As an agnostic appreciator of spirituality and amateur student of evolution, I like this article by the UK’s Chief Rabbi on Darwinian reasons why religion persists. Jonathan Sacks asks why it is that “still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith.” A couple of quotes point to his answer:

To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole.

…It [religion] reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

I agree, subject to the usual caveats that strong group identity can be highly toxic: viz, history of Christianity. Granted that in strong community groups we too easily give in to group-think, excessive elevation of leaders, and demonization of outsiders. Nonetheless, we need community. And it’s remarkably hard to create it among freethinking liberal/lefties. There’s a persistent hankering for community among many of the folks I know best. Still, new efforts are being made. From the American Humanist Association:

On college campuses like Stanford, non-religious students constitute more than 30% of the University population.However, unlike religious students who benefit from the community aspect of religion, non-religious students often report feeling “isolated” and wish they had a non-religious Chaplain to talk to about personal problems, questions about the meaning and purpose of life, and questions about life as an Atheist, Humanist, or Agnostic.

I’m happy to hear that Stanford has put money into religious community-building for the nonreligious. Their new Humanist Chaplain is John Figdor, who was working with our friend Greg Epstein at Harvard (Epstein wrote here on Tikkun Daily).

A lot of people go back to religious organizations when they start having children,” whether or not they believe in God, because religion offers community, Figdor said. “What I really want to do is create a vibrant, humanist community here in Silicon Valley, where people can find babysitters for their kids and young people can meet each other. [Read more here.]

My only real quibble with Jonathan Sacks’ article relates to his writing that our brains are wired to be quick to go to personal survival and slow to go to altruism. Sacks writes:

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

Of course fight/flight/freeze is deeply seated and pretty well instinctive. But empathy is instinctive too, as Sacks himself mentions: mirror neurons etc. It’s fast and subliminal! So let’s not establish in our thinking quite yet the assumption that empathy and empathic behavior is necessarily slow. Let’s do whatever spiritual or nonspiritual exercises help us build our empathy reactions instead. My own intentions for the new year include more experiential learning and practicing along those lines than I can recall ever doing in the past. I also just need to — yet again — overcome my lifelong fear of groups and find a few more friends and foes to form a community with…

Best of the season to all!


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