I’ve just started reading Evolving God by Barbara King. Dr. King, a biological anthropologist, gave a fascinating lecture at the AAAS annual meeting about her research on emotions in great apes. Her book is subtitled “a provocative view on the origins of religion”; it is a look through hominid evolution to find the evolutionary origins of the “human religious imagination”, and it stands far apart from every other book I’ve seen on the subject. Its view is the one that I have been searching for; it’s very Pink Atheist-friendly.
First, a disclaimer. I’m going to use the terms religion, sacred, spiritual, etc. the way King uses them, which is very different from colloquial definitions. I so wish we could drop the prejudices that usually accompany these terms. King uses the words religion, religious impulse, religious imagination, and spirituality fairly interchangeably to mean the general human capacity for and tendency to find transcendent meaning, and the words sacred, sacredness, and transcendence to mean anything that satisfies that religious imagination–experiences that transcend words. (I’ll use the term “religious system” when I need to reference religion in its colloquial sense.)
In this broadest definition of religion, King includes the transcendent awareness that can be stimulated by art and poetry. When we commune with works of art in a transcendent, consciousness-raising way, she says, “the visions of these artists give us a sense of community with beliefs and practices in other societies and perhaps in times past”. To me, that phrase is at the core of what makes this book special. King’s aim is not to explain away religion, but to weave a thread throughout the human experience of religion, uniting the root impulse of all religious systems. For atheists, that means when we feel a sense of awe and wonder at the intricacies of science, the breadth of the cosmos, or the beauty of human artistic creation, we are sharing a camaraderie with people before us and alongside us who have found that same feeling of awe and wonder by praying or reading holy books or contemplating the mysteries of Christ. This is the perspective that I have been missing in the strictly atheist universe. I am an atheist, but I am nonetheless a spiritual being, a human with a religious imagination who is no less in search of transcendence. I don’t want to pit myself against or even separate myself from others who share this religious impulse and satisfy it in different ways. I want to align myself with them. A “cloud of witnesses”, if you will.
Having experienced spirituality through many different avenues—the religious system of Christianity, through art and music, and through science—the most neglected aspect of my spiritual experience is the ways in which those avenues inform and shape each other. My Christian life not only preceded but completely transformed my life as an atheist. (I suspect that it would have been similar if I had been just as devoutly committed to any other religious system.) Christianity taught me how to exercise my religious imagination. It not only gave me sources of deep awe, wonder, and sacredness, but taught me how to experience them. My relationship with God himself taught me volumes as well, although the term “taught” would be deceptively trivializing. Anthropologically speaking, Barbara King says that such a relationship with an unseen person is the pinnacle of human relational ability, the zenith of the primate drive for belongingness. Even though I most certainly do not believe in God now, I surmise that my former relationship with God, the immanence of his presence in every aspect of my daily life, most certainly eclipses on a consciousness and symbolic level every relationship I’ve ever had with a human being.
Being a Christian was a vital part of my spiritual evolution. The things that have been once sacred to me will always be sacred to me, and I will cherish them—with fondness, not longing. And here is the one and only way in which I might subscribe to the saying, “once a Christian, always a Christian”: I hope I never lose my understanding of the Christian religious sensibility. No matter where I find sacredness, I align myself with all who have shared the religious imagination, and all their manifestations of transcendence, including my own of the past.
I’ve deliberately avoided any discussion of truth, because Evolving God isn’t about that. It’s interesting and refreshing for me, as someone who usually extols truth as The Only Thing That Matters, to put that aside and explore the richness of the religious impulse. King gives a noteworthy disclaimer near the beginning of the first chapter: she does not claim that God, gods, and spirits are made up by humans; nor does she claim that they are real. “Matters of faith are not amenable to scientific analysis, experimentation, or testing… I remain agnostic on this question. My focus is on our prehistory, and on how—and why—we evolved God as that prehistory unfolded.” There’s something to contemplate: saying that we evolved God is not the same as saying that we made God up.
My suspicion is that at the end of the book, I will still not know whether the author is an atheist or agnostic, deist or theist. And that’s fine by me, because one thing I do know is that she understands religion and sacredness in all its forms. Anthropologically speaking, I am religious, and I feel a kinship with everyone else who is.
Here’s a great interview with Barbara King in which she discusses many of the main ideas of her book. I have not hit upon any part of her main thesis in this post; these are just my reflections on some of the comments in her first few chapters.