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Natural Relationships and Supernatural Relationships

Matt J. Rossano is head of the Psychology department at Southeastern Louisiana University.  His new book, Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, presents an evolutionary history of religion, drawing together evidence from a wide range of disciplines to show the valuable adaptive purpose served by systemic belief in the supernatural.  In the excerpt below, Rossano reminds us of the comfort of believing in things that may be irrational.

In April 2008, the phone rang at the home of Howard Enoch III. It was the U.S. Army. Howard’s father would finally be coming home. Sixty-three years earlier, in the waning days of World War II, Second Lieutenant Howard “Cliff” Enoch Jr. climbed into his P-51D Mustang fighter for a mission over Halle, Germany. He never returned. When the Iron Curtain enveloped the site where Enoch’s plane went down, the army declared his remains “unrecoverable.” But dedicated members of the U.S. Army’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command refused to give up on Cliff Enoch. In 2004, their review of crash sites in the former East Germany revealed suspicious plane fragments near the village of Doberschutz. Two years later, an onsite excavation team found what appeared to be human remains. The remains were flown to a laboratory in Hawaii for DNA analysis while the army continued to study the crash-site evidence. In the end it led to the phone call – and a burial with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Remarkable” is how Howard Enoch described the events of that spring. “I will now have a place…to know where he is…to be close to him,” he said. “Before this, I always thought of my father as a young man, sitting in a beautiful pasture in Germany, waiting for someone to bring him home – and that is what happened.” Commenting on the extraordinary effort the military expended in retrieving and identifying the remains, army spokesman Johnnie Webb explained that it was important for people to know that the “creed and tradition” in the military is to “leave no one behind.” The military, he said, would always do their utmost to “honor that promise.”

A bittersweet story. But most would agree that it ends as it should. It is right and good that the brave young soldier be returned to his home, his country, his family. The human desire to keep loved ones near, even in death, hardly needs an explanation or justification. Yet very little of this story can be defended as reasonable. Cold logic would correctly conclude that it is of no consequence where Cliff Enoch’s remains are buried, or even whether they are ever conclusively identified. After 60 years there’s no doubt that he is dead. His loved ones have gone on with their lives, and the skeletal remnants care nothing about the ground under which they lie. From a practical standpoint, a backyard cross is as good a remembrance place for the downed pilot as a cemetery plot. And wouldn’t the army’s limited resources be better spend on increased health and education benefits for veterans or better housing for military families, rather than on the retrieval of a few old bones?

Howard Enoch was welcoming back a man whom he had never known. Now 63 years old, he was born after his father Cliff was shot down. The fallen hero was but a picture on the wall, a story only rarely broached, more a myth and a spirit than a man. But is it fair to say that Howard and this spirit were strangers to each other? Was there no relationship here at all? The fact that it just feels wrong – cruel, even – to simply let Cliff Enoch’s bones lie anonymously in some far-off foreign land suggests that the answer is no. And if it is no, then this might offer some justification for the military’s extraordinary efforts to retrieve those bones. After all, if you’re going to convince people to risk their lives for their country, then sometimes that country must go excessive lengths to not “leave them behind.”  None of this is likely to pass a rigorous rational examination.  But doing right in life sometimes means that reason cannot be the sole light by which your moral compass is set.

Human life is not a science.  The good life isn’t a theory to be operationalized, tested, and replicated before it is deemed useful.  For better of worse, life must be lived, here and now; and what is valuable about it we often must discern, on the fly, as best we can.  The hard-nosed rationality so valued in scientific circles seems oddly incompetent when facing the human complications of real life.

This observation is by no means novel.  Decades ago, the economist Robert Frank recognized that our passions often thwarted our best attempts at being perfectly rational economic agents.  Oddly, this was often a good thing.  Dispassionate logic could easily prevent us from making the personal commitments necessary to take advantage of some of life’s greatest opportunities.  Success in life often entails some seemingly irrational risks.  We make promises, form deep emotional attachments, and put faith in family, friends, and neighbors based on partial and ambiguous data – data that would never pass muster in a scientific journal.  But the rigors demanded by good science – empirical testing, adequate controls, reliable measures, falsibiable conditions, replication – come off as nothing short of insulting when imposed upon a potential friend, date or marriage partner.  We aren’t interested in someone who can’t trust us, so we have to risk trusting others.

This unscientific risk-taking, or what Frank called “the commitment problem,” is the very thing that makes life human.  At some point we just have to dive in, follow our guts, and experience what life and human relationships have to offer.  Religion is a lot like that…I shall argue that religion is all about how we experience life and, most especially, how we experience relationships.  Just as we don’t use science when choosing our friends or spouse, very few of us allow science to determine whether or not we are religious.  While that bit of news may be reassuring to some, it is downright maddening to others.

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