Evolving Religion

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 3

Religion came to early humans as both a blessing and a curse. Faith community provided a feeling of connection, of at-home-ness, of being with our people, and in a world that made sense, just where we belonged. This blessing made early communities cohesive, and that cohesiveness proved essential to survival.

We need the blessing today as much as ever: overcoming alienation with community belonging and overcoming stress and greed with greater spiritual awakening. We need moral grounding today as much as ever, and we seem to be losing it.

At the same time, we need forms of religion that don’t do what religions often have done: inculcate intolerance and distrust of outsiders. The future holds to us the possibility of expanding the circle.

We can learn to take our sense of US-ness that evolution wired into us, and keep expanding it until it takes in, well, everything. Expand US until there is no THEM. All beings are US.

Just as nature wired into us a need for faith community, so it wired into us a propensity for going further with that capacity. Our inherited structures that made us able to bind together for war are available to be appropriated to connect us to live in peace and justice, without domination, or mastery, or hegemony. What evolution created for one purpose can now be put to a new purpose.

This is the method of transcendence that nature has often taken. When we think of evolution of abilities, we think of incremental improvements in serving a given purpose -- like the eye, starting with a layer of photosensitive cells and slowly getting better and better at seeing. An important part of evolution, however, lies not in incremental improvements of a function, but the abandoning of the original function and appropriating the capacity for a completely different purpose from the one it originally served.

  • Mammalian forelimbs turned into bat wings – or, going another direction, into dolphin fins -- though the original purpose of forelimbs had nothing to do with either flying or swimming.
  • Insect antennae turned into mandibles, with a function completely different from antennae.
  • A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles emerged for reasons that had nothing to do with hearing, but, in mammals, that small bone was appropriated and made into a part of the auditory system.
  • An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor (egg-laying tube). It was there to lay eggs, not to sting with -- yet it was appropriated and made into a stinger.
  • Before there were land animals, certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with gas, usually air. This allowed the fish to stay at a given depth without expending energy on swimming. The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. This device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land -- which was entirely different from the purpose for which it originally evolved.

Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. It happens all the time. The fact that we evolved with a given structure or tendency does not obligate us to continue the purpose for which that structure or tendency evolved. Evolution has never been under any such constraint; if it were, then swim bladders would never have turned into lungs, and we’d all still be fishes. (It's easy to miss just how radical a point this is. Through millennia of Western civilization we have been making moral arguments "from nature": that certain actions -- for example, certain sexual actions -- were "unnatural," and therefore wrong, because they violated the purpose of, for instance, reproductive organs. It turns out nature herself repurposes organs.)

Building upon its inheritance, the lungfish transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth. Bats and dolphins, mandibular and stinging insects, mammalian auditory systems -- and, one way or another, ultimately every complex feature of every species -- built upon its inheritance to transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth.

We, too, may transcend our inheritance: put the wiring that enabled cohesive war-fighting to a new use, building peace. The wiring that finds such comfort and delight in the company of friends, gets active during spiritual experience, and orients us to live in peace within our group, is available for being universalized beyond our group. In this case, we don't even need any further genetic evolution. We already have the necessary neural structures of social orientation. With the appropriate training of those neural structures, we can teach ourselves to expand our perceived circle of "us" until there is no “them.”

Building upon our inheritance, we can transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth. Our spiritual perception can plumb more deeply, can see more than just what selective pressures once needed our ancestors to see. My awareness can be trained to know, more thoroughly than cognition alone can know, that all humans are I, all sentient beings are I; all bugs and plants, all amoebas, paramecia, bacteria, and fungi are I; all rocks and dirt, rivers and oceans; air and fire; sun, moon, and stars are I.

Church, huh? What is it good for? “Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.” And strength that joins our strength to do the work of building a peaceful and just world. What is it good for? Could be everything.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 1: Where Religion Came From
Part 2: Religion and Social Health

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