6. The Evolution of Religion
So far I have suggested that much of our knowledge is genetic with this knowledge being realised culturally. For example, the ability for language is genetically initiated and it is realised culturally through the particular language of the day, whether it be English or Japanese. Hunger is genetically initiated and it is satisfied through the local cuisine. Similarly, countless other genetic belief systems are realised through their cultural counterparts. I believe that another of these genetic belief systems is that for spiritualism and it is realised through the particular religion to which the growing child is exposed.
Evidence for genetic spiritualism is the differential interest people take in their local religion. Some are fascinated while others are disinterested and there is every grade in between. This differential interest is also found in other talents such as those for sport or music. A child who becomes a priest is likely to have inherited a stronger genetic spiritualism than other children. The child has a talent for religion. Further evidence comes from people with genetic errors such as temporal lobe epileptics who can experience strong religious feelings during attacks. Artificial magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes of healthy people has caused similar feelings (Hamer, 2004).
Other evidence for genetic spiritualism is seen in spiritual tourism. During my travels in India I met many Westerners who were ‘spiritual’ tourists. They told me they were trying to satisfy some ‘innate’ or ‘inborn’ (different words for ‘genetic’) spiritual longing. This spiritual feeling was ‘deep within’. The Christianity to which they had been exposed to in their countries of origin had been unable to meet their needs. In India, most found that the various communities and ashrams, while there was an initial fascination, also failed to hold their interest in the long term.
What is the origin of this genetic spirituality? We have within us numerous genetic ideas including those for curiosity, wonder, love, nurturing and reflection. All could be part of and contribute to our reflective thoughts and so our spirituality. All could be extra ideas that are likely to be advantageous to survival. Such feelings include an elephant that mourns the loss of a companion and the same elephant’s melancholy when revisiting the bleached bones. Reflective thoughts and feelings that are more than the day-to-day running of one’s life have been considered by some (such as Hardy, 1975) as spiritual experiences. We could expect that this genetic spirituality to have evolved through the various ancestral species of humans.
Genetic ideas for spiritualism would not necessarily mean ‘god’ genes or anything like that. They could be genes for awe, wonder, imagination, veneration, and a willingness to believe in mysteries. Similarly, a person with a musical talent would not have flute or piano genes. They would just be genetically attracted towards playing and hearing music, although they may well prefer one instrument or style to another. When they act upon these genetic ideas and play music they are rewarded with hormonal washes. By taking on the religion of the day, a spiritually inclined person will also be rewarded by hormonal washes. He or she will be happier and more satisfied being in a religion than being without religion.
In chapter four on belief systems I gave examples of how cultural ideas have evolved to address genetic ideas. Houses and clothes address the need for shelter and warmth. Laws and morals address genetic law-of-the-jungle ideas. Cooking belief systems address genetic hunger. Similarly, the local religion would address not only our genetic spiritualism but a wide range of other genetic ideas such as those for socialisation, nurturing, fear and hope. Cuisine is to hunger what religion is to spiritualism.
This leads to the question of the origin of cultural religions. There have been many religions so there have been many origins. The initial seed must have reached prominence in at least one mind. Imagine a village with no religion. A person might say: ‘A fast is needed in order to ensure that our crops are successful.’ As this fast would only take a little time to perform, the village might fast rather than risk losing their crops. In this case the fast idea has gained support from the genetic fear of hunger in its struggle for prominence. The person who thinks up this idea might gain status in the eyes of the other villagers and so there could be a personal gain to spreading it. Remember that beliefs do not have to be true, they only need to be seen to ‘work’. The ritual for the protection of the crops must be seen to protect the crops from the villagers’ eye-views. If the crops are generally successful, then fasting will save the crops in the majority of cases. On the occasion that it does not, there is always the opportunity to say the ritual of fasting was not correctly followed. Some time later the same or another person declares that a sacrifice is needed with the fast. A place might be needed for this sacrifice and so a house is set aside for worship. People may begin to meet there. Maybe a crop spirit is thought to reside in the house, and so on. As the religion evolves, morals and rules of behaviour are included. The religion now provides a frame of reference for the individual through which the world can be viewed. Over time, a priest class will evolve to ensure the correct following of religious ideas. By a process of addition and modification of ideas, the religion will evolve and mature.
The priest class can exploit this situation and so live by intrigue, often becoming the ruling class or, if not, able to influence the ruling class. As mentioned in chapter four, laws are rarely equitable and usually favour those who make them, so we can expect religious ideas to favour priests. The priest class does not usually grow food or build houses and so a religion must contain ideas that cause wealth to come to this group. Here the priest class requires the satisfaction of both physical and spiritual needs, whereas the lay people get the satisfaction of only their spiritual needs. The cathedrals, temples and mosques that cover the planet are examples of the redirected efforts of the layperson. Some Christian sects expect a percentage of one’s earnings to be given for the upkeep of the priests and church infrastructure. A Buddhist idea is that it is good karma to give to monks allows these monks to survive. Embedded within religion doctrine are ideas that make the physical survival of the priest class possible.
A genetic idea of children is to seek the comfort and protection of their parents while growing up and so it seems a logical extension to create a mythological parent (god) to comfort and protect us as adults (Freud, 1913). A habit formed in childhood of someone looking over us is continued in adulthood. The cultural idea of ‘god’ addresses the genetic need for protection and security in the adult. Other examples of religions addressing genetic need include rituals that address the desire for stability in the form of habit. Revisiting relatives in some heaven satisfies our genetic social desire and the idea of not really dying addresses our genetic fear of death.
Fear is used to keep believers attached to religious doctrine, to maintain the status quo and to thwart ambitious thinkers. People who are curious as to whether religious doctrine is true or not can be suppressed with the idea of faith. People who persist with wrong thoughts run the risk of being excommunicated, or even murdered. Their chance of reproduction is reduced. In our history countless millions have suffered this fate and this suppression is still continuing through the religious wars of today. In contrast, for correct-thinking people, acceptance and help from the community as well as a heaven after death are the rewards.
Fear of death is a strong genetic idea. A cultural idea to address this fear is life after death; a cultural idea that is far from being an established truth. Only a dead person could confirm its existence, which is of course impossible. Yet to survive in people’s minds cultural ideas for an afterlife will get support from genetic will-to-live ideas in their struggle for prominence. A person is not really dying, just going from one place to another. Life after death is a comfort belief. Even if a person is doubtful about an afterlife, why take a risk with another belief system, such as evolution, which says that there is nothing after death?
Religions are not the only cultural belief systems to have evolved by offering comfort and protection. Pseudo-religious organisations like the Masons offer fellowship with strong bonds often forming among members. Similar is the army where some members can derive great comfort from belonging. Any problems can be referred to a higher rank and so a member need concentrate only on his or her allotted task with all other needs being met. In both cases socialisation and security is increased and responsibility decreased. A person joins in with a smaller and more manageable number of people than the society as a whole, possibly more like the size of villages in earlier times.
At least in regard to the evolution of new religions we can look at recorded history for clues. Scientology was created by L Ron Hubbard, the Christian Scientists by Mary Baker Eddy, and the Mormons by Joseph F Smith. The seed ideas to start these belief systems needed only to reach prominence in the minds of their creators. As others took them up new ideas were added and old ideas changed and the religions evolved.
It is interesting that nearly all religions have been started by males and so it is only natural to expect that the doctrines that arise are centred around the thoughts and activities of men. In the earlier discussion on laws, laws made were biased by the genetic and cultural ideas of the minds in which they were created; after all, it is in these minds that any new ideas must struggle for prominence. This religious bias toward men turns out to be the case. Most religions put men firmly at the head of the family. The education of boys usually takes precedence over that of girls. Women are usually barred from religious office or, if not, given unimportant roles. Some religions allow men more than one wife, but few allow women more than one husband, and so on. All these dissymmetries make it clear that religion is a male phenomenon.
Earlier I spoke of law-of-the-jungle genetic knowledge that results in humans behaving opportunistically. It consists of genetic ideas to lie, steal, cheat, murder and rape, and the strength of these inherited ideas will vary from person to person. This genetic opportunism was recognised by religions which, evolving in a time when biology was poorly understood, gave these genetic ideas labels such as ‘original sin’, ‘dark forces’, or the ‘devil’. For example, imagine a child at a party who sees a cake. The child’s genetic ideas say, ‘I want to eat the lot,’ while the cultural ideas it has just learnt say, ‘I should take one slice and leave the rest for others.’ The young child initially leans toward the genetic side but, as it grows and takes in more cultural ideas, its behaviour will move in the direction of sharing. The child is taught to label this genetic part ‘greed’ and ‘selfishness’ or even the devil trying to lead it astray and think of it as bad while the cultural components of restraint and sharing are good. Here the devil is ancient law-of-the-jungle genetic opportunism trying to win prominence in the mind. Ignorance of biology led to a parallel system of explanations, most of which are still in use today.
Like the child, adults will experience many of these types of struggles between genetic opportunism and the cultural morals and laws of the day. Their religion tells them that this is a struggle of good and bad forces. If they succumb and allow the bad forces to win, the result might be hell rather than heaven. The labelling of these opportunistic ideas as the work of outside forces (rather than the genes) has caused countless people worry and pain. The only excuse I can see for religions is that they knew no better. For primitive people, such law-of-the-jungle opportunism was good at the time; it gave people the skills necessary to keep themselves alive. We are only here today because of the existence of genetic opportunism; it is genetic knowledge that we should learn to tame rather than denigrate.
Cultural knowledge can be opportunistic as well. Examples include people caught in destructive religious cults and dictatorial political systems who find themselves participating in cruel acts that they would never have thought of, let alone done, under different cultural belief systems. Some religions allow people to use ‘karma’ or ‘God’s will’ to dissociate themselves from blame. A couple may say it is God’s will as to how many children they have and so it is not their responsibility to control their breeding. They then proceed to follow their nurturing instincts and produce as many children as they can feed. As over-population is currently causing environmental degradation that is only going to get worse for future generations, people must learn to rein in these opportunistic desires.
It is fairly safe to say that cultural belief systems, including science and religion, contain both factual and mythical components to varying extents. An early belief was that the sun revolved around the earth however this belief was later shown to be a myth. Two myths common to most religions are the existence of some higher authority, such as one or more Gods, and an afterlife, either through reincarnation or going to a heaven. These myths are still popular and probably have more believers than disbelievers. Most scientists consider these ideas mythical in the sense that they are far from being established truths, yet there is no doubt that they increase the happiness of many of the people who believe them. They are satisfying beliefs, and ones that cannot easily be proved or disproved.
Many myths entered belief systems because people like to think they are true. It is flattering to think that the Earth is the centre of the world. It enhances our importance in the universe. It satisfies our genetic desire for revenge to think that bad people will eventually be punished, if not in this world, at least in some later world. Christ is said to have had a virgin birth, came alive again after being killed, and to have fed thousands from a few loaves. It is natural to attribute special powers to people we admire. What were ordinary events have had magic added to them to embellish the stories. Impressive religions had a greater chance of survival. Such myths are protected from scrutiny because all evidence has long since disappeared. These ideas of magic are opportunistic in that they are untrue yet good for the survival of religions (although it is possible that these stories were not intended to be myths at the time of writing; for alternative explanations see Thiering, 1993). For those who believe in this magic, it is proof that the rest of Christian doctrine must be true.
The factual and mythical components of religion can be so intricately intertwined that it is often impossible to separate the two. A priest saying, ‘You want happiness, don’t you? Through Jesus you can find happiness.’ is mixing fact and myth. The first part of this statement is a genetic fact as the body is designed through the evolutionary process to seek happiness; the second part is a cultural myth, as adopting Jesus need not necessarily bring happiness. Through countless mixing techniques of myth and fact religions have been able to confuse the mind and so invade it.
Another example is the extensive use of music by religions. Feeling good from music is a genetic truth as hormonal washes can be obtained from music that has no religious connection. Religious sermons are nearly always supported with music in some form with the resulting enlightened feeling being used to support the truth of the sermon and, more generally, the truth of the religion’s ideas.
Physical objects, such as flames, alters, robes, icons, bibles, scared water, church buildings, and fetishes, can also be myths. They are set aside for religious use and all can be considered sacred. One is not meant to question why they have special status, they just do. All these things add to the awe and respect that some people have for religious belief systems. This ambiguity gives religions their strength. The religions that have survived (countless have gone to extinction) have all employed mystery in their doctrine. For the questioning believer, this mystery reduces the chance of ever getting to know the belief system completely or ever refuting its central ideas. One mystery is built upon another. Ideas for gods, heavens, angels, and devils have never been properly defined nor have religions any intention of defining them. To do so would be to undermine the mystery. For example, a person may be able to find an explanation of the trinity in his or her own mind (the relationship between God, Jesus and the holy ghost) and yet, when pressed, be unable to explain the meaning of ‘god’ or ‘ghost’. A book of facts can be quickly put aside after it is finished, but one that contains myths causes one to dwell upon it. Mystery excites the human imagination, that is, it addresses genetic curiosity. By never fully satisfying the curiosity, the curiosity is retained.
I believe that many of the mysterious ideas used by religion are metaphoric for some fundamental genetic truth. Take the word ‘soul’, for example. The idea of a soul has good survival value and so is prominent in one variation or another in most religions. It is necessary for the idea of life after death. People can witness a physical body decay so there must be some other substance that allows life after death. Say that a person tells us that when you die your soul leaves your body with this soul eventually being reborn in a different body. The word ‘soul’ is successful here because it says that we are not alone; there is something more than the physical body and people, being social animals, fear loneliness. The cultural idea of ‘soul’ addresses the genetic fear of death.
From a scientific viewpoint, the idea of a non-material soul, if limited to humans only, does have difficulties with evolutionary principles, one of these being the question of the boundary for the start of souls. If humans have souls and fish not, then, as we are evolved animals, with the majority of our ancestors non-human, there would have to be some boundary along the evolutionary tree where a parent did not have a soul and an offspring did. This seems difficult to believe. The alternative to this is that souls evolved in some graduated way along the evolutionary tree. Other problems include: if a soul is non-material, how can it interact with a material body? In humans, how does a personality developed during a lifetime pass to this immaterial form? I cannot see these problems being solved so I reject the idea of an immaterial soul.
It is easy to think of better explanations for the soul. Say we have a tray of coloured balls, by rearranging these balls we can make a pattern and so a message. By rearranging them further we can make a change to the previous message, and so on. Now there has been no material change; the exact number of atoms existed in the balls before and after the rearrangement, yet there is a new message that was not there before. Something new can be made without a net material change. The balls could be the atoms that make up the DNA of the brain and its neurons and hormones. In one sense these patterns are made from material and therefore are material, yet in another sense they are independent of the material and therefore immaterial. I will take the soul as something more than the brain itself yet still constructed of material. Where is the evidence for this line of reasoning? Say a person suffers a car accident. A knock can cause concussion and so damage to the brain. The pattern is upset, with some order of the brain chemicals changed. The person is no longer the same and can suffer a memory loss and even a permanent change in mood or personality. Part of the soul has disappeared. Upon death the pattern is destroyed completely and the soul no longer exists.
A person inherits half of his/her genes from each parent with the genes of these parents coming from grandparents and so on, back into antiquity. The genes themselves are patterns of chemicals that are more than the chemicals themselves. These chemical patterns have taken countless generations to evolve. The inherited pattern could be called a genetic soul. In this case the idea of reincarnation, that a soul comes from outside and inhabits a human body, is not too far from the truth. The genetic soul is inherited with half coming from each parent so in this sense the soul does come from outside the body. As the character of each child seems unique and predetermined by this parental inheritance, it is only natural for people, knowing no genetics, to assume that some ‘soul’ floated down and found residence in the newborn. A metaphor was created to explain the unknown and this metaphor is still taken literally by many people today.
There is also a cultural soul with new patterns of brain chemicals formed from remembering cultural ideas. All these retained patterns (genetic knowledge and non-transmittable and transmittable cultural knowledge) are more than the brain itself. Both genetic and cultural patterns combine to make up the overall soul with each pattern unique to every person. Part of the cultural soul can pass to others through conversations and any books that are written and part of the genetic soul can pass to offspring through sexual mating. This cultural passing of ideas, combined with the passing of genes to offspring, could constitute an afterlife for the soul.