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Awe and Adaptation

Materialist attempts to debunk religion have shifted in their nature and focus over the past couple of centuries. The current line of thinking is well represented by Princeton neuroscientist and novelist Michael Graziano who writes in the Huffington Post that religion is just an artifact springing from humanity's evolutionary gifts for sociability.

We attribute minds and personalities not only to other persons, which had an adaptive advantage for us, but also by extension to non-existent beings, like God, demons, and angels. Even religious emotions that do not seem to submit to this analysis can be made to do so. He gives the example of awe, which in his view evolved naturally as a helpful habit in our dealing with superiors. From this there just fortuitously tumbled forth all the experiences we have in the presence of the sublime.

Awe, for example, is at its root a social emotion. Its utility lies in shaping our behavior toward others, especially others that we perceive to be wiser or more powerful than us. It is one ingredient in hierarchical social structure. Awe of a beautiful landscape, awe of music (another spiritual experience I've written about before), awe of the spread of stars as you look up at night, all of these instances of awe are traditionally connected in a hazy way in people's thoughts and feelings with awe of a larger, deistic presence. In the social-intelligence theory of spirituality, these instances of spiritual awe are the result of bits of a social machinery constantly spinning, constantly computing. Such emotional reactions follow from the human tendency to see almost everything in our world through the filter of the social machinery.

Well, if you are going to insist that faith must be explicable in purely naturalistic terms, something like this would have been true. But it's hard to come away from reading Graziano's words without suspecting that he has never actually experienced awe himself but merely read about it in books. That makes him a poor guide to explaining other people's experiences. It makes it hard to take him very seriously.

There's something so flat and clunky about his description, it's like listening to a lifelong deaf person try to speak authoritatively about music or a color-blind person about visual art. It's often this way when we try to describe other people's faiths, to which we are outsiders -- when Christians and Jews try to characterize each other, when Westerners try to characterize Islam, even perhaps when Darwin-doubters try to understand the inner faith world of the Darwin true believer. The depiction is almost always false in some profound way but one that's not always easy to crystallize.

Read Graziano's article and compare it to this very stirring video by philosopher George Steiner, not a religious believer in any traditional sense, where he conjures the awe of music and the way it calls forth an instinctive knowledge in us of a transcendent reality. There's a dynamism and a passion to Steiner, whom I've recommended to you before, that convinces by its power in a way that Graziano's pale naturalism does not.