How ironic is it that having cornered some seemingly unique absence of reality, adherents cannot tolerate views that cling to a different absence of reality?
We confess we have always found delicious humor in the tall tales that religions tell. If you are a certain kind of Muslim you may believe that the Prophet, may his name be blessed, ascended to his heavenly throne mounted on a centaur.
If you are Christian, you take it as an article of faith that 2000 years ago there was an Arab with a Mexican name (usually portrayed as handsome, white and with a stubbly goatee) who had more powers than Superman (although making time go backwards in Superman-I was pretty cool). The Naz, as Lord Buckley called him, was born from a virgin, could heal the sick, raise the dead (including himself), and turn water into wine (which is way better than having to run down to the package store in the middle of the party).
According to the Book of Mormon, young Joseph Smith used x-ray glasses provided by the Angel Moroni to locate the buried golden plates, inscribed in a heretofore unknown Egyptian dialect, which he translated with the assistance of seer stones. The plates revealed to Smith that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were actually descendants of the lost tribe of Israelites that left Jerusalem at the urging of God c. 600 BC. It was good advice, because the Babylonians showed up 14 years later and laid waste to the city. The escape of the Nephites was sort of like Arthur Dent getting tractor beamed out of the way of the Vogon Destructor Fleet that was clearing a path through Earth’s orbit for a hyperspace bypass.
The Book of Mormon said God cursed the Lamanites by turning their skin dark for disobeying him and rewarded the Nephites by making their skin “white and delightsome.” Presumedly the Native Americans of Smith’s time had drifted a bit from their more obedient ancestors.
Hindus, Buddhists, and Druids share with Jews, Christians, Mormons and Muslims the notion of an eternal soul, although the former believe it reincarnates and the latter think it gets to dwell in a heavenly or hellish afterlife. Mormons are especially cute in how they ritualistically rehearse entry into that afterlife, within the lily white bowels of their tabernacles.
So how is it that otherwise reasonably literate and well-educated people, some of them scientists, scholars or rational professionals, are so willing to believe this claptrap?
One explanation could be the yearning for tribe that we discussed here last month. Chalk it up to the modern world of alienated youth, helicopter parents and cyberamphibian cocooning.
While somewhat satisfying from an evolutionary biology perspective, that still would not explain, for instance, the Middle Ages.
Neurobiological adaptation, on the other hand, might.
At a chance meeting tapside during a science conference in 2005, Danny Brower, insect geneticist, posed an unusual idea to Ajit Varki, evolutionary glycobiologist. Brower said he believed he could explain the origins of human uniqueness among the world’s species.
Brower asked Varki a question the latter couldn’t answer. Given the amount of spare brain capacity, Brower asked, why is there no humanlike elephant, crow or dolphin, despite millions of years of evolutionary opportunity? Why is it that humans alone seem to be able understand the minds of others?
Setting aside the anthropocentric hubris and physiological arrogance in that question, Brower and Varki’s book, Denial, proposed that when humans gained not just self-awareness but an understanding that other individuals are also self-aware and have independent minds, they suddenly became aware of their own mortality. Okay, we can accept that.
Brower and Varki put forward the hypothesis that the overwhelming fear that such knowledge produced simultaneously developed a coping mechanism — a neural pathway for denying reality.
According to Denial Theory, this convergence of self-awareness and self-delusion was a highly unlikely event that has happened only once in the evolution of life on our planet. While some other species demonstrate features of self-awareness, the book argues that humans are unique in the mental ability to deny reality, which has led to the development of religiosity, death rituals and theories of an afterlife.
Of course, this is a long way from proven. We don’t know, for instance, that dolphins are not religious or that elephants do not fret about their own mortality, especially when administered 296 mg of LSD in CIA mind-control experiments. What is not easy to explain is why does every religion have a life after death story? And why are humans the only species that appear to need these? Varki explains that belief in life after death originates from a mutation to deny the reality of mortality and this improbable mutation has occurred so far in only one species.
Reality denial actually has profound physical benefits — allowing those near death to have tranquility, endowing healing powers through faith and well-documented “mind over matter” phenomenon. Some of these benefits extend to social cohesion, encouraging altruism and camaraderie, and self-improvement regimens.
There is also a dark side, and it is very, very dark. Suspension of belief in a scientific reality is grist for the mills of demagogues. It permits unethical manipulators of the faithful to get elected by denying climate change and peak everything or claiming that Russia’s leader possesses supernatural powers to control the rest of the world.
The apostle Paul decreed that the persons who practice adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, “and such like” “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God”(Galatians 5:19–21).
Once you install a bouncer at the Pearly Gates, you can sell indulgences, demand unquestioning obedience to an arcane creed and slaughter apostates. Or simply anyone you don’t like. “Moral hazard” is a ready-made tool for tyrants.
Or, you can simply use your denial gene to ignore moral hazard. How cool is that?
As a consequence of this evolutionary quirk we now deny any aspects of reality that are not to our liking-we smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription for an early death. And so what has worked to establish our species could be our undoing if we continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change. On the other hand reality-denial affords us many valuable attributes, such as optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.
If anxiety about death leads to belief in the afterlife and associated behavioral taboos, it also leads to religions that proclaim themselves exceptional, and not just from the laws of biology and physics.
Mormon membership is over 15 million and rapidly growing, yet Mormons consciously and intentionally retain their identity as a “peculiar people,” believing their unique relationship with God helps save them from “worldliness,” despite all the outward trappings of consumerism.
Ditto Judaism. Ditto Catholicism. The list goes on.
The division between Pakistan and India is all about religion. Same for Ireland, Rwanda, China and Tibet. Same for most of the conflicts in the Middle East. Choose an historic genocide and you will find religious intolerance at its root. How ironic is it that having cornered some seemingly unique absence of reality, adherents cannot tolerate views that cling to a different absence of reality?
There are, among all these strange fantasy cults, a few strains of stoical acceptance, non-attachment, magnanimity in the face of mortality. You can find such gnostic sects hidden away in most of the big religions. If there are heroic martyrs in human history, surely they are the Atheists. They don’t deny death. The higher power they clutch is called science.
Sooner than the 99 percent imagine, the exponential curve of human population will flip to its inverse. It must, because the physical world we inhabit has limits and we ignorantly (as in, to ignore) passed them by decades ago. In that cascading Age of Consequences, with out-scaled megacities nine meals from anarchy, will our religions console us or make matters even worse?
Is coping with the hard realities of existence by supernatural feats of denial really a genetic endowment we should be thankful for?