University survey affirms we are ‘Bound to Believe’

Universities across Canada started their new academic year this past September.  Hundreds of thousands of students, from around the world, descended on campuses across Canada to participate in orientation events, meet old friends and new, and start another chapter in their student careers.

I was at McMaster University and joined in on some of the orientation events at the start of the year.  Though I was a bit more ‘of age’ than most, I also met old friends, made some new ones and partook in some orientation events.  My participation also confirmed a new stance in what psychologists are now saying about our Spirituality – that it is innately hardwired into us.  At an orientation event, I conducted a ‘Spiritual Interest Questionnaire’ for a TV draw.  Out of 375 entrants the responses for the first question were:

  1. In my view God…
  • __7%_  doesn’t exist
  • _10%_ doesn’t matter to me
  • _19%_  is someone I’d like to know more about
  • _49%_  is close to me
  • _15%_  Don’t know

What may seem surprising is that half the respondents indicated that God was ‘close to them’!  And almost one-fifth indicated a desire to know God ‘more’.  This tells us there is a lot going on in our brains when it comes to God, and it agrees with current research.

Research of Pascal Boyer

Cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer, in the recent Nature article Religion: Bound to Believe? (NATURE Vol. 455, October 2008, pg 1038-1039) asked “why and how is religious thought so pervasive in human societies.  He was challenged with an issue perplexing to his atheistic beliefs.  If the relevance and case for God seems so weak (from the standpoint of the atheistic establishment in academia that he is part of) why then is it so prevalent and pervasive across all societies and throughout history?  The common assumption that people with religious faith are just superstitious and ignorant seems inadequate to explain the widespread and persistent occurrence of religious faith.  Caricatures common in media and academic circles of religious people depicted as ‘simple’ distorts the breadth of the phenomenon. This has puzzled many thinkers. Boyer argues that research has shown that people have “a slew of cognitive traits that predispose us to belief” and this is only recently coming to light because cognitive research now

“asks what in the human make-up renders religion possible and successful.  Religious thought and behaviour can be considered part of natural human capacities, like music, political systems, family elations or ethnic coalitions.”

And why is this part of our natural capacities?

“… humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence ; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members. This goes even further. From childhood, humans form enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasized mates Indeed, the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.”

His conclusion?

“religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities. Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion. This hijacking occurs simply because religion provides some form of what psychologists would call super stimuli. Just as visual art is more symmetrical and its colours more saturated than what is generally found in nature, religious agents are highly simplified versions of absent human agents,and religious rituals are highly stylized versions of precautionary procedures.”

In other words, our brains are wired to have non-physical ‘friends’ just like we are wired for musical, artistic, political, cuisine and fashion expression.   So, in fact, it is not surprising that half of my survey felt that God was ‘close to them.’  Boyer argues that this is the natural way for our brains to operate, even in a setting (i.e. university) where this is considered a naive or foolish way of thinking.  This should give us some food for thought.

All our other capacities, be they physical, aesthetic, or social, are met and satisfied through existing things.  We do not have capacities and needs for which there is no external corresponding answer.  On a physical level we get hungry – and find there is food to meet this capacity.  We have innate aesthetic capacities and find there is music, drama or art ‘out there’ that can meet these needs.   As CS Lewis stated:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”  Mere Christianity p. 67-68

On every level we find that where we have an innate need or capacity, it is not there vacuously or by faulty happenstance – our needs fit like a lock-n-key system in a Reality that can meet them.  They are not dangling orphans.  So when we turn to our spirits and we find that (according to Boyer) “the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems” is to sense that God is close, perhaps that reflects the truth of the matter.  It would be peculiar indeed if this pattern of inner-capacity-matching-an-outer-Reality breaks down only at this point.  Usually when we consider the question “Does a personal God Exist?” we only look on the God-side of the question.  It is an interesting twist to look at the human-side of the question and when we do, we find that we seem to be made to believe.

We saw in the Session on the Basis for Morality that current research is also showing that we were made to be moral, built with an objective moral compass.  Boyer builds on this rather recent knowledge to show a linkage with our morality to our disposition to religious belief.  As he writes

It is a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualizing spirits… socially involved. This may explain why, in most cultures, at least some of the superhuman agents that people believe in have moral concerns. Those agents are often described as having complete access only to morally relevant actions. Experiments show that it is much more natural to think “the gods know that I stole this money” than “the gods know that I had porridge for breakfast”.

Why are we bound to believe?

So Boyer is showing that these different but innate capacities of morality and religious belief integrate within us.  We were made to believe and to be moral.  Looking at how modern psychology is starting to see how our minds are set to function strongly affirms how we were originally made in the image of God.  As the old saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, then maybe … it’s a duck”.  The human disposition to morality and an innate belief in God lends support to the idea that there is a God who has indeed made us this way.  It is the simplest and most straight-forward explanation.

Of course, this is a controversial conclusion so there will always be attempts to advocate natural explanations for this innate convergence between morality with an innate religious belief.  As Boyer states about our innate tendency to religious belief:

Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than ‘religion’ in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times.

In other words, Boyer envisages that ‘perhaps one day’ a Darwinian survival-based explanation for our religious predisposition can be developed.  Dawkins tried to develop just such an explanation for our innate morality, attributing it to genetic ‘misfirings’ when he conjectured:

what natural selection favours is rules of thumb … rules of thumb, by their nature sometimes misfire… Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfiring, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo [bird of another species]… I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity … it is just like sexual desire… Both are misfiring: blessed, precious mistakes” The God Delusion p 220-221

I do not doubt that scenarios like this appear progressive and modern to many people.  But a misfiring here and another there in our brains explains many disorders and problems that many of us cope with but it will not explain the convergence of our widespread and different cognitive systems to religious belief.  As Boyer describes it:

there is no unique domain for religion in human minds. Different cognitive systems handle representations of supernatural agents, of ritualized behaviours, of group commitment and so on, just as colour and shape are handled by different parts of the visual system. In other words, what makes a god-concept convincing is not what makes a ritual intuitively compelling or what makes a moral norm self-evident. … The evidence shows that the mind has no single belief network, but myriad distinct networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people.

Our dispositions do not come from one spot in the brain, but from a myriad of interconnected regions that work together – hardly the expected outcome of a few ‘misfirings’.  So perhaps the Apostle Paul’s comments are apropos when he states that “claiming to be wise they became fools”  because Boyer tells us that to snuff out our disposition to believe and instead engender disbelief (which many of us are able to do) requires that we engage in “deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions”.  To explain such deeply ingrained and interwoven predispositions as being simply due to ‘misfirings’ strikes me as rather foolish.

It might be wiser to conclude again with St. Paul that “God has made it plain”, especially in how we have been made.  Convoluted conjectures to explain away the simple and plain perhaps instead reveal another disposition, hearkening back to a rebellion and corruption from that initial Image, showing we are now armed with a propensity to “suppress the truth … about God” (Romans 1:18-19).

The Hindu Kumbh Mela Festival: Showing Bad News of Sin & Good News of the Gospel

The largest gathering ever in human history officially started this week – the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival which is celebrated only once every 12 years. Organizers expect a staggering 100 million people to descend on the city of Allahabad by the shores of the Ganges River in India through the 55 day festival season, with 10 million having bathed in the Ganges just on the opening day alone. Organizers expect 20 million bathers on the peak bathing day of February 15, according to NDTV. I have been to Allahabad and I can tell you it is a dusty place, with a small-ish town feel because of limited infrastructure. I cannot imagine how these many millions can be there at once without all functions seizing up.  The BBC reports huge efforts being made to bring things like toilets and doctors to meet the day-to-day needs of these people. These Khumb Mela numbers dwarf that of the annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca that Muslims make – a ‘mere’ 3.1 million in 2012.

Millions of devotees at Ganges for Kumbh Mela
Millions of devotees at Ganges for Kumbh Mela

So why will 100 million people spend 120 billion rupees ($2.2 billion dollars) to bathe in the Ganges river, one that has high levels of pollution (When I was there it certainly did not look appealing to jump into)?  One devotee from Nepal reported to the BBC that

“I have washed off my sins”.

Reuters reports that

“I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold.

NDTV tells us that

Worshippers, who believe a dip in the holy waters cleanses them of their sins,

In the previous 2001 festival I noticed on the then-BBC interview that pilgrim Mohan Sharma reported that “the sins we have created are washed away here”.

The universal human sense of ‘sin’

In other words, these multiple millions of Hindus will spend money, travel on crowded trains, endure congested situations and bathe in a river that, from a purely ecological rather than spiritual perspective, is very dirty – in order to have their sins ‘washed away’. Many westerners will miss the significance of this in their quick dismissal of such a ‘superstitious’ idea. Because it is not their solution that should draw our attention, but the fact of the problem that these devotees are trying to solve – their sins.

… does not originate with the Bible

Many people I talk to do not like the Gospel because they think that it is the Gospel that is their foremost accuser of sin.  No one likes being told they are a ‘sinner’ – it is something that makes us uncomfortable and guilty.  Many think that it is the Gospel (and Bible) that is the source for this and they think that if they dismiss the Bible then they can get rid of the idea of ‘sin’.  It is true that the Bible declares that we are sinners, which can be seen as missing the mark in a marksmanship metaphor, or as a corruption of our nature as in an orcs of middle-earth metaphor. But the Bible itself clearly says that it is not the source of this accusation. It says

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15)

The Bible is saying that it is not the source of the awareness of sin. It is also not a function of a certain faith or religion, but rather it is a function of simply being human – of Adam. It is our human moral compass – our conscience – that is the source of the moral allegations against us. It is we that condemn ourselves.

And it is festivals like the Kumbh Mela where multiple tens of millions of Hindus, who have never read the Bible, but are trying to grapple and make peace with their ‘sin’ that should alert us to the truth of this Biblical statement.  The ‘bad news’ of the reality of our sin is shown in the Kumbh Mela Festival. You cannot wish your sins away by ignoring the Gospel, because it is not the Gospel that is first accusing you – it is yourself.

Hindu understanding of ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’

You may think that perhaps these Hindus have a very different idea of what ‘sin’ is compared to what non-Hindu westerners have. Here are some moral teachings from a Hindu guru, Sai Baba, whose books I have read. Ask yourself as you read them “Is what he says is ‘good’ and ‘right’ really ‘good’ and ‘right’ according to my moral compass”?

“And what is dharma (Our moral duty)? Practicing what you preach, doing as you say it has to be done, keeping precept and practice in line. Earn virtuously, yearn piously; live in fear of God, live for reaching God: that is dharma”  Sathya Sai Speaks 4, p. 339

 

“What exactly is your duty?…

  • First tend your parents with love and reverence and gratitude.
  • Second, speak the truth and act virtuously.
  • Third, whenever you have a few moments to spare, repeat the name of the Lord with the form in your mind.
  • Fourth, never indulge in talking ill of others or try to discover faults in others.
  • And finally, do not cause pain to others in any form”

Sathya Sai Speaks 4, pp.348-349

“Whoever subdues his egoism, conquers his selfish desires, destroys his bestial feelings and impulses, and gives up the natural tendency to regard the body as self, he is surely on the path of dharma” Dharma Vahini, p.4

As I read these I find that I cannot argue with Sai Baba. I agree with him that these are good precepts to live by. But when I turn from judging these precepts to having them judge me I recognize that I am not measuring up. And thus, like these millions of Hindus who have never read the Bible, I am conscious of falling short of this standard.  It is just like the Bible says

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

Christopher Hitchens agrees

When you become aware of ubiquity of our moral compass (what I called the Tao in previous posts) you can find it in more and more seemingly unlikely places. For example, Christopher Hitchens, in attacking the Ten Commandments, in a back-handed way agrees with both the universality of our moral conscience as well as our inability to live it (i.e. our sin). After discussing the first of the Ten Commandments he writes:

“…Only then comes the four famous ‘shalt nots’ which flatly prohibit killing, adultery, theft, and false witness. Finally there is a ban on covetousness, forbidding the desire for ‘thy neighbours’… chattel. … No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai. Finally, instead of the condemnation of evil actions, there is an oddly phrased condemnation of impure thoughts…. More important, it demands the impossible: a recurrent problem with all religious edicts. One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions…, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much…. If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species”   Christopher Hitchens.  2007.  God is not great: How religion poisons everything.  P.99-100

Here he tells us two important things. First he agrees that every society ‘ever discovered’ had similar moral teachings as the Ten Commandments. They are universal and ‘self-evident’ as he says, thus showing that they do not get their authority because of the Bible.  Hitchens mistakenly thinks that the Bible is making the claim to a distinct moral authority that is unique from other morals, and is simply grounded in itself.  When he finds similar moral laws everywhere else he then thinks he has dismissed or disproved the Biblical claim.  That Categorically Imperative moral authority comes from something deeper than the Bible – it comes from within ourselves – and it will not go away simply by evading Biblical authority.

Second, Hitchens takes particular issue with the Tenth Commandment against coveting, but the principle applies as he notes to ‘all religious edicts’ – we simply cannot actually live them. He falls short – just like the Bible says. These are two fundamental observations that we can make about our Morals and our behaviour.

When it comes to our sin the Bible is simply a Messenger, trying to make us see the reality of our situation. And as such, its message can fall like ‘bad news’ on our ears. Hitchens responded to this by choosing to shoot the Messenger. The devotees at the Kumbh Mela festival are choosing to respond to the Bad News of their sin through bathing and ascetic sacrifice – without ever knowing if their efforts will be sufficient. But the irony is that the Good News of the Gospel is exactly what Hitchens mockingly cried for. The Good News of the Gospel is precisely God taking the initiative – to use Hitchens words – ‘to invent a different species’, by – to use Kumbh Mela devotee words – ‘washing our sins away’.  The effect of that washing is to transform sin-infested ‘Pinochios’ into real children of Goda different species.  Followers of the Gospel can then rest in the sufficiency of God’s work of ‘washing our sins away’.  The words of Hitchens and the efforts of the devotees show this message of the Gospel is Good News indeed, in the wider backdrop of the bad news of our sin.

The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth

I wrote that hostile Jewish rabbis in the Talmud at least give a nod to the virgin birth of Jesus, and in my past post as ‘Santa’ I briefly showed the original prophecy in Isaiah (written about 750 BC) predicting the Virgin birth. There is still another point to cover on this question and it involves an observable aspect of the prophecy. Let’s start by looking at the original Isaiah prophecy in a more complete context.

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. (Isaiah 7: 13-15)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline.  He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

As I mentioned previously, proofs about virgin status are just about impossible to obtain even in principle. But the complete prophecy links the virgin birth in a cause – effect manner with something that is observable – the subsequent moral behaviour of the offspring from this contested virgin birth.

The son of the virgin ‘rejects the wrong and chooses the right’

The amazing part of this prophecy in Isaiah is that this son ‘will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right’. What Isaiah is saying is that as soon as he is old enough to make conscious decisions this son will ‘reject the wrong and choose the right’.  In our trying to digest the ‘virgin’ part of this prophecy we often forget this other part – and really that is just as incredulous.

I also have a young son. I love him, but for sure there is no way that on his own he is rejecting the wrong and choosing the right. My wife and I have to work, teach, remind, admonish, set an example, discipline, provide the right friends, make sure he sees proper role models, etc. to teach him to reject the wrong and choose the right – and even with all our effort there is no guarantee. And as a parent while I am trying to do this, it brings back memories of my early childhood when my parents were involved in the same struggle in teaching me to ‘reject the wrong and choose the right’. What do we mean when we say that a certain child is ‘spoiled’? Basically we mean that this child does not reject the wrong and choose the right. And what do we need to do to ‘make’ a spoiled child? If the parents do not expend all that effort and work, but just let nature takes it course – the child is spoiled automatically. It is as if we are fighting a ‘moral gravity’ where as soon as we cease conscious effort it easily goes downhill.

Moral behaviour is to a large extent observable and verifiable. The interesting thing about Jesus in the Gospel accounts is that he never sins. He always ‘rejects the wrong and chooses the right’ – exactly like Isaiah predicts. In fact Peter, a close friend, follower and companion of Jesus said of him that:

He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:22)

The Failings of Other Biblical Heroes Openly Displayed

Now perhaps our first reaction is to dismiss this sinless portrayal of Jesus in the Bible as simply pious veneration. The thinking person must always be open to this possibility but if that is the case it is strange that other towering figures in the Bible are definitely NOT portrayed this way. If the Bible is simply a product of the human mind, we would expect this same pious veneration of other figures like Moses, Abraham and David. But this is not the case. The Bible records that on two occasions Abraham lied about his wife saying that she was only his sister (in Genesis 12:10-13 & Genesis 20:1-2). It also records that Moses murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12) and on another occasion disobeyed God’s command (Numbers 20:6-12). David’s ghastly sin of adultery and subsequent cover-up murder exposed a glaring stain on his character.

In the Gospels the disciples are often seen as petty, arrogant and selfish. They argue about who among them is the most important. They want to call down fire from heaven in judgment on those who did not accept them. The amazing thing about how the Bible portrays all the characters in its pages, the important ones as well as the minor ones, is candid openness about their failures as well as their successes.

As one who has studied and seen ‘pious venerations’ in various traditions, it is not hard to see the contrast in the candid and unembellished failures consistently portrayed in the Bible to that in other traditions.  No, the pattern of revealing the failures of biblical characters is not a naturally religious tendency – yet this is how the Biblical characters are portrayed.

But not the Son of the Virgin

But this son prophesied by Isaiah, born of a virgin, rejects the wrong and chooses the right naturally and from his early age. It is instinct for him. For that to be possible he must have a different lineage. All the rest of us (including these other Biblical characters), trace back to Adam through their fathers and he did not ‘reject the wrong and chose the right’ as we saw.  Genetics passes the characteristics of the father to his offspring, so this rebellious nature of Adam was passed to all of us – even to the biblical prophets. But the son born of a virgin, by definition, would not have Adam as a father in his lineage. The parental line of this son would be different, and thus he could be different.

Jesus’ life fits this prophetic moral description to a tee – and makes sense of the reason for the virgin birth. This was not simply some random ‘miracle’ to bolster religious credulity in a story. There is a very clear reason for the need of a virgin birth. There is the need for a new man that is untainted by Adam. This new man could then have a different, though still human, nature – a nature that would be holy and thus acceptable to a Holy God.

The New Testament affirms this sinless life of Jesus in a very straight-forward and matter-of-fact manner by simply giving an account of his actions and teachings, without use of sensational superlatives or strong religious language. It presents him simply, and therefore realistically, as sinless.

Even if some cannot accept the ‘sinless’ claim, certainly, at the very least, Jesus is universally recognized as someone who lived a radically different moral life than we do.  This was a man who forgave his enemies while they were torturing him, who stood up for the weak and downtrodden, who refused to take up arms against his enemies, who refused to be seduced by the wealth, power and adulation that could have been his  – in short who treated others far differently than we do.  I have heard Richard Dawkins opine that Jesus was morally far ahead of others in his day.  I remember reading how John Lennon thought that Jesus was a moral reformer even if his disciples were not.  Mahatma Gandhi, who led a non-violent resistance to British rule in India, was inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus.  In short, even among those who do not follow him, Jesus is admired for his moral compass – this, at least, is generally not disputed about him.

But this observable effect, is linked causally to the Virgin Birth in this Isaiah prophecy.  And if one is observable and verifiable that gives a rational basis to believe the other.  The life Jesus lived is the visible signature of the Virgin Birth.  And it speaks to our need.

Flashback to Adam

The prophecy and longing for a virgin birth – the dawn of a New Man – coherently hearkens back to Adam.  We saw that the Genesis account records a Fall, much like the corruption of elves into orcs in the Lord of the Rings.  Ever since then mankind has been slaves to sin.  Though some teachings of the Bible cannot be verified by observation, the concept of slavery to sin is easily the most verifiable teaching of the Bible.  Just read a bit of history – pick any country and any time period; read a newspaper; or just reflect on your own thoughts and actions – sin is always there in its mutated and multi-faceted forms.

And the necessary link from the predicament of Adam to the solution in a Virgin Birth is why this birth was first foreshadowed and prophesied even earlier than Isaiah, it was Embedded in the Beginning.

The Virgin Birth is not some arbitrarily concocted idea to instill religious veneration.  It is logically, coherently and necessarily part of the overall Gospel – the Good News.  The recorded moral life of Jesus, lived in the open before friend and foe, attests to its reality.  That is Good News indeed, because the Gospel goes on to prophesy that those who receive this Son of the Virgin will inherit this same New Man nature.  Like caterpillars metamorphisizing to butterflies, or wooden Pinocchios into human sons, these many fallen Sons and Daughters of Adam will be transformed into this new likeness.  You have to take it on faith, but given the track record  of the other Messianic prophecies, it is a step of faith I am willing to take.