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franciscan - September 2004

The Society of Saint Francis, 2004


by Fraser Watts

It is arguable that the most important point of intersection between theology and science at the present time is over human nature, and there are both scientific and theological reasons why this should be so.  The physical sciences have been moving in an increasingly open direction.  There is a growing sense of mystery about the world in physics and cosmology.  However, materialism and reductionism are still rampant in the human sciences.  Theologically, human beings are central to the purposes of God and the focus of God's work of salvation.  What theology has to say about human beings is far more important than what it has to say about the natural world.  Together, this puts theology and science on course for conflict about human nature in a way that is no longer true of the physical sciences.

Within the general domain of the human sciences, the stakes are highest about humanity's religiousness.  There is a tendency in science to explain religion in reductionist terms, whereas for Christians, human religious instincts and practices are too precious and important to be explained away in such terms.  In this article, we will look briefly at evolutionary and neurological approaches to religion.

From Darwin's time, evolution has tended to portray human beings as mere animals, and it is arguable that was the chief offence caused by Darwinism to the Victorian religious mind.  Now, evolutionary reductionism, of which Richard Dawkins is the best known exponent, portrays humans as nothing but survival machines for their genes.

Of course, there is no need to resist the idea that human beings have evolved.  From Darwin onwards, some have seen evolution as the way in which God continues to be active in his world as creator.  The problem comes with attempts by people such as Dawkins to claim that evolution explains everything about us, and that there is no aspect of human life, even our religiousness, that cannot be explained away in terms of evolution.

To escape the trap of reductionism, we need a concept of emergence.  We can allow that human beings have evolved, but still claim that what has evolved is genuinely new and transcends its evolutionary origins.  Interestingly, this is essentially the move that Darwin himself makes in the last chapter of the Origin of Species.  In this matter, today's radical Darwinians are not very faithful to Darwin himself.

So how does religion evolve?  It is not necessary to assume that it has an advantage in terms of survival.  There is much work that remains to be done here, but I suspect that the basic story is as follows.  First, there is a directional trend in evolution that favours a capacity for processing information about the environment.  Second, on the back of that, humans developed their various distinctive attributes, such as the sense of self, a capacity for reflection, the ability to form relationships, etc.  Those attributes helped to put humans above the normal competition with other species for survival.  Third, those distinctive human attributes make religious thought and practice possible.  Religion is probably a 'spandrel', a phenomenon, that arises as a result of evolution, without itself having natural selection advantage.

Such an evolutionary story does not assume that religion is nothing but a product of evolution.  While accepting that religiousness is a product of evolution, it is still possible to claim that it transcends its evolutionary origin and fulfils the purposes of God.  Just as people such as Charles Kingsley made the point that evolution is God's way of doing creation, so one can argue more specifically that evolution is God's way of generating the human capacity for religion and for relationship with himself.

Another area of the human sciences where materialistic reductionism is common is neuroscience, and a parallel set of issues arises here. It is tempting to claim, as Francis Crick did in The Astonishing Hypothesis, that we are each just a 'bundle of neurones', and that our souls and other higher qualities are completely explicable in terms of the brain.  That approach can be extended to religiousness, claiming that religiousness is just a product of the central nervous system, and of no greater significance.

Again, it is important to concede that there must be a neural aspect of all religious practice and experience.  When we sense the presence of God, or relate to him in prayer, the brain is not somehow mysteriously bypassed.  The human mind is inseparable from the brain, and is really just another aspect of the same thing, a position technically known as 'dual-aspect monism'.  The brain is, of course, part of God's creation, and there is no theological reason for supposing that God would want to relate to us in a way that bypassed it.  Religion emerges from the brain, but it transcends it.

We are only at the early stages of knowing exactly how the brain is involved in religious practice and experience.  Meditation is one of the easier practices to study, and we are rapidly understanding more about the characteristic patterns of electrical activity found in the brain when people meditate; which areas of the brain show increased blood flow, and so on.  Intriguing though such information is, it is not always easy to make good theoretical sense of it.

My scientific hunch is that it is best, before looking for the neural basis of religion, to get a stronger theory of the cognitive structures involved.  Such a cognitive theory serves as a useful bridge between a phenomenological approach to religion and a theory about the role of the physical brain.  In developing such a cognitive theory of religion, I believe it will be important to make a distinction, for which there is good evidence in other areas of psychology, between (a) an intuitive component of the mind that grasps meanings in a holistic and tacit way, and (b) a more explicit and propositional cognitive component.  A lot of religion (like much else in human life) seems to arise from an interplay between these two systems.

For example, mystical experience seems to arise in the more intuitive system, and to be particularly difficult to translate into the more explicit system, resulting in the common sense of the 'ineffability' of such experience.  In due course, I assume we will understand how these two cognitive systems are grounded in the physical brain, and will thus come to have a neural theory of the ineffability of mystical experience.  However, I submit that will have no implications for the validity of such experience.

The 'natural theologians' of previous generations would have been inspired by our developing scientific understanding of how the human capacity for religion has evolved and arises from the physical brain.  They would have seen it as the ground for wonder and awe at the God whose creative processes have enabled us to relate to him, and to receive his revelation.  That is at least as valid scientifically as the attempt to claim the religion is nothing more than a spin-off of evolution and neurology.  The emerging scientific data can be interpreted either way. f

Fraser Watts is a  priest and a clinical psychologist; he lectures in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge.


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