Survival of the Holiest

(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.

5 thoughts on “Survival of the Holiest

  1. Pingback: Atheism » Atheism August 9, 2007 4:33 pm

  2. annie

    This was the article I was thinking of…

    To the best of our knowledge is also doing a series on religion and the mind. There are some interesting listens on the podcast

    My friend asks: Is your argument that darwinism is in favor of spirituality, so therefore you should be? Because there are a lot of things that are great that darwinism isn’t in favor of, think of all the great art and literature produced by people who never procreated. And what’s good for the race as a whole isn’t necessarily good for the individual, where does that fall in? Hurry up and write the next piece in your thesis, we want to argue with you.

  3. Kujo

    From wikipedia:

    “In the central nervous system, serotonin is believed to play an important role in the regulation of anger, aggression, body temperature, mood, sleep, vomiting, sexuality, and appetite. Low levels of serotonin may be associated with several disorders, namely increase in aggressive and angry behaviors, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, tinnitus, fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders[citation needed] and intense religious experiences[1].”

    I am deeply amused by the juxtaposition of this description. It suggests that the health of body and mind are placed at risk during a condition that is conducive to seeing God. That fits with all the subjective stuff people write about the lengths people go to for satori.


  4. Art Clarke

    Wow. I did not know that “intense religious experiences” could be classified as a “disorder”.

    And the concept of driving the body to extreme conditions in order to experience satori is not restricted to buddism. Arguably it explains Moses revelations on the mountain, Jesus’ revelations during his 40 days in the desert, Mohammed in the cave, aboriginal communing with the spirts while on walkabout, etc.

    One can theorize lots of reasons why the body yields this response, but my guesses the “religious experience” actually motivates the body to survive, and hence it is indicated for increasing survival rates. A smart adaptation if that’s the case.

  5. Art Clarke

    “My friend asks: Is your argument that darwinism is in favor of spirituality, so therefore you should be? Because there are a lot of things that are great that darwinism isn’t in favor of, think of all the great art and literature produced by people who never procreated. And what’s good for the race as a whole isn’t necessarily good for the individual, where does that fall in?”

    I’ll argue that Darwinism is in favor of great art and literature when viewed from the perspective of societal reproduction, and a coherent society actually increases the average survival chances of that community. If one starts to view societies as the key organism, and humans as just cells in that society, many pan-human concepts such as religion, art, politics, war, communism and capitalism start to be very explainable from a Darwinian standpoint.

    Of course, this diminishes the importance of the individual. Strangely, diminishing the importance of the individual is one of the key tenents of Buddism, Christianity, Islam, etc. Odd that 🙂


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