My mother was an atheist. I grew up trusting her when she said religious beliefs were a sort of socially acceptable insanity. So when she died of cancer during a fierce thunderstorm in April, 1991, I was unprepared to answer the question: Where did she go? Friends offered answers – she is in heaven, she would be reborn, she is an unseen presence among us. Why couldn’t I believe these comforting ideas? And what would it mean for me to “believe” – was believing a force of will, or something mysterious, more involuntary? Well, I thought, I am still my mother’s daughter… I came into the world, as babies are wired to, with an instinct for the imperative of my survival. And a piece of that inborn instinct is trusting in a parent figure, identifying with them and following their ways. If that inborn instinct serves its original purpose, and a baby survives to grow up and debunk the myth of invincible, protective parents, she will eventually have to confront the issue of her own mortality. Would it follow, I wondered, that maybe the belief, across doctrines, in the existence of a God and an afterlife, is not proof of the existence of God and an afterlife but a trick of survival instinct? Could envisioning God as the custodian of eternal life and a stand-in for a parent figure be a universal response to the riddle of reconciling the obligation to survive with the inevitability of death? How else explain the moral charge surrounding issues that involve species survival, like abortion, same sex partnering, birth control, suicide, euthanasia… is that why these are considered moral issues and not simply issues of science, medicine, sociology, or public policy? Imagine human nature without survival instinct – would morality carry meaning if we were ambivalent about living and dying?
Testing my theory, I substituted the words “Survival Instinct” whenever I heard someone say “God.” We have Survival Instinct on our side. I’ll see you soon, Survival Instinct willing. Suicide is an insult to Survival Instinct.
I said to my friend, Bill, “What if God is in our survival instinct? Could that explain how isolated cultures share belief in an afterlife and faith in a father figure? What if survival instinct is the God that drives evolution? What if God and the afterlife are snuffed out with our survival instinct when we take our last breath? What if when my mother died… she just died?”
“No,” he said, “That’s cold. I don’t believe spirituality is biology.”
There it is, I thought, the way biology has us wired to deny biology, because if we knew that our intrinsic survival instinct creates God, it would undermine the brilliance of the system. It would undermine the way the survival of our species depends on moral obligation of the individual.
I answered Bill, “No, it’s not cold. It’s just… true.” And then after a beat I thought, oh! So this is what it means to believe…
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.