Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Genetic religion?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, religion, faith, sociology

After reading Nicholas Wade's most recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, two weeks ago, I decided to read a couple of his earlier books. The first to come to hand is The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, published in 2009. I have quite mixed feelings about the former book, and as an ardent Christian, I find this book even more unsettling, but I expected that. Regardless, it discusses matters of which we dare not be ignorant.

When I was very young, I recall my mother saying that the beginning of the second verse in Genesis wasn't connected to the end of the first verse, leaving a gap for geology to happen. She was a rock hound, and knew enough geology to understand that the Earth must be much, much older than the 6,000 years deduced by Ussher and others from adding up the "begats" in the Old Testament. I've done a similar exercise out of curiosity, and it is rather tricky to string the right genealogies together. Interestingly, Paul wrote that we shouldn't waste time studying "endless genealogies" (1 Tim 1:4, and a similar statement in Titus 3:9). I reckon he was on to something.

Thus, I have long held that the Bible is not intended as a text in natural history. As Cardinal Baronius said to Galileo, "The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." But even among Christians who accept the conclusions of science, and biology in particular, and even if they accept evolution, they are uncomfortable with human evolution. Even more so, that the brain continues to evolve, and rare is the scholar of Humanities or Anthropology who willingly accepts that some proportion of human behavior is genetic. Theist or atheist, scholars almost uniformly deny that any substantial level of evolution is now going on, particularly as relates to human behavior.

Our deepest and most powerful impulses are the spiritual. Gospel preachers sometimes say that no animal has religion, "only we do". They say you never find a dog worshiping—to which some wags respond, dogs don't believe in supernatural gods because they live with their gods: Us. Every culture and every civilization has a characteristic religious practice. In The Faith Instinct, Wade traces the genetic tendency to practice religion to something that must have developed prior to the expansion of physically modern humans out of Africa some 50,000 years ago (most anthropologists would say, 70,000). This is because religious practice is universal.

Sure, among the most affluent nations we find rising numbers of atheists and agnostics, and in the last 2-3 generations a growing level of "evangelical atheism" (I find it laughable that these "hot" atheists are so extremely religious in their atheism! They are as touchy and insecure as the most priggish Puritan.). Less affluent countries don't have atheists. If only for naturalistic reasons, when life is bad, people need something beyond themselves to keep going on going on.

The basic thesis is simple. Early human groups endured frequent warfare (there never were any "noble savages). Groups of early people who danced and sang together were more socially cohesive, and more likely to win the next battle. We see in tribal groups today pre-battle dances. I liken them to pre-game pep rallies at schools and colleges. People who think they are so sophisticated go to an arena for a ball game and behave like a warrior tribe roaring themselves into a frenzy. The post-game rioting and looting that sometimes occur stand in for the battles among tribal folk.

Social cohesion may not be enough to regulate an egalitarian hunter-gatherer society between battles. Revered ancestors that morphed over time into various kinds of gods provided a supernatural check on misbehavior. If you think a god is watching, you are less likely to sin. This instinct is so ingrained that many stores take advantage of it by having lots of mirrors on the walls, and pictures of smiling faces in places you might not expect, such as in or near changing rooms in the clothing department. Experiments have shown that just having pictures showing eyes near the communal coffee urn in an office break room reduces the amount of coffee taken without plunking the expected couple of quarters into the nearby jar. Such an instinct would favor a group that didn't have to kill so many miscreants, because most people were behaving well due to fear of the gods.

Where did the modern, more cerebral religions of the developed world come from? Wade writes that agriculture and village life, then city life, required something different from tribal dance- and song-fests. Just as an economic hierarchy developed to regulate trade and distribution of goods, so a religious hierarchy developed, a priesthood that gradually monopolized religious practice. The development of writing that paralleled agriculture also facilitated religion, allowing the commandments and rituals to be codified.

Near the end of the book, Wade discusses the work of Samuel Huntington, who wrote articles and a book titled The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington identifies seven world civilizations of the present day:
  • Western, including Europe and the USA
  • Confucian, in China
  • Japanese, though some would argue Japan is merging into the West
  • Islamic
  • Hindu, in India primarily
  • Slavic-Orthodox, in Russia and parts of former SSR's
  • Latin America
Huntington wrote, "The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations." (I contend that WW3 began in 1992, and is sort of sputtering along at present.) Huntington analyzed these seven, and for Western civilization he lists eight defining characteristics:
  • Greek and Roman legacy
  • Western Christianity in two branches, Roman Catholic and Protestant
  • Languages derived from Latin, German and Greek
  • Separation of church and state
  • Rule of law
  • Social pluralism
  • Representative governing bodies
  • Tradition of individual rights and liberties
(These lists are on page 272) Why, in particular, do the Russians seem so similar to Westerners, yet are so at odds with the West (particularly with Putin in charge, but don't blame it all on him)? Of these 8, only a deep historical legacy is familiar, but theirs came through Byzantium, not Rome and Athens. Their Orthodox religion has been split, most vehemently, from Roman Catholicism for over 950 years. Then there is Islam, for which the church IS the state, and shar'ia law is considered divinely inspired, not legislated; they have none of the other 7 characteristics either.

Here Wade enters into deeper waters than just religions and their differences. To belong to a civilization is to have a certain kind of identity. One's comfort or discomfort with one's civilization affects one's progeny, and thus is a factor in natural selection. These matters led to the later book I refer to above.

How is a Christian to think of all this? Is there a genuine God? Is the Old Testament really the cobbled-together scheming of a self-appointed priesthood among the Hebrews in Babylon? Wade refers to this conclusion of the "higher critics" of the early 1800s rather uncritically. Most of their "findings" have since been discredited. For example, in the 1820s they could disparage references to the Hittites, but a generation later, the Hittites were found to be real. These critics claimed that the Hebrews didn't conquer Canaan, but were home-grown in Canaan. Yet there are historical records of somebody coming to Egypt for a couple of generations, then leaving under mysterious circumstances. The Egyptians themselves destroyed most records of the matter, possibly from embarrassment.

And is the New Testament as late-dated as higher critics suppose? For example, were the first 3 Gospels written before or after 70AD? Christian scholarship places Mark first, as a collection of Peter's sermons, released before 60AD, then both Matthew and Luke just a few years later. Only John came after 70AD, possibly as late as 95AD. And was the theology attributed to Paul a distortion of the message of Jesus? He could not have been warmly received by the church in Jerusalem if that were so. His differences with James were not about Jesus's message, but about whether a Jew should continue to practice the Jewish religion after converting to Christ.

To a Christian, the choice is stark. Either the Bible is divinely inspired, or it is nonsense. Evidence of editing is no problem: copyists make errors, and God can guide a later scribe to reverse the error. The Spirit's inspiration took place at many levels. Certain sentences uttered by Satan are included, one chapter of Daniel was written by Nebuchadnezzar, and the whole book of Ecclesiastes is the maundering of an aging Solomon in a time of deep depression. In particular, it is not wise to use any verse of Ecclesiastes as a proof text. You have to compare it to Song of Songs to see why God allowed it into His Word.

To a Christian who understands and accepts evolution, human life and nature show traces of divine intervention, even in our genetics. Why should God not intervene in a delicate way, to steer human development towards His own ends? No matter how many books are written on the subject, atheists will say man created gods in our image, and theists will say the gods or God made us in the divine image. Faith is deeper than just religious practice. It really depends, do you believe what you believe because of what you were taught to practice, or do you do what you do because of your faith?

Nicholas Wade takes a relentlessly biological view of human affairs. For that, he does a great service. Like it or not, he reaches logical conclusions from the available evidence.

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