One of the benefits of having this blog is getting intelligent, provocative, thoughtful emails about some churchless topic. Often I'll enjoy the message so much, I'll ask if I can share it in a blog post.
Such is the case with what you'll read below. The premise of this mini-essay is that survival is the central concern of us human beings.
I think the author gets this pretty much right.
For sure, almost all religious belief includes a focus on survival after death. Having and raising children provides some immortality of sorts. Altruism, as noted in the essay, contributes to group survival. Every act of creation -- writing, music, art, and such -- can be viewed as making a bit of what is inside us live on outside of us.
Acknowledging that survival is a primal human imperative doesn't take away from the value of the acts that proceed from this drive.
Rather, it leads us to recognize a simple truth: as much as we'd like to think that we're distinct from other kinds of creatures, we really aren't.
Yes, at the moment Homo sapiens is the dominant species on our planet. However, our instincts are similar to those of other animals, albeit more sophisticated due to our capacity for language and abstract thought.
I've enjoyed reading your posts on the sociobiological underpinning of religious belief, spurred by your reading of Finding Purpose in a Godless World. That book has been on my wish list and I've finally decided to pick it up.
I've long been fascinated with the etiology of supernatural beliefs and, as mentioned in our prior conversation, I find the argument that religion is an evolutionary phenomenon (i.e., survival strategy) quite persuasive.
I've been recently reading about HADD (Hyper Agency Detection Device), a subset of the Theory of Mind, in which an evolutionary advantage is gained by imputing agency to inanimate forces and events.
At least this was the case when we were roaming the savannahs.
This belief today—of linking Being and the existence of the universe to an intelligence—confers a different advantage, if the term can be used. It bestows hope to the believer in what is otherwise a futile existence.
At the risk of being criticized for a broad oversimplification, I genuinely think that everything can be reduced to the survival instinct. All value ultimately derives from survival value. Even the noble human traits such as love, compassion, and altruism have their origin in the survival imperative.
Why do human beings nearly universally admire selfless individuals and resent self-absorbed individuals?
This is an interesting question to pose to people, as I think this response is simply taken for granted without much inquiry into the source of this sentiment. People know they have an inherent dislike of selfish people, but getting them to articulate exactly why is another matter entirely.
I would contend that we inherently dislike selfish, arrogant, and greedy people because they detract from group survival. Thus, what is "right" and "wrong" could be alternatively framed as what is conducive to group survival and what is deleterious to group survival, respectively.
In terms of self-sacrificial altruism, why does group survival prevail over self-preservation in some people?
This behavior is not easily answered, but we see it in other species as well. Selflessness and even the giving of one's life to save another are not examples of divine supernatural virtue, but rather represent the survival impetus in an augmented form.
Love itself—the loftiest of all human tendencies— is ultimately a survival strategy, and a very successful one at that (both individually and collectively). The singular root of all behavior, from the most vile to the most "saintly" is this most fundamental drive.
Returning to the hope that the religious believer is imbued with: what is the perennial hope found in religious belief?
Is it not, once again, representative of that fundamental drive—survival. Religion promises some form of survival for the individual, the tribe, humanity, or all of life itself. Divorced from the promise of survival, religion would entirely lose its power.
So it seems that the bulk of human behavior derives from, revolves around, and is aimed at survival, either in the short term, long term, or in an "everlasting" sense. Our programming is, in the final analysis, very simple indeed.
Thanks again, Brian. I hope you are doing well.