We humans hunt, gather, mate…and we instinctively reach out for something bigger than ourselves. We’ve evolved over zillions of years and all these behaviors seem to be wired into us, according to a tantalizingly short New York Times article, “The Evolution of the God Gene.”
Archaeologists in Mexico are the source for this provocative view. Their fascinating work has turned up more than worship spaces from 7,000 B.C., it has fueled the idea (for the NYT reporter Nicolas Wade anyway) that our need to believe in some kind of creator figure is not just the result of learned social norms…it is part of our cells and gray matter.
As Wade points out, this could shake up the religious and atheist alike. One side wants religion to be divine-inspired, the other regards it as superstitious voodoo. Wade goes on to assure both sides that there is no need to feel threatened, that this notion of a “God gene” doesn’t refute either position.
This passage also caught my eye:
“The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community.”
That’s as cogent a description of religious community as I’ve ever seen. I’m going to save it in a file somewhere, like a good poem.
Here’s why I like it:
Religion is more often seen as a personal and elected thing in our society, but in fact it really is still an “invisible government.” Even if you do not believe that bad acts will send you to Hell, even if you never set foot in a house of worship; even if you do not believe that there is any greater force that influences the universe, you are still tethered to this government.
After reading the article, my mind wandered to a dear friend of mine who was raised as a Roman Catholic and who left the Church decades ago. When asked if he believes in God, he firmly says, “No.” Yet the rules he lives by are remarkably similar to, say, the Ten Commandments.
Also, I don’t want to speak for Jesus, but I’m pretty sure that if he came back, he’d give my friend a hearty high-five for all the clothing/feeding/caring for the poor, halt and lame that my buddy has done, all while politely eschewing God with a capital G. For that matter, the good this friend quietly does in his own small sphere is none other than the tikkun olam, the “repairing the world” that my rabbi endorses.
Yes, yes, I know. These things can be said to be morals or ethics, not religion. (In fact, I bet that’s how my friend labels them.) True. But it makes sense to me that this God-ish DNA is behind them, whatever labels we slap on.
More than once I’ve rolled my eyes at said friend when he does the no-God-for-me riff. Now I have a different way to think about this.
Somewhere back in time, when flippers gave way to feet and our ancestors plodded up on land and started considering condo development, they also developed wiring that drives us to create the invisible governments we need.
I buy that.