Neurological Origins of Myth and Religion

One of the intriguing questions that has arisen in contemporary life is whether the demand for religion is acquired, as described by anthropologists, or whether human brains are hardwired to embrace magic and religion. Did human brains evolve in their earliest physiology to adopt magic and religion? Some scientists believe that religion, magic, and myth are part of the physiological makeup of human beings. Perhaps an early manifestation of this connection involved primitive, starving hunters who commonly hallucinated visions of their prey. Success in the hunt may then have been attributed to the vision, which may possibly have been augmented by its transcription into cave art, such as that found in Altimira or Lescaux. It is a growing claim by scientists and the popular press alike that biology buttresses moral behavior and the social utility of religion.16 According to this view, the human brain evolved in a manner that enhanced the probabilities of individual and group survival. If valid, religion or magical systems may be part of that hardwiring.

Some neuroscientists argue that brain scans of subjects under conditions of spiritual unity (higher states of consciousness) show that neurological processes reveal a "universal reality that connects us to all that is.''17 This view is shared to some extent by Pascal Boyer who argues that what he calls "genetic survival'' trumps "death-avoidance."18 Religion is merely a "consequence or side effect of having the brains we have, which does not strike one as particularly dramatic.''19 In this view, God won't go away because spirituality is hardwired in the brain. Others see religion as an evolutionary adaptation. Those societies practicing religions that promote tribal cohesiveness—wherein, for example, parts of the mythology are to respect fire, avoid poisonous plants and animals, and so on—tend to possess higher survival qualities. Uniform rites and rituals may promote social cohesiveness and social peace as well.

Naturally, genetics also plays a part in survival, and genetic survival of early humans interacted with physical survival to produce modern man.20

According to Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung argued that there are inherited universal archetypes in the form of myths that explain remarkably similar ideas relating to myth, survival, and religion.21 These myths of creation, seasons, weather, birth and death provide the substance of most early religions from around the world. Although details differ according to variations in culture, climate, and geography, general forms and ideas about myth are essentially constant. In sum, evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology are making contributions to our understanding of why religion has been, and continues to be, important and demanded in human life. However, whether God is some exogenous force independent of human beings or whether God is a product of evolution as an endogenous creation of the human brain vital to survival is somewhat beside the point of economic inquiry. A demand curve for magic and/or religion may be generated in either case.

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