purely pragmatic, leading us to believe whatever seems to work at the moment, even if it is contradictory. Thus I might be an ardent supporter of the right to privacy, but still be in favor of wiretapping when it makes me feel safer. (It doesn't, by the way.)

As to the survival value of religious systems, you could certainly argue both ways. It might be the case that believing in something larger than ourselves can induce us to sacrifice our individual survival for that of the whole species. On the other hand, look how quickly Christianity evolved from a doctrine of love and charity to the bloodbath of the Crusades and the horrors of the Inquisition. Wouldn't we have done better to avoid those chapters of our history? Of course, some would argue that is what happens when we turn religious faith into religious organizations or institutions, which behave more the way states and politicians behave than like the figures such as Jesus and Buddha who inspired them.

And when it comes to personal sacrifice, consider the case of the house cat I saw on the news who repeatedly entered a burning house to pull out her kittens one by one. The poor feline had her ears burned, her eyes blistered shut, and the fur singed from her face, yet she saved their lives. It would seem that we could achieve as much for our collective survival just by emulating this cat, tapping into this same deeply seated instinct in our own animal brains, without having to resort to a belief in anything supernatural.

I'm a little surprised there hasn't been more of an outcry against this new research by the proponents of Intelligent Design. You might expect it to start another round in the battle of the Jesus-fish emblems seen on the backs of cars. You know the ones. The first fish contains the letters "Jesus." The second fish, with legs, contains "Darwin." The third fish is a pair of them -- a smaller Darwin fish being eaten by a larger one labeled "TRUTH." And now we seem to have the potential for an Evolution fish big enough to swallow a God fish.

But I think a better parable would be the one about Li Po, the ancient Chinese poet who, on waking up, could not decide if he had been dreaming he was a butterfly, of if he were now a butterfly dreaming he was Li Po. If God did not exist, would we create one? If God created us, would we believe it? If we didn't believe it would it still be true? If we were God, and forgot how we had created ourselves, could we find out?

1 comment:

  1. Michael2:43 PM

    Nicholas Wade lays out the genetic determinism case in _Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors_ – terrific book. He has a chapter on the religion question, but it’s toward the end, along with case studies of other cultural phenomenona found in all human societies, like dance or hair dressing. Wade’s big story is the story of speech, which he says emerged as a result of a specific genetic mutation, to the FOXP2 gene…you could look it up...about 50,000 years ago. This date is significant – it’s the moment when homo sapiens sapiens, ie us, emerged from Africa, and began the process of populating the entire world. It’s also the moment when the Neanderthal population of Europe began to decline rapidly. In Wade’s view this was no coincidence – he hypothesizes that the more physically powerful Neanderthals had confined homo sapiens sapiens to the later species native west African habitat, but that with the emergence of speech…well, let’s just say that humans have quite a track record against other large mammal populations.

    I studied anthropology in the ‘60s so I was familiar with a lot of the “early man” archeology; what I didn’t know about was the material on the human genome. The “development of speech” hypothesis is right in the middle of this story – the reason we can date the FOXP2 mutation so specifically is…well...it’s on the technical side, but I think it has something to do with the number of cobwebs found on old versions of the gene…OK, maybe that’s not quite it, either, but it’s very scientific and very convincing….Anyway, here’s a vividly written book that frames prehistoric human culture, including religion, as the result of a Darwinian sea of mutations and natural selection. Not really surprising, then, that religion is not privileged over manifestations of human culture….