We Evolved to Be Religious
A Whiteheadian Appreciation of Jonathan Haidt's TED talk
Summary of Talk:
Offered by Jonathan Haidt
In the Last Three Minutes
We humans have many varieties of religious experience, as William James explained. One of the most common is climbing the secret staircaseand losing ourselves. The staircase takes us from the experience of life as profane or ordinary upwards to the experience of life as sacred,or deeply interconnected. We are Homo duplex,as Durkheim explained. And we are Homo duplex because we evolved by multilevel selection,as Darwin explained. I can't be certain if the staircase is an adaptationrather than a bug,but if it is an adaptation,then the implications are profound. If it is an adaptation, then we evolved to be religious.
I don't mean that we evolved to join gigantic organized religions.Those things came along too recently.I mean that we evolved to see sacredness all around us and to join with others into teamsand circle around sacred objects,people and ideas. This is why politics is so tribal. Politics is partly profane, it's partly about self-interest, but politics is also about sacredness. It's about joining with others to pursue moral ideas. It's about the eternal struggle between good and evil,and we all believe we're on the good team.
And most importantly, if the staircase is real, it explains the persistent undercurrentof dissatisfaction in modern life. Because human beings are, to some extent, hivish creatures like bees.We're bees. We busted out of the hive during the Enlightenment. We broke down the old institutionsand brought liberty to the oppressed. We unleashed Earth-changing creativityand generated vast wealth and comfort.
Nowadays we fly around like individual bees exulting in our freedom. But sometimes we wonder: Is this all there is? What should I do with my life? What's missing?What's missing is that we are Homo duplex, but modern, secular society was built to satisfy our lower, profane selves. It's really comfortable down here on the lower level.Come, have a seat in my home entertainment center.
One great challenge of modern life is to find the staircase amid all the clutterand then to do something good and nobleonce you climb to the top. I see this desire in my students at the University of Virginia. They all want to find a cause or calling that they can throw themselves into. They're all searching for their staircase. And that gives me hope because people are not purely selfish.
Most people long to overcome pettiness and become part of something larger. And this explains the extraordinary resonance of this simple metaphor conjured up nearly 400 years ago. "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent,a part of the main."
An Open and Relational Response
Let's leave it to others to decide whether or not we evolved to be religious. But let's recognize that the kind of "religion" upon which Jonathan Haidt focuses -- moments of self-transcendence in which we lose the self -- are commonplace. And not in religion alone. People enter into politics, too, in order to enjoy such moments, all under the auspices of serving the common good.
So what is self-transcendence? For our purposes, let's call it ego-transcendence. It is not really the self that is lost, but rather the sense of being a separate self, cut off from the world by the boundaries of the skin. This "sense of being a separate self" is the ego.
The Ego is a Good Thing
In general the ego is a very good thing. A person who is not given the opportunity to become an ego will suffer greatly in life and perhaps not survive at all.
But Buddhists remind us that some forms of ego-consciousness can be quite unhealthy, leading to frustrated creativity, inter-personal conflict, and suffering.
Two particularly unhealthy forms are ego-inflation and ego-deflation. People who suffer from ego-inflation are attached to the idea that they are better than everyone else. People who suffer from ego-deflation are attached to the idea that they are worse than everyone else. By means of attachment, they become trapped in their self-images.
Attachment to Ego is Not a Good Thing
For Buddhists, attachment to the ego also includes clinging to the idea of being a solidified self that endures unchanged over time. Buddhists and process thinker alike agree that there is no solifidied self. A human self is an ongoing process of experiencing and responding to the world, moment by moment, with no underlying "self" that remains the same. In the language of Whitehead, "No thinker thinks twice and no subject experiences twice."
Clinging to the self as a solidified and enduring substance is undesirable; whereas healthy desire, without the added componenent of inordinate attachment, is desirable. There are many desires in life which are healthy and natural in many contexts: the desire for food, clothing, and shelter; the desire for friendship and intimacy; the desire to help others; the desire to grow in wisdom.
Buddhism is not in the business of eliminating these healthy desires. Rather it is the business of eliminating those desires which shore up a sense of a solidified self and which foster inordinate attachment to self-images which involve ego-inflation and ego-deflation.
Meditation Can Help
One purpose of Buddhist practice is to help a person grow beyond these two forms of attachment and grow into a freer, more generous way of living in the world. Often these forms of attachment are associated with the monkey mind. So often, say the Buddhists, our minds our like drunken monkeys inside a cage, jumping from one side to another and never quite able to escape.
Moments of self-transcendence occur when the cage drops away. Freed from so much internal chatter, and from a sense of being trapped inside the ego, a feeling of peace and openness emerges.
The monkey disappears. A person can sit still, be grateful for what is happening around her, and reach out with loving arms to help others. The monkey-mind has been replaced by a mind of gratitude and compassion.
Has the monkey gone to heaven? Jonathan Haidt speaks of moments in which the ego falls away as a staircase to heaven. But some of the occasions of self-transcendence that he mentions are, as it were, anti-heavens.
In times of warfare, we can lose our egos through absorption in intoxicating violence in a kind of mob mentality. War is anti-heaven.
In times of drunkenness, we can lose our egos through absorption in a phantasmagoria of feelings and imaginative impulses which are seductive but deceiving. Drunkenness is anti-heaven.
In times of materialist bravado, we can lose ourselves in collective greed, calling it "the free-enterprise system." Corporate greed is anti-heaven. Among the many kinds of intoxication prevailing in our planet today, corporate greed is especially influential.
But there is a kind of genuine heaven, too. It is not necessarily distanced from the present moment of experience.
It is the moment itself, as lived freely and spontaneously, with love and kindness, sensitive to the interconnectedness of things. Even if this moment lasts "only for a moment" it is heavenly. It is the presence of heaven here-and-now.
Jonathan Haidt proposes that this very impulse, this very possibility, is the very heart of religion, rightly understood. It is what heaven is about, even if God does not exist.
Haidt's point is that the realization of this kind of heaven is evolutionarily adaptive and he suggests that religions are means by which it emerges. If we evolved to be religious, then this is good news indeed.
It is rightly expressed in simplicity and humility, in living lightly on the earth and gently with others, in reaching out to help the vulnerable of our world, human and animal, in personal and political ways. It eschews corporate greed in the interests of spiritual and material need.
This kind of religion -- call it the religion of daily life -- makes use of staircases but also transcends them. On the one hand it finds great value in forms of religious practice such as meditation and prayer, potluck suppers and group singing, kneeling to the earth and working for justice. But it knows that they, too, can become intoxicants if used to shore up the illusion of a solidified self.
This kind of religion can include trust in an encompassing womb of compassion who reaches into the heart, moment by moment, by means of no staircase except wisdom and love.
From a process perspective, this womb is the divine reality, whose will is that we live as lightly on the earth as she lives in heaven. When we live from trust in this womb, we can be gladdened and enlivened by moments of self-transcendence and also trustful that, when we do indeed feel ourselves as separate selves, we are loved as well. The womb is available to us in times sacred and un-sacred. The womb is neither sacred nor secular.
The womb requires no climbing. The womb is everywhere. No staircases needed.