I was raised Methodist, which in my small Southern town was a little lower than the angels -- i.e., the Episcopalians. We could pride ourselves on not being Baptists, but were uncertain where we stood with regard to the Presbyterians. (We had a suspicion they were higher on the social scale, but maybe not much.) I remained Methodist through college, but all it did was make me priggish, conflicted, and sexually timid.
When I left home, I met Catholics and Jews (and sometimes a few Protestants) whose faith was real and profound, integral to their existence in ways that my own had never been. But I knew I could never be like them; I lacked something, perhaps the cultural roots that nourished these friends. My own roots were in the sandy loam of Mississippi and easily dislodged, and in graduate school I flirted with Episcopalianism, thinking that I might find my roots there -- after all, I was an English major. But I gave it up once the novelty wore off of attending services in a church that George and Martha Washington once worshiped in and where Teddy Roosevelt once taught Sunday school.
My drift away from religion had begun. Occasionally, like the woman in Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning," "I still feel / The need of some imperishable bliss." But the tug toward belief grows fainter as I'm borne along toward my three-score-and-tenth year. There are few questions that religion can answer for me that aren't answered by science, few moral problems that can't be settled for me by law and custom, few insights into humankind that aren't supplied to me by literature and art. Sometimes I feel something listening to religious music -- Bach chorales, Handel's "Messiah," the Verdi Requiem, Brahms' "Deutsches Requiem," the soprano's ecstatic outburst of "Christe" in Mozart's C minor Mass, even the old hymns I used to sing in church -- but the experience is aesthetic, not qualitatively different from what I experience listening to great secular music. Or else it's nostalgia, a sentimental regret for losing something I once thought I had. True, I have prayed at times of stress, but if my words flew up, my thoughts remained below. What comfort I received was in focusing and thereby calming my thoughts, and if I heard a replying voice it was my own.
I can't go all the way to atheism, however. Maybe the immensity of the observable universe suggests that there must be a point to something so vast, so strange, so not me. And so I call myself agnostic for want of a better label. The realization that others find something -- meaning? truth? help? -- in religion leads me to try to understand what it is, which is why I find myself reading books about it.
Like this one. Robert Wright's premise that religious beliefs undergo a process of natural selection, that the ones most useful in helping their believers survive are the beliefs that prevail, would have gotten him burned at the stake at one time. (And still might in parts of Oklahoma and Texas.) But it fits with what I know of history. He asserts that "religion has been deeply shaped by many factors, ranging from politics to economics to the human emotional infrastructure.
Evolutionary psychology has shown that, bizarre as some "primitive" beliefs may sound -- and bizarre as some "modern" religious beliefs may sound to atheists and agnostics -- they are natural outgrowths of humanity, natural products of a brain built by natural selection to make sense of the world with a hodgepodge of tools whose collective output isn't wholly rational.
He begins in prehistory, with the gods of the hunter-gatherers -- a difficult place to start because we know so little about these societies. What we do know is that unlike Jews, Christians, or Muslims, their belief systems weren't "constrained from the outset by a stiff premise: that reality is governed by an all-knowing, all-powerful and good God." And that, "in hunter-gatherer societies, gods by and large don't help solve moral problems that would exist in their absence."
Even if religion is largely about morality today, it doesn't seem to have started out that way. And certainly most hunter-gatherer societies don't deploy the ultimate moral incentive, a heaven reserved for the good and a hell to house the bad. ... There is always an afterlife in hunter-gatherer religion, but it is almost never a carrot or a stick. Often everyone's spirit winds up in the same eternal home.Their religions also weren't about maintaining social order, because their societies were so small and the threats to them so great that social cohesion was necessary for survival. What hunter-gatherer religions do have in common with the contemporary religions of the world is that "they try to explain why bad things happen, and they thus offer a way to make things better."
These societies also had people who discovered that they could gain power by figuring out what the gods wanted: "Once there was belief in the supernatural, there was a demand for people who claimed to fathom it. ... The shaman is the first step toward an archbishop or an ayatollah." This leads Wright into some very interesting (one might say trippy) speculations on the genuineness of the transcendental experiences claimed by shamans.
No doubt the world's shamans have run the gamut from true believer to calculating fraud.... In any event, there is little doubt that many shamans over the years have had what felt like valid spiritual experiences. .... Evolutionary psychology, the modern Darwinian understanding of human nature, ... explain[s] the very origins of religious belief as the residue of built-in distortions of perception and cognition; natural selection didn't design us to believe only true things, so we're susceptible to certain kinds of falsehood. But ... our normal states of consciousness are in a sense arbitrary; they are the states that happen to have served the peculiar agenda of mundane natural selection. That is, they happen to have helped organisms (our ancestors) spread genes in a particular ecosystem on a particular planet. .... The psychologist William James .... explored the influence on consciousness of things ranging from meditation to nitrous oxide and concluded that "our normal waking consciousness" is "but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness enttirely different." James's position in the book -- that these alternative forms may be in some sense more truthful than ordinary consciousness -- is the properly open-minded stance, and it has if anything been strengthened by evolutionary psychology.
This leads Wright to the "not outlandish metaphysical prospect: there is such a thing as pure contemplative awareness, but our evolved mental machinery, in its normal working mode, is harnessing that awareness to specific ends, and in the process warping it." The main point is that shamans, with their supposed privileged insights into ultimate things, emerged as powerful forces in their societies, whether for good or for ill.
There are people who think religion serves society broadly, providing reassurance and hope in the face of pain and uncertainty, overcoming our natural selfishness with communal cohesion. And there are people who think religion is a tool of social control, wielded by the powerful for self-aggrandizement -- a tool that numbs people to their exploitation ("opiate of the masses") when it's not scaring them to death. In one view gods are good things, and in one view gods are bad things.
But Wright poses another question: "Isn't it possible that the social function and political import of religion have changed as cultural evolution has marched on?" The next step is "The chiefdom, the most advanced from of social organization in the world 7,000 years ago, [which] represents the final prehistoric phase in the evolution of social organization and the evolution of religion." Wright's chapter on the age of chiefdoms focuses on Polynesia, where religion took its role as a supplement to political authority: "Across Polynesia broadly, religion encouraged exacting work and discouraged theft and other antisocial acts." And with the emergence of larger societies, the ancient city-states, the more productive a religion made its people, the more likely that religion was to survive: "So religions that encouraged people to treat others considerately -- which made for a more orderly and productive city -- would have a competitive edge over religions that didn't."
In Mesopotamia, rulers discovered that it was to their advantage to accept other cities' gods as equal to their own.
In an age when people feared gods and desperately sought their favor, an intercity pantheon of gods that divided labor among themselves must have strengthened emotional bonds among cities. Whether or not you believe that the emotional power of religion truly emanates from the divine, the power itself is real.Thus, "in the ancient world conquerors -- the great ones, at least -- were less inclined to smash the idols of their vanquished foes than to worship them." The next step is to fuse several deities into one: "The melding of religious beliefs or concepts -- "syncretism" -- is a common way to forge cultural unity in the wake of conquest, and often ... what gets melded is the gods themselves." We're on the road to monotheism.