A Deistic Conflict
Answering the question of whether God actually exists has always been fraught with complications. Part of the problem lies in the fact that ostensible interactions of God – regardless of the particular faith – have been few and far between. Indeed it is hard to argue with the fact that most of the body of religious doctrine has been purveyed by man. On Sinai only The Ten Commandments were issued in person while the various laws in Deuteronomy seem to have been written by various authors, including Moses, Joshua and a mysterious set of writers often referred to by biblical scholars as The Yahwist, The Elohist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly Source. Thus while a large part of religion is based on conversations of one sort or another between a god and a chosen human being it is the latter’s account that is ultimately used as final purveyor of doctrine.
None of this is necessarily denied by even ardent believers. All Christian scholars know that many of the main tenets of the old and New Testaments considered divinely conveyed in modern times were in fact decided by various councils during the Middle Ages – including the decision to consider Jesus a God rather than a higher-order profit in the mold of Moses, Isiah or Elijah. The premise behind such decisions was at least derived in part from the teachings of Christ so one could infer the councils were simply relying on an original source. After all he said ‘I am the Way’ in John 14:6. On the other hand, in Luke 18:19 he also said, ‘Why do you call me good when that word applies only to God?’ In that instance Jesus was clearly separating himself from the one true God of the Jews, who after all, viewed themselves as monotheists.
Atheists feed off such inconsistencies, arguing, as Draper (1998) did that since much of religious doctrine is man-made, the idea of a God has little to do with the actual existence of a deity. Some, such as Christopher Hitchens (2007) have argued that the world would be a better place if not for a belief in God, this opinion apparently based on a history of religiously-influenced wars and political tyrannies.
In this opinion that is a rather vacuous argument, not only because it ignores the vast number of altruistic acts that have been conducted in the name of religion but also because most moral concepts regarding peace, adhere to law, fairness, and humaneness adopted by the western world have been heavily influenced by religious mores, particularly those inherent in Judao-Christianity. Echos of old and new testament laws run throughout the English and American Constitutions…for example the reference in Leviticus 24:19 to an eye for an eye runs parallel to the 8th Amendment in the American Constitution on cruel and unusual punishment. Obviously the same parallels exist between modern law and biblical tenets regarding prohibitions against theft, murder and slander.
But an even stronger argument against atheistic thought can be presented by simply considering the history of religion and its historically adaptive value to our species.
In the Beginning
The first modern humans were nomads (Marlowe 2005). Until roughly 8,000 years ago climatic conditions, lack of knowledge, the lack of availability of certain grains (which had to evolve into more resilient form themselves before being arable) ruled out the possibility of agricultural settlements. During that time man wandered the earth, settling into temporary make-shift homes, periodically following herds. Permanence, and all the cognitive and emotional by-products and potentials of that were yet impossible. The nomadic human tribes had limited capacity to carry objects in their travels, thus left most of their tools behind. In effect they were forced to re-make them, which led to a great deal of behavioral redundancy. That left little time to contemplate possibilities, anxieties, and meaning in general despite their having enough cortical brain mass to do so. As Bronowski (1973) has pointed out, nomadic life allowed little in the way of existential concerns.
Since value is based on necessity, material possessions were not cherished in the nomadic world. Since travel was essential to survival those who, for one reason or other could not press on were left to die – and likely did so without protest. Life for these groups was moment to moment and confined to the immediacy of their circumstances and needs.
Still, the early humans worshipped gods (Narr 2008). The reasons why were probably myriad. First and foremost was probably the size and construction of their brains – which had reached 1500 centimeters. A brain like that, with delineated speech centers, and a capacity to categorize, memorize and communicate socially, would have attributed events to causes and sources (King, 2007), (Gould, 2007) Since large brains tend to correlate with intense social concerns, these attributors would have caste the causes and sources in at least quasi-personal forms – thus the personification of God.
At the root of what might be called a cognitive-God function are the needs to control, reduce uncertainty and press onward. While many social scientists have discussed the advantage of evolutionary human brain expansion with respect to increased language capacities, cognitive abilities, tool making, art and creativity in general they miss one very salient disadvantage of having a large brain. While a brain with billions of inter-neuronal connections provides a capacity to think and communicate it also creates a greater potential for ‘noise,’ existential uncertainty and consequently a greater need for ongoing resolution. The large brains bestowed on mankind by nature (and God, if you will) thus set in motion the very need for a God-concept. This process likely began with climatic change during the tail end of the Pleistocene (glaciation) era when resources dried up, travel became both more possible but also more treacherous during migrations across frozen tundra.
A small-brained creature would not contemplate such duress, merely experience it in the moment. Its fate would be either to adapt or die. There would be neither any possibility nor any point in hoping, fretting, worrying about ‘what if.’ Conversely, an animal with a brain of 1500 or so centimeters would. Since uncertainty-fostered duress can lead to avoidance behaviors, some sort of endurance-enhancing cognitive capacity would have had to kick in to rein in all that angst. In that time period the adaptive value of God might have been to sustain human motivation through supra-environmental (i.e. spiritual) cognitions and emotions, so that persistence would increase the likelihood of finding food, water and climatic support. In the aftermath of such discovery, the need of a large brain for closure might lead the nomads to thank/appease an overseer to reinforce his investment in the tribe and express gratitude for his or her concern for their well-being.
The combination of attributional and personifying tendencies probably forced a belief in God for the first humans. In that instance religion was not a symbolic, spiritual mindset but a necessary, adaptive form of cognition facilitating persistence and thus aiding in survival. It was conceivably both necessary and inevitable.
A second God-adaptation possibly arose with the advent of agricultural societies. When people are able to renew a supply of plant foods without necessarily understanding the biology behind the process, they will perhaps view their good fortune as a function of some sort of outside control. That in turn will lead to gratitude and a need to pay homage to the purveyor of this good fortune. Thus the transition from a nomadic to agricultural/urban life style did not require a cognitive/religious transformation. The settlers hoped for crops to grow, had to wait for seasonal and climatically favorable circumstances and when things turned out well they acknowledged the agent responsible and continued to express their gratitude in the hope that the bounty would continue. (Wilkins 2000). Both nomadic and early agricultural religious practices were adaptive because they facilitated persistence and provided uncertainty reduction.
The continued development and expansion of agriculture societies obviously led to profound social changes, including a more sedentary life style and greater social permanence. Family members could live together for longer periods of time and all inhabitants had more down time to ponder existential questions. A brain previously driven by movement, faced with moment to moment concerns about geography. resources and destinations was now able to look beyond immediate experience. A distinction between concrete experience and ‘meaning’ was drawn. Ideas on the value and importance of life and the trauma of death became more common and more vivid (Erlich 2000), (Gould, McGarr et. al 2007). A greater capacity for suffering was a consequence of that as the inherent tough-mindedness of the nomad morphed into the more tender and sensitive mindset of the permanent settlers. To cope with internally-driven angst, to persist despite the specter of death, failure, and the potential loss of new-found prosperity required a continued reliance on the cognition/religion paradigm.
So, once again, God came to the rescue, insulating humans against the existential suffering and enabling mankind to adapt to still newer social and environmental circumstances.
Religious evolution did not end there, for another profound change occurred in human society. While agriculture provided stability and control, not all habitable places on earth were equally arable. Some places lacked water resources, others were too cold or mountainous, still others had agricultural potential but residents lacked knowledge of farming techniques. Yet tribal outsiders traveled about – after all, many were still entrenched in the nomadic life style. They were aware of the existence of milk and honey settlements and wanted in on that. As a result another ironic byproduct of societal advancement occurred in the form of tribal invasion. War became all the rage.
The genes of a primate are very parochial. Somehow, in some way these microscopic bio-conglomerates influence behavior in such a way as to serve the local gene pool. Family ties tend to promote loyalty while the presence of strangers tends to invoke hostility. Up the point of tribal invasions, family ties were not only strong but historically crucial. As evidenced in the Old Testament people in the Middle East/North African settlements were well aware of and arguably obsessed with lineage. One reason for this concern with lineage was to prevent contamination of the local gene pool by outsiders. Religious thought favored that mindset, as seen in the long reference list of progenitors and offspring in Genesis. That cognitive-religious mindset was adaptive because it reinforced altruism within the ranks and consequently the survival of all members of the tribal family. That model persisted down through the epochs depicted in the Bible. Indeed without that, Jesus of Nazareth (being ostensibly from the line of David and born by mandate in David’s town of Bethlehem) could not have risen in the ranks.
Yet even extended families are small in number and insufficient to ward off hordes of invaders. A conflict arose. Consanguine groups had to decide between keeping the family intact at the risk of being overrun by vast armies or increasing their numbers and territorial defensive capabilities by assimilating para-familial members into their community. The solution was discovered at some cost. It was that strangers somehow had to be incorporated and welcomed into an extra-familial socio-political structure
In order to achieve these first forays into social integration required nothing less than a socio-political miracle. For this to occur, the behavioral impetus arising from the most basic elements of life – the genes – had to be overridden. In effect, nurture had to over-take nature. It was not an easy task, which is why a new religious adaptation was needed and why it did occur.
The newest cognitive/religious adaptation was found in the idea of integration and it was exemplified by Judao-Christian, Buddhist and other religious models. The God of Abraham accepted Ishmael as future leader of a great nation, despite his biological mother (Hagar) being an Egyptian maid. Moses began as an Egyptian prince before ultimately leading the Hebrews. David united the conflicted twelve tribes to form the state of Israel. The story of the Good Samaritan rose above parochial protest. Jesus reached out to the Roman centurion to heal his servant, and included tax collectors and other outsiders into a more compassionate world view, while Buddha traveled about, espousing not just tribal integration but unity among all life forms. All these integrative ideas heralded at different times, in different places the advent of a new model. It was a credo that met with considerable resistance – and still does, but, just as the industrial growth of the western nations (most notably the U.S.A.) occurred through assimilation of immigrant foreigners, so were the urban settlements in the Middle East ultimately sustained in ancient times. In fact the human race was able to adapt as a result of a religiously-driven idea of overriding both genetic and tribal differences.
Protection from invasion was not the only reason for integrative thought but it conceivably originated in the need to survive against enemy attack and it worked. In that context, God evolved from a parochial figure to one more concerned with the family of man. He taught us, through the prism of human cognition how to get along when it was absolutely necessary to do so.
Throughout history the cognitive and behavioral byproducts of belief in God have enabled us to adapt, persist and deal with changing pressures, threats and trends. In one sense that would seem to render God flexible, adaptable and perhaps even anthropocentrically utilitarian. And of course a belief in God has led to violent, destructive behavior in the course of time. Still, the overall effect of religion has kept Homo sapiens alive and well through thick and thin, in times when the genes, habits and instincts of mankind would not have been nearly enough – and indeed could have led to our downfall. As to the question of God’s existence: it is hard to resolve such a question in our post-Cartesian, empirically-tinged world. Perhaps a better question has to do with God’s legitimacy. In that context, even if religious belief is not genetically hardwired into the human brain as Hamer (2005) suggested, one could argue that since religion has been an inevitable byproduct of human neurology and human need and since it has enabled our species to persist, adapt and survive, it is virtually built into human experience and perhaps into mind as well. Like our penchant for analyzing nature through the medium of mathematics it seems very much within us – just as the prophets insisted.
Cauvin, C. Watkins T. The Birth of the Gods and the Origin of Agriculture. Cambridge University Press
Draper, P. (1998) Evolution and the Problem of Evil. In Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Louis Pojman. Wadsworth Publishing. P. 200
Erlich, P. (2000) Human Nature,Genes, Culture and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC Island Press
Gould, S.J. McGarr, P. Steven, P, Russell, R (2007) Challenges to Neo-Darwinism and its Meaning for a Revised View of Human Consciousness. W.W.Norton & Co.
Hamer, D. (2005) The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes. Anchor Books
Hitchens, C. (2007) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve/Hachette Book Group, USA Warner Books
Jesus reference re; I am the Way. In John 14:6
Jesus reference re: Why do you call me good? In Luke 18:19
King, B (2007) Evolving God; A Provocative View on the Origin of Religion. Doubleday Publishing
Lieberman, P. (1984) The Biology and Evolution of Language. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Marlowe, F.W. (2005) Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News and Reviews. 14 (2) 54-67
Narr, K.J. (2008) Prehistoric Religion. Britannica On-Line Encyclopedia
Wilkins, j. (Aug 2000) Agriculture and the Rise of Religion. Evolving Thought. Science Blog.
About the Author
Robert DePaolo, MS Clinical Psychology, former Professor of Psychology NH University System, author of five books and many articles on science, religion, politics, psychology and music.