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).

Was there a Noah? (Part 2) – Testimony of ‘weeks’ in Calendars

Why are there many languages & where does the ‘week’ come from?

In my last post I looked at the convergence between the myriad of flood accounts that are indigenously preserved around the world with the account of Noah in the book of Genesis of the Bible. The Vedic account even goes so far as to say that Manu (the Vedic ‘Noah’) had three sons from which all humanity has descended. As I argued, the theory of one account borrowing from another is too simplistic to explain this remarkable congruence of the accounts. So why do we see these convergences? Here’s an explanation to consider.

The Tower of Babel – After the Flood

Following the account of Noah, the book of Genesis in the Bible goes on to record the descendants of his three sons and to state that “From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.” (Genesis 10:32). But how did this ‘spreading out’ occur?

The Genesis account lists in detail the descendants of these three sons of Noah as you can read here. The account then goes on to describe how these descendants disobeyed God’s directive, who had commanded them to ‘fill the earth’ (Genesis 9:1), but instead these people remained together in Mesopotomia to build a tower (read the table of nations here). The account states this was a tower ‘that reaches to the heavens’ (Genesis 11:4). This means that these first descendants of Noah were building a tower for the purpose of worshiping bodies in the heavens (sun, moon, planets etc.) instead of worshiping the Creator.

It is well-known that star worship originated in Mesopotamia (where these descendants were living) and that it then spread all over the world. A Religion Dictionary reference states that star worship:

This was certainly so in Mesopotamia in the last two millennia bce [10: i–iii ] and in Central America among the Maya [9: v ]. Star-worship probably underlies the prehistoric megalithic astronomical sites of northern Europe [9: ii–iii ; e.g. Stonehenge] and similar sites in North America [9: iv ; e.g. the Big Horn medicine wheel]. From Mesopotamia star-worship passed into Graeco-Roman culture

So instead of worshiping the Creator, Noah’s descendants worshiped planets and stars. The account then says that to frustrate this, so that the corruption of worship would not become irreversible, God decided to

…confuse their language so they will not understand each other. (Genesis 11:7)

As a result of this, these first descendants of Noah could not talk with and understand each other and thus in this way the Creator

…scattered them from there over all the earth (Genesis 11:8)

In other words, once these people could no longer understand each other, they migrated away from each other, within their newly formed linguistic groups, and thus they ‘scattered’. This explains why the different people groups of the world today speak in very different languages, as each group spread out from their original center in Mesopotamia (over many generations) to the places where they are found today. Thus, their respective histories diverged from this point onwards. But each language group (which formed these first nations) had a common history up to this point. This common history included the  flood event (of Noah), and thus the convergence of the flood accounts is therefore due to the different peoples remembering that event in their respective histories.

The Testimony of the ‘week’ in the Hindi Calendar

It was when I worked and traveled in India that I noticed a testimony to this explanation which I found to be rather remarkable – but is easy to miss. It does not record a dramatic event (like the flood) but it is a rather mundane detail, therefore not readily noticed, but it is peculiar enough to demand an explanation. When working in India I saw the many Hindi calendars. I noticed that they were different than western calendars.

Hindi Calendar - the days of the month go top to bottom, but there is the 7-day week
Hindi Calendar – the days of the month go top to bottom, but there is the 7-day week

The obvious difference to me was that the calendars were constructed so that the days would go down columns (top to bottom) instead of across rows (left to right), which is the universal way of demarking calendars in the West. Some calendars had different numbers than the western ‘1, 2, 3…’ since they used the Hindi script (१, २, ३ …). I could understand, and even expect, such difference since there is no ‘right’ way to structure a calendar. But it was the central convergence – in the midst of these differences – that struck me. The Hindi calendar used the 7-day week – the same as in the Western world. Why? I could understand why the calendar was divided into years and months like the Western one since these are based on the revolutions of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth – thus giving astronomical foundations universal to all people. But there is no astronomical time basis for the ‘week’. When I asked people they said it was custom and tradition that went far back in their history (how far back no one seemed to know).

… and the Buddhist Thai Calendar has a ‘week’

I also had the opportunity to live and work in Thailand. While there I would view their calendars.

Thai Calendar goes left to right, but has a different year than in West - but still that 7-day week
Thai Calendar goes left to right, but has a different year than in West – but still that 7-day week

Being a Buddhist country, Thais mark their years from the life of the Buddha so that their years were always 543 years greater than in the West (ie the year 2013 AD is 2556 in BE –Buddhist Era – in the Thai calendar). But again they also used a 7-day week. Where did they get that from? Why are calendars that diverge in so many ways across different culture and language groups based on the 7-day week when there is no real astronomical basis for this calendar time unit?

Testimony of ancient Greeks on the ‘week’

These observations on Hindi and Thai calendars pushed me to see if the 7-day week was evident in other ancient cultures. And it is.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived around 400 BC is considered the father of modern medicine and he wrote books, preserved to this day, recording his medical observations. In doing so he used ‘week’ as a time unit. Writing about the growing symptoms of a certain disease he stated:

The fourth day is indicative of the seventh; the eighth is the commencement of the second week; and hence, the eleventh being the fourth of the second week, is also indicative; and again, the seventeenth is indicative, as being the fourth from the fourteenth, and the seventh from the eleventh (Hippocrates, Aphorisms. #24)

Aristotle, writing in the 350’s BC uses the ‘week’ regularly to demark time. To cite one example he writes:

The majority of deaths in infancy occur before the child is a week old, hence it is customary to name the child at that age, from a belief that it has now a better chance of survival. (Aristotle, The History of Animals, Part 12, ca 350 BC)

So where did these ancient Greek writers, far removed from India and Thailand, get the idea of a ‘week’ such that they used it so unassumingly, quietly but obviously expecting their Greek readers to know what a ‘week’ was? Remember, Hippocrates and Aristotle lived long before the Old Testament was translated into the Greek Septuagint (ca 250 BC) so they – and their readers – did not borrow it from Genesis. Perhaps there was an historical event which all these cultures had in their past (though they may have forgotten the event) which established the 7-day week?

The Genesis account does describe just such an event – the initial creation of the world. On that basis the first humans used, and then passed on to succeeding generations this 7-day cycle in the calendar. When mankind was subsequently scattered by the confusion of languages these major events that preceded this ‘scattering’ were remembered in different ways by some of these different language groups, including the Vedic promise of a coming sacrifice, the accounts of the cataclysmic flood, the primeval events of Genesis embedded in the Chinese calligraphy – and now the more innocuous 7-day week. The widespread and ancient 7-day week, at the very least, argues for the fact that this 7-day cycle gained prominence early in human history, long before the Biblical account started exerting its influence outside the Jewish nation.

Even our names for the seven days of the week (Sunday, Monday, etc.) are not Biblically derived. Each name for the days of the week reference the seven heavenly bodies visible to the naked eye (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) which the different cultures, from the Greeks, to the Romans and the ancient peoples of the East worshiped. The current names of the days of the week are living artefacts of the corruption surrounding the events of the tower of Babel which preceded mankind’s dispersal, when the descendants of Noah wanted to build a tower that ‘reaches to the heavens’.  But the 7-day cycle itself was preserved through this corruption to point even further back – to Noah, and beyond.

This explanation certainly is the cleanest and simplest way to explain these convergences.  The different calendars in use today but having the ‘week’ in common are testaments to Noah and his early descendants.  The Genesis account also provides the cleanest explanation for why the human race is partitioned by many languages.  Most of us today dismiss this part of the Biblical account as mere superstitious mythology but these weekly calendars and diverse tongues in use by billions today are witnesses that should perhaps provide food for thoughtful rethinking.

Was there a Noah? Testimony from ancient Hindus & modern calendars … (Part 1)

The Epic of Gilgamesh, discovered in 1853, has been the subject of a lot of comparison and speculation over the decades since its discovery.  This epic is an ancient Babylonian poem-story of a righteous man who was saved from a flood by building a huge boat.  Because it is very ancient, and because the story is remarkably similar to the Biblical flood story of Noah, many had surmised and speculated that the Biblical account was borrowed or derived from this Mesopotamian account.  After all, Babylon was a center of civilization  at 2000 BC, and the patriarch Abraham came from there when he went on his journey that birthed the Hebrew nation and their book.  Would it not therefore be plausible that the Hebrews got the Biblical deluge story from the Epic of Gilgamesh?  This reasoning has become quite common, and thus the account of Noah has been dismissed as simply a re-hashed mythical story.

But to keep the issue framed in this way is far too simplistic because the trail of flood stories does not start or end with the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Since I have an interest in the ancient Sanskrit Rg Vedas of India (which I explore more systematically in Vedic website) I thought it would be apropos to consider their flood account. It is found in the ancient sanskrit Shatapatha Brahmana which describes how all mankind today comes from Manu who survived a great judgment of a flood that came because of human corruption, and he did so by seeking refuge in a huge boat.  From this story, we get the English word ‘man’.

Ancient Manu – from whom we get the English word ‘man’

If we look into the derivation of the English word ‘man’, it comes from proto-Germanic. The Roman historian Tacitus, living just after the time of Jesus Christ, among his many compilations, wrote a book of the history of the German people. In it he writes

In their old ballads (which amongst them are the only sort of registers and history) they celebrate Tuisto, a God sprung from the earth, and Mannus his son, as the fathers and founders of the nation. To Mannus they assign three sons, after whose names so many people are called (Tacitus. Germania Ch 2, written ca 100 AD)

Etymologists tell us that this ancient Germanic word ‘Mannus’ is a derivation of the Proto-Indo-European “manuh” (cf. Sanskrit manuh, Avestan manu-,). In other words, the English word ‘Man’ probably derives from Manu whom the Vedic Shatapatha Brahmana says we all come from!  Whether you know it or not, the account of Manu in the Vedas has affected your vocabulary.  So let us look at this person and see what we can learn. We start by summarizing the account in the Shatapatha Brahmana. There are a few renditions that have slightly different aspects to the account, so I will stick to the main themes.

The account of Manu in the Sanskrit vedas

In the Vedic accounts Manu was a righteous man, who sought truth. Because Manu was absolutely honest, he was initially known as Satyavrata (“One with the oath of truth”).

According to the Shatapatha Brahmana (click here to read the account in Shatapatha Brahmana), an avatar warned Manu of a coming flood. The avatar appeared initially as a Shaphari (a small carp) to Manu while he washed his hands in a river. The little Fish asked Manu to save Him, and out of compassion, he put it in a water jar. It kept growing bigger and bigger, until Manu put Him in a bigger pitcher, and then deposited Him in a well. When the well also proved insufficient for the ever-growing Fish, Manu placed Him in a huge tank.  As the Fish grew further Manu had to put it in a river, and when even the river proved insufficient he placed it in the ocean, after which it nearly filled the vast expanse of the great ocean.

It was then that the avatar informed Manu of an all-destructive deluge which would be coming very soon. So Manu built a huge boat which housed his family, 9 types of seeds, and animals to repopulate the earth, for after the deluge abated the oceans and seas would recede and the world would need to be repopulated with people and animals. At the time of the deluge, Manu fastened the boat to the horn of a fish which was also an avatar. His boat ended up, after the flood, perched on the top of a mountain. He then descended from the mountain and offered sacrifices for his deliverance. All peoples on earth today descend from him through his three sons.

The Biblical flood compared with the Vedic flood.

The biblical account of Noah and the flood is here.  As we compare the biblical account with that of the ancient Vedic account we can note the following features of the flood stories in common between the two accounts.

  • Mankind in a corrupt state
  • Divine judgment decreed
  • Judgment was by a flood
  • A Righteous man is given Divine warning
  • This man builds a large vessel and survives the flood
  • Animals were brought on board the vessel to repopulate the world after the flood
  • The Vessel lands on a high mountain after the flood
  • Sacrifices given after safely surviving the ordeal
  • Mankind today descends from the three sons of this man

It would seem that the convergence between these two ancient accounts is too strong to be due simply to chance.  Perhaps one account borrowed from the other?  But the account of Manu comes from South Asia, much further removed from Mesopotamia than the ancient Hebrews were, and being in Sanskrit, is in an unrelated language.  The “Bible got its flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh” theory is much less straight-forward when you realize that there is also this ancient flood story from India to explain.

It turns out that it is not only these three flood accounts that exist.  As anthropologists have studied histories of cultures and language groups around the world, a rather remarkable common feature among many of them are their flood accounts.  The table below lists some of the flood accounts from different people groups around the world.

The Testimony of diverse Flood accounts – from around the world

Flood accounts from cultures around the world compared to the flood account in the Bible (From Nelson, The Deluge Story in Stone)
Flood accounts from cultures around the world compared to the flood account in the Bible (From Nelson, The Deluge Story in Stone)

Across the top shows various language groups living around the world – on every continent.   The cells in the chart denote whether the particular detail of the Biblical flood account (listed down the left of the chart) is also contained in their own flood account.  Black cells indicate that this detail is in their flood account, while blank cells indicate that this detail is not in their local flood account.  The left-most flood account (Assyrio-Babylonia1), which has all its cells black to indicate convergence with the Biblical account is the Epic of Gilgamesh.  The ‘India2’ is the account of Manu.

As you can see, the issue is not to explain simply these three accounts, for they are but the tip of the iceberg.  There are flood accounts from all continents, from peoples who would never have had contact with each other, who could not have ‘gotten’ their story from the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Almost all these groups had in common the ‘memory’ that the flood was a Judgment by the Creator but that some humans were saved in a huge boat.  In other words, the memory of a universal flood is not only found in the Sanskrit Vedas, Epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Genesis in the Bible, but in other cultural histories around the world and continents apart. It is absurd to postulate that all these borrowed their story from Mesopotomia.  The accounts are too spread out around the globe for that.

The simplest and most straight-forward way to explain the complete flood account data is to suggest that this event really did happen and these accounts are memories of that ancient event.  Perhaps indeed, there really was a Noah!  Perhaps that flood did happen as well!  This would also explain why the Chinese remember the events of Genesis in their calligraphy.  But these are radical suggestions to put forward in our day.  Is there any further data that can shed some light on this question?  You don’t have to look far back to find it.  You simply need to look at some other calendars that are in use around the world today and notice something peculiar about them.  We pick that up in our next post.