Sunday, June 5, 2011

Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience

Book Review: Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience
by Robert C. Fuller (Oxford University Press 2008)

This is an awesome book that surveys several interfaces of biology and spirituality. Although dry and academic at times it was utterly fascinating at other times. Some very intriguing ideas are collected here at the cutting edge of modern cognitive psychology and genetics, and some  re-interpretations of historical situations.

According to E.O. Wilson, “traits that foster group cooperation were consequently critical to humanity’s biological survival.” So according to him the fostering of this group cooperation is a main function of religion. According to the author it is more likely that religion may be a by-product of cooperation. Religion has a tendency to aid group loyalty and support the keeping of specific tribal morality. In terms of natural selection, whatever encourages subordinating self-interest to the interest of the group is favored. Some scientists have proposed a “selfish gene” geared toward reproductive success of our kinship group and others a “god gene” that predisposes us towards religious faith – but these are yet debatable ideas. Some scientists try to pinpoint the neurological components of mystical experiences and others the motivational aspects of emotions to account for a biological basis for spiritual and religious behaviors. The author considers that both genes and culture affect the development of religious ideas but that current ideas are overly oriented toward cultural explanations via the humanities. He supports more balance toward body-oriented views of cognitive science. He likes to emphasize that religion developed as an adaptive function alongside our genetic adaptive functions, perhaps as a by-product of them. One interesting thing he notes is that the function of the cerebral cortex in humans allows us greater flexibility in responding to our environment so that we can override instinctual behaviors. The effect of this is that there is more choice in our behavior.

One recurring notion in religion is the search for and assigning of causal agent(s) to situations and events. This is also a key to our evolutionary heritage and so a main place where religion and evolution overlap. Detecting and identifying causal agents gives us an adaptive advantage. Religious ideas may not be directly adaptive but indirectly supportive of adaptive functions. (sharing a religious view allows the morals of the group to be followed easier).

The first topic of body and religion overlap involves the emotions of fear and anger in the development of cohesive religious views and what he calls religious territorialism. The idea is that both territorialism and certain emotions affect humans in ways that promote biological survival. Humans, like many animals, like to mark our territory and in terms of culture, our tribal boundaries. Emotions seem to be our primary motivational mechanisms. Fear is a very fundamental motivation that isolates and focuses on the source of perceived threats often to the exclusion of all else. Threats need not be physical as “threats to one’s self-concept, one’s integrity, or one’s psychological well-being can elicit fear....” as noted by Carol Izard, who studies emotional systems. Fear is originally an adaptive mechanism triggering fight or flight responses to threats but it can become maladaptive when one becomes overly fixated on the threat. After the initial fear there may be anger directed toward the threat which may be adaptive in the sense that energy is mobilized and sustained at high levels. Fear-induced anger may contribute to communal solidarity by directing energy toward a common enemy. The author relates this fear-anger response to the phenomenon of – the apocalyptic imagination. He refers to two main sources as the Christian Book of Revelations and the Jewish Book of Daniel. Regarding apocalypticism he states that, “Their faith is rooted in the conviction that (1) the world is sharply divided into the forces of good and those of evil, and (2) the conflict between those forces is about to be joined by supernatural forces who will intervene decisively on behalf of the righteous, assuring them that they will be victorious and will inherit a purified earth.” Sociologists tend to agree that these types of teachings are intended for groups in crisis, anxious about an impending threat. He goes through several examples of fear-driven religious action including the historical setting for the Jewish Book of Daniel where the Hebrews are being oppressed by the Syrians who are pillaging their temples in order to help finance a war against Egypt. Daniel receives a vision of monstrous beasts (likened to the foreigner’s gods) and an assurance that a powerful ally being will come to destroy them. So this prophecy becomes a way to rally the faltering morale of the religious community against the perceived oppressor. Similarly, the Christian Book of Revelations served as a rallying cry to a rather minor and outcaste sect during a point of low popularity. The idea is to convey that justice and success is coming to we that believe the doctrine and practice the laws and those of other groups will fail and perish. This idea of The Book of Revelations as a rallying cry has also been compared to Aristotle’s explanation of Greek tragedy as an arousal of emotions and subsequent healing through catharsis, or coming to new terms with the emotions and the crisis situation. Fear-induced behavior is “characterized by tunnel vision, restricted cue utilization, and keen attention to the threatening agent.” Fear is also involved in our alarm system shaped by evolution in order to protect us from danger so this apocalypticism is body-based although in many cases may be maladaptive rather than adaptive. The next step after fear in this way of thinking/being is anger – which protects self-esteem by directing energy away to a perceived enemy. Sigmund Freud related fear to the arising of religious belief in the psychological sense. According the author, though, his understanding of emotion was somewhat limited to stimulus –response. The key question according to the author is which emotions mobilize our cognitive programming derived from evolutionary adaptations. The ultimate enemy is aptly named in the Book of Revelations as the Anti-Christ, making it quite clear that he is the enemy. The ability of modern doomsday theology to turn modern events into symbolic representations of evil on the march does much to inspire followers. Such activity increases self-doubt. An example of this is an increasing popularity of doomsday theology themes shortly after the September 11 tragedy. He does note that some apocalyptic faith may be more based on hope and even care and compassion and that it is most maladaptive when based on fear and anger. But I also think hope-based belief, especially that based on literal interpretation of prophecies, can also be quite maladaptive. Bottom line is that this type of fear-driven religious belief is tied up with boundary posturing and separatism and may be reactive behavior sourced by a sense of powerlessness.

The next topic is also in the category of emotions. This time it is the feeling of wonder and how this can impel us to both contemplative and moral behavior. The author equates this religious wonder with nature religion and aesthetic spirituality. I should point out that throughout this book for the most part the author seems to focus on distinctly American forms of “Spirituality in the Flesh.” The question here is: How can the emotions of awe and wonder serve to re-structure social groups and inform religious experience? Wonder and awe (aided by interest and curiosity) inspire by stretching one’s sense of possibility and the pre-existing boundaries of one’s experience. The effect of wonder is often to open our minds to new possibilities. In that sense it is often considered a positive motivational emotion. Wonder may be initiated by a ‘startle response’ where one has a sudden realization of awesomeness. The author lists three reasons how Wonder differs from the other emotions. First it “is an emotion linked to approach and affiliation rather than avoidance. One often approaches the source of wonder as if it is medicinal with the goal of absorbing its qualities. Secondly, “it awakens our mental capacity for abstract, higher-order thought.” In this way it is more potent than mere curiosity. Thirdly, “wonder temporarily suspends utilitarian striving.” It renders us passive and receptive in our resolve to unite with something magnificent. Most evolutionary cognitive adaptations are active and goal-oriented but wonder is passive and has a “peculiar ability to elicit sustained attention and receptivity.” Next he invokes the work of famed child psychologist Jean Piaget – who studied how children, particularly his own, came to understand causality – the relationships between parts and wholes and change and constancy.  Piaget came to describe things in terms of assimilation and accommodation. This is how we deal with new and unexpected experiences – we assimilate and accommodate. Surprise/curiosity/wonder is often how we deal with causality perhaps in a scientifically optimistic way. Wonder also has the effect of opening a broader context of causality and meaning so rather than simply A causes B we seek to understand “the bigger picture.” The author notes that wonder “sustains our desire to connect with the surrounding world.” Wonder allows us to move beyond self-interest says ethical theorist Martha Nussbaum. It aids us in developing empathy and compassion. The author goes on to give several examples of wonder-based aesthetic spirituality including the ideas and experiences of environmentalists John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club who was filled with wonder in his experiences of raw nature without human presence) and Rachel Carson who intently studied the interconnectivity of ecosystems – and transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau whose ideas influenced Muir. Muir discovered and taught a new way of seeing nature as a sacred whole to be venerated and protected and so he strongly influenced the development of the National Park System. His moral prerogative was to preserve untouched chunks of nature. Rachel Carson also demonstrated a new way to see the world based on wonder. She encouraged a veneration for life and the healing abilities  of keeping the attitude/emotion of wonder. Wonder seems to engender the sacred and turn us away from the profane.

In a section called the Chemistry of Consciousness the topic begins with an examination of geneticist Dean Hamer’s idea of a genetic component to the Biology of Belief – the so-called God Gene. His main criteria for spiritual measure is: a sense of self-transcendence. Personally, I think the god gene argument is weak as more indirect genetic influences seem more likely to me. I see neuro-chemical responses more as effects than causes of behavior and belief although I concede that the looping back can certainly be causal. I just don’t think he shows good evidence for the root cause being genetic and the measurement criteria is vague and highly subjective. One of the more interesting conclusions he states (I think) is that genes may predispose us to be believers – or perhaps they may affect our tendency to believe. There is no mention of factors such as karma which in Hinduism and Buddhism are said to be the most powerful influence on our tendencies and predispositions and of course the reason for that is that how something like karma influences us is largely unknown and not amenable to scientific study. Of course, our experiences affect our beliefs. What else could?

Many psychoactive drugs mimic the monoamine serotonin. These hallucinogens are known to cause effects that often change a person’s spiritual outlook, both temporarily and long-term. Since the mimic effect is seen as a change in brain chemistry, this is an example of neurochemically-induced belief change. But I do think this change is in varying degrees and still quite subjective. Next he goes on to the work of Harvard botanist Richard Schultes who points out that Native Americans utilize way more psychoactive plants than other cultures due to being culturally programmed toward “ecstatic-visionary shamanism.” This may have something to do with the fact that these people were isolated beginning 15,000 ago or earlier and immune to early Eurasian agricultural and social developments and perhaps more locked into the Paleolithic religious paradigm. Anthropologist Weston La Barre calls this a “narcotic complex.” Tobacco was the pre-eminent Native American shamanistic drug. Nearly every tribe used it and always in a ceremonial context. It is rather strange that now it is merely a secular addictive substance. Of course, there are different types of tobacco, some quite hallucinogenic. Tobacco and the sacred pipe were used in healing rites and in the securing of oaths and social contracts. One can certainly say that drug use was a very important part of shamanistic societies. When Native Americans were segregated to different reservations their cultures were allowed to mix more than in the past so rites were shared. One such cermony that became popularized particularly from 1890 to 1920 was the use of peyote. Peyotism, or the seeking of visions through peyote which originated in Mexico was adopted by many more tribes. For some tribes it replaced long periods of fasting required to obtain a vision. The author suggests that before this the peyote rites were mainly a way for the shaman to effect cures by getting a vision about the patient’s problem. After the diffusion of the peyote cult he suggests that the new goal was to establish harmony with supernatural power. He calls this an Americanized version as even later some Christian elements were added.

In another section he refers to a more experiential religious counterculture that also experiments with drugs, as well as with “Eastern religions, alternative healing philosophies, self-help psychologies, books on the occult or supernatural, pagan religions, deep ecology, or radical feminism.” He mentions some of the early forms that roughly fit this category like Transcendentalism, spiritualism, mesmerism, and Theosophy, and later the Beat movement and the hippies. These alternative spiritualities tend to seek “mystical forms of consciousness.” He goes through some of the social aspects of marijuana use and notes the very important aspect of set and setting on psychotropic exploration. At first in America (and the West) drug experimentation was strongly associated with seeking spirituality and mystical states. He thinks that the zeitgeist changed in the 1980’s when these drugs became more as intoxicants without a spiritual aspiration component. An important observation is that, “Altered states of consciousness temporarily de-automatize our accustomed modes of registering sensory data.” This new inefficiency may allow us to experience the world in new and different ways. He also says that,  “Altering the normal ratio of sensory intake to sensory processing radically alters cognition.” Altered states are sometimes accompanied by confusion but it is perhaps this instability that allows the person to see new ways of being. Finally, in this section the author notes that some may see drug-induced ecstatic experiences as acceptable meaningful spirituality while others view them not as authentic self-transcendence but as dangerous and unacceptable self-deception. This brings up the important point of who decides which is meaningful or acceptable or not. This argument model he terms the politics of consciousness. He notes William James in his famed book Varieties of Religious Experience had considered his experiences with Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas) to be insightful and meaningful. Indeed James’ viewpoints are noted throughout this book.

The influence of sexuality on religious thought is examined. The joy, passion, and vitality of sex has long been metaphorically linked to religion in many cultures.

“Erotic desire expresses itself in our quest for self-abandonment. It guides our religious quest for passionate connection with an ideally romanticized “other.”

Evolution biology is based in reproductive fitness and selects in favor of traits that enhance this fitness. Evolutionary psychologists say that “mate selection” is particularly important to humans. The author notes that human males compete for females likely due to the female risking more reproductive potential per copulation than the male. He also says that males may have begun their campaign to control females by luring them with food. Males tend to seek out multiple partners while females tend to be more selective. Ensuring that DNA is successfully transmitted to the next generation is the name of the game. The notion of “falling in love” may also have evolutionary components. This bonding might ensure that we are committed enough to follow through on creating, bearing, and raising offspring. Helen Fisher spoke of three neurological components of love: 1) Mechanisms that get us aroused, interested, and seeking – lust, 2) Focusing attention on one mate – romantic love, and 3) Forming attachments to that mate. There are measurable but likely not uniform neuro-chemical reactions in these states. The author notes that religion often seeks to channel forces such as lust into socially acceptable forms. He also talks about the notion of falling in love with God which has been noted in Christianity both among ascetics and regular people and is an established part of Hinduism in the form of Bhakti Yoga (devotional yoga) and in some ways Buddhism as well in the related Tantric devotional yogas. He notes that Freud’s model of libido – which is mostly biological but with a cultural component as well is too simple and not fully applicable in the view of most modern theorists. His simplification of sexual energy building up and being released is incomplete they say. There may be other things going on as well such as the desire to unite in order to discover deeper truth, beauty, and wholeness. This idea accords more with sacred sexuality. Many cultures regulate sexuality in a myriad of ways and so skirting this regulation and bending/breaking these taboos has become a part of eroticism. Mysticism is also subversive in the sense that one seeks to transcend the restrictions of normal reality. Here sexuality and religion are kin and freedom is discovered beyond the normal world of order and rules. The author goes on to describe some American Christian societies that overturned social and sexual rules such as the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Latter-Day Saints. The Shakers let go of bodily inhibitions in their ecstatic bodily movements – shaking, for them perhaps sublimating sexual impulses. The Latter-Day Saints embraced polygamy as a way to acknowledge the power of male sexual energy and the author suggests that the charisma of Joseph Smith may have derived from his sexual charisma. John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida community went on to practice and advocate sex without male orgasm which they said made it a spiritual activity – of course this is akin to some Tantric yoga traditions. In Hinduism and Buddhism sexual bliss and religious bliss are described similarly and more particular to Hinduism the state of union with the divine is akin to orgasmic rapture. He also tells the story of St. Theresa of Avilla who described mystical union with an angel in somewhat sexually explicit terms. Another was that of Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson who described union with Christ in bodily ecstatic terms. Another example he might have mentioned would be the Afro-Caribbean Voodoo possessions by the loa spirits who are typically associated with Catholic Saints. Finally there is a section on very early American Tantra. He notes the features of Tantrism as : 1) originated outside of orthodox Vedic tradition, 2) positive attitude toward the body in contrast to asceticism/renunciation, 3) use of radical and transgressive methods such as alcohol, drugs, sex, meat, 4) understands body as microcosm of the universe, 5) framework of subtle body and energies. He goes on to mention the work of Paschal Beverly Randolf (1825-1875) the son of an African slave who moved to New York and became interested in Rosicrucianism, spiritualism, and mesmerism. He noted that sexual energy can be utilized for spiritual means. Pierre Bernard (1975-1955) founded the Tantrik Order in America. He went to India as a teen to study healing and claimed to have studied Tantra in Bengal and Kashmir. He taught various metaphysical subjects in San Francisco beginning in 1904. He taught Hatha Yoga in New York and later started a retreat/commune in rural New York which was rumored to have sexual practices. The press referred to him as the “Omnipotent Oom.” His so-called love cult was scandalized by the press in the 20’s but he did manage to bring the practices and notions of sexual tantra and combining them somewhat with Western sexual magic to become a more distinctly American form of Tantra. Wilhelm Reich and the “somatic movement” in psychotherapy and alternative medicine also contributed to American Tantra. Reich extended Freud’s notion of libido to his “orgone” energy that could be collected and used for healing. Reich equated orgasm with flow and lack of orgasm with blockage. Ida Rolf (1869-1975) who originated the deep massage method of rolfing, studied under Pierre Bernard and was interesting in “initiating people into harmonious spiritual consciousness.” The Esalen Institute began in California in the early 1960’s and developed many study and practice programs devoted to Eastern Spirituality, Yoga, Tantra, Psychotherapy, and alternative healing therapies. In many ways it was a precursor to today’s New Age centers.

The influence of pain and illness is next investigated. “Our habitual tendency to view the mind and body as separate entities obscures the subtle ways that thought and somatic tissue are parts of the same organic whole.” Pain is often subjective and individual. Heroes and deities often readily endure pain to overcome foes and situations. We may try to emulate them when confronted with pain. He says that most cultures give models (presumably in myths and stories) of how to respond to sensory trauma. Chronic pain can have the same effect as we try to overcome it. This identifying with cultural icons in order to deal with pain and illness can be seen as religious behavior. He notes the work of Elaine Scarry in the study of pain. She notes that pain can be so persistent and intense that it becomes the main reality and that it may revert us to a state previous to language where grunts, moans and groans pervade. She notes that pain is a “framing event” that re-structures the rest of our world. The author then notes the effects of physically demanding ascetic practice, self-mortification, self-flagellation, and other pain producing religious practices. Enduring pain and exploring painful states is a part of many spiritual traditions. These may be ways to re-organize self. Ariel Glucklich noted that “pain weakens the individual’s feeling of being a discrete agent; it makes the ‘body-self’ transparent and facilitates the emergence of a new identity. Metaphorically, pain creates an embodied ‘absence’ and makes way for a new and greater ‘presence.’” Initiatory rites in various cultures have this effect as Mircea Eliade noted. “He observed that nearly all initiatory rites utilize some form of death/rebirth symbolism. The death/rebirth experience enables initiates to discard dysfunctional identities and discover a new, “higher” self.” The author notes that many people enter various metaphysical studies due to a desire to alleviate their own pain and he goes on to investigate some early American versions of psycho-somatic healing associated with spirituality. He mentions Mary Baker Eddy and Seventh-Day Adventism and their influence on both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostalism. Eddy was a student at one time of Phineas Quimby, a student of mesmerism, who developed Mind Cure Science based on a psychosomatic form of healing. Quimby imbued Mesmer’s animal magnetism idea with Christian Holy Spirit terminology and the rest is history. Body language and body metaphor is another topic of interest in that a lot of our expressions equate directions and various qualities with emotions. Phrases like “feeling down,” “things are looking up,” “falling behind,” etc. are examples of body metaphors. Reich noted body language effects such as what he called “character armor” – or ways we talk and move our body as fear and protective/defensive actions.

In summary we have examined how spiritual/religious behavior is influenced by the emotions of Fear and Wonder, by interaction with psychoactive substances, by sexual attitudes and practices, and by adjustment to the presence of pain and illness. Life is life in a body so of course the body is deeply connected to most all of our experiences while we are alive. It was quite informative examining and contemplating these connections though and for that I am grateful for this book.

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