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Why We Are Drawn to the Divine

Rounding out this set of religious entries, here is an article that came out more of a 10-page rant.  I was never happy with the overall arc of the piece, and I never had it published, but I thought I made a few salient points.


By Jay Hartlove

Having been science-educated during an era of well rounded public education, I am entirely opposed to efforts to try to sneak religious teaching into the classroom under pseudoscientific names.  But I am also offended by the scorched-Earth approach many atheist biologists have adopted in confronting the proponents of Creationism and Intelligent design.  They insist all religion is factually unsupportable, and so we must discard all of it.  I agree the well-funded Right Wing zealots who want to discredit Evolution and replace it with bad science and watered-down religion must be stopped.  But in stopping what is a political agenda, do we have to say that the illogic of religious belief must be crushed under the wheels of rigorous scientific scrutiny? 

Many liberal thinking educated people who were brought up with the dogma of their parents’ churches get caught up in this cognitive dissonance.  Our intellectual thirst for provable answers gets set at odds with the equally powerful need for the comfort given by faith in familiar parables and reassurances of divine love.  To say we are being intellectually dishonest, or childish for wanting to believe in the divine, denies a very real part of the human experience.

What if our propensity to religious belief is so much a part of our make up that it cannot be eliminated by rationality?  Then denying it and calling it denigrating names will only alienate the very people the biologists are trying to convince.

A vast majority of Americans say they believe in the supernatural and take the words of the Bible as literal truth.  This majority also refutes the scientific findings of Evolution that say the creation stories of religious traditions, particularly the Bible, are simply not true.  In our technologically advanced world, which owes so much to scientific discoveries, why do so many people reject the findings of biologists who are honestly trying to explain the world?  Because they have been told that accepting Evolution as fact must displace their faith in the Bible.  But this is simply not true.

There are lots of things in life that cannot be quantified.  Despite the efforts of generations of biologists and sociologists, we still have only a smattering of disconnected half-baked explanations for why and how people fall in love.  Maybe science will perfect an explanation some day, but I doubt any one theory is going to cover a phenomenon with so many variables.

Sigmund Freud wrestled with not being able to quantify the concepts he broke ground on, and had to invent pseudo-entities like the Id, the Ego and the Superego so he would have something to test.  He knew someone might come along someday and show there were no corresponding structures in the brain.  But he had to get a handle on the observable phenomena.  This tool of imagining a mechanism for immeasurable activity is an important part of how hypotheses are developed in even the most rigorous scientific research.  The process is called Realism.

Realism is just one example of how we are incapable of being satisfied with partial explanations.  If we have observations, but only scant concrete explanations, it is the nature of human curiosity to fill in the gaps with whatever fits.

Among these unquantifiable but observable things is what Christian theologians have labeled the Holy Spirit.  People observe the Holy Spirit in different ways.  It can be the visceral excitement one feels when hearing choral music.  It can be the breathtaking awe when one first sees something more grandiose than was expected.  It can be the source of determination to continue a task against the odds.  However it is experienced, it is real to the person experiencing it.  It is so attractive a sensation that every major faith on Earth has identified it.  Our affinity for this feeling fuels the argument that there is a natural attraction to seek the divine.

Sure, people want to believe the soul they have spent their lives fine tuning doesn’t just evaporate when they die.  And of course people want to believe their loved ones have gone to a better place and have not just been shut off like some appliance.  But however compelling immortality may be, I don’t think people are just looking for a way to beat death when they come to church every Sunday.

I posit that our attraction to seek the divine is biologically a part of us.  Questioning why people have it is like questioning why we have legs.  And the only question left to faith is whether that attraction was planted in us by God or by evolution.  Either way you answer that question, you still can’t deny the reality of the attraction. 

I base my position on three interrelated concepts, 1) we are pack animals, 2) our brains make us imagine “Other” intelligences, and 3) we evolved here.

Humans are social animals.  All higher primates form cooperative tribes of multiple families.  It is part of who we are to need to belong to something bigger than ourselves.  Combine our pack instincts with our intelligence and self-aware consciousness, and we end up needing to feel comfortable with our place in the universe.  To be comfortable with your place in the universe, you need to know why things work, not just how.  And when our intellects can only answer how, we reach for any other source for the why.

Christians, Muslims and Jews are told to accept unwanted change in their lives as part of God’s plan for them.  Hindus, Taoists and Zoroastrians see themselves living in a world run by much more powerful forces than us.  Buddhists believe any disconnect between your expectations and what happens to you is entirely the fault of your wrong assumptions.  Pick a religion, and it will give you the why, especially when there is no way to really know why something happens.

People also want to believe they live in a world driven by the forces of good. When we reach for supernatural explanations of the inexplicable, we tend to give God credit for the good accidents and write off the bad accidents to chance or human foible (or some personification of evil, if you believe in one.)  This attribution is not just because the alternative – a world driven by evil – is frightening and depressing, but it is also a leftover from our tribal origins.  We need to associate good things with what is inside the tribe, and put bad things outside the tribe.  This kind of thinking led to the ruthlessness and remorselessness that we needed to survive back then.  But we are still more forgiving of our own than of others.  And we are still giving credit for good things to the god of our tribe.

In his landmark 1976 book, “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” psychologist Julian Jaynes argues that our ability to introspect comes from asymmetries in the functions of our two brain hemispheres.  Only one of our hemispheres, the left, has the ability to voice its thoughts.  The right side, where most of our emotional wiring lies, is therefore relegated to giving the left side orders.  This conversation between the hemispheres has given rise to our ability to have conversations with ourselves, and therefore to think in the theoretical. 

It also leads us to automatically fill in gaps in our actual observations of the world to create a seamless field of perception in spite of incomplete data.  In other words, it isn’t just our curiosity that makes up data to smooth out our perceptions, we are hard wired to do this.  In this context, tools like Realism look like very human responses to the unknown.

Jaynes further postulates that in ancient times, before this language bridge brought us introspection, people took the messages from the right hemisphere to be divine advice.  He then concludes that religious experiences in modern man are momentary lapses back to that early configuration.  In other words, God lives in the right hemisphere.

Even though his book was ridiculed at the time for being too aggressive in its suppositions, and without enough evidence to be taken seriously, his theory has gained acceptance over the years, especially the parts about language being necessary for higher cognitive function, and cognition being tied to our automatically filling in gaps in our actual perceptions.

When I closed this book, I was taken by what I will call the notion of the “Other.”  Even in a fully integrated, non-hallucinating, self-aware brain, the silent voice of the right hemisphere whispering in our left hemisphere’s “ear” leads us to unquestioningly accept the possibility of information coming to us from outside our consciousness.  It is then no surprise that unexplained noises get attributed to intelligent ghosts as often as unintelligent wind.  And that dumb luck gets attributed to angelic intervention.  We are wired to attribute the unexplained to Other intelligences.

In sociologist Edward O. Wilson’s 1984 book, “Biophilia,” he argues that humans find young mammals cute, and undeveloped nature beautiful because it was of evolutionary advantage to early man to raise animals and find unsoiled hunting grounds.

I don’t think Wilson went far enough with his theory.  What if the whole gamut of reactions that seem beyond our control is in fact our biological inheritance?  The race of your heart at the wink of a prospective mate, vertigo, the rush from hearing a particular chord of music, the a-ha of an explanation falling into place, all the things that seem to happen to us without us doing anything, these things can all easily be triggered by genetic leftovers from times when such things were survival traits, but no longer are in our current world.  But since these reactions are based on mechanisms of which we have no conscious awareness, these things feel like we are being acted upon from outside of ourselves.

So we are creatures with curiosities and wiring that won’t rest until we have filled in all the gaps even if that means making stuff up, that must know why things happen when we rarely have enough information to determine the why, who are wired to accept that intelligences outside of ourselves can inform us, and with bodies that come pre-loaded with reactions that make us feel like we are being acted upon from outside.  How can we not be drawn to the divine?

Particular histories, personalities, even geographies have filled in the stories that address this need with individual dogmas.  Dogmas have been given a bad name by churches that have taken unfair advantage of people’s need for spirituality.  Dogmas and religious traditions serve the valuable purpose of putting important moral lessons into cultural context so they make sense to the faithful.  It is not surprising that so many dogmas directly disagree with each other, given our tribal and competitive nature.  But the fact that dogmas disagree should not be taken to mean religions are lies that must be eliminated.  They all fill a very real need.

But are the stories in religious traditions true?  Even hardened atheist mythologists admit that cultural narratives are usually based in fact.

And what of the actual existence of an intelligent, beneficent, personified God?  Shouldn’t an understanding of what forces us to seek the divine bring us closer to proving or disproving the existence of God?  Not really.  Faith in God is a choice of how one will frame one’s view of the universe.  Simple explanations can sometimes be a tool to getting at the truth.  The philosophical tool called Arkum’s Razor says when all other things are equal, the simplest explanation is probably correct.  Atheists say this principle indicts religion as preposterous.  But believers argue that it is easier to believe in God than to try to integrate the complexities of all our scientific findings into our personal world views.  Having an explanation for how something works doesn’t necessarily lead to a change in how people choose to perceive the thing being explained.  This does not mean people are ignorant or hardheaded.  Even in the face of a scientific explanation, people should hold onto beliefs that fulfill other needs, like the ones we have been discussing.

I offer a solution that goes back to my original example of how science can’t fully explain even everyday phenomena – falling in love.  Love is such an overwhelming experience that many cultures in history have given it supernatural origins.  The ancient Greeks actually believed in Cupid and Eros and explained their world in terms of what fallen fruit Zeus had left in the wake of his amorous adventures on Earth.  These people were not stupid.  These people invented logic.  The myths made sense to them, they offered explanations where no other data existed, and they gave a comfort level to their brutal, uncivilized world.  If you were to explain to an ancient Greek that we have discovered how the body’s systems work, and how the whole process of falling in love makes so much biological sense, he could still come back, logically, and ask questions like what organ can you pierce or which vein can you pinch and eliminate someone’s ability to fall in love.  To that we would say, it is more complicated than that.  And he would ask, what part of our complicated explanation proves there is no divine part of the formula.

Even though we still feel the same sensations the ancient Greeks felt when they fell in love, we were brought up with the scientific explanations.  No matter how swept away we get, no one actually thinks Cupid or some other supernatural agent has intervened to make us feel this way.  Believers probably thank God, but we talked about how we attribute good things to God.  We even dismiss the most flagrant episodes of love as letting ourselves lose control of our hormones.

My point here is simple.  Do we fall less in love, not believing in love gods, than the ancient Greeks did?  Do we enjoy the experience less, knowing what we know?  No.  Knowing that love has biological roots does not make love a lie.  So why should understanding the science of why we believe in God diminish our experience of religion, or even our faith in the existence of God?

With this propensity to religion so much a part of our make up, the opponents of Creationism must be careful to acknowledge that faith, and its institutions, are not going to go away, no matter what science discovers.  There is no reason we cannot be honest with the facts of how the universe works while simultaneously being honest with the fact that we are the product of those same processes, even though evolution has left us wired to believe in extra-scientific causes.  And there is no reason that our understanding must lessen our embrace of everything that goes into the human experience, especially things that are so inspirational and fulfilling at such a deep level.

Categories: Religion
  1. July 2, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Jay, I found this article highly interesting, but I think it suffers from a few critical flaws I hope you’d comment on.

    First, you beg the question of the existence of things like “God”, “the divine” and “the Holy Spirit”. This fallacy undercuts much of your argument. There are many religions to which these concepts are wholly foreign, having their own luminous objects–or none at all.

    And even if “every major faith on Earth has identified” something like “the Holy Spirit,” it doesn’t follow that such a thing exists in reality. This is a fallacious argumentum ad populum.

    Second, you stray into “god of the gaps” territory. Science can’t fully explain emotions like love, or an “a-ha” moment – therefore, God?

    Third, it’s difficult to tell whether you’re suggesting religious beliefs are based on fact, or whether they’re false but useful to the believer. If the former, which ones? If the latter, why isn’t it preferable for people to live in accordance with reality rather than fantasy, particularly if those fantasies incur real harm on the rest of us?

  2. July 2, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Thank you for the critique. As I said at the opening, I was never happy with the way the argument fit together. Now I see why. I somehow don’t think I’m the first to get tripped up on logic while trying to justify religion. My point was that religion happens so naturally and so pervasively, we should ask why. I’m not saying that the popularity of God proves His existence. But it does show that something very deeply rooted in us wants there to be a God.

    My citing the God of The Gaps wasn’t supposed to be a proof so much as a demonstration. By the way, a priest friend of mine read this and really liked that section. So it would seem that folks who start out with faith have no problem using the God of the Gaps as evidence.

    False But Useful (however true) shuts down the asking why, which was the point of this piece. I have never been satisfied with comforting, reassuring or stabilizing as the reasons people are drawn to religion. Those may be things that people get out of it, but I think there is something more biological going on.

    Again, thank you for the analysis. With this in hand, maybe I will give my thesis another go and see where it takes me.

  3. Ron
    August 29, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks for the thought provoking entry.

    Though I believe strongly that religion and spirituality are related and not mutually exclusive, I find them at odds more often than not. The former claims to have an answer, but the later has the answers. We just haven’t been able to think from a cosmic point of view because of what Robert Anton Wilson would call our “flawed measuring and perception device;” our nervous system.

    • August 29, 2010 at 7:03 pm

      You hit the nail on the head. It is all about perception. Inquisitive self aware creatures are compelled to make sense of what they perceive, even if what they perceive makes no sense. My favorite example is deja vu. Neurologists tell us it is incoming data being processed erroneously along the pathways that are usually used for retrieving memories. So you think you have experienced something before, but can’t recall when. But it seems so real from the subjective interior view, we are left wondering if our nervous system is catching a glimpse of something that is just beyond our ability to perceive it fully. It is easier to doubt the accuracy of our perceptions than to deny the reality of our experience.

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