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At a time in the history of the world when a great many--perhaps most--educated people trust that they have overcome their religious impulses, that they have dispelled the mythical darkness of religious belief with the stark bright light of scientific truth, an innovative study of those impulses arrives from the field of genetic and behavioral research to offer a stunning revelation--methods of scientific discovery confirm that faith in a Supreme Being is an essential aspect of human nature, as fundamental to our emotional and psychological well-being as eating, sleeping, and breathing are to our physical health.
Jay Glass, a neuroscientist and psychologist (as well as an MBA and pioneer of capitalist venture in the field of healthcare), may seem, at first glance, an unlikely scholar for promoting religion as essential to mental health. However, the mystery is resolved from the outset of his The Power of Faith: Mother Nature's Gift when Glass opens his study of religious impulses by wondering at his own impulsive supplication to a supra-human power at moments of crisis in his life. Glass, with several books on the genetic origins of human behaviors under his scholarly belt, has proven a vociferous proponent of the notion that much of the contents of the human mind, and indeed much of human behavior, are best understood as byproducts of human brain biology. The new work extends Glass' study of human behavior into the realm of religious faith and ritual.
Tracing human religious drives to dominance/submission, territorial, and mating impulses in our closest animal ancestors, Glass detects, in the "religious-like relationship" between chimpanzees and the dominant male of their social group, a prototype for human religious drives and tendencies (Glass, 91). The book's objective is to reveal the necessity of religious faith and ritual expressions of faith to emotional and psychological well-being in human lives. Glass argues from the phenomenon, well-documented among primatologists, that, in chimp communities, reverence to the dominant male is crucial to group harmony and essential to the maintenance of a peaceful social order. Submissive chimps cower and grovel before the dominant male in gestures of submission that, Glass argues, mirrors the human supplication to god. Dominant males, too, execute rituals of submission to a higher power, when during thunderstorms they perform the "rain dance" that includes prostrating actions and prayer-like gestures. Most significantly, explains Glass, on those rare occasions when fate has it that the dominant male of a chimpanzee society is suddenly removed from the group, "the social structure, with its rules and regulations that keep the society functioning in a normal fashion, breaks down . . . becomes chaotic and its members appear lost and bewildered" (Glass, 94).
The dominance-submission behaviors that bind chimps to their dominant male have their origin in the biology of the brain. Since humans share a full 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees, there is strong reason to agree with Glass that parallels between human behavior and the behaviors of our nearest animal ancestors are no mere coincidence. The social chaos that ensues when the supreme leader disappears and ritual life breaks down can help us to understand some of the more disturbing phenomena (social alienation, disaffected teens, suicide bombers, violence, and genocide) that confront human communities in the modern era. Moreover, Glass' revelations can help scholars to think more broadly as they approach solutions to these disturbing phenomena.
In the scholarly debate over violence issues, some scholars--for example, David Adams, creator of UNESCO's Culture of Peace Initiative--are most vocal in their rejection of biological explanations of human behavior. It is not that they fail to recognize the strong impulses toward aggression that can reside in the human brain. As aggression scientists themselves, they are well aware of the power of nature in shaping our actions. It is rather that, since their "Seville Statement on Violence" (presented to the United Nations in 1986), scientists such as Adams have played down the biological aspects of human behavior because they believe the emphasis upon biological explanations for behavior are unhelpful and perhaps counterproductive, deflecting attention from the treatable causes of human negative behaviors--the ideological prejudices encoded in our modern "cultures of war." As long as we believe behaviors are largely nurture-produced, rather than nature-produced, we will see the sense in reconfiguring our societies as suggested by Adam's Culture of Peace Initiative.
But are biological explanations of human nature unhelpful in improving the human world? That is, is all biological theory necessarily deterministic? Glass' corpus is testimony to the falseness of this assumption. The Power of Faith, like Glass' earlier works including Soldiers of God and The Animal Within Us, are deeply morally inspirational and advocate pragmatic responses to the problematic aspects of our biological inheritance. Glass argues that, if we can only recognize the powerful drives that push us toward certain behaviors, then we may bring those behaviors into relief and manage them more effectively. Furthermore, if a crucial aspect of our lives--such as the impulse to religious faith and ritual performance--is being neglected by our current life practices, that lack too can be addressed to improve our quality of life and build communal integrity.
If religious impulses are fundamental to human nature and attachments to a higher power crucial to our emotional and psychological well-being, Glass' The Power of Faith helps us to understand how frustration of that psychological need can lead to human disasters. Some of the conundrums of recent history are resolved by Glass' findings: the attraction of National Socialism to Hitler's frustrated German youths, the appeal of Khmer Rouge utopian ideology to young educated students like Pol Pot. Glass helps us to see, moreover, that it is no great mystery that radical cults and militant religious fervor abound in the modern secular world. Nor should we be particularly surprised at the frequency and intensity of psychological disorders--depression, overmedication, anxiety, alienation--in modern industrial societies, where trust and faith in a higher moral force have been replaced by trust in market forces and faith in the Almighty Dollar.
Every genocide of the twentieth century, every suicide bombing in the daily news, every young man who rushes to enlist in his country's military to "crush the infidel" civilizations who threaten his homeland add testimony to Glass' theory that human communities bereft of healthy outlets for the religious impulses encoded in their genes are vulnerable to unscrupulous leaders and radical ideologies that "crusade" violently against their human neighbors. I highly recommend Glass' new book for any educated audience. Its very accessible language, clear logic, and comfortable pace make it a valuable resource for classroom study; I plan to make use of this very readable study in my own university classroom in my introductory course in Philosophy of Religion.
© 2007 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., C.C.C. Reg., S.A.C. (Dip.), Assistant Professor, Division of University Studies, North Carolina A&T State University
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