Despite all my complaints and reservations, I remain hopelessly in favor of being part of a church. My reasons go beyond sentiment. Sociologists and psychologists underscore the importance of community in forming and maintaining a healthy outlook and values.
Humans are among the most socially oriented animals on our planet. We’re not especially fast or strong compared to other mammals our size. We have outsize brains, but even that doesn’t help much if you’re a lone Homo sapiens facing down an apex predator. Prior to the advent of weaponry, a solitary human was no match for any of the serious predators in the animal kingdom.
But a collection of humans wielding spears can be nearly as powerful as any creature on Earth. The fossil record shows us this. Our invention of thrown weapons is mirrored by the sudden collapse of apex-predator populations in every region of Earth populated by humans at the time.
Because of our individual weakness and collective strength, evolution has shaped our brains to devote incredible resources to socialization. It’s not just a matter of coordinating the hunt. To survive, the earliest bands of humans took on separate roles: Some hunted; others kept watch, gathered food, or tended children. We thrive in cooperation and fail when we’re on our own. That’s why we’re naturally terrified of isolation – for our ancestors, loneliness could mean impending death.
Thus, humans have an incredible incentive to behave in ways that secure a place in their tribe, and spirituality itself played a significant role in the social cohesion and governance of the earliest human societies. We humans are primed to believe what those around us believe, and since our beliefs often drive our behaviors, we have a great incentive to hold values consistent with those of our tribe – a process sometimes called groupthink.
This phenomenon is in no way relegated merely to the distant past; modern humans are equally obsessed with social conformity and status. Witness the way we idolize Kim Kardashian or Brad Pitt – our brains see in these famous individuals all the signs of high social standing, and we want to be associated with them. You might hate “networking,” but it’s one of our most ancient traditions.
Witness, too, our human tendency to clarify our identity with group labels. Liberals hold in common certain beliefs and values regarding human society and government, and the same is true if you call yourself a Republican, an atheist, a Christian, or even a golfer.
This tendency is so powerful, it can actually cause us to unconsciously filter out and dismiss any information that contradicts our chosen group’s identity or norms. One of the reasons so much tension exists between differing social groups is that we humans have a hard time processing information that could challenge or undermine our group’s identity.
This matters a lot if you’re someone who wants to believe in God but harbors serious doubts. If you truly want to believe, one of the most powerful things you can do is spend time with other people who do, letting them help imprint your brain with their experience of spirituality. People who doubt often leave the church – sometimes against their will – and end up spending less time with people who believe in God. If you want to know God, it turns out some advice my grandmother gave me mirrors what science has to say: Pray, read the Bible, and go to church!
This capacity of the group to help people form and maintain a belief in God and to experience the positive health and emotional effects thereof forms the basis of my claim about what a church can be and do and why that is good for the world:
The Church is at least a global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Even if this is all the Church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world – and this practice can improve people’s lives in real, measurable ways.
Belief in God can be beneficial to people, and prayer can rewire the human brain. The largest institution in history devoted to belief in God and exercising belief is the Church. The scale and scope of the Church are vast resources for anyone who wants to know or experience God. Beyond its more numerous activities, a church is a ready-made system of social support, community, and belonging.
Reprinted from FINDING GOD IN THE WAVES: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science. Copyright © 2016 by Mike McHargue. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. http://findinggodinthewaves.com/