Friday, November 20, 2009

God be in my genes (Sunday Reflections for November 22, 2009)

“God be in my head” is a late-medieval poem and popular contemporary choral text. If the recent conclusions of some anthropologists and other scientists are accurate, it might be appropriate to update it with a new line, “God be in my genes.”

An article in last Sunday’s New York Times, “The Evolution of the God Gene,” highlighted the results of studies looking into the question of whether we have an inherited disposition toward religion and belief in God. NYT science reporter Nicholas Wade is the author of a new book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.He says in the article:

[R]esearch is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.

Such an idea is controversial for several reasons. First, it assumes that natural selection can favor traits beneficial to a group and not just an individual. Rejected for a long time (though suggested by Darwin himself), the idea has recently begun to be viewed more favorably.

In a completely different context, I recently heard a group-benefiting explanation for ADD. While ADD is a problem for individuals (especially in modern society), this theory hypothesizes that clans or tribes would benefit from having a small number of people with a hyper-awareness of the surrounding environment. That way, when everyone was sitting around the campfire telling stories, it would be good if at least one person wasn’t paying attention so he or she could hear that lion in the bush getting ready to pounce on them.

Similarly, anthropologists are recognizing how religious behavior could have been favorable for our ancestors, both pre-historic and more recent. In various ways, religion served to create group cohesion, promoting cooperation and self-sacrifice. It also gave a mystical and sacred quality to people’s primary activities, first as hunter-gatherers and later in the cycles of agricultural production. It also supported and gave structure to life’s stages: birth, adolescence, marriage, death.

Wade notes that ironically both militant atheists and ardent believers will probably be uncomfortable with the idea that religion has evolved. Many atheists don’t believe religion can be of any value and believers don’t like the idea that religion exists because it’s “useful”—they prefer to believe it exists because it’s “true.”

But Wade doesn’t think either group needs to feel threatened. Rather, he believes this could provide a place for the two sides to meet. One can accept the social value of religion and our inherited “knack” for it without having to accept the truth of any particular religion. We all have an inherited ability to acquire language, for example, but whether that’s English, French or Swahili is based on our individual circumstances. Our religious preference could work the same.

I also wonder if these studies don’t give us some clues about why contemporary religion is floundering, especially in modern Western societies. For centuries and generations, religion served as a “glue” that bound people together in communities and gave their collective lives meaning and structure. This was experienced primarily through ritual activities and shared stories.

In modern times, however, religion has become more about theological ideas and doctrines believed by each person individually. We champion freedom of religion so that you can have your beliefs and I can have mine. Our beliefs, we say, are our private business. Following the Reformation, people with similar beliefs banded together in churches and denominations. Yet the glue of those beliefs is just what seems to be failing. Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic—how many know or care anymore what sets each of them apart?

We know that previous religious activities included things like feasts, stories ritually re-enacted, and dancing. Today we see that many of these have been transformed into secular events. Crowd behavior at rock concerts and football games has a lot of similarity with ancient religious rituals and festivals.

We will soon gather for Thanksgiving, a curious blend of both secular and religious tradition in which everyone can participate regardless of religious affiliation or beliefs. Christmas, on the other hand, is in a bit of a tug-of-war. Some want to be like Thanksgiving: a holiday for all. Others want to “put Christ back in Christmas” and limit it to believing Christians. I’m not sure Macy’s would be very happy with that—or Santa, or Bob Cratchit.

Religion based on doctrines and on what people think doesn’t seem to be doing very well. It just isn’t very—useful. Clearly, though, we aren’t reverting back to the times of hunter-gatherers or primitive agriculture. Returning to ancient religious forms wouldn’t work either.

But what if it is true that religion meets a deep-seated need for us, both individually and socially? Our hyper-individualism often leaves us isolated and anxious. Yet neither are we satisfied by the meaningless groupings of employment, government bureaucracy, or marketing demographics. How could religion genuinely connect us with our neighbor and give us a collective sense of purpose and meaning? I don’t have an answer to that but it does seem like it might be the right direction to look.

The world’s religions all agree that God is both immanent and transcendent—God is somehow both “here” and “everywhere” at the same time. Perhaps a new way to understand that is to recognize that God is, indeed, in our genes. In which case, finding a religious form for experiencing God appropriate to our time may well be right in front of us after all.

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful thoughts Doug. I too hope we can find useful new way to put these genes to use. I would hate to see them "fade". David Mc