If, like me, you have The End of Faith, The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon side by side on your bookshelf, you may have eagerly read the cover story in this weekend's New York Times Magazine Magazine: "Darwin's God." Robin Marantz Henig's 8,000-word piece is a crackling good account of current theories among evolutionary scientists about the possible adaptive or anthropological origins of God. Or, to be more honest, the religious impulse in humans, the innate tendency toward belief in the supernatural. Teaser excerpts:
Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.
Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?
The debate over why belief evolved is between byproduct theorists and adaptationists. You might think that the byproduct theorists would tend to be nonbelievers, looking for a way to explain religion as a fluke, while the adaptationists would be more likely to be believers who can intuit the emotional, spiritual and community advantages that accompany faith. Or you might think they would all be atheists, because what believer would want to subject his own devotion to rationalism’s cold, hard scrutiny? But a scientist’s personal religious view does not always predict which side he will take. And this is just one sign of how complex and surprising this debate has become.
As Histriomastix readers know, I'm an Angry Atheist. So this seems like a good time to post notes I feverishly jotted down a few months ago when I thought about how tough theater has it, when megachurches are spreading across the country like plaguesores. I hope to expand on them in the future.
Notes on religion, theater and primal needs
Cultural anthropologists and Darwinian scientists have studied the primitive human need for religion. It appears that—no matter where on earth—early humans felt the need to make sense of the inchoate menace that nature can sometimes represent. Thus early humans set up an idol and worshiped it, and through the idol interpreted the mysteries of nature—both exterior and interior. This primeval urge to worship these carved idols and to build systems of belief comes for a basic need to shape the material of the world into legible, man-made shapes: from chaos, icon; from icon, ritual; from ritual law, culture, civilization and all the rest.
Art too is the product of that desire. Are the cave paintings at Lascaux holy relics? To the anthropologist and aesthete, yes. To the evangelical Christian, not so much.
Religion, like art, thrives and survives to this day due to the same basic urge. But why do SO MANY MORE humans worship gods and hold fast to religious tenets than attend museums, theater and dance concerts?
I’m asking seriously. Why do more people get down on their knees for an invisible, punitive, repetitive concept than get up on their feet for an opera or a great play? There are lots of class assumptions underlying my question, I know. I may as well ask, Why do all those poor shoeless bastards in The Third World worship Islam so fervently when they could be enjoying a fine novel or play? Or, more locally, why do those poverty-line hicks in Iowa send their rent money to Jerry Falwell and home-school their spawn when they could be raising sensitive cultured children? They don’t have money. They don’t have access. They don’t have 21st-century urbanized culture handed to them on a plate. Or, circularly, their religion forbids it.
Still, my question remains: Why is religion so POPULAR and art so UN-POPULAR? Is it because religion engages the spectator’s (believer’s) imagination more? Since God doesn’t actually exist, the pious have to make it all up? There’s no actual artwork or aesthetics to grapple with, just one’s own psychological self-medication through a series of ritual actions or mantric phrases. Of course, there’s art in religion. Icons, architecture, paintings, pretty words. Without the work of cunning artists and artisans through the centuries, you could perhaps argue that religion would not have had quite the hold it has on people’s imaginations, and that science and art would replace religion as opiates.
But I think there are others reasons religion has an advantage, demographically speaking, over secular art: 1)Clerics and other religious authorities have historically co-opted artistic labor to keep the faithful in thrall through aesthetic suasion. 2) Religious ritual and theology are inherently conflict-based; they titillate believers with the incentive of God-licensed cruelty and violence.
The last point I’d like to expand on a bit. In the artistic experience, whether it happens to a person alone with a book or painting or piece of music, or communally in a large theater with everyone hushed (or laughing), the goal of the work of art is to unite things. Whether it’s the single spectator with the work of art or a whole body of spectators in a shared aesthetic experience, often the aim of the artist is to break down divisions, to unite. (I know that certain artistic experiences are intended to divide the audience against itself, to make them feel less part of some fuzzy notion of shared humanity, but that’s a different post.) Religion putatively unites people, the believers, to each other and to their deity, but it also, crucially, sets people against each other. A believer is nothing without constant, unremitting hatred of the infidel.
Religion incorporates a kind of third-rate drama in its mythological narratives, its rituals and, depending on the sect, aesthetic cookies (paintings, sculpture, architecture, goblets, rhythmic drumming and dances, hymns, clerical garments, glossolalia). These lures seduce and impress the art-ignorant faithful, giving the believer a broader drama, a struggle against the Enemy. Art is all imagination and make-pretend, but religion is deadly serious, literalistic. We’re talking about the fate of your soul and your responsibility to defend the faith against marauding unbelievers.
Basically, religion is the ultimate in AUDIENCE-PARTICIPATION PERFORMANCE ART. And there’s the added kick of blood-sport, or promise of violence. Either the death of Enemies at your hand, or in the Rapture or on Judgment Day. So take primitive human, with twin struggling urges: to create and to kill. Diminish the urge to kill and you have the artist. Diminish the urge to create and you have the priest.