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Meditation 21
Why People Believe in God

by John Karpf, Patriarch of Florida

A discussion on this Meditation has been opened in Debates and Discourse. You are welcome to contribute further to the discussion, please submit your thoughts using the Contact form. Also, this article is addressed in Talk Back 11.

If we don't know there is a God, how come so many people believe in Him?

Any characteristic that transcends a species, that is any characteristic that runs across a species regardless of geographic location or isolation is "hard-wired" and not learned. The terms here would be that it is genetic and not memetic. " There must exist a gene or a set of genes responsible for that particular trait. Take, for instance, the fact that all honeybees construct their hives in the same hexagonal pattern. That all honeybee colonies, regardless of whether they've had contact with any other, construct their hives in this identical fashion suggests that they are "hard-wired" to do so. It's not as if, for instance, honeybees can build their hives any way they "desire" and it's only by coincidence that they all construct them in the same exact way. Apparently, honeybees are instinctively, that is, genetically "hard-wired" to build their hives in this particular fashion. Moreover, this would suggest that somewhere in the honeybees' brains there exists a specific cluster of neurons that function to compel the bees to construct hexagonally shaped hives. The same principle holds true for anything from a peacock's instinct to display its feathers to a cat's to groom itself. In essence, any behavior that is universal to any species is, more than likely, the consequence of a genetically inherited series of reflexes or what we call instincts."[1]

In this sense I believe that spirituality, the ability and predilection to believe in something you can't prove or at least setup the experiment to prove is inherited and resides in a portion of our brains just like language.

Regardless of location or culture or degree of isolation all humans have a spoken language, music and are spiritual. Some people are thus to a greater or lesser degree than others. To some people music or oratory comes easily, they might have perfect pitch even while some people are tone deaf. No matter how hard some people try they just don't find beauty in music or aren't emotionally stirred by a rousing speech or a poignant poem. Some of us are spiritually "challenged" and no matter how hard we try we just can't hear that spiritual music. It's not that many of us haven't tried but we might be genetically incapable of believing in something that we just can't reasonably prove.

Why would a characteristic like this exist?

There has to be an evolutionary imperative for it.

Hypothesis #1 - Spirituality exists because we're more likely to protect each other.

Humans are weaker than most of the fauna on this planet. We can't run fast like the tiger, we don't have olfactory senses like the wolf, we aren't strong like the bear, we don't have fangs or claws and we can't see as far as an eagle. We had to have another survival tactic that allowed us to thrive. Chances are our brains carry the luggage of millions of years of evolution that gave our ancestors the edge in the forests and savannas when we had to watch out for those of us who were sick or injured. Maybe part of that luggage is the feeling of closeness we feel to others of our species when we believe the same thing, especially if that thing is something greater than ourselves. And maybe people who think and act like each other are more likely to watch out for each other and that gives them a survivability edge. I don't know. I do know however that if it weren't important, it wouldn't exist.

Hypothesis #2 - Spirituality exists to keep (some of) us from going nuts.

In Matthew Alper's book; THE GOD PART OF THE BRAIN (http://www.godpart.com) he proposes the following (paraphrased and edited by me);

" Only humans possess the advanced capacity for self-awareness. Though, in many ways, this capacity has helped to make our species the most powerful creature on earth, it also represents the source of our greatest affliction. This is because once we became aware of the fact that we exist, we became equally aware of the possibility that one day we might not ...even more so, that it's certain that one day we will not. With the advent of our species, with the emergence of self-conscious awareness, a life form became cognizant of the fact that it is going to die. All we had to do was to look around us to see that death was inevitable and inescapable. More terrifying yet, death could befall us at anytime.

All life is "hard-wired" to avoid those things that represent a threat to its existence. Pain acts as nature's electric prod that incites us to avoid those things that may jeopardize our existence. Among those animals higher up on the evolutionary ladder, most particularly among mammals, threatening circumstances elicit a particular type of pain we call anxiety. Anxiety constitutes a type of pain meant to prompt these "higher" order animals to avoid a potentially hazardous circumstance. For example, a rabbit is cornered by a mountain lion. In such a situation, the rabbit is pumped with adrenaline, charged with the painful symptoms of anxiety, all meant to incite the rabbit to most effectively escape from the source of its discomfort, in this case the mountain lion.

In its healthiest form, anxiety is meant to prompt an animal to avoid or escape a potentially hazardous situation. In humans, however, once we became aware of the fact that death was not only inescapable but that it could come at any moment, we were left in a state of constant mortal peril, a state of unceasing anxiety - much like rabbits perpetually cornered by a mountain lion from which there is no escape. With the emergence of self-awareness, humans might have become the dysfunctional animal, rendered helpless by an inherent and unceasing anxiety disorder, all due to our inherent awareness of death. Unless nature could somehow relieve us of this debilitating cognition, it's quite possible our species may have been headed for certain extinction. It could have been suddenly critical that our animal be modified in some way that would allow us to maintain self-conscious awareness while enabling us to deal with our unique awareness of our own mortalities.

Here lies a possible origin of humankind's spirituality, an evolutionary adaptation that compels our species to believe that though our physical bodies will one day perish, our "spirits" or "souls" will persist for all eternity. Only once our species was instilled with this inherent (mis)perception that there is something more "out there," that we are immortal beings, were our ancestors able to survive their debilitating awareness of death."

So what?

Well, this would of course mean that the evolutionary process created God as a way to help us survive, which is kind of ironic. To answer the question first asked in this meditation, if you believe in God it might just be because you got the genes to do so.

All that being said, as creatures possessing reason we also have the ability to create our own evolutionary path and to make up our minds. We no longer have to howl if we see a cheetah or sing a hymn to find our place in the universe.

Most Reverend Dr. John Karpf

UCTAA Patriarch of Florida, Doctor of Agnostic Studies



  1. All Quotes Matthew Alper; THE GOD PART OF THE BRAIN with permission from the author.