It appears that we human beings branched off from our common ancestor with the chimpanzees about five to seven million years ago. Recent research reveals that unlike that of many other biological species, our DNA is highly homogenous. It has been suggested that a possible explanation may be that we very nearly became extinct like the dinosaurs about 70,000 years ago.
Palaeontologists note that similar low genetic variation has been observed in a number of animal species following near extinction at later periods.
Life in those early days must have been quite terrifying, not only before we developed intellectual faculties superior to other biological species, but even long after we were able to employ them. Nature, for no apparent reason, often became terribly aggressive. We found ourselves subjected to violent hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, volcanos, droughts, snow storms, bush fires, as well as the occasional devastating meteorite. We had no warning and no explanation for any of it.
It is not surprising that little by little, due to the development of our intellectual capacity to conceptualise, we gradually replaced our instinctive reaction of terror to these natural phenomena with logical, supernatural explanations. Animist religions, which continue to be largely present today, attributed a god or spirit to each of earth’s physical features as well as to each of the terrifying manifestations of nature. The concept of anthropomorphic gods soon followed. Human characteristics such as reason, motivation, personality and the possibility to communicate were attributed to the animist gods.
Having invented the supernatural we elaborated a strategy for survival based on this concept. The strategy consisted in contacting whichever god we had attributed to a particular natural phenomenon and begging him to spare us from his wrath and protect us from harm. If prayers, worship and acts of submission failed to produce the desired result, we offered animal and human sacrifice.
This strategy for survival is what we call religion today. The person or animal we offered to the gods in exchange for the salvation of the rest of the community is now reputed to be a scapegoat. The Christian religions integrated the concept into their dogma.
Recent research by neurotheology scientists tends to confirm this development. Scientists conclude from their research that the human brain managed to develop sensitivity to any form of belief that improved the chances of survival. They suggest that this could explain why a belief in the supernatural and various forms of transcendental beings became so widespread in human evolutionary history.
Professor Jordan Grafman, of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, near Washington, was reported by The Independent on March 10, 2009, as saying “Religious belief and behaviour are a hallmark of human life, with no accepted animal equivalent, and found in all cultures. Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and they support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions.”
The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief, one within the frontal lobes of the cortex - which are unique to humans - and another in the more evolutionary-ancient regions deeper inside the brain, which humans share with apes and other primates.
Vilayanur Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor in the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, indicates that patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy frequently report having intense religious experiences.
Dr Michael Persinger, a cognitive neuroscience researcher and Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at the Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, stimulated people's temporal lobes artificially with a weak magnetic field and claimed that the field could produce the sensation of “an ethereal presence in the room”.
Dr Persinger suggests that the stimulation of the cerebral-temporal lobe may have been the cause of the Marian apparition phenomenon by which the Virgin Mary is believed to have supernaturally appeared to one or more persons since the advent of Christianity.
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