(IN THE MINDS OF BELIEVERS RITUALLY ENGAGED IN RELIGIOUS SECTS)
Editor’s note: Professor Shults helps us explain the meaning of Christmas to ourselves and to people we find ourselves in conversation with over the holdiays.
Where do babies come from? Why do parents keep them around? Although adults can get annoyed or embarrassed by these questions, it is quite natural for children to ask them. As the oldest of six, I had five rather obvious opportunities to ask – and I learned over time that it was better to curb my curiosity about human reproduction, at least in public. I did eventually get a straightforward answer and now, as the father of three grown children, I have learned how to explain, maturely and directly, that infants appear in human populations as a result of, well, the same basic procedures that, well… you know.
Now, where did baby Jesus come from? At first blush, this appears to be another quite natural question. But in this case, children get a very different – supernatural – sort of answer:
Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king! Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity!
Seriously? Many atheists find it difficult to understand how so many of their adult friends and neighbors can believe that two millennia ago a Virgin was visited by an ambiguous spiritual presence that “overshadowed” and “came upon” her (Luke 1:35), leading to the birth of a supernatural baby who would reveal a divine plan for ruling the world. Even relatively liberal Christians, who do not take the gynecological and cosmological aspects of the story literally, still typically believe that the man Jesus was in some sense the “Son of God” who disclosed the true meaning and goal of human life.
From the point of view of the bio-cultural sciences that study the evolution of religion, however, this is not so difficult to understand. In fact, the concept of “Christ” is just the sort of minimally counter-intuitive idea that scholars in fields like cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, archaeology and anthropology would expect to find widely shared among members of a religious in-group. We have to start by asking a different sort of question:
Where do gods come from – and why do people keep them around?
Scientists now have answers to questions about religious reproduction that are as plausible as the answers to questions about sexual reproduction.
First, supernatural agent conceptions are born in human minds today as the result of evolved hyperactive cognitive mechanisms that are part of our phylogenetic inheritance. Although the tendency to over-detect human-like agents regularly leads to mistaken perceptions, such as seeing faces in the clouds, it was naturally selected in the upper Paleolithic environment of our African ancestors because it gave survival advantage to those who, when confronted by an ambiguous pattern or movement in the forest, immediately jumped at the imagined “agent.” Those who lazily guessed “just the wind” when it was really a predator (or a prey) would have been more likely to be eaten (or go hungry). Notions of hard-to-detect, disembodied intentional forces lurking around are easily and naturally conceived in the human mind. When it comes to raising gods, however, it takes a village.
We also know that supernatural agent conceptions are borne in human groups today as a result of evolved hyperactive coalitional mechanisms that are also part of our phylogenetic (and cultural) inheritance. Ideas about gods multiply like rabbits in the human imagination, reproducing rapidly in fertile cognitive fields cultivated by participation in religious rituals. But the only conceptions that have been domesticated and bred across generations are those that encouraged the over-protection of in-groups.
If the members of a coalition really believe that there are disembodied punitive agents around who are watching out for cheaters, freeloaders or potential defectors, they are more likely to cooperate and stay committed to the norms of the group. Rituals that supposedly engage or manipulate hidden agents (e.g., animal-spirits, ancestor-ghosts) reinforce such beliefs. Groups whose members participated in such rituals would have been more likely to hold together in the upper Paleolithic age, and thus out-compete groups that could not “bear” gods.
Jesus Christ is just the type of supernatural agent that one would expect to find born(e) within the mental and social space of a religious coalition. Within two or three decades after his death, stories about the birth, ministry and resurrection emerged in which “The Christ” was portrayed in very much the same way as other gods were portrayed: contingently-embodied (walking through walls, walking on water, ascending to the clouds) and morally-concerned about group members’ behavior (watching, preparing, coming soon to judge, etc.). Such concepts are easy to remember and transmit from one generation to another – as long as they are reinforced by relatively frequent, memorable and emotionally arousing rituals that provoke continuous signals of commitment to the in-group.
And this is exactly what we find in the ritual commonly called the “Eucharist.” For instance, in his warnings to the Corinthians about their practice of the “Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:17-32), Paul is not surprised at the factions among the people, since such conflict is necessary to determine who among them is “genuine.” Participation in the ritual is a proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes.” Because they have not been examining themselves adequately before participating, he insists that they are eating and drinking “judgment against themselves; for this reason, many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Paul concludes:
“If we judged ourselves we would not be judged, but when we are judged by the Lord we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”
In other words, early Christians were warned that their weakness and illness were the result of their failure to detect the real presence of a judgmental supernatural agent who was returning soon to reveal who was genuinely in the in-group and who would be eternally condemned. Although it promotes anxious self-judgment and antipathy toward out-groups, this is just the sort of ritual that holds a religious coalition together.
These days, we can avoid the sort of speculative questions that worry apologetic theologians, such as whether or not Mary was theotokos (the God-bearer). We now know that our species can be considered Homo deiparensis (god-bearing hominids). This is why “Christ” is so easily born(e) in the minds of Christians ritually engaged in religious sects.
This may feel like depressing news. Whatever else it may reproduce, the unreflective functioning of evolved hypersensitive god-bearing mechanisms generates fallacious inferences about causality in the natural world and hostility toward out-groups in the social world. This was not such a big problem for hunter-gatherers living in small-scale societies in sparsely populated areas. Today, however, a growing number of us live as digital nomads, hunting and gathering information to help us survive and thrive in an ever more densely populated globalizing society. In this increasingly interconnected environment, one group’s bogus ecological and belligerent sociological conjectures can affect us all.
But I bring you tidings of comfort and joy! Now that we understand where gods come from – and why people keep them around – we can contest the biases that contribute to religious fantasy and fanaticism. It takes hard work to challenge prejudices like racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other biases that reinforce repressive and oppressive forms of social segregation. We have a long way to go, but we have made some progress. Religious bias may be even more difficult to contest because it is so deeply embedded in our evolutionary history. But we can adapt. It all starts with a willingness to discuss the mechanisms of religious reproduction openly and honestly. What better time to start having “the talk” about the birth of gods than during the Christmas season?
Note: for those interested in more details about the empirical research and theoretical developments within the bio-cultural study of religion that can provide resources for having “the talk,” free materials are available in the “downloads” section of my blog (www.leronshults.com)
Bio: F. LeRon Shults is professor of theology and philosophy at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway, and senior research fellow at the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion in Boston. As a Christian theologian for most of his career, he wrote 11 books and 50 scholarly articles in an attempt to push the boundaries of Christian doctrine in dialogue with contemporary science and philosophy. The boundaries finally collapsed, and he became an atheist. His most recent books are “Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture” (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014) and “Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism” (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). www.leronshults.com
Photo credit: By User:MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons