“Religion … must go hand-in-hand with science.”
The Baha’i Writings
July 31, 2011. My last blog examined the role of spirituality in the harsh and warlike environment of the pre-20th American southwest. In the fight for survival among competing tribes and nations, spirituality was the glue that held people together and gave meaning to life.
Science – and the technologies resulting from science – has swept aside many of the restrictions – and outmoded marauding lifestyles – that made violence an integral part not only of life in the American southwest but of pre-20th life in general. It has also made weaponry and the mechanics of violence incredibly more lethal, so that remaining marauding lifestyles married to nation-state politics have threatened mankind’s very existence.
This makes spirituality – both as the glue that holds the world’s people together and the thinking and practices that give meaning to life – much more important today than ever previously.
Given the undoubted importance of spiritual values for the future, it is important to know how modern science considers spirituality. Today’s blog examines spirituality in the context of evolution.
Science and How it Relates to Spirituality
Spirituality relates to science in at least four different ways:
- In a fundamental sense, the core values of science are spiritual values: the search for universal truths using empirical methods of verification to distinguish between correct and incorrect ideas.
- In a practical sense, science is the means by which spiritual values are implemented in society at large.
- As a topic of scientific study, science tries to understand what spirituality is and study it in individuals and in society.
- And finally, in an ideological sense, science as a mythology and idealized model of reality tries to identify the nature and role spirituality in the context of scientific origins stories. (Many deny that this is ideology. But science as ideology is certainly a component of the popularization of science and arguments over the validity of religion, so it necessarily is included.)
In discussing spirituality in the context of evolution, my focus is on items 3 and 4, i.e., how science studies spirituality in the light of evolution and evolutionary origins stories.
Evolution and Spirituality – A Modern View
Evolutionary biology – despite the critics – has a clear-headed and well-tested vision of how humans came to be. There is nothing in it to dislodge a belief in God – despite the critics – or the validity of religion. (For a modern, well-argued, and persuasive discussion of the topic by an evangelical Christian who is also a leading biologist, see The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Question.)
Our Evolutionary Origins
We can outline a clear relationship between our evolutionary heritage and our spiritual nature.
Let us take for granted the standard account of the origins of mankind: Evolutionary processes bring about the creation of proto-humans in the savannahs of Africa. On the savannahs, survival is enhanced by the evolution of a number of qualities we associate with humanity – an upright posture, the emergence of the distinctive human hand, a distinctive and unique intelligence, language, group organization, and tool making. All of these are in addition to the qualities that proto-humans – and modern homo sapiens – share with primates: stereoscopic color vision, stereoscopic hearing, omnivore capabilitities (i.e., the ability to eat both meat and vegetables), and the wide range of hormones that control stress, metabolism, hunger, mating, moods, and growth.
Also, let us take seriously the accounts of the origins of our day-to-day activities that evolutionary psychology offers, pausing only momentarily to muse on the nature vs. nurture debates, fallacies such as eugenics and social Darwinism that marred the beginnings of evolutionary psychology, and the difficulty of deriving empirical evidence for its theories.
What we end up with is a picture of a humanity, both individually and socially, that is driven by urges and desires, rather easy prey to fears, superstition and falsehoods, agressive to the point of constant warfare, and a whole host of activities that we recognize and share with the animals.
But everyone’s experience is that all of these animalistic urges can be transcended. We can learn to eat regularly, to diet, to suppress our aggressiveness or defensiveness, to plan for activities no animals can accomplish – build railroads, for example – and to live by faith and reason when our moods, fears, and superstitions tell us quite differently. Whatever the skill set is that evolution bestowed on us – at God’s behest if you believe in religion, or by random natural processes if you don’t – it includes mechanisms that allow us to go beyond evolution’s animal limitations.
So, we are not limited by our animal nature – we can learn to control and override it. We have freedoms that animals lack.
This is our spirituality – it is what makes us human. And we can change and evolve during the span of our life, something that breaks us free from nature. In short, evolution gave us a set of background characteristics and we have in addition to that a set of ways to overcome and override those background characteristics.
This combined material and spiritual nature is – as religions and spiritual practices from the dawn of time have constantly reminded us – our dual heritage.
Next week, we examine the evolutionary psychology of religion, the idea that religion and spirituality are misdirected impulses from our evolutionary heritage, a remnant of our experiences on the savannahs of Africa that predisposes us towards religion and belief.
This is the 18th in a series of blogs on religion in the age of science. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. He did extensive research in quantum optics in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.