This week’s Time Magazine features a cover article discussing whether scientists have located at least one gene that seems to be more prevalent in people who rate themselves as more spiritual; that is, who can experience what they call “self-transcendence.” This is described as having three parts:
[…] self-forgetfulness, or the ability to get entirely lost in an experience; transpersonal identification, or a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe; and mysticism, or an openness to things not literally provable.
To me, this doesn’t indicate more than the ability to elicit certain sensations by an act of will. I can trigger “self-transcendence” given a few minutes of deep concentration; it doesn’t mean there’s anything external causing it or accepting the credit for it. I would bet that those individuals who “scored” higher in the self-transcendence category would also test high in the ability to hypnotize themselves.
Take for example what many people have done in their youth: decided (with or without the help of friends) that their house was haunted or someone was watching them through the window and/or trying to break in. It was fun to scare yourself that way, and you could manage to work yourself up into such a tizzy that every creak and groan of the house’s foundation sounded just like an intruder. For especially susceptible people, it would take a long time for them to work their way back out of that hysteria and remember that there really wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
I think a belief in a god or the supernatural in general is the same phenomenon. Someone suggests the idea to you, and you work on pretending it so thoroughly that you can trigger these sensations of transcendence in your own brain. The problem is, people then mistake it for an external trigger when it was actually all done internally by a now-forgotten or disguised act of will.
The article goes on to posit that such a tendency towards mysticism may have evolved as a beneficial attribute, one that bolstered “social organization” and therefore survival of the species. (And wouldn’t it be ironic to have hard-core fundamentalists buy into evolution for that very reason?) Of course, they also admit that such social organization through religion is, as often as not, a destructive force rather than a beneficial one. I think it probably evolved as a combination of factors: a need for reassurance that could only be sustained with the help of like-minded groups, and a need to enforce certain moral behaviors on a population that wasn’t willing to cooperate any other way. Inasmuch as it made humans more social, it was probably a survival trait to some extent, but humans are fully capable of coming together to kill each other just as easily as they concoct a mass belief. It’s a mixed bag, and therefore as neutral as any other aspect of our genetic makeup.
All of this, in my opinion, says a lot about our psychological and physiological makeup as a species, but does nothing to support the existence of an actual supernatural entity. Just because we might “need” a god doesn’t mean he’s actually there.