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Is the Pope right?

The new Pope, Benedict XVI, has identified secularism as one of the principal threats confronting our civilization today, and I think it possible that he may be right, although for different reasons: not because I think religion is true, but because I'm not sure that the world can do without it. If that is right we are in trouble, because religion and religious tensions are on the increase everywhere and the conflicts they engender may well do for us anyway.

So are we stuck with religion? In "The Human Story", Robin Dunbar remarks that our evolutionary uccess in the Palaeolithic seems to have been linked with development of religion as a social cohesive force. There is quite a lot of evidence to show true for individuals: it msy be psychologically healthy to be a believer.

Another interpreter of the Palaeolithic, David Lewis-Williams, comes to much the same conclusion. In a postscript to his book "The Mind in the Cave" he says that the capacity for transcendental experience seems to be wired into our brains, as it was not, he believes, for the Neandertals. This has produced much great art but also the potentially disastrous conviction that God speaks to us and tells us what is true.

Iris Murdoch wrote: "God does not and cannot exist. But what leads us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured." Marhanita Laski, though an atheist, was deeply interested in religion. In her book "Ecstasy" she put forward a non-religious explanation for mystical experiences but insisted that the experiences themselves were very valuable.

If Robin Dunbar is right, religion arose in the late Palaeolithic and provided a cohesive force that favoured the survival of our ancestors. Once we adopted this way of thinking and picturing the world it became almost impossible for us to give it up. The analogy I have suggested is to the acquisition of mitochondria by primitive cells; this enabled them to make use of oxygen and, eventually, rendered them unable to survive without oxygen.

I find this an unwelcome thought. I tend to agree with Robert Sapolsky, who writes: "I might even continue to believe there is no god, even if it was proven that there is." But I know I'm in a minority, and probably a shrinking one at that. A depressing prospect.


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