In The God Gene, Dean Hamer argues that we are predisposed to believe in gods or things supernatural because we are genetically programmed to believe in something larger than ourselves. We do appear to be so inclined, but our need to believe in something greater than ourselves does not have to entail religion. The questions Hamer presents often lead to religion of some kind simply because the society in which we live has for so long expected that they must. However, we now live in a more sophisticated and philosophical age. There are other ways to think about “the big questions.”
Hamer’s queries, “Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Why is there so much suffering?” address a mix of issues not all of which are truly religious in nature. Hamer does not separate philosophy from religion and morality. He chooses faith over philosophy because religion offers the immensity of God, the most obvious greater thing of which we may make ourselves a part.
Our dim sensing of our own unconscious minds (which are much larger than our conscious awareness) sometimes generates a feeling of the numinous, and this sense of being somehow haunted by a vague presence – actually an aspect of our larger selves – accounts for much of the religious impulse. The urge to be part of something greater than ourselves may indicate a need for increased psychological integration rather than an innate need to believe in God.
If this is the case, religious belief may actually get in the way by redirecting the impulse away from productive self-discovery and self-understanding and onto a pointless study of outdated religious doctrine. We get lost in an old way of seeking a spiritual life, already abandoned by the majority, when new ways are available.
On the other hand, the urge to join with something larger than ourselves may reveal nothing more than a fearful craving for the physical safety offered by joining a numerous group or powerful organization. Then again, the urge may reflect a need to see oneself as an integral part of the society around one. For example, in the nineteenth century, Britons could see themselves as being part of the glorious British Empire and eagerly throw themselves into a life dedicated to its expansion and operation. One’s purpose in life was then the furtherance of the interests of the grand imperialist adventure. An enhanced Empire meant an enhanced sense of self. This approach is entirely secular and has nothing to do with religion.
Obviously, there are many ways to satisfy the urge to be part of something greater than ourselves that do not involve religion.