A new book coming out this month written by an agnostic philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago strives to document “Why We Need Religion.”
“Our brains evolved to seek help,” author Stephen Asma says in a Publishers Weekly interview about his book and its assertions. “Sometimes there is no help to be found with other human beings so your brain and emotions reach out to the universe.”
Religion, Asma says, evolved in humans as a way of managing our emotional lives. He argues that science and art have competition in the way faith and its trappings alleviate suffering. As evolved mammals, he says, “Religion speaks to the oldest part of the brain.”
Q. Did religion “evolve” over billions of years? If so, is the ability to hold religious beliefs unique to being human?
Well, it’s an interesting thing to consider a theory about religion developed by a man who has already proclaimed that he cannot know whether or not God exists. That’s what agnosticism is, and it’s the philosophy that Stephen Asma claims to hold. If he cannot know whether or not God exists, and thus whether or not he created human beings to need and reach out to him, then Professor Asma must admit that he cannot formulate an authoritative statement on the subject of the evolution of religion.
If we are to believe the Bible, as I do, then by its authority we can definitively state that religion did not evolve over billions of years. God created Adam and Eve, who immediately had a relationship with their creator. Only humans are said to have been created in God’s image. Besides angels, humans alone have the capacity of knowing him in a personal way. Adam and Eve had perfect fellowship with him before their fall into sin, and they certainly knew him afterwards, as did their descendants. To this day we can know God (or reject him) in exactly the same way they did after their fall. God created them, and us, with the full capacity to know him – if we will turn to him through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. God created us to know and love him, and that need remains even when we completely turn our backs on him. His absence in our lives leaves an empty chasm that only he can fill. Jesus Christ came to reconcile us to God. So mankind has never needed to “evolve.” Jesus said we need to be “born again,” individually, personally and sincerely seeking the God who created us. Every human being ever born has had the capacity to do this, always with the help of God’s spirit.
Pastor Jon Barta
I am happy to say that I, personally, have not run out of mystery, even as I daily fill in blanks that might have required a divine being a century ago, like haptic communication over Wi-Fi or knowing where the Kogi truck is going to be.
Professor Asma would doubtless agree with Voltaire, who wrote, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” And when I am feeling adrift and alone, yes, it is the idea of some ineffable presence watching out for me that gives me comfort until my girlfriend comes home, my kids get out of school, or the check gets direct-deposited. If those things weren’t present in my life, there would be a lot more “God” doing the heavy lifting or a whole lot less.
I can’t speak for my dog, who venerates me like I am the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard. Were I to drop dead, however, he would probably eat me within a few days. That’s like transubstantiation without the middle man, so I’m fairly sure my dog is religious, too.
So, though I only have personal empirical evidence of the generations immediately before and after me, I have seen the evolution of religion as it attempts to make sense of the things we don’t know, and have determined that the more we know, the less we need God.
Luckily for many of my colleagues in this column, though, something else is true: the more we know, the more we have yet to know. So there’s some job security for you, God.
Marty Barrett, President of the Board of Trustees
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills (UUVerdugo)
Recently, findings were published in the journal “Human Evolution,” by scholars at both Rockefeller and Basel universities, which contradict current theories of life’s timeline. According to the article, modern animals made their appearance on earth within the past 200,000 years (thousands as opposed to billions). That alone should reveal the fluidity of scientific thought and understanding, and that even the “theory” of evolution itself may be subject to doubt. I am not arguing for any timeline here, only that the presumption is that we are evolved, not as humans to better humans, but as primordial soup, to nematodes, to monkeys and then voila! I do not buy it. As for what this means in answer to the article, I do not agree that belief in God is just some kind of evolved emotional crutch to help cavemen think there is something beyond the stomachs of saber-toothed cats, should that be their earthly demise. The author that stimulated today’s question refers to religion as an “irrationality” but throws us a fossil and says it may still be useful in the way suggested above.
Christians would say that this is all backwards. We are not sludge that evolved into spiritually inclined mammals, but God created us in his own image with spiritual awareness. People do not believe in God to help them get through suffering, though they certainly call upon the God in whom they believe to do so. If there is a God, and he has made himself known, it would not be irrational to acknowledge him. Who would deny his hand in the parting of the Red Sea, Christ walking on water, or myriad other humanly inexplicable miracles noted by eyewitnesses? The Bible affirms that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom 1:20 NIV). We didn’t evolve a God, we are born aware, and those that deny the religious rationality of God merely “suppress the truth”; something God calls “wickedness” (Rom 1:18 NIV).
Rev. Bryan A. Griem
Our big human brains evolved over the millennia, as did all life on Earth, and this evolution continue. Along the way we created religion, to me a fascinating human enterprise, for its endurance and adaptability.
The supernatural being(s) at the core of theistic religions did not invent and magically implant themselves in human brains. If the earliest homo sapiens had known what we know — why the sun appears to rise and set each day, why the seasons change, how weather happens, for instance — would they have needed to dream up God or gods? I don’t think so.
As to our second question, I do not think that nonhumans are capable of the abstract thought, creativity and sustained intellectual effort that the invention and perpetuation of religion has entailed.
While I have no quarrel with Professor Asma’s opinion that religion can help humans emotionally, I hope that he (and our “In Theory” readers) stay current on the science of the brain evolution debate. Here’s a good recent Los Angeles Times article: https://lat.ms/2IK13na.