Believing in things we cannot see is one of the first things humans learn as infants.Parents and their babies delight in the process, usually some version of ‘Peek-a-boo.’ From hiding behind our hands, to holding blankets between us, to hiding behind doors or furniture, one teaches and the other learns that an object is still there even when we cannot see it. Giggles and delight ensue. Knowing that we may not, in fact, be alone just because the other is not visible brings happiness and sometimes anxiety. Is my baby asleep or is something wrong? Is Mama or Daddy in the other room? If I cry, will they hear me and come play with me again?
Research conducted in the United Kingdom by Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, suggests that this kind of ‘magical thinking’ is developed beginning at birth and may be related to the tendency of humans to develop religious or spiritual beliefs. This powerful psychological force may have been useful in human evolution as people learned to work together at hunting and gathering, thus helping their community to survive.
Other research has confirmed that feelings of spirituality are experienced in conjunction with certain electrical patterns in the brain. (The article from conversationtheology.blogspot.com, below is especially interesting on this. Check the CNN article, too.) One wonders, after reading some of the arguments, whether it comes down to “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Does the brain create religion or does religion make use of the brain’s inclination toward belief in things that are not visible but that provide pleasant feelings?
Does it matter?
I believe in many spiritual ideas. It’s all that multicultural background in my family, combined with experiencing life in all its muddled complexity.
Nothing discourages me so much as listening to those who profess that they have no spiritual beliefs. Most do, but they do not recognize them as such. The most ardent atheists are often quite vocal about their belief system: that no deity exists. There are other groups who do not follow a deity or many deities. Buddhism, for instance, doesn’t follow a deity, though some Buddhists do choose to do so. Spiritual beliefs take many forms, including conceiving of the natural world as a focus for worship and ancestor worship. Many people have deeply-held views of right and wrong behavior. These ethical systems guide them in life and I suspect they are very similar to the systems that many people find in their religions.
How one perceives religion, spirituality, personal philosophy…these are highly personal things. I believe we all have some form of spiritual foundation in our thoughts. I also believe that, if we had another word for ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality,’ more people could discuss them without rancor. That might make it possible for humanity to once again move forward towards showing compassion and charity towards one another.
Resources for further research: