Tuesday, September 7, 2010

why we have religion and spirituality

Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear…When a sage sees this great Unity and his Self has become all beings, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?

- Upnishads

I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.

- Willa Cather

Wilson examines religion from this co-evolutionary perspective. The word religion literally means, in Latin, to link or bind together; and despite the vast variation in the world's religions, Wilson shows that religions always see to coordinate and orient people's behavior toward each other and toward the group as a whole, sometimes for the purpose of competing with other groups.

Wilson shows how religious practices help members solve coordination problems. For example, trust and therefore trade are greatly enhanced when all parties are part of the same religious community, and when religious beliefs say that God knows and cares about the honesty of the parties. Respect for rules is enhanced when rules have an element of sacredness, and when they are backed up by supernatural sanction and the gossip or ostracism of one's peers. Wilson's claim is that religious ideas, and brains that responded to those ideas, co-evolved. Even if the belief in supernatural entities emerged originally for some other reason, or as an accidental byproduct in the evolution of cognition, groups that parlayed those beliefs into social coordination devices (for example, by linking them to emotions such as shame, fear, guilt, and love) found a cultural solution to the free-rider problem and then reaped the enormous benefits of trust and cooperation. If stronger belief led to greater individual benefits, or if a group developed a way to punish or exclude those who did not share in its beliefs and practices, conditions were perfect for the co-evolution of religion and religious brains.

Religion, therefore, could have pulled human beings into the group-selection loophole. By making people long ago feel and act as though they were part of one body, religion reduced the influence of individual selection (which shapes individuals to be selfish) and brought into play the force of group selection (which shapes individuals to work for the good of their group). But we didn't make it all the way through the loophole: Human nature is a complex mix of preparations for extreme selfishness and extreme altruism. Which side of our nature we express depends on culture and context. When opponents of evolution object that human beings are not mere apes, they are correct. We are also part bee.

Reading Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral is like taking a journey to Spaceland. You can look down on the vast tapestry of human cultures and see why things are woven in the way that they are. Wilson says his own private hell would be to be locked forever into a room full of people discussing the hypocrisies of religion, for example, that many religions preach love, compassion, and virtue yet sometimes cause war, hatred, and terrorism. From Wilson's higher perspective, there is no contradiction. Group selection creates interlocking genetic and cultural adaptations that enhance peace, harmony, and cooperation within the group for the express purpose of increasing the group's ability to compete with other groups. Group selection does not end conflict; it just pushes it up to the next level of social organization. Atrocities committed in the name of religion are almost always committed against out-group members, or against the most dangerous people of all: apostates (who try to leave the group) and traitors (who undermine the group).

A second puzzle that Wilson can solve is why mysticism, everywhere and always, is about transcending the self and merging with something larger than the self. When William James analyzed mysticism, he focused on the psychological state of "cosmic consciousness" and on the techniques developed in all the major religions to attain it. Hindus and Buddhists use meditation and yoga to attain the state of sarnadhi, in which "the subject-object distinction and one's sense of an individual self disappear in a state usually described as one of supreme peace, bliss, and illumination. James found much the same goal in Christian and Muslim mysticism, often attained through repetitive prayer. He quoted the eleventh-century Muslim philosopher Al Ghazzali, who spent several years worshipping with the Sufis of Syria. Al Ghazzali attained experiences of "transport" and revelation that he said cannot be described in words, although he did try to explain to his Muslim readers the essence of Sufism:

The first condition for a Sufi is to purge his heart entirely of all that is not God. The next key of the contemplative life consists in the humble prayers which escape from the fervent soul, and in the meditations on God in which the heart is swallowed up entirely. But in reality this is only the beginning of the Sufi life, the end of Sufism being total absorption in God.

From Wilson's perspective, mystical experience is an "off" button for the self. When the self is turned off, people become just a cell in the larger body, a bee in the larger hive. It is no wonder that the after effects of mystical experience are predictable; people usually feel a stronger commitment to God or to helping others, often by bringing them to God.

The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has studied the brains of people undergoing mystical experiences, mostly during meditation, and has found where that off-switch might be. In the rear portion of the brain's parietal lobes (under the rear portion of the top of the skull) are two patches of cortex Newberg calls the "orientation association areas." The patch in the left hemisphere appears to contribute to the mental sensation of having a limited and physically defined body, and thus keeps track of your edges. The corresponding area in the right hemisphere maintains a map of the space around you. These two areas receive input from your senses to help them maintain an ongoing representation of your self and its location in space. At the very moment when people report achieving states of mystical union, these two areas appear to be cut off. Input from other parts of the brain is reduced, and overall activity in these orientation areas is reduced, too. But Newberg believes they are still trying to do their jobs: The area on the left tries to establish the body's boundaries and doesn't find them; the area on the right tries to establish the self's location in space and doesn't find it. The person experiences a loss of self combined with a paradoxical expansion of the self out into space, yet with no fixed location in the normal world of three dimensions. The person feels merged with something vast, something larger than the self.

Newberg believes that rituals that involve repetitive movement and chanting, particularly when they are performed by many people at the same time, help to set up "resonance patterns" in the brains of the participants that make this mystical state more likely to happen. The historian William McNeill, drawing on very different data, came to the same conclusion. When McNeill was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, basic training required that he march for hundreds of hours on the drill field in close formation with a few dozen other men. At first, McNeill thought the marching was just a way to pass the time because his base had no weapons with which to train. But after a few weeks of training, the marching began to in duce in him an altered state of consciousness:

Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive wellbeing is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.

Decades later, McNeill studied the role that synchronized movement—in dance, religious ritual; and military training—has played in history. In Keeping Together in Time, he concludes that human societies since the beginning of recorded history have used synchronized movement to create harmony and cohesion within groups, sometimes in the service of preparing for hostilities with other groups. McNeill's conclusion suggests that synchronized movement and chanting might be evolved mechanisms for activating the altruistic motivations created in the process of group selection. The extreme self-sacrifice characteristic of group-selected species such as ants and bees can often be found among soldiers. McNeill quotes an extraordinary passage from the book The Warriors: Reflections of Men in Battle that describes the thrilling communal state that soldiers sometimes enter:

“I” passes insensibly into a "we," “my" becomes "our" and individual fate loses its central importance…I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self-sacrifice at these moments relatively easy…I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

There is indeed something larger than the self, able to provide people with a sense of purpose they think worth dying for: the group. (Of course, one group's noble purpose is sometimes another group's pure evil.) What can you do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life? What is the answer to the question of purpose within life? I believe the answer can be found only by understanding the kind of creature that we are, divided in the many ways we are divided. We were shaped by individual selection to be selfish creatures who struggle for resources, pleasure, and prestige, and we were shaped by group selection to be hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger. We are social creatures who need love and attachments, and we are industrious creatures with needs for effectance, able to enter a state of vital engagement with our work. We are the rider and we are the elephant, and our mental health depends on the two working together, each drawing on the others' strengths. I don't believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, "What is the purpose of life?" Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life. The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality.

Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.

- Jonathan Haidt

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