Skye Thomas

Skye Thomas
Writer, Rebel, and Soapbox Ranter

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Even atheists believe in a lot more than the selfish gene

RELIGION, in an increasingly secular Britain, has become a fashionable topic among the chattering classes. We are a little oasis of free-thinkers stranded in a world of mystics, whether of Islamic persuasion to the East or evangelicals to the West. We are uneasy about what they have got and we have not. Are we frightened, I wonder, that we might after all be wrong and missing out on something vital? I love that quintessentially Presbyterian tale of the sinner denied entry at the pearly gates, who pleads: "Lord, Lord, we didna ken." And the Lord in his infinite mercy and compassion replies: "Well ye ken noo."

As an atheist and scientist-of-sorts, I don't suffer qualms that this will be my fate. But I do understand that there is a bit of me that "does God" whether I like it or not. I'm not alone in that. There are many thinkers who hold - and some good scientific evidence to back them up - that spirituality is hard-wired in humans to a variable extent, and that it is beneficial to health - physical and mental. What really causes the confusion is that while something of this sort can be good for us, can even be essential and has probably contributed enormously to our evolutionary survival - it is not necessarily true. I would say, it is manifestly not true. We subsist on a diet of delusions.

The crux of religious matter is the promise of eternal life. People go coy when this tenet is mentioned, because it is so palpably absurd. No one in this day and age of stern evidence-bases believes we shall flap about on wings among the clouds with harps and angelic expressions. Yet the earliest manifestation of human religiousness was in the form of grave goods in the Stone Age, buried for use in the after-life. It is easy to see that this was the logical response to the dawning realisation of death as the fate of us all. Not just them and you, but me too. Contemplating an infinity without oneself in it is almost too painful to bear. Ergo, an after-life was envisaged, had to be manufactured.

The seed of religion was planted. Man's innate optimism and his arrogant invincibility saved him from stultifying insight about his true insignificance. Those with sufficient imagination and capacity to suspend belief - those gifted with blind faith, in other words - flourished preferentially, and so did their offspring. This must have happened some tens of thousands of years before the organised religions developed, but it is significant that the major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism) emerged at much the same time (900 to 200BC), with Judaism, Islam and Christianity evolving soon after. The spiritual circuit board lodged in the human mind might show regional variations, but the central tenet of faith in them all was - is - the promise of eternal life.

That people believe this myth - in spite of all evidence to the contrary - is clear from the number of unfortunates queuing up to be martyrs and suicide bombers. But the belief came aeons before the terrorist consequences. The notion shared by opinionated taxi drivers and Richard Dawkins, that religion is inherently violent, is so obviously nonsense. One might forgive the taxi drivers, but what can this iconic professor, carrier of the Darwinian candle, this writer of seminal works on evolution, be thinking of? We cannot deny our spiritual streak any more than we can survive without eating, or sleeping or having sex.

Hunter-gatherer tribes evolved and survived by practising ruthless inter-tribal hostility to the death. Organised religions are the new tribal systems. Religious sects have also been templates on which hierarchies form, with ideal opportunities for individual men to wield tyrannical power. Hardly surprising then that religions provide the vehicles for violence, torture and warfare; but such bloodshed and brutality is a human characteristic, not a specifically religious one. Almost any collective activity humans undertake is potentially tempestuous and confrontational. But the survival benefits of being a spiritual species manifestly outweigh the slaughter from our tendency to descend into holy wars.

Indeed, religion can form the basis for a stable society, which is often a force for good. There is no better example than Calvinism, which brought order to a turbulent Geneva in the 1500s. I grew up in rural England where the Church of England was central to village community life, and very benign it was. But the same institution also has a history of racism, misogyny, homophobia, suppression of knowledge; human failings all, which testify to the Church's man-made origins. And the C of E is not the worst in those respects.

The numerous scientific twin studies into the heritability of holiness show, as you would expect, that allegiance to a particular sect is determined by nurture, but the leanings to "spirituality" (for want of a better word) are strongly genetic. An American molecular biologist even claims to have found a God-gene. Spirituality is an intensely personal experience, while religion is an institution. How does science define spirituality? Psychologists call it transcendence, which has a suitably sacerdotal ring; and comprises traits of self-forgetfulness, connectedness to the natural world and mysticism.

Bird-watchers, nature-lovers, conservationists, members of Greenpeace and Médecins sans Frontières, even solitary hill-walkers, qualify in spades. I am surprised the scientists do not include an ability to be moved and elated by music and art. My own spiritual dimension expresses itself in a love of sacred music. Friends who are cerebral atheists get very worried as I trundle off to hear the Messiah and St Matthew's Passion at Easter and carols at Christmas. But I am communing with Handel, for example, who experienced the most powerful mystic exaltation as he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus, imagining himself in the presence of God. God to me is simply an artefact of my brain, a curiosity that has evolved to appease the terrors of contemplating my own end.

The spiritual world is simply that which stands for what we do not know or understand. As knowledge moves forward, bastions of belief are painfully knocked down, as creationism has been by Darwinian evolution. Human brains are not evolved to know anything other than what serves us to survive and procreate. There is a whole universe out there, much of which is beyond our capacity to comprehend. I think if you can accept that concept and your own infinitesimal place in the scheme of things, you have arrived at your spiritual nirvana.

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