I have been studying a bit on the area of brain science, much of which explores the idea that human consciousness is best understood as a piece of software. A good example is Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett lays out a theory that religion is a meme, basically a self-replicating idea which propagates in human culture in a manner similar to a gene. Dennett thinks that human consciousness can best be thought of as a collection of memes. This idea was first proposed (at least so far as I know) by Richard Dawkins’s seminal work The Selfish Gene.
I find that I do not agree entirely with Dennett’s analysis, though. Based upon my own experience, I still believe that the cultural phenomenon we refer to as religion has a genetic basis. I call this basis the Faith Module. I refer to the units of design within human consciousness as modules, and some of these modules (the Instinctive Modules) have a genetic basis. One of these, I believe, is the Faith Module.
In my own personal experience, my Faith Module fired, big time, when I was 28 years old. Prior to this point in my life, I had dabbled a bit in religion, largely as a result of influence from my wife at the time. But I regarded religion as a social club. I did not take any of the ideas of religion any more seriously than I took the science fiction books which I loved to read at the time.
Until my mid-twenties, I had a serious case of what psychology calls infantile omnipotence. This is the idea that I am invincible. Then a series of traumas hit me. The first trauma was my daughter who was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 4 (although she had been an undiagnosed autistic for two years). This was followed by the death of my sister who committed suicide at the age of 28 (when I was 26).
And then very quickly, I lost my job by getting fired for being stupid, and had to move to a city where I knew no one in order to find work. As a result of all of this, I was simultaneously emotionally devastated and socially isolated. Also, my entire sense of invincibility had collapsed, and I was at an all time low in terms of self confidence and self esteem. At that time, an older man approached me and showed an interest in my life.
I was desperate. The deal was simple: Believe, truly believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, died on the cross for my sins, and rose from the dead and is at the right hand of God the Father. Then accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. At that point, I will be saved, and Jesus will take over my life. Although I will be aware, my life will now belong to Jesus.
And the unspoken part of the deal: By accepting these historical facts on Faith (i.e., complete, uncritical, uncompromising adherence to the truth of these tenets, with never ever even admitting to a shred of doubt), I would have access to the love and support of my new friend, plus his entire social group. I would obtain all kinds of emotional and physical support as part of the deal.
No problem. I had nothing to lose. I took the deal. Big time. And I did this without reservation. That is, I completely believed these propositions. As I result, I became seriously buzzed by religion, and this buzz lasted for years.
When I say buzzed, I mean high. You know, euphoria, pleasure, whatever you want to call it. Anyone who says that Faith does not make you high has never experienced Faith, in my opinion. In any event, the Faith Module flooded my brain with all kinds of positive emotional sensations continuously until my delusions began to collapse. But it took a good 4 or 5 years for that to begin, during which period I had a very good time, believe me. I did make some terrible decisions during that period, though.
I found the experience of Faith very similar to my experience with believing in Santa Claus. In many respects, I think that Santa Claus can be thought of as a religion with training wheels. Certainly, believing the fiction about Santa Claus comes with very real benefits. And all I had to do was convince my parents that I had been good this year. Not that hard, assuming fairly loving parents.
Have you ever noticed how parents speak to their children when teaching them about Santa Claus, fairy tales, or similar things? There is a special voice I call the Faith Voice. I certainly did this with my own children. This voice for me is a little breathier. It has more variation in tone than normal, kind of sing-songy. And my Faith Voice is always accompanied with a loving smile that’s difficult to resist.
My children bought into a bit of my Faith Voice, but ultimately the Faith Module only really fired in one of them: My daughter. Both of my sons never really had the Faith experience, at least not up to this point in their lives. But they’re young. Who knows what the future holds?
So Faith is a module which enables me to believe something that my senses may disagree with. Certainly, during my normal daily life, I did not see a lot of folks who looked like Santa Claus and did the things he supposedly did. Thus, the story of Santa Claus can be thought of as astronomically improbable. I certainly reached that conclusion very early, much earlier than I let on to my parents. But remember those benefits? Believing in Santa Claus (or pretending to believe) is a really good deal.
But Faith is qualitatively different than believing in Santa Claus as well. In the case of Faith, if it truly fires (and I readily admit that many, many so-called Christians have never truly had a Faith experience), then my entire identity and survival becomes bound up with the idea of Faith. I would truly and sincerely die for my Faith, willingly and without reservation. If I am willing to sacrifice my life and potential to reproduce for something, then there must be a very, very good reason for this.
And I think I understand the reason fairly well. Again, evolution only favors reproduction. And we have established that Faith dramatically enhances one’s chances for reproduction. Enough said on that score.
On the meme vs. modules debate, I think the difference matters. (Again, technically the distinction is that a meme is merely an idea, whereas a module may have a genetic basis.) The difference matters because of the outcome in terms of how I approach life and society. One of the areas where I think Richard Dawkins is completely full of crap is the idea that we should make teaching children about God illegal. Aside from being fascist and ugly, it wouldn’t work: Assuming that Faith has a genetic basis, then trying to stop Faith from spreading would be stupid, evil, wrong-headed, crazy, etc. By assuming that religion is merely an idea, Dawkins goes down a very ugly and negative path.
Having said that, the Faith Module can be trained. As I have experienced in my own life, it is possible to unlearn the lessons of religion. A few years ago, I took the things that I believed on Faith and placed them on a mental shelf. I had figured out that being religious wasn’t working for me. I needed to do something else. So I evaluated and deconstructed the things I believed on Faith. Once I began to examine these beliefs, I found the evidence for them wanting. Eventually, I came to the state I am in now: I could no longer believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, etc., than I could fly to the moon of gossamer wings. Physically impossible.