Survival of the Holiest

by abclarke

(3 of 5 in the Pragmatic Path to Agnosticism)

Jesus Brought Forth an Egg…

Last week I documented the way in which I came to a hardcore belief in atheism. This week I will break down the first of two reasons why I have drifted away from that stance.

To make my next point, I refer to the King James Bible. Specifically, Matthew 26:26-30, as Jesus sits for the last supper:

“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. And he took the rabbit, and calling to the Father, brought forth an egg of a sweet and delicious brown shade. And he said, Remember to feast upon these eggs henceforth upon the year, as surely it shall mark both joy and suffering.”

And as we all know, that is why we have Easter Bunnies who deliver chocolate eggs for kids to eat at Easter as we mark the anniversary of Jesus’ death.

And The Egg Evolveth

OK, maybe that’s not the reason we have Easter Bunnies at Easter. The actual reason we have Easter Bunnies is way more pragmatic; as Christianity spread across the west in the centuries after the fall of Rome, it encountered new cultures with new rites and traditions. To more effectively infiltrate those cultures and grow the number of adherents, Christian methods and rites started to co-opt these and other traditions(1). A new convert was far likelier to accept a new faith if the celebrations and holidays were familiar.

In other words, Christianity evolved in order to ensure its reproductive success as a religion. Charles Darwin would be proud!

Over the past few years, I’ve asked myself if religion evolves to reproduce effectively, have we also evolved to embrace religion. Is there an advantage in evolutionary terms to believing in God, to exploring Spirituality? And I believe there probably is.

Lo, the Numbers Spake

What does the research show? Well, this is a hard area to get a bead on as it is fraught with, well, religious feelings. Still, some people have managed to study the question of what advantages, if any, believing in God (or being an adherent to a religion, or being a Spiritual person) confers about lifespan and reproductive success. The data trends towards religious and spiritual belief having a positive impact on all outcomes. See here for a collection of papers. Some highlights:

  1. 7th day Adventists live an average of 8 years longer than average (after controlling for other confounding factors).
  2. People of Faith are 3 times more likely to survive major heart surgery (after controlling for other confounding factors).
  3. People with “conservative” faiths are likely to have more children than those of more liberal faiths, or no faith at all. What could be more Darwinian than that?
  4. Lastly, like it not, most people in the world profess adherence to a faith of some sort.

“Here Ye!” Heralded the Neuroscientist

What’s more, data is starting to emerge that our brains have evolved a bio-chemical mechanism for Spiritual experiences. The Journal Nature published the results of an experiment where several nuns were asked to recall a moment when they experienced a divine revelation while being scanned by an MRI. What the researchers discovered was several consistent areas of the brain that were activated by the nuns. It suggests our brains, if stimulated correctly, can allow even non-believers to have a “mystical experience”.

In other words, our brains can believe Spirituality is as “real” a sensation as touch and sight.

This is interesting evolutionarily speaking because our brain is by far the most ‘expensive’ organ in the body. Space is constrained by our skulls, we send most of our oxygen there, and as a species we’ve invested a lot of our relative mass in that area. The fact that we have not “evolved away” an area that perceives Spiritual experiences suggests there might be some benefit to it…

Confuse Not Correlation with Causation!

…but we must be careful to not jump to that conclusion. There is a big difference between a correlation and causation. What does all the data so far tell us? Well first, here’s what it doesn’t say:

  1. It does NOT in any way prove the existence of God, the reality of a Spiritual aspect to the Universe, or that the earth was created 6,000 years ago.
  2. It does NOT prove that we need to explore and embrace Spirituality because our brains are capable of it.
  3. It does NOT prove that Mohammed was the Prophet of God.
  4. It does NOT prove that Jesus loves you.

According to the Scientific Method (which I still believe in), we must be careful to not jump to conclusions the data does not tell us.

However, the data does tell us the following:

  1. It is likely that belief in God is NOT an evolutionary disadvantage (or its disadvantage if offset by a highly correlated positive benefit), and may actually be an advantage.
  2. It is likely that striving to “connect with Spirituality” is NOT an evolutionary disadvantage, and may actually be an advantage.
  3. More research is needed but the belief (prevalent among hard-core atheists) that the exploration of Spirituality is a waste of time may actually be incorrect in evolutionary terms.
  4. Lastly, God doesn’t like Seventh Day Adventists, so as a result keeps them trapped on Earth 8 years longer than any other faith (OK, I just put this in to see if you were still reading).

Proclaim Not Certainty Lest Ye Be a Fool

Last week I said I had adopted atheism for the following reasons:

  1. There has been a relentless increase in the things we’ve proven about the universe.
  2. During thousands of experiments, we have found no evidence that proves the existence of God.
  3. The culture of science, correctly, puts huge value on skepticism.

This had led me to reject anyone who spoke of the value of Spirituality or belief in God as someone who spoke “crazy talk”.

As I’ve gotten older, the “relentless increase in the things we’ve proven about the universe” have showed me I was too hasty earlier to reject the benefits of exploring Spirituality. At worse, Spirituality is a net-neutral, but there do appear to be advantages.

But what about the possibility of the real existence of God, of a Spiritual essence, that exists in the universe?

To be bluntly Darwinian, the data has shown me that Spirituality might help me get laid and reproduce, but surely science is slowly removing the possibility of God and Spirituality actually existing as real things outside the chemistry of my brain?

For that, let’s talk about Mr. Heisenberg and his incredible uncertainty.

(which I’ll continue next week…)

– Art

Help me raise over $10,000 to help people suffering from cancer

(1) I’m not suggesting these methods made it into doctrine, only that the Church tolerated their co-opting because it increased the size of the flock.