In The God Gene, Dean Hamer argues that we are predisposed to believe in gods or things supernatural because we are genetically programmed to believe in something larger than ourselves. We do appear to be so inclined, but our need to believe in something greater than ourselves does not have to entail religion. The questions Hamer presents often lead to religion of some kind simply because the society in which we live has for so long expected that they must. However, we now live in a more sophisticated and philosophical age. There are other ways to think about “the big questions.”
The gene that makes us want to be part of something greater than ourselves does not have to make us religious. (Image: public domain)
Hamer’s queries, “Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Why is there so much suffering?” address a mix of issues not all of which are truly religious in nature. Hamer does not separate philosophy from religion and morality. He chooses faith over philosophy because religion offers the immensity of God, the most obvious greater thing of which we may make ourselves a part.
Our dim sensing of our own unconscious minds (which are much larger than our conscious awareness) sometimes generates a feeling of the numinous, and this sense of being somehow haunted by a vague presence – actually an aspect of our larger selves – accounts for much of the religious impulse. The urge to be part of something greater than ourselves may indicate a need for increased psychological integration rather than an innate need to believe in God.
If this is the case, religious belief may actually get in the way by redirecting the impulse away from productive self-discovery and self-understanding and onto a pointless study of outdated religious doctrine. We get lost in an old way of seeking a spiritual life, already abandoned by the majority, when new ways are available.
On the other hand, the urge to join with something larger than ourselves may reveal nothing more than a fearful craving for the physical safety offered by joining a numerous group or powerful organization. Then again, the urge may reflect a need to see oneself as an integral part of the society around one. For example, in the nineteenth century, Britons could see themselves as being part of the glorious British Empire and eagerly throw themselves into a life dedicated to its expansion and operation. One’s purpose in life was then the furtherance of the interests of the grand imperialist adventure. An enhanced Empire meant an enhanced sense of self. This approach is entirely secular and has nothing to do with religion.
Obviously, there are many ways to satisfy the urge to be part of something greater than ourselves that do not involve religion.
9 thoughts on “Considering the God Gene”
Another fascinating topic, Thomas, and one that I often wonder about. The fact is that religion of one sort or another does seem to be a common aspect of human life and society – as far as I am aware, there is no society in history which has been entirely without it. And even in the modern west, which as you point out seems to be abandoning its traditional religious affiliations, the religious impulse may be argued to be finding an outlet in the increasing popularity of Eastern religions and the pseudo-religious New Age movement.
Usually, when an aspect of human behaviour seems so universal, it can be explained away quite easily in terms of evolutionary biology. For example, the common urge to live in family or social groups makes perfect sense, simply because the individual’s chances of survival are increased by being part of a group. The connection seems less obvious in the case of religion – surely one’s chances of surviving and thriving in this world are actually compromised, if one is regularly distracted by ‘otherworldly’ concerns?
If the urge to belong to something larger than ourselves does not necessarily entail religion, how can we explain the universality of religion?
This is something I honestly have no answer to. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts (or anyone else’s, come to that!).
It has nothing to do with size. Humans are predisposed to accept as real, things which exist only in their imaginations.
Mari, what you say about the universality of religion is entirely true. My imperialist example does ignore the fact that many enterprising traders and courageous colonials were also Christians. The answer to your question lies in the fact that humans are not a fully self-aware species. We have both a conscious and an unconscious mind. The unconscious portion of this arrangement interacts with the conscious portion in non-verbal ways such as instinctual emotions, imagery, intuition; and what I call the spiritual emotions of joy, bliss, delight and enchantment.
The discovery (or real understanding) of the unconscious goes back only a century and a half or so. Prior to that, we were not aware that the unconscious existed, so there was no way to “own” everything that came from there. Since they have a bodily aspect, most people recognized their feelings as their own, but tended to see much else as coming from “somewhere else.” Mental events that were neither thoughts nor feelings seemed to just come out of the blue. As a result, we once externalized the more obscure aspects of our unconscious functioning as signs that some kind of spirit or god was at work, benignly guiding us or wickedly tempting us into evil.
Being a writer, I am sure you know the gods were once universally regarded as the source of poetic inspiration.
Add in Catana’s observation (in her comment below) that we tend to view imagined things as real, and you have the birth of some kind of god concept and the inevitable religious practices that go with such ideas.
The Enlightenment preceded knowledge of the unconscious by some 200 years and got people thinking more rationally about religious ideas. There began a substantial movement away from anything that smacked of the supernatural or mysticism. Rationalists questioned the very existence of God. Yet the unexplained unconscious left most people saddled with an externalized unconscious mind. The nagging sense that there was “something” out there made it hard to abandon religion altogether. Moreover, outside of Europe and its growing colonies, there was no Enlightenment.
Religion survives today for the same reason. Many people still do not understand the functioning of their own unconscious mind. At times, it can generate a powerful feeling of the numinous; a non-rational experience often interpreted as incontrovertible “proof” that there is a God, or at least some “Higher Power.” For some, the unconscious itself becomes the seat of God within one’s own psyche. Still others see some mystical power at work in coincidence (synchronicity), Tarot cards, the Ouija board (spiritualism), or the I Ching. The New Agers appear to save time and mental energy by indiscriminately believing anything that looks flakey.
We are still a long way from moving past some aspects of our more primitive past. This is why Dean Hamer can write a book like *The God Gene*. My point in the post is that many people have managed to find other outlets for their need to belong to something larger than themselves. Either these people understand the unconscious or they are able to dismiss anything mystical or supernatural as an illusion, even if it does seem alluring.
Catana, your comment also explains the belief in such non-religious things as fairies, leprechauns, witches, brownies, elves, and so on.