Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The faith instinct

I remember reading a press report several years ago about an 8-year-old girl in New Jersey who was refused her first Holy Communion because she had a disease -- celiac sprue disease -- that prevented her from consuming even a taste of wheat. So how about a rice-based wafer? Not a chance. It is Church doctrine that communion wafers must contain unleavened wheat, as did the bread served at the Last Supper. No exceptions.

This would all be merely silly if it weren't so typical of organized religion in general. The particular fetish by which charmingly symbolic traditions get turned into occasions of sin must be telling us something about religion -- or about ourselves. As if anyone really knew what was on the menu at the Last Supper, or even if such an event occurred.

We all have rituals of one sort or another. I order my life with an almost monastic regularity. It's when the observance of ritual becomes a necessary condition of "belonging" that the great choo-choo train of religion goes careening off the rails. As when as children we went into a dark little booth to confess the sin of taking a bite of hot dog on Friday. Five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys and don't do it again.

According to an increasing number of evolutionary thinkers, it all has a point. Religious observance evolved as a way of cementing group ties, of binding "us" against "them," of making sure our genes flourish more vigorously than those of the tribe next door. New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade is the latest to ply this theme in The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures. So far, this is all speculative thinking, but one need only observe the depth and vigor of religious strife in the world to suspect that more is at work than than believers are prone to admit. If religions are really based on revelations from the Creator of the Universe, as the faithful maintain, then the Creator of the Universe must be a very mischievous fellow indeed to have planted so many competing revelations. And he must be a strange fellow too to be offended if an 8-year-old girl celebrates his revelation with a rice wafer rather than wheat.