Nature Magazine is where many of the old SciAm readers have retreated after SciAm's capitulation to less rigorous material. They've begun a new series on Being Human
Why do we behave in the way that we do? This series of Essays reveals how the latest research is altering our understanding of what it is to be human. Whether in relation to religion or to our collective behaviour in cities, experts explore the potential impact on society, now and in the future, of discoveries in psychology, anthropology, genetics, neuroscience, game theory and network engineering.
The first article is Being human: Religion: Bound to believe? by Pascal Boyer of the Departments of Psychology and Anthropology, Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, USA, and is the author of Religion Explained, a hubristic title if ever there was one.
The poets always say it best: Eliot:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
The Oracle at Delphi, known as the Pythia, sat by the Omphalos, her mind addled by ethylene gas drifting out of cracks in the rock below her. She only prophesied while the grass was green, for Apollo would desert his temple during the winter. Asked questions by the fearful and credulous of every sort, from Alexander the Great to the lowliest shepherd, she would mutter dark pronouncements.
The Oracle at Delphi prophesied for many centuries. In 83 BC, the Roman Cicero asked the Oracle how he should find fame. She replied: make your own nature, not the advice of others, your guide in life. Cicero went on to become one of Rome's greatest orators and he fared well enough in his own times against his great enemy Catiline. History has been less kind to that blowhard Cicero and much kinder to Catiline who was probably an honorable man and an agrarian reformer.
I would argue modern science is a sort of Cicero, looking for fame, making its own nature its guide in life. This will not do, to talk about sociobiology and the sophomoric distinctions between culture and genes, as if there is a paucity of data. We are surrounded by data: Neolithic Man left trash heaps meters deep. Mitochondrial DNA has allowed us to look at humankind's spread throughout the world, as well as the animals he domesticated. Linguistics gives us an astonishingly good look at prehistory.
Pascal Boyer would have us believe Atheism is a tough sell. I would argue the opposite: in an era when man has become the measure of all things, atheism is the default modus vivendi.
Let us strip aside some of the more simplistic assertions and call Religion what it truly is: the flower that grows on the bush of Culture. If it has any evolutionary basis, so did the flower in evolution. Flowers come very late in biology and seem to have co-evolved with the insects which pollinated them. New religions appear all the time: Mormonism and Scientology and various cults, newly fundamentalist Islam. We must never think of religion as Something. It cannot be measured. One might as well try to gain insight into genius by examining the brain. It's been tried: they did it with Einstein's brain.
Religion is not belief. In truth, religion is a constantly evolving collection of symbols and rites, organized by a shaman or priest or some other authority figure. Religion has myths, often encoded in scriptures or revealed by the shaman. These do not require belief. Belief must be internalized, only then does it become faith and it cannot be shared. A child may be convinced the world is round by seeing the marvelous picture from Apollo 8. But what sort of roundness? Is it the roundness of a plate or the roundness of a sphere? More evidence is required. The child should be shown a globe.
Boyer's exploration of this Anthropomorphic God can go in many directions. Once I believed my father was the smartest, strongest, bravest man who ever lived. Though my father was indeed a noble man and wise, I came to learn of his many imperfections. For some people, God may be nothing more than an extension of the Jungian Archetype of the King, the lord of men. But there are other such archetypes in the hearts of men, the Trickster, the Hanged Man, the Queen of the Sea or the Miraculous Child. Thousands of such archetypes fill the Hindu pantheon. I do not believe Boyer has explored far enough. In point of fact, the most-successful religions stoutly reject any Anthropomorphic God, especially Islam which is by far the world's most-observed religion. Christianity and Hinduism recognize God-become-man, or an avatar, but as a general rule, modern religions will not tolerate any man who would call himself a god. We who are religious would emulate the divine in our lives through acts of mercy and personal holiness, for this world is not our home.
Neuroscience has made great strides in identifying religious experience in the brain, especially in the temporal lobe. It is recorded Muhammad the Prophet questioned his sanity, confronted by the angel Jibril. He confided in his wife, and was reassured he was still sane. Jesus Christ was accused of having a devil, then the common parlance for insanity. Ecstatic visions often accompany temporal lobe seizures, and many epileptics describe "the aura" preceding a large seizure.
Though an outsider might say each religion resolutely clings to its own superiority and all who do not believe shall be damned, this is a fundamental misreading, especially of the larger religions. According to these religions, God shall judge the living and the dead on the basis of their deeds.
Boyer would tell us disbelief is not the easiest ideology to propagate. This cannot be true. Disbelief is the process of growing up to find out Daddy isn't the greatest man who ever lived. Belief requires far more work and effort. Jesus Christ said unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. Zen Buddhism demands the mind be disciplined to see the world through new eyes, every waking moment. Hinduism demands we see the divine in each other. Even Atheism demands you must believe in yourself, not as as a god but a fallible man. Yes, over the Temple of Apollo it read Know Thyself, but that dark wisdom was lost on those who came in search of answers from the Oracle. You must be born again, is the ancient demand of faith, and it is never as easy to re-enter the helpless world of belief and trust as we might wish it to be. Faith is a terribly humbling process, as the alcoholic must come to see himself as helpless to resist his temptation and seek the Higher Power. It is easier to disbelieve.
Mankind is not unique in his ability to remember, or to grieve, or to dance with joy. Elephants will find the bones of those they loved on the plains of the Serengeti. They will touch them, tenderly passing them to each other, as the Buddhists will carefully retrieve the fragments of each bone from among the cinders of a cremation, passing them to each other at the ends of chopsticks. Surely cognition in any species, translated through their senses and nervous systems produces something analogous to meditation upon life itself, its transitory nature, the joys and sorrows of the struggle to exist. For humans, whose skulls have adapted to our brains, we pay a terrible price for our ability to remember and learn: a long and difficult childhood. During this vulnerable period of our lives, we must believe and trust our caretakers and we will grow in the image of those we love.