I’ve been hanging onto an article for awhile now, it’s most recent incarnation was in the Los Angeles Times, “Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods,” by J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer. It appealed to me for a couple of reasons even though I don’t entirely agree with it. One, it is a clear example of how science grapples with its own belief systems and truths. Two, it’s an intriguing idea that we might be DNA-programmed to actually be social and that this leads directly to belief in God. I find the latter idea a bit of a stretch.
For example, we are born with a powerful need for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance.
Scientists have so far identified about 20 hard-wired, evolved “adaptations” as the building blocks of religion. Like attachment, they are mechanisms that underlie human interactions: Brain-imaging studies at the National Institutes of Health showed that when test subjects were read statements about religion and asked to agree or disagree, the same brain networks that process human social behavior — our ability to negotiate relationships with others — were engaged.
Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce “out-group” hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example, or the doctrinal battles between Protestant and Catholic reflect our “groupish” tendencies.
In addition to these adaptations, humans have developed the remarkable ability to think about what goes on in other people’s minds and create and rehearse complex interactions with an unseen other. In our minds we can de-couple cognition from time, place and circumstance. We consider what someone else might do in our place; we project future scenarios; we replay past events. It’s an easy jump to say, conversing with the dead or to conjuring gods and praying to them.
Morality, which some see as imposed by gods or religion on savage humans, science sees as yet another adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection.
While I do believe that there are millions, if not billions, of sentient species throughout the universe, all on a similar growth pattern that we’re experiencing through an evolving Essence, a spark of the Tao, one doesn’t have to go there to cast doubt on the “specialness” of human social behavior. There are myriad social and non-social creatures on earth. They range from the extremely anti-social who only randomly meet up for mating according to their cycles to the intensely hive-oriented species, such as bees, ants, and termites. Humans and simians fall in between, along with elephants, prairie dogs, and cetaceans.
Similarly, I believe that creative thinking, imagining, is part of the process for a more developed or evolved species. Who knows that dreams the queen imagines for her hive? Or the shy octopus hiding under a rock and waiting for prey to come by? It is sheer ego and hubris to believe that ONLY humans can imagine their beginnings. Although, we do it with great flair as we have a combination of language and recording abilities.
Religion isn’t a whole lot different from other forms of fictive writing. Speculative fiction has been a part of our interpreting the night skies since we were little more than tree-dwellers. Fear and ego combined to believe that everything has a cause and effect, even if it’s a misinterpretation. Even modern man in an urban environment creates “urban legends” on a regular basis. All belief systems are based on some facts, facts that are misconstrued into being more meaningful than they are. All belief systems are a synthesis of other belief systems, a picking and choosing of which facts are relevant and which ones aren’t.
This IS part of us being a social creature. We begin learning what others think from birth through imprinting. It’s a thoroughly ingrained habit for the remainder of our lives. Very few can step outside the box of accepting what others think at least some of the time. So, yes, we ARE groupish. We do group think. This is the basis of all of our personal and global truths. We may change groups, but they will always be comprised of highly inaccurate individual thinkers who have adopted someone else’s thoughts. But, I think this is the essential mechanism of any social species.
DNA implies hard-wired instinct. And, social groups are a step up from instinct — there is a teaching mechanism involved, too. Teaching involves choice. There is always a choice to think independently and create something new. Creative thinking is taking what one believes and imagining a new possibility. It doesn’t make it TRUE, it simply makes a new possibility.
Although, there are those who believe that everything about your reality is self-created. And, while this might be the ultimate truth, it’s well beyond this mind, even though I do toy with it on occasion. Every time I get a little too dogmatic, I attempt to visualize the trillions of vastly separated atoms that comprise my body. How insubstantial I really am. What a mind it is that holds these atoms into a single evolving form over a lifetime. Who am I?