Several weeks ago I came across a study that confirms everything that I believe about the very human need for the transcendent.
Michael Blume, a social science researcher at Jena University in Germany, decided to see if it was true that religions are ‘like viruses of the mind,’ as Richard Dawkins maintained, costing those so ‘infected’ in time, money but most especially health.
The pros and the cons
His interest was sparked by reading of a man in 1838 who had taken a piece of paper, labeled it with “That’s the Question” and systematically listed the pros and cons of getting married.
The cons including most likely having to ditch his life-long desire for a trip to America or France, and realizing that he would no longer have the leisure to meet up with his buddies at the pub whenever he wished.
The pros included children (if it were God’s will, he wrote), the companionship of a good woman when listening to music or books and the comfort of having someone to look after you in old age.
In the young man’s view, the pros had it, hands down. There was only one thing for it: to find himself a wife.
When he went to visit his cousin Emma, she was less interested in the fact that he had inherited a fortune than in his apparent Christian piety. When she was fully convinced that he was a true believer, she agreed to marry him and bear his babies.
The young man in question happened to be Charles Darwin. The most fascinating thing about his very rational approach to marriage was that despite his view of life as a struggle for survival of the fittest, it is quite clear he also believed that religion was part of life’s equation.
Greater evolutionary advantage
This generated a giant question in Blume’s mind about those factors that weigh on the choice we make of an ideal partner. Although modern evolutionary theories focus only on genetically fixed strategies (ie, we choose partners who are most likely going to help our genes survive), how much do cultural issues determine successful reproduction?
And, more basically, are religious people at greater evolutionary advantage than atheists?
Blume examined family demographics data from 82 countries to see who is more likely to survive: atheists or believers. He discovered a stark difference between the number of children in families of believers vs. those in the families of atheists.
All over the world, and throughout the ages, religious people have had many more children than atheists.
Countries where most people worship God at least once per week have families with an average of 2.5 children, compared with just 1.7 among those who have never worshipped.
According to a Swiss census in 2000, Hindus were found to have 2.79 children on average, Muslims 2.44 and Jews 2.06, while the ‘non-affiliated’ had the lowest number of babies, at 1.1 per woman.
A dying breed
Atheists, in other words, are not only not propagating and multiplying; they are not reproducing enough even to replace themselves.
Seen in an evolutionary timescale – thousands of years – if this kind of poor track record carries on, atheists essentially will disappear.
“It is a great irony, but evolution appears to discriminate against atheists and favor those with religious beliefs,” said Blume.
In other words, religion is not bad for your health – it’s good for the survival of you and your offspring.
Of course, there are numerous factors affecting these figures, as Blume is at pains to note, and religions themselves promote a go-forth-and-multiply brand of family life. In numerous cultures, a large family is a sign that God is blessing you; the Catholic faith maintains its ban against contraception.
Furthermore, believers tend to cluster together as part of a community so that people bond together in ways that increase the survival chances of the children of all their members
In our genes
Nevertheless, as Blume sees it, evolution favors believers so strongly that over time a tendency to be religious has become embedded in our genes.
According to Jesse Bering, author of The God Instinct and director of the Cognition and Culture Institute at Queen’s University in Belfast, believers are more likely to beget believers because they are genetically more susceptible to adopting their parents’ faith.
In evolutionary terms, religion is good for us because we are more likely to propagate our own genes.
My own take from all this is more fundamental. Belief in the transcendent is essential to us; we were born to believe. All of us possess the understanding, deep within us, that we are simply part of a cosmic superorganism – a greater whole.
When this knowledge is reinforced through belief in any higher power, whether God, all-that-is, or a giant energy field, we feel at one in our hearts and we thrive—and multiply.