July 8, 2013. The idea that we have innate religious drives enjoys surprisingly widespread support. It was a staple of enlightenment European thought in the 17th and 18th centuries, embraced by theists, deists, atheists, and enemies of organized religion alike. Currently, it is a staple of modern evolutionary psychology, evolutionary sociology, evolutionary anthropology and other related evolutionary studies.
Consider, for example, the thinking of the influential anthropologist Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001). Boyer, according to Wikipedia, holds that
… human instincts provide us with the basis for an intuitive theory of mind that guides our social relations, morality, and predilections toward religious beliefs. Boyer and others propose that these innate mental systems make human beings predisposed to certain cultural elements such as belief in supernatural beings.
Or consider the thinking of Scott Atran, author of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (2002). Atran, an anthropologist and authority on religious-inspired terrorism, writes in Religion’s Innate Origins and Evolutionary Background that
… religion, in general, and awareness of the supernatural, in particular, [are] a converging by-product of several cognitive and emotional mechanisms that evolved under natural selection for mundane adaptive tasks. As human beings routinely interact they naturally tend to exploit these by-products to solve inescapable, existential problems that have no apparent worldly solution, such as the inevitability of death and the ever-present threat of deception by others.”
Our Innate Religious Drives Can Lead to the Good or to the Bad
My analysis of the existence of an innate religious drive, inspired by enlightenment thought, modern evolutionary thinking, and the Baha’i concept of progressive revelation, is that our innate religious drive is like any other innate human drive in that it can be directed towards the good or towards the bad.
Previously, we noted how this innate religious drive could lead to the excesses of magical thinking or the evils of human sacrifice (including head hunting, and cannibalism), as well as to. more beneficially, the early methods of organizing society. The antidote to those evils were the developments of the axial age, including the first great religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism) and their successor religions (Christianity, Islam) as well as Greek philosophy, Confucianism, and their modern descendants (see Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation #5: Magic and the Axial Age). The world’s great civilizations are deeply in debt to these axial age developments.
But what happens when when these great religions and philosophies lose there vitality and succumb to decay or degradation? What do we do when the religious intolerance and fanaticism that characterize the dark side of our innate religious tendencies come to the fore and become destructive and damaging?
The responses are many and are worth considering in detail. But for sake of brevity we will call them Reformation, Rejection, Division and Renewal.
Reformation, Rejection, Division and Renewal
When a religion or a philosophy of life loses its vitality and starts to become dysfunctional, or when priesthoods, leaders, or others in control become involved in conflict or lead their charges into trouble, conflict or chaos, then there are usually attempts to rectify the situation, to put aright what has gone wrong.
One of the ways that people attempt to restore the vitality of a religion – or a philosophical system like Hellenism or Confucianism – is by instituting major reforms.
To those of us in the modern West, the Protestant Reformation is the most dramatic and important example of an attempt to reform a religion that many thought of as having gone astray. The effect of the Protestant Reformation was a dramatic change in religious life throughout much of Western Europe, and included an internal reform of the Catholic Church as well. But the clashes that the movement to reform initiated, the prolonged and widespread warfare it created, and the violent hatreds that it brought about, show that reform can be very divisive and very destructive.
Another way that people deal with religion that appears to them to have gone wrong is to reject it. This was the response of many at the end of the European age of enlightenment. Religion was, many concluded, the invention of a priesthood that created it to privilege themselves and their political masters. This meant, they concluded, that it was false and that it was better to do without it. Of course, politically, this was an attack on the views of a substantial number of people and the institutions and truths they held to be inviolate and incitement to violence.
It was also – in essence – a claim that the innate religious urge should just be ignored or denied. This was the view of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and a number of other firebrands from central Europe. If, as seems the case, the urge to religion is innate, attempting to ignore or deny it is to force its expression elsewhere. Sometimes it expresses itself in the genius of an Einstein who is driven to understand and comprehend the universe. But the thrust of the age was towards violence and the sacrifice of tens of millions of human victims to millennial political or social-Darwinist ideologies in the struggle to realize secular utopias.This suggests that suppression was not the wisest of courses.
Division – larger religious groups splitting into smaller religious groups – was a consequence of both the Protestant Reformation and the rejection of religion in Europe. Partly this was because the reformation was actually a number of localized reformations each pursuing different grievances. And the rejection of religion left a vacuum that was rapidly filled by competing groups of people with various different substitute ideologies fighting for influence and power.
In Great Britain – and especially in the United States where church and state were separated constitutionally – division seems to have led to stability and a multiplication of different religious ideologies. Religious sects could split and try new things. But throughout history, division seems to more often have led to violent schisms and to conflict. And these conflicts sometimes have lasted for hundreds – or even thousands – of years (as was the case for early schisms in Christianity). This conflict also happened in Islam, where the Sunni / Shia divide is stronger than ever and currently provoking high levels of violence.
A final way that the decline and breakdown of religion has been addressed is by renewal. In a way, renewal is the day-to-day, year-to-year, and century-to-century way that religion progresses and grows. But the renewal of religion can also take the form of the establishment of completely new religion that leaves behind the institutions – and much of the disarray – of the older religious institutions. Renewal is what happened with Judaism around 2000 years ago. In its homeland, messianic Judaism led to violent conflict with imperial Rome, not just once but catastrophically twice. This resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and turned Judaism into a religion of diaspora. But the teachings of Christ renewed the spiritual foundations of Judaism and created a newer and larger vehicle of religious growth that eventually conquered – and not just spiritually – the Roman Empire itself, even incorporating within itself the advance teachings of the Greek philosophical traditions.
A similar thing happened in India, where Buddhism renewed the unity and vitality of the basic truths of the Indian religious traditions, broadcasting them as far as distant Japan and revitalizing China after a time of great division.
And the same thing happened in Arabia, where the spirit of Christianity and Judaism was renewed and revitalized by the revelation of Mohammed.
And now, according to the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, the same thing is happening once again as the teachings of Baha’u’llah show the conformity of fundamental truths of all religions, renewing them in a global faith that will revitalize the world.
What about the current age? What is the response required now? Is reformation, or rejection, or division, or renewal the way to go?
This is the 6th in a series of blogs on Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.