Author's Post-Publication Essay: "The Spirit and the Nature"


This book necessarily adopts an atheistic approach. It is a scientific book and any scientific enquiry is inimical to faith as science is about replacing faith with objective proof. Trying to mix a faith-based methodology or mind-set with a scientific one can only lead to confusion and is deliberately avoided in this book. 

There are two potential 'realities'. Spiritual 'reality' that involves actual 'real' spirits and what I call 'religion' which is not spiritually real but is physically real and stems from the natural history of our species. It is expressed today by genetic, psychological, hormonal and social forces.

The Religious Ape in Crisis is not about the veracity of religious phenomenon in the sense of what really is 'out there' in the spirit world or in the 'outer space' of the physical Universe or indeed 'in there' as with the 'ghost in the machine'. Rather it is concerned with the natural history of religion for Homo sapiens and with the 'inner space' of the mind. What is experienced is real to those who experience it: one man's vision is another man's hallucination or delusion. This is true even within the same religion. Evangelical Protestants would regard a Catholic girl in Spain, 'seeing' the Virgin Mary and 'hearing' her command more use of the Rosary, as deluded, but would have no problem with an evangelical minister seeing Jesus stand before him. The point about religion is that it evolved as a real component of what we are. There is a religious mechanism built into us by our genes. The hallucination is real as experienced by the hallucinator and has a psychological, biochemical, neurological and endocrinal component that is also 'real'. Religion is part of Man's natural history. That is why to be religious is not to be mad any more than the cheetah is deformed because it has long legs. The evolution of our genes led to the evolution of our memes but then the memes became part of Man's mental environment, which is an integral part of the environment for a self-aware thinking being. At that point Man's genetic evolution had to adapt to the new reality. In a nutshell, over the evolutionary timescale the genes led to memes which gave rise, via this mental and environmental pressure working as natural selection, to new genes. These new genes in turn facilitated the origin of further religious memes and so the cycle continued in a positive feedback loop until the advent of modern science which disrupted the process.

An example helps to make the point about reality. Even ufologists and alien abduction researchers who believe in the objective 'out-there' reality of UFOs and alien abductions are the first to acknowledge that many reports are mistakes, hallucinations, misidentifications or plain frauds. Clearly these 'unreal' phenomena are worthy of study to elucidate the psychological forces involved. This would remain true even if UFOs land on the White House lawn today and disgorge a number of abducted humans in front of the astonished press corps. Likewise the seminal studies of the Salem Witch trials of the Seventeenth Century or the beliefs about witches held by those living in the Middle Ages remain valid, irrespective of whether the witches had any supernatural powers. These studies have shown how claims of witchcraft were used to settle scores, rise up power hierarchies and ostracise people that were feared. Processes of mass hysteria were involved along with false confession syndrome and, overall, this belief system had a cathartic effect. All this remains valid whether or not chanting spells gives you any supernatural power over people and even whether in fact anybody actually did chant any spells.

Likewise, even Gerald Coates of Pioneer, has acknowledged that not every episode of laughing, barking, falling down, shrieking and trembling witnessed in a Toronto Blessing style Pioneer Conference is necessarily the supernatural work of God. Rather he admits that some of it is 'of the flesh' i.e. the natural, psychological, human response of suggestion. What is of Man is worth studying the better to understand Man. Anthropology is the study of Man and The Religious Ape in Crisis is an anthropological study of religion.

There is nothing in the above to indicate that there is or is not any objective reality behind the beliefs. That is a separate question and outside the remit of the book. Indeed it is entirely consistent with the notion of a Creator God, that has formed the physical Universe to give praise to Him, that there should be physical, biological, genetic and biochemical components to the 'spirit' within and to the awareness of the 'Spirit' without. Obviously there would necessarily be a connection between, on the one hand, the pumping, physical heart of Man and the coursing blood in his arteries and, on the other hand, his 'spirit' which come together in the 'soul'. Man is both flesh and spirit according to the religious viewpoint - a spirit in a material body in the material world surrounded by a spiritual world. Indeed the Bible makes this very point as it stresses that the physical life precedes the spiritual life and states that the conception of the human spiritual life first requires the physical life (Gen 1 Cor 15: 46). There is an intimate connection between the two from the religious perspective.

However, for the reason of clarity already given, The Religious Ape in Crisis is not concerned with the objective reality or unreality of any or all religious beliefs. What is certain is that whilst all religious beliefs have a little in common they disagree on so much else that they are, broadly, mutually incompatible. This means that either all are delusional in much of their detail or all but one are delusional in much of their detail. It is logically possible that if there could be held to be a common core to all religious belief then that could either be true or false in terms of objective reality. However any such core would be so nebulous, for example a statement that there is a spiritual reality, as to be almost meaningless. Only the details of the faith give form to the religion. What this means in summary is that it is beyond question that, at the very least, there is a vast amount of delusion in religion.

Sometimes this point is obscured by reference to a 'real' supernatural force that has a false nature and a deceiving intent. So, for example, rather than saying that the Catholic girl was hallucinating the evangelical might say that she was possessed by a, real, evil spirit that showed her the vision of the Virgin Mary, in 'reality', in order to trick her into worshipping Mary and not Jesus. Or, they might claim that statues of holy cows weeping 'tears' of blood in Hindu areas are genuinely weeping blood that is produced by devil spirits and can actually be objectively seen. On this basis all religion considered 'false' by a religious person could be considered by him/her as Satanic but even the most ardent anti-Catholic Protestant evangelical, believing the Pope to representing the spirit of anti-Christ as some do, would not deny that there is an element of natural, human hallucination, suggestion and delusion in Catholic Christianity.

That agreed, the Religious Ape in Crisis is concerned with how the delusional paradigm of religion in general evolved from the time of Homo erectus and became the defining attribute of Homo sapiens. The book shows that this delusional component is not mental illness and can not be diagnosed as such, which is why psychologists are baffled by how very religious people are so normal and balanced in their everyday lives. Religion is a natural part of what Man is, in the same way, though not the same extent, that being built for speed is part of what makes a cheetah a cheetah. Thereafter the book examines the genetic base to this expression and its basic roots in neurology, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, social psychology and sociology. The fundamental analytic methodology has however been anthropological, both physical and social.

Anthropologists are usually atheists and rarely share the beliefs that they 'study'. This seems to me, in one sense, a contradiction in terms. You can not begin to understand faith unless you have faith. Whilst you can study faith from a rational point of view, such a study will be limited in its understanding of faith. Love is an emotion and so is faith. To study romantic love is one thing but evolutionary psychology, neurology and physiology can never understand romantic love. To do that you have first to fall in love. One can imagine a couple in love being wired up to all kinds of machines that can and do now record the scientific reality of romantic love, such as changes in brain wave patterns, hormonal secretions (e.g. oxytocin) both short term and longer term, biochemical changes, heart beat and pupil dilation. The scientist would still not understand romantic love as an emotional experience, for that love must be experienced. Academic study can shed much light on the subject but can never communicate an understanding of what it is to be in love. That has to be experienced. Everybody would agree with that. As faith is like love the atheist anthropologist is in a dilemma, for he has excluded himself from an empathetic understanding of the people he is studying.
The best approach is to be completely open to both perspectives: to still retain the objective, outside perspective, but yet believe in the belief system being studied. The trick is to keep simultaneous hold of both the objective, scientific, out there, perspective and the subjective experience of faith. It is not easy, but it can be done.

In the book religion is treated as an illusion by, for example, suggesting that in specific instances it is so: e.g. predicting the migration of buffalo by ritual trance or believing that a Flood covered Mt. Everest in physical water. I also say that religion is based on imagination but that is in the context of the scientific book and of my usage of the word 'religion' in the book, as described above. This focuses only on the natural history of religion and avoids becoming embroiled with the actual reality or unreality of spirits as well as that would make the book impossible to follow.

Furthermore I stress how Man makes religion real through his belief. A delusional succour can therefore provide a succour that is not delusional. This I prove by endless statistics of the benefits of religious belief in terms of overcoming stress, better health and so on. The irony is that Man evolved to be a creature of faith but then developed science. The tension this causes, I do not attempt in the book to resolve as to attempt this would involve another book.

I do not take it upon myself in the book to advocate a 'necessary lie' or an 'as if we believe it' religion rather like the arrogance of intellectual Monarchists who dismiss the concept of royalty for themselves but recommend it for the masses. This is because as I stress in my book religion without a real faith is not religion and won't work as religion does. No adult prays to Father Christmas or would seek succour from him in a crisis. I do not recommend belief in an illusion in the book, all I do is point out how the 'illusion' is part of what we are genetically and the perils of its being ignored.

The book is about the natural history of religion not the veracity of individual religious beliefs, rather the book is about a developing crisis that September 11th 2001 illustrated only too well. 

 

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@copyright: Edmund Law 1999