Religion: Is God in Our Genes?


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For one thing, God is a concept that appears in human cultures all over the globe, regardless of how geographically isolated they are. When tribes living in remote areas come up with a concept of God as readily as nations living shoulder to shoulder, it's a fairly strong indication that the idea is preloaded in the genome rather than picked up on the fly. If that's the case, it's an equally strong indication that there are very good reasons it's there.

One of those reasons might be that, as the sole species--as far as we know--capable of contemplating its own death, we needed something larger than ourselves to make that knowledge tolerable. "Anticipation of our own demise is the price we pay for a highly developed frontal lobe," says Persinger. "In many ways, [a God experience is] a brilliant adaptation. It's a built-in pacifier."

But the most important survival role religion may serve is as the mortar that holds a group together. Worshipping God doesn't have to be a collective thing; it can be done in isolation, disconnected from any organized religion. The overwhelming majority of people, however, congregate to pray, observing the same rituals and heeding the same creeds. Once that congregation is in place, it's only a small step to using the common system of beliefs and practices as the basis for all the secular laws that keep the group functioning.

One of the best examples of religion as social organizer, according to Binghamton University's Wilson, is early Calvinism. John Calvin rose to prominence in 1536 when, as a theologian and religious reformer, he was recruited to help bring order to the fractious city of Geneva. Calvin, perhaps one of the greatest theological minds ever produced by European Christianity, was a lawyer by trade. Wilson speculates that it was Calvin's pragmatic genius to understand that while civil laws alone might not be enough to bring the city's deadbeats and other malefactors into line, divine law might be.

Calvin's catechism included the familiar Ten Commandments--which, with their injunctions against theft, murder, adultery and lying, are themselves effective social organizers. Added to that were admonitions to pay taxes, perform civic duties, behave in a civil manner and submit to the authority of magistrates. "You must understand religions very thoroughly in relation to their environments," says Wilson. "And one problem for Calvin was to make his city function."

The heirs to Calvinism today--Presbyterians, many Baptists and believers in the Reformed tradition in general--see the roots of their faith as something far more divine than merely good civic management. But even some theologians seem to think that a deep belief in the laws of God can coexist with the survival demands of an evolving society. "Calvin had a reverence for the Scriptures, which then became institutionalized," says James Kay, professor of practical theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary. "The Bible is concerned about justice for the poor, equity and fairness, and all of those things were seen to in Calvin's Geneva."

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