If somebody with $10 in his checking account tries to buy a house with a check for $500,000, his belief that God will cover the check won’t spare him criminal prosecution or at least a psychiatric examination. We take it as a mark of a character or mental disorder when people rely on mere belief to make things happen in their material environment. Hardly anybody over about the age of ten expects the world to work that way.

But faith in the power of mere belief is the cornerstone of one of the world’s great religions. The best-known verse in the New Testament’s Gospel of John (in the King James version) is, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” According to Wikipedia, this one verse has been called the “Gospel in a nutshell,” so central it is to mainstream Christianity.

Let that sink in for a minute. The overwhelming majority of us don’t rely on mere belief to populate our checking accounts. But a great many of the same people who aren’t that loony are guided through life by the deep conviction that they can exempt themselves from the laws of physics and biology if they just accept that Jesus is who he says he is: The Son of God. When Martin Luther insisted that we’re “saved by faith” rather than works as the Catholic Church held, he was adamant that the faith involved, judged at the bar of reason, is crazy, as he put it, “impossible, absurd and false.” We alone among living creatures think, in the teeth of overwhelming contrary evidence, that we can secure eternal life just by believing that God will suspend for our sake laws of his own creation that would otherwise permanently reduce us one day to a few dollars’ worth of chemicals.

Rise of the guardaians from Dreamworks
Right to left: Sandman, Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Jack Frost.

So powerful is the pull of this privileged instance of the miraculous power of mere belief that it captures people of every station in life. Jimmy Carter, former nuclear engineer and president, talking to his Sunday School class recently about death, said, “I will live again.” And the congregant of a rural Alabama church told a newspaper reporter about Heaven that “It’s gonna be suitable to each person. So, whatever makes me happy. I like birds. So outside my window, there will be birds.”

If we were this credulous about virtually everything else in life, we’d make a wreck of it in short order. So what could possibly be going on here?

Browsing old newspapers for another project, I came across a 1958 Atlanta Constitution column by one Charles L. Allen, a minister. Following Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rev. Allen said, “We are by nature instinctively and incurably worshipers. We have an insatiable hunger for the Eternal.”

Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

I think that’s right, though not for the reason that Rev. Allen does. The conviction, crazy by Martin Luther’s estimate, that we can secure nothing less than immortality by stocking up on the right beliefs reflects our evolutionary inheritance, the way natural selection has wired us. We’re fiercely attached to our lives because most creatures who aren’t don’t survive long enough to reproduce, passing along their genes to their offspring. So ingrained is our will to live that we can’t easily reconcile ourselves to the prospect of just disappearing into nothingness. Hence, the “insatiable hunger for the Eternal” that Rev. Allen spoke of. The immense religious edifice we’ve erected on the “Gospel in a nutshell” is the work of our genome. That’s what drives us to project ourselves out into an eternal future, complete with windows and birds outside them.

But what would otherwise be a benign offshoot of natural selection has a downside. The same wiring that makes believers of many of us makes intolerant believers of some of us. The stakes, remember, couldn’t be higher: nothing less than eternal life. And you don’t get that by believing in just anything, not Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Great Pumpkin. Eternity depends on signing onto the right belief, the true one. Get it wrong and you’re just worm food.

That puts immense pressure on the religious freedom guarantees we enjoy under the First Amendment to the Constitution. They’re meant to carve out a private sphere within which we’re at liberty to believe as we think fit about ultimate things, like eternal life, and to live accordingly.

But American religious pluralism demands that we still the promptings of our evolutionary inheritance insofar as it says, “This way and no other.” If it’s our very biological makeup that drives us perversely to doctrines we’re convinced hold the key to casting off the bondage of organic nature and graduating to supernatural eternity, then some of us aren’t going to be able to survey the diverse American religious scene as a collection of equally eligible “life-styles.” After all, if the religious views I reject are just eligible “life-styles,” then I have no assurance that my religious commitments aren’t just one more eligible “life-style” choice among the rest. But life-styles don’t win eternity. Only true belief does. And since biological makeup doesn’t vary from person to person, virtually everybody is under pressure, to some degree, to take his or her own religious beliefs as the saving ones and all contrary ones as damning. And it’s a dangerously short step from there to the belief that error has no rights.

If there’s anything to this story, it isn’t just religious beliefs other than our own that we’re wired to reject. We’re just as wired to reject anything that casts doubt on whatever we’ve seized on as the “keys to the Kingdom.” It’s evolution’s little joke that our very evolutionary endowment, our biologically-based fierce attachment to life, turns many religious believers just as fiercely against any naturalistic accounts of why they hold the beliefs on which they’ve staked their eternal life.

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Image Credits: Michelangelo's The Last Judgement - the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo - Creation of Adam (cropped), public Domain via Wikipedia.org; Rise of the Guardians via Dreamworks, promotional/fair use.

Leon Galis

I'm an Athens, GA, native and have been living in Athens since 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008 I've written approximately 80 columns for the Athens Banner Herald and a handful for Flagpole Magazine in Athens.