Today I attended a Catholic mass at Bellaterra’s church. The service was in Catalan, but in knowing Spanish, I was able to follow along. I’m not a practicing Catholic, and I haven’t been to confession in years. But I’ve always been fascinated by religion from the point of view of cultural anthropology. Man’s need for ritual has held my attention since I was a kid. Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian of religion and an anthropologist/sociologist, coined the term Homo religiosus to mean that man has always yearned for the sacred. This yearning can be broken down into four beliefs:
1) A belief in a transcendent reality;
2) A belief that the Sacred wants to connect with human beings;
3) A belief that when the Sacred enters a place, it makes it holy. Once a place is holy, a human being can enter it and become holy him/herself;
4) A need to celebrate and recount myths. In doing so, Homo religiousus enters “sacred time” and remembers what Eliade calls “paradigmatic models”–lessons in how to be a good person, what values and virtues to cultivate, what vices to avoid. In this celebrating and recounting of myths, Homo religiosus enters sacred time again and again to discover and re-discover his/her purpose in life.
These four beliefs have been paraphrased from here.
In Chapter 4 of The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade writes:
What we find as soon as we place ourselves in the perspective of religious man of the archaic societies is that the world exists because it was created by the gods, and that the existence of the world itself “means” something, “wants to say” something, that the world is neither mute nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing without purpose or significance. For religious man, the cosmos “lives” and “speaks.” The mere life of the cosmos is proof of its sanctity, since the cosmos was created by the gods and the gods show themselves to men through cosmic life.
Geneticist Dean Hamer proposed the existence of a “God gene,” meaning that we’re genetically predisposed to have spiritual or mystical experience. He studied over a 1,000 people and singled out the gene VMAT2 for predisposing individuals to mystic experiences and the feeling of the presence of God. This gene is responsible for regulating serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. In turn, these neurotransmitters are hypothesized to cause mystical and spiritual experiences in individuals. He believes that having these mystical experiences gives people the will needed to live life fully in the face of death.
This has been an extremely controversial hypothesis because it has been based on one, unreplicated study. Plus, this gene can make you believe in anything, as New York Times science journalist Carl Zimmer pointed out here. Personally, I find the hypothesis fascinating and would love to see whether the study could be replicated. I would suppose that Dean Hamer is today’s scientific exemplar of Homo religiosus, in that he’s looking for a scientific reason for why so many people believe in God and religion.
It was wonderful to attend the service and view it, for the first time, as an anthropological experience instead of as a purely religious experience as I did as a kid. I had a couple sitting across from me that were in full devoted prayer the entire time I was there. My heart went out to them because they were clearly troubled and were asking for divine help.