Sunday, April 23, 2006

Wired for priests

It was at least as early as 1996 that Harvard Medical School researcher Herbert Benson had concluded that human neurology and physiology not only incorporated mechanisms that provided measurable medical benefits from meditation but that we were "wired for god". That coinage is wonderfully vague, inviting some rather poorly supported speculations and a host of easily faulted "theory of everything" writings for a topic we only barely begin to understand.

Lately Dennett has suggested an even more aggressive examination of religion , an investigation that could not be comfortably lodged in a department of sociology, social psychology or some seminary's Comparative Religion survey course. I see the "wired for god" contentions as one set of findings that would emerge from the exploration Dennett challenges us pursue. I am not the one to pursue it but we are all the ones to benefit from the pursuit. It could go either way: What if hard science sets out to determine if our propensity for setting up divisive belief systems around supernatural agents is universal because the evolution of our brains is incomplete or cognitive functions bog down without some sleight of mind to leap the knowledge gaps and the research gets a negative result, failing to find any plausible "god genes"? The faithful will have something to crow about then. Science stands ready to take that chance...no one should stand in the way of that trial. As an old software engineer with bills to pay, I am almost relieved to admit such research is beyond my means as a scholar. My fascination with scientific theories about religion as an artifact of mind will remain avocational not just because its going to be hard and contentious academic work but becuase I figure a body could starve to death writing grant proposals to turn over the rock of ages in search of the neurological and psychological critters that lurk under it.

Not that I don't have lots of my own observations and self-satisfied thoughts about what a "man-made" [a phrase conventionally held to be gender neutral, but the gender reference in this case is quite intentional] character most gods and religions exhibit. Granted that I experience most religions from an outsider's perspective. I join nearly all such outsiders in noting certain features are, with little stretching, found to be common among most major religions. Among these features one might include: permanence of soul, a scheme of metaphysical or supernatural rules that govern the world we sense and inhabit and with which the "morality" of our actions in this world are entwined. I am sure I had a lot of quiet company when I began decades ago to think of religion in an evolutionary framework. My incapacity for belief does not, in my mind, invalidate anyone else's experience but I want, and may have a right, to live in a safe social environment. If I ran the circus, I'd reinvent the hopeful suggestion that the beneficial programs and insights of religions could be skimmed from their traditional packing, cleaned/translated from their inbred jargon and set side by side, added to the benefits of mankind without taxing the beneficiaries to repay by professing to "believe" any hokum or buy robes and temples for some preisthood. The UUs and the Baha'is [at horrific cost to themselves in Islamic states] have taken steps in that direction.

My purpose here is not to promote any existing or new universal religion. Though I personally expect the world would be a happier place under some more inclusive creed, most of humanity is already quite resolutely entrenched with one belief system or another. Moreover, I don't know of any political or cultural environment that is ready to host such progress. Humans do not yet have anywhere a civil society curious enough to grow our religions. I only mention this possibility to underscore a point that is implicit in all these findings and expositions about organized religion being a general trait of human behavior. Just as some common ethics might be filtered from the positive precepts and programs of the various existing religions, there might be some common negatives we could study how to avoid. I think those negatives are among the stumbling blocks to the evolution of religious thought away from fundamentalism.

I just want to argue that the good from our apparently evolved appetite for deities and such comes with a bad: our appetite for unquestionable leaders who are actually just other ordinary humans. We are wired for priests as much as we are wired for god. We may be so hungry to find god or so ready to set down the burden of personal existential responsibility that we suspend normal caution in placing our trust in would-be guides to the holy. The organized priesthoods know it and use it. The mythic schemes become fused with the power pyramids that promote them which renders objective study or progressive refinement almost impossible. I hate to extend an overlong essay but I expect few readers here are steeped in any particular religion and might therefore want examples of that claim. The least offensive evidence for that claim is a bit of church history illustrating the contrapositive: less authority heirarchy enables progressive religion. Consider the Puritans. In the 20th century, in the country the Puritans helped found, the very name became a synonym for overstrict, prudish, even obsessive observance. That is ironic. This snip from Wikipedia's article on congregationalism shows a sweeping evolution the Puritan churches enabled by shuning hierarchy with a congregational form of governance [yes!, UU's are descended from Puritans sure as you are descended from apes]:

Congregationalists include the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which were organized in union by the Cambridge Platform in 1648. These settlers had John Cotton as their most influential leader, beginning in 1633. Cotton's writings persuaded the Calvinist theologian John Owen to separate from the Presbyterian church, after which he became very influential in the development of Congregationalist theology and ideas of church government. Jonathan Edwards, considered by some to be the most important theologian ever produced in America, was also a Congregationalist.

The history of Congregational churches in the United States is closely intertwined with that of the Presbyterian church, especially in New England where Congregationalist influence spilled over into the Presbyterian church. The first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst, all were founded by the Congregationalists, as were later Carleton, Grinnell, Oberlin, and Pomona.

Without higher courts to ensure doctrinal uniformity among the congregations, Congregationalists have been more diverse than other Reformed churches. Despite the efforts of Calvinists to maintain the dominance of their system, the Congregationalist churches, especially in New England, gradually gave way to the influences of Arminianism, Unitarianism, and transcendentalism. Thus, the Congregationalist churches were at the same time the first example of the American theocratic ideal and also the seed-bed from which American liberal religion and society arose.


I look at what I have written so far and I am saddened. I am talking about organized religion as if all it ever produced was pogroms, inquisitions, jihads, crusades and witch burnings. I read Merton. I know who Mother Teresa is. There are sutras full of light sitting next to Sufi wisdom literature on my shelf. The few congregational spiritual leaders I know personally are people with worldly sensitivities and a commitment to doing good in this world. I can't deny their good any more than others can deny the evils and piles of victims of organized religion down through the ages. Why on earth or heaven wouldn't people want to get to the bottom of that? What dent have forays into ecumenism made in this Jekyll and Hyde record to date?

Though a debate now rages *over the merits of Dennett's premise, its a debate with no material losers. Whether one wishes to believe our hunger for god is god-given or one argues that it must have evolved, neither are claiming that on the whole, it is unhealthy for us. The "wired for god" idea that preceded it was, after all, arrived at by studying the physical benefits of a spiritual practice. The harms such as sectarian violence and intolerance cited by critics of religion-as-practiced also arise from the merely human, the evolved and the explainable traits of us upgraded cousins of the chimpanzee. Or so I contend. And I am 100% with Dennett in asking why we are so afraid to try the contention, to discover or prove false any principles that might account for why the mind is such a willing Petri dish for the growth of religious notions.

The little contribution I'd like to suggest is that before we go dissecting the selection pressures, the genetic and cultural elements that dispose us to find deity, we first excise the better understood alpha males and alpha females that generally show up at the hub of any belief system's institutional operations. The human authority structures of the various faiths share more features than the structures of divine action those faiths project onto the heavens.

I risk repeating myself but there are several angles from which to argue that the cleaving of religious experience from religious organization is a fruitful way to launch the general inquiry. Consider the heretics who escaped complete erasure from the history books [that would be the tip of the iceberg of objections]. What kind of people were they? To the institutional orthodxies they faced, they were enemies, though now, some are known as reformers. What was their relationship to the institution or the person that represented the institution? Were they likely to be people, moved primarily by authority hang-ups, who took up alternate religious opinions as convenient flag for their resistance? Were they faithful organization men, apparatchiks who reluctantly peeled away from doctrine when intellect and conscience choked on the dogma. The latter are the ones we love, those who find a thought stronger than faith. But they and the bad boys like Bruno were treated all alike by the institutions that took their thought as apostasy: burnt, executed, excommunicated, locked up, forced recantings and house arrest, fatwas and pronouncements from the Robertsons and Fallwells that those apostasies were the cause of quakes and floods.

Theology doesn't strike me as intrinsically strongly coupled to institutional forces and prerogatives, yet as a practical matter, they are entangled. So entangled that physical armies have been raised to promote spiritual teachings. We constantly marvel at how nutty and sad that is but why? What is so unobvious about the role of simple human power lust, ego and the urge to control in the development of incorporated, institutionalized and sometimes armed religion? My personal observations persuade me that thoughtful individuals who possess faith are not so defensive as the institutions of their faith in responding to questions. Persons who wear the mask of the institution, hold its scepter and feel charged to speak for the institution do not seem to do so much thinking. But the faces and names that speak for organized religion are far too varied and often too unapproachable for much generalizing and study would come down to cataloging. This is why I think the most profitable path starts with a detour around the institution.

The study program I would pursue says "first crack and discard the armoring shell of institution and hierarchy so that you can concentrate on the soft part, the experience of awe and mystery that fuels religions. Deal separately with the tendency to organize and invest men with holy authority". It won't be tidy or easy but I know it is possible. My interactions with people who have a genuine and internal experience of faith often point up a disconnect or distance between their interior experience and the programs and forms imposed by the institutions associated with their faith. That attempt at sepration will, of course, be "counterattacked" as a denial of the divine nature of the institutions. It is not an attack. A question is not an attack unless you are afraid of the answer. Not faith but bureaucracy will resist the attempt to discriminate between the work of priesthoods and the evidence that god is at work in the minds or the lives of those ministered to by the priesthood. I maintain that a creed that had true faith in its core beliefs would welcome the examination and let the chips fall where they may. But experience tells me there won't be any takers. I suppose if anyone ever gets to the point of performing the sort of research Dennett points to, they might be way ahead of me and only interested in the personal rather than interpersonal domains of religious experience but they will never get that far if they ignore the hierarchies, institutions and social organizing that come with the experiences.

I count no end of evidence that humans when acting in organized sects have repeatedly demonstrated that we tend to be "wired for priests". From social psychology to ethnobiology, scientific approaches do provide intriguing clues as to why we have so long and bloody a history of god-kings, divine right kings and cults of personality. It is living without those clues that has given us mortal power structures with immortal claims. These leaders knew a good power source when they saw one and hot wired it.

The more centralized or hierarchical its authority structure, the more likely that a religion's good works have been sullied or obliterated by wars endorsed if not wars launched.

That is a generalization but holds up well. Why wouldn't we want to improve such a pathetically ironic pattern?






* Note: if you are not disposed to wading through NYTime's ID-wall, you only miss Leon Wieseltier's hatchet job reveiw of Dennett's book. I quote the second paragraph of that review here so you can get the flavor of his treatment. In this pragraph, Wieseltier widens the very gulf between the inquiring and the absolutist views that he complains about:
The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing. The excited materialism of American society — I refer not to the American creed of shopping, according to which a person's qualities may be known by a person's brands, but more ominously to the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence — abounds in Dennett's usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett's book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

3 comments:

David Harmon said...

One problem here is that, considering organized religion as memetic complexes, the co-opting of human dominance structures represents such a useful survival strategy that it's nearly irresistible. And that's not just a matter of controlling the congregation; consider how the Quakers get less press (and sometimes worse epithets) than any two-bit cult leader, because the latter has "authority to speak for his people".

That said, you may with to investigate some of the modern shamanic traditions. Shamanism in general places almost all of its emphasis on individual experiences, with the only real "heirachy" being teacher/student (and that can be pretty squishy).

The most credible source I've dealt with (limited sample) is Michael Harner; he started out as an anthropologist, but after experiencing the shamanic traditions of a variety of cultures, he "brought it home", by working up a fairly simple (and drug-free) method for reaching the appropriate trance states via drumming sounds. His book The Way Of The Shaman is quite readable, and his "Foundation for Shamanic Studies" is online at www.shamanism.org.

While it's been a while since I really interacted with his group, I always found them very low-key and not "grabby" either spiritually or money-wise. They do sell his books, plus both drums, and tapes/CDs of suitable drumming sounds. (Isn't technology wonderful? ;-) )

He also authored several anthropology books about various cultures he studied, but only one of those is listed on his site, The Jivaro (In any case, you don't need those to investigate the shamanic stuff.)

GreenSmile said...

David:

... the co-opting of human
dominance structures represents
such a useful survival strategy
that it's nearly irresistible.
And that's not just a matter of
controlling the congregation;
consider how the Quakers get
less press (and sometimes worse
epithets) than any two-bit cult
leader, because the latter has
"authority to speak for his
people".



I agree. There is probably a very strong survival fitness [survival of the belief, not the believer] to be ascribed to those beliefs and other intrinsically personal experiences that happen to blend well with or can harness tribal and organizational behaviours to assure their propagation. And so I'd confess to a bit of cynical overstatement in implying that priesthoods only consciously manipulate and graft the attraction of mysitcal experience to the utility of dominance structures: in fact I suspect that in the earliest history of, for instance, the venerable catholic church, the male dominance and social stratification of the roman society unconsciously fused a father in heaven with a papa on earth...but a long and well established catholic church has had centuries and armies of smart ecclesiastic scholars who could have questioned and examined what that unconscious process might have been and which parts of it had emerged as dogma only tenuously linked to scripture. I did say the analysis would not be tidy and given all the time its had to take place, it clearly is not welcome.



That said, you may with to
investigate some of the modern
shamanic traditions. Shamanism
in general places almost all of
its emphasis on individual
experiences, with the only real
"heirachy" being teacher/student
(and that can be pretty
squishy).

The most credible source I've
dealt with (limited sample) is
Michael Harner; he started out
as an anthropologist, but after
experiencing the shamanic
traditions of a variety of
cultures, he "brought it home",
by working up a fairly simple
(and drug-free) method for
reaching the appropriate trance
states via drumming sounds. His
book The Way Of The Shaman is
quite readable, and his
"Foundation for Shamanic
Studies" is online at
www.shamanism.org.




Thanks for the pointer. Most of my experience of religion ex cathedra is in study groups of perhaps a half dozen well read Jews taking on all religions for their insight content...but it is an academic climate and gets academic results. I will get the book.

While it's been a while since I
really interacted with his
group, I always found them
very low-key and not "grabby"
either spiritually or
money-wise. They do sell his
books, plus both drums, and
tapes/CDs of suitable drumming
sounds. (Isn't technology
wonderful? ;-) )



I often go to a yoga retreat center [Kripalu, you may know of it] and they typically have a long [up to two hours] drumming session. Most of the clients go there to get into a dance-trance. I always want to be on stage with a drum so this sounds interesting. I was a bit disappointed with my Mickey Hart CD.

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