“The human spirit is the result of the adaptive biological mechanisms that protect our species, sustain us and serve to perpetuate the existence of humanity.”

Sherwin Nuland, “The Biology of the Spirit,” from Krista Tippett’s Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit

In her book, Einstein’s God, Krista Tippett interviews surgeon/Professor of Surgery, Sherwin Nuland, about the relationship between physiology and the human spirit. The pair focused on three major points, which are as follows: religious practice, for some, can be a marker of neuroses; an expression of the personal can yield universal truth; and as humans, we have a biological magnetism to order and meaning, which serves as the basis of morality and religious practice.

Religious Practice as a Marker of Neurosis

“What I thought were my religious beliefs, were nothing more than obsessional thinking. It really had to do with fear of–whether you want to call it hellfire or punishment of some kind.”

Sherwin Nuland

I read these lines, and I thought, “He is talking about me!” About three years ago, I sat on a couch in my psychiatrist’s office. It was the first time I had ever visited a psychiatrist, although I had been receiving prescriptions for anxiety medication from my general practitioner for years. I spoke to her of my compulsive need to pray, and it was then that I received the affirmation of a diagnosis. I suspected I suffered with OCD for years, but in that moment, by receiving validation from a trained professional, I felt myself suddenly untethered. For me, the activities of reading the Bible, going to church, and praying were all compulsive attempts to avoid damnation in the afterlife. In one psychiatric visit, having my suspicions confirmed, I felt able, once and for all, to relinquish my need to control eternity.

“I, since that time, have met many, many, many Jews, just as I’ve met many Catholics and Protestants who have deep faith, who really believe, and obsessional thinking has nothing to do with it, and fear of punishment has nothing to do with it.”

Sherwin Nuland

I regret to say, I am very skeptical of this claim. I have yet to meet a confessional Christian of any kind who is not grasping for control over his/her eternal destiny, as well as the eternal destiny of others. I cannot speak for Jews or people of other faiths because unfortunately, I do not have personal relationships with people outside of the Christian tradition (this is problematic, I do realize). I feel like my own journey of liberation from religion has uprooted my faith in systematic religion, and as such, I am not sure it is reasonable to consider myself a Christian by the culturally accepted definition. I suppose there may exist other enlightened individuals who manage to maintain communal fellowship with “believers,” but I cannot see that working for me. This is sad and cynical, I know, but I cannot help but feel that Dr. Nuland provided that qualification to sidestep any potential offense. I suppose, then, that I am not that generous.

The Expression of the Personal Yields Universal Truth

“The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are.”

Sherwin Nuland

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. The more I excavate my own vulnerability, the more compassion I have for others. The more I share of myself, the more I feel connected to a vast community of humans–united in our suffering, in our compassion, in our desire for healing and hope. This is the engine that drives every entry I post on this blog, as well as the content I share on YouTube. It is my hope, that in sharing myself with others, some may find hope, some may find confidence, and some may find insight that leads to liberation. Nuland continues:

“When you recognize that pain and response to pain is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as much as it explains so much about yourself…It teaches you a sort of understanding…Everybody needs to be understood. And out of that comes every form of love.”

“The Biology of the Spirit,” from Krista Tippett’s Einstein’s God

With that said, I think that if a confessional Christian is able to set aside his/her need to ensure the salvation of the world, in order to express a genuine love, compassion and concern for an other by tolerating the uncertainty that comes from an empathic receipt of an alternative view, then that confessional Christian truly believes and isn’t enacting compulsive faith practice.

Human Biological Need for Order

In this chapter of Tippett’s work, Nuland identifies a physiological need for order. He explains that our bodies contain myriad cells and circuits that clash and clang, but “these reactions are all counteracting threats to the survival” of each cell. Therefore, as humans, we have an unconscious awareness of this internal chaos, which occurs on this cellular level, and in effort to ensure survival, biological processes of our brains develop conscious structures and systems to organize the upheaval. Thus, we construct religious systems “because we need a moral sense…to prevent the chaos that somehow we are living close to.” Thus, collective religious practice arises from a biological need encoded in our DNA to find order (meaning) in spite of environmental chaos.

In conclusion, I really appreciate this biological explanation for the human compulsion for religious practice. It affirms my personal experience, as does the relatable experience of Nuland’s neurosis. I hope to be a person who inspires in others a quest for higher consciousness, as well as empathic understanding.

About Author

Standing ground for desire through self-study of philosophy and psychoanalysis, self-reflection, and creative sublimation through the work of literary fiction.

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