Sunday, March 18, 2007

“Why Do We Believe?”: The Theological Implications

In the March 4th “New York Times Magazine,” Robin Marantz Henig explores “Why Do We Believe?” Her illuminating article presents evolutionary explanations for peoples’ belief in God. She also makes clear early on that the article does not probe the question of whether God exists. The quest for an answer to this age old question, she rightly maintains, is a matter for philosophers and theologians, and, indeed, the article leaves unexplored the theological implications of the exciting scientific information she presents. However, make no mistake; the explanations for our belief in God clearly have theological implications. From the explanations, it is possible, I think, to gain a picture of what God might be like if God were to exist and, further, the explanations point to the role we play in shaping our beliefs and making them more helpful for us.
Religion: a Byproduct of Evolution or an Adaptive Advantage?
Henig points out that although scientists studying the evolution of religion have different theories about how it came about, they mostly share one idea, namely, religion is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. Beyond that, they tend to fall into two schools of thought when asking why religion evolved. Is belief itself adaptive, giving believers a better chance at reproduction and survival, or is belief a mere byproduct of certain other evolutionary steps in the development of the human brain. Henig presents these as opposing views, and they may well be, but I tend to think that we are at the early stages of the exploration of the evolution of religious belief. Maybe the more mature development of our thinking will in time contain elements of both points of view.
Religious belief is widespread among humans. One U.S. survey in 2006 found that 92% of those responding believed in a personal God. Darwin noted in his “The Descent of Man” that “A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems universal.” Religions everywhere share certain supernatural beliefs: noncorporeal God or gods, an afterlife, and the ability of prayer to change the course of human events. And, in his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James asserted that “All of our raptures and our drynesses, and pantings, our questions and beliefs...are equally organically founded.” In other words, religion is deeply human; it’s part of our makeup for most of us. In fact, religious belief, and not a lack of it, appears to be the default position for the most human minds
But why? Those who maintain that religious belief is a byproduct of the evolution of our large brain propose that belief is a side consequence of the development of a structure of such complexity. Religious belief, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin have proposed, is a “spandrel,” a trait with no adaptive value of its own. A spandrel in architecture is the V-shaped structure formed between two rounded arches. It has no purpose on its own; rather, it comes into being when arches align.
But if religion is a spandrel, what is it a spandrel of? The byproduct explanation is that the hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among which were the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to develop causal narratives for natural events, and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires, and intentions. These abilities have been dubbed, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning, and theory of mind.
Our ability to detect possible agents primes our brains to believe in the supernatural, even when such beliefs confound logic. For example, agent detection can cause us to detect, in a shape just outside our direct view, someone long dead or a spirit ready to help or harm us. A second cognitive tool, our causal reasoning, leads us to impose a narrative with chronology and cause-and-effect logic on whatever we encounter, no matter how apparently random, while the third tool, the theory of mind, lets us to posit the presence of minds in ourselves and others, even though we cannot see or feel them. Our belief that we and others have minds leads us to accept the visible body and the invisible mind as separate. From there, the religious step is to posit that minds need not be in bodies and that there is an immaterial soul and a transcendent God. Scott Atran, a researcher in the field of the evolution of religion, calls the theory of mind folkpsychology, and he proposes that we’ve used it since prehistory to get along in life. Using folkpsychology, we anticipate the actions of others and this leads us to influence others to believe what we want them to believe, as in marriage, office politics, or poker. People without this trait, for example, those with autism, are impaired, because they are unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads. Folkpsychology clearly is necessary to succeed in life, but how or why does it lead so often to a belief in supernatural, omniscient minds? The proponents of the byproduct theory tend to think that these beliefs are of little use in finding food or producing more children, so why do they persist? Atran says that evolutionary changes that permit organisms to adapt better to their environment frequently are accompanied by byproducts. For example, blood is red not because red colored blood allows organisms to adapt better, but rather because the hemoglobin in the blood increases the chances for better adaptation. The redness of blood is a byproduct of the presence of hemoglobin, not an adaptive advantage. So, religion may be a byproduct of the three cognitive tools that have evolved allowing humans to adapt, survive, and reproduce and not an adaptive advantage in itself.
However, those who think that religion does indeed offer an adaptive advantage also point to folkpsychology to support their position. We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them. This is adaptive, because it can help us to outwit our enemies and get more food and fitter mates. However, imagining being dead is essentially impossible; we can not fill our conscious with a representation of no-conscious. We can not think about nothing, nor can we imagine what it would be for us not to exist. It’s much easier to imagine that our thinking somehow continues after our death. Belief in the afterlife is prevalent because we are not able to simulate our nonexistence. Thus, adaptationists say, belief is our fallback position; it is our reflexive style of thought. We have the capacity to reason about unexpected natural events and to see deeper meaning where there is none.
Such a capacity could be adaptive because religious belief can make people feel better, less tormented by thoughts of death, more focused on the future, and more willing to take care of themselves. As William James wrote, religion fills people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.” Religion’s costs to the individual in time and devotion may be outweighed by the benefits to the individual’s group, which being cohesive and focused as a result of common belief, can better compete for scarce resources.
Scientist were at one time confident that science would in time answer all the questions that religion traditionally answered and God would become the “God of the gaps,” needed less and less to answer life’s questions. Now, however, science seems to be showing us that the real gap that God fills is the emptiness in our big-brained mental architecture that we interpret as a yearning for the supernatural. Our drive to satisfy this yearning, say both the adaptationists and the byproduct theorists, may be an inevitable part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.
Theological Implications of the Evolution of Religion
Atran’s invoking tragedy when referring to human cognition is significant. Perhaps he believes it’s tragic for humans to believe in God, someone who he believes doesn’t exist, who, he believes, the theory of evolution has shown to be nonexistent.
Atran’s remarks show us his metaphysical framework. Metaphysical frameworks are the trains of causal reasoning, the second cognitive tool discussed above, that we all use to impose a narrative with chronology and cause-and-effect logic on all we experience. The metaphysical framework from which many scientists work is called materialism. This position is essentially tragic because this framework does not supply meaning, purpose, or God to the workings of nature. In this view, life and the cosmos have no inherent meaning. Materialists have answered, “Yes” to Peggy Lee’s question, “Is that all there is?” God is dead, a relic from our collective childhood. Evolution is mindless with no guiding hand. For Atran, and many evolutionary materialists, time’s colossal reach, chance, and natural selection are all that is needed to provide an adequate picture of the universe. All natural occurrences can be deciphered exclusively in terms of a temporally prior series of mechanical causes. There is no need to look above to perfect Platonic ideal forms, we need but look to the cosmic past for the fullest explanation of all things.
Everyone has a metaphysical framework. Even maintaining that we have no metaphysical framework is to have one. Often our metaphysical framework comes out of unexamined assumptions, and, furthermore, our metaphysical framework is a choice we make, consciously or unconsciously, and we can change our metaphysical framework by re-thinking it. In “God After Darwin” (2000), John F. Haught presents a metaphysical framework for evolution that is an alternative to the common materialistic framework. Although his argument is nuanced, his metaphysics focuses on five major ideas: 1) There are orders of complexity in the universe, 2) information inheres in complexity, 3) novelty is possible because of contingency, 4) with novelty, evolution moves toward the future, 5) God “lets the world be,” so that evolution can occur.
Orders of Complexity: Nature exhibits hierarchies of complexity. Molecules contain atoms, organisms are made up of cells, and ecosystems are the contexts for lives of individual organisms. Furthermore, evidence is growing that the more complex cannot be completely understood by analyzing the simpler components of the systems. If we try to understand the more complex by merely reducing them to their simpler parts, we lose a crucial aspect of complexity: information.
Information: Haught uses “information” metaphorically as that which inheres in the ordering of entities, including atoms, molecules, cells, genes, etc. Information is something “more” than exchanges along the matter-energy continuum. Not physically separate, information is logically distinguishable from mass and energy, and, although it has neither mass nor energy, it patterns simpler components into hierarchically distinct domains. Obvious examples of information inhering in the chemical and physical “stuff” of life are DNA molecules. Chemically and physically the substance of all DNA molecules is more or less the same. The important differences among them are informational. The sequences of the four molecules making up the larger DNA molecules form a code, different for each organism, and this code provides the information to produce different individuals. The presence of information in nature is not mystical or supernatural, but it is distinct from the mechanical or material causes that most scientists have assumed until lately are the only causes needed to explain completely the operation of the universe. The presence of information in a system is verifiable, but cannot be reduced to a mechanistic model. It seems to abide in the realm of “possibility” waiting to be actualized in time.
An example from Taoism can illustrate the concept of information. Wu Cheng (1249-1333) wrote: “If it were not for the hollow space of the vessel to contain things, there would be no space for storage. If it were not for the vacuity of the room between the windows and doors for lights coming in and going out, there would be no place to live.” These ideas recall the spandrel concept discussed above. A spandrel can be neutral or it can take on a function. For example, building a staircase produces a space underneath it: just a blank triangular shape that is like a spandrel, i.e., a byproduct of the building of the intended object, in this example, a staircase. However, if a closet is built in that space, then the space takes on a function, and, although this function is unrelated to that of the staircase, it is useful, and, significantly, that added usefulness also increases the information inhering in the physical materials.
Novelty because of contingency: Contingency is a major aspect of evolution. Mutations, which are chance, contingent changes in organisms’ genetic make-up, make evolution possible. Those mutations that give organisms an adaptive advantage permit them to reproduce more and, with time and more advantageous mutations, their progeny become more dominant. However, the events of evolution cannot be predicted in advance for the very reason that they are contingent. Their contingency makes them novel, and the past is not a guide to new evolutionary events. For example, the emergence of life and consciousness could not have been predicted from even a close scrutiny of the early cosmic events. Contingency is not a mask for a hidden necessity dictated by past events but not yet understood. Rather, it is the way the cosmos breaks out of subordination to habitual routine and opens itself to the future.
With novelty, evolution moves toward the future: With the recognition of unpredictable novelty as a central feature of evolution, we can shift our metaphysical focus from the inexorable, predictable working out of necessary past conditions to the contemplation of the unpredictable, unknown future, filled with both threat and promise. This metaphysics of hope looks toward a future in which the apparent chaos now may resolve into more meaningful patterning in the “fullness of time,” in “God’s time.”
God “lets the world be,” permitting evolution: Haught is a theist, not a non-realist, but his theism is such that it has similarities with Cupitt’s non-realism. This is particularly apparent with regard to Cupitt’s solar ethics. Cupitt maintains that we are to shine in the world for others like the sun. The sun does not grasp but empties itself, living and dying at the same time, and in so doing serves us all. Such solar language recalls the great hymn to Jesus in Philippians 2 that starts in verse 5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Jürgen Moltmann argues that the creation of the universe itself is not so much a display of divine might as a consequence of God’s self-restraint. In order to create heaven and earth, God emptied Godself of God’s all-plenishing omnipotence, and as Creator took the form of a servant.
Calvin wrote that the world is a theater with God as the audience. This vision of God’s emptying is as if a “theater” has been provided where the drama of creation could take place. Like all good dramas, this play has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Science has sketched the outlines of the beginning of the world and the middle, our current time, but the future only God knows.
A view of God as the God of the future, suggests not a God “up there,” but a God “up ahead,” drawing the whole creation forward into the future. In being the God of the future, God does not “micromanage” as a designer, but rather gives the world room to be itself. The world emerges as separate from and uncontrolled by God. This metaphysical and theological framework provides a way of bringing meaning not only to our bewilderment about our broken world and our individual suffering, but also the apparent struggle, waste, and suffering occasioned by evolution through natural selection.
Judaism and Christianity are clear sources for the idea of God of the future. God beckons Abram out of Ur to he knows not where with a promise that he will be the father of a mighty nation. Abram trusts the Promise, even when at times it seems impossible.
God leads the children of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Israelites’ trust is less like that of Abram and more like ours. The difficulties of life make the promise hard to believe, harder to hold on to.
In Baptism, Christians hear the promises of God’s companionship through life. Thus, the biblical witness stresses not only that God promises, but that God is with us, Emanuel, and doesn’t abandon us and our world, as we struggle to trust the promise of the future.
In the Bible, God’s promise takes many forms, but always the promise has to do with life: Will Abraham and Sarah not forever be infertile, but be blessed with a son, a new life? Will the Israelites find a new life in the Promised Land? Will the Baptized find new life each day in the promises given at the font? The answer that the faithful give all too often is “Yes, but.” We will live, but we will die. Yes, the Bible is clear, as is biology, that all who live will die. Death is the natural end of life, but death is not the end of our life with God. Although Christians proclaim the resurrection of Jesus as the first fruits of the general resurrection, since the Enlightenment the supernatural nature of resurrection has been a stumbling block to moderns, both Christians and Jews. Now Jon D. Levenson has published a powerful new book, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life,” which places resurrection at the center of Jewish understanding. Levenson writes: “Given the reality and potency ascribed to death throughout the Hebrew Bible, what overcomes it is nothing short of the most astonishing miracle, the Divine Warrior’s eschatological victory.” The Divine Warrior in the Hebrew Bible is not a figure of religious fanaticism who urges believers to kill for the greater glory of their God, but rather One who “will rule the world justly and its people in faithfulness,” delivering the weak and victimized from the stronger hand of the oppressor. Thus, Israel’s God, sets us, who are made in his image, a vivid example of God-like living. We in the West can particularly take note of our oppressive overuse of the earth’s resources at the expense of our weaker neighbors.
The Hermeneutic Circle
Walter Brueggemann’s in reviewing “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel,” in the February 6, 2007, “Christian Century,” comments that “ in resurrection, when we have the courage to overcome the intrusiveness of Enlightenment rationality, is vigorous and central to both Jews and Christians.” But how do we overcome the intrusive Enlightenment? Surely, we won’t by going down the dead-end road of fundamentalism. Perhaps a better route is suggested by Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutic circle in “The Symbolism of Evil.” He suggests that we moderns have lost our immediacy of belief, but we can aim at a second, post-critical naïveté in and through critical thinking. By interpreting, we can hear again. In hermeneutics, the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together. In the circle: “We must understand in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand.” In order to believe, we must practice religion, not merely think about it. In the phrasing of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390 - 465), it is the law of worship which founds or establishes the law of belief. Belief does not come first, then worship, but rather worship produces belief. By living in the circle of belief and interpretation, the future that God is leading us to will become ours.


Franklyn Springfield said...

Some simple concepts need mentioning. Developmental psychology has long known that the infant and young child are "imprinted" with models of their parents or parenting figures. This includes belief systems, ways of reasoning and correct ways of behaving. Since religious beliefs are so widely spread (for reason not yet fully understood) children and young people would tend to share (or reject) their parents religious views. In either case, the child would be reacting to this early "imprinting". Also,in a world so deeply religious, it takes a strong personality to rebel against the norm These simple explanations make superflous all of the complex speculations about the universality of relighous beliefs. Remember Ochams razor.
In a similar way metaphysical frameworks are not truly chosen but are imposed by early exposure. Think of the famous comment of the Jesuits about giving them the child for the first years.... Rebellion against such imposed frameworks nevertheless are in reaction to those frameworks.
And lastly, even though cause and effect are very popular concepts they omit the possibility of randomness and chaos. Not every effect has a cause!

Pete M said...

Thank you for your comment. Yes, imprinting from parents is probably part of the reason why people are religious, but it could be argued from the article that imprinting itself is a function of the brain’s architecture. Since religion may be the default position of most people because of the evolution of the brain, passing along religion is easy for parents to do and for young children to accept.
This is true at least early on. In spite of the Jesuits, critical thinking happens with all normal people by at least age 7, and usually before. So any early given metaphysical framework is open to change, and even though this framework may continue to be religious, it wouldn’t be the same as childish faith. My guess is that the most common adult metaphysics is the compartmentalization of religious belief from “ordinary” thinking. In this situation, religion acts more like a talisman that can be called upon for quick fixes, rather than a full-fledged approach to the questions of life.
Finally, yes, our tendency to impose causal reasoning on events often leads us to impose a cause-and-effect narrative with a chronology on whatever happens to us, no matter how apparently random.

Hershey Julien said...

Peter McNamarra has written, "I tend to think that we are at the early stages of the exploration of religious belief." I agree, and this is important.
As a step in this exploration, I suggest that all involved in the exploration agree on a definition of religion. The definition I suggest for general adoption is that given by the Italian philosopher, Carlo Dela Casa: "Religion is a total mode of the interpreting and living of life." Note that under this definition one can be religious, have a religion, without being a theist, holding a belief in a supernatural being called g-o-d. Thus classical Buddhism, which teaches a way of life without reference to a supernatural being called "god", is a non-theistic religion. I submit that humanists with a commitment to ethical living, seeking the welfare of the whole human race, are religious within the scope of this definition. Same for those Unitarian Universalists, such as me, who are non-theists (atheists) but have a religious devotion to a way of life as outlined in the UU seven principles.
Consequently, I disagree with Darwin's statement, quoted by Peter: "Religions everywhere share certain supernatural beliefs: noncorporeal God or gods, an afterlife, and the ability of prayer to change the course of human events." The fault in that statement is that it does not leave room for the non-theistic religious commitment of Buddhists, humanists, and many UUs.
I submit this same broad understanding of religion to Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, all of whom use the term "religion" as equivalent to "theism." For example, Richard Dawkins in his book, THE GOD DELUSION, writes, "A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the fist place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his original creation." And in his book he uses the term "religion" as the equivalent of theism. The same is true of Daniel Dennett in BREAKING THE SPELL and of Sam Harris in THE END OF FAITH.
I am hopeful that non-theism will ultimately be adopted by humanity; but humans will never give up interpreting life and searching for its meaning: that is religion.
Hershey Julien, March 21, 2007

Pete M said...

Thanks, Hershey, for your great comment! Carlo Dela Casa’s definition is true. Our religion is really our metaphysical framework and it can guide our life. Those of us who consciously and frequently examine our metaphysical framework (Is it called navel gazing?) can use the term God as a marker for meaning. Through our worship, we can find belief, which gives meaning to our lives, which, in turn, can be God for us. Perhaps it’s a way of having our cake and eating it, too. It could be dubbed non-realistic theism: God appears as we worship together. That vision of God attends us as we leave worship and seek to make the world more just.
Your mention of the Unitarian Universalists and Darwin reminded me that Darwin’s family had long been active in the Unitarian wing of the Church of England. This is documented clearly in “Darwin’s Religious Odyssey” by William E. Phipps. Darwin perhaps if he had thought about it, would have hesitated to describe his version of Anglicanism (and perhaps Zen Buddhism if he had known about it; popular Buddhism has lots of gods) in the way he described religion in general. That closest to us can be hard to see.
The Unitarian Universalists often think ahead of the religious curve, and so it is if they are “seeking the welfare of the whole human race.” A noble goal, but it is one which may be difficult to achieve because of our biology. As quoted in yesterday’s “New York Times” in “Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Mortality in Primate Behavior,” the primatologist, Frans de Waal points out that human mortality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. “The profound irony is that our noblest achievement – morality – has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior – warfare,” he writes. Today’s “Times” carries an article, “Brain Injury Is Linked to Moral Decisions,” that even pinpoints the ventromedial prefrontal cortex as the area in the brain where moral decisions are made. And these decisions are guided most likely in the first instance by emotions, not cool, conscious reason. So, in seeking the welfare of the human race, don’t forget the major role emotions play in decisions the race makes. One big task will be to get tribes to see that there is the bigger tribe – the entire world and all its inhabitants – that now must be negotiated with. A tall, but necessary order, if all of us and our children are to survive.