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From Biology to Religion
The Emergence of Religion

[Excerpt from a text by Brian COWAN]



I would like to turn my attention to a couple of ways in which the French Jesuit links biology, in general, to religion. Some aspects of reflective existence contributed to this, e.g. bodily death was a factor in the rise of religion. The second has to do with the blurring of the boundaries between science (including the science of biology) and religion. The third relates to Teilhard's assimilating of Christianity to a living phylum. Let's look, one after the other, at these linkages which Teilhard proposes as connections between the biological and the religious.

1. Death and Religion

The fact that we humans have some measure of precognition in relation to the future also permits us to foresee our own deaths. Further, thanks to the discoveries of our astronomers and astrophysicists, we understand that our own sun may well, some five thousand million years hence, arrive at its own end time. And, as part of the process of its demise, that sun will, perhaps, expand into its red giant phase, envelope our globe, and destroy all life on earth. Indeed, unless we are pretty well convinced that our universe is everlasting, we have to face the possibility of the eventual extinction of our cosmos by way, for example, of a "Big Crunch" (the reversal of expansion) or a "Big Whimper" (a prolongation of expansion to the point of a dispersal approaching infinity). 

In the opinion of Teilhard, our prescience of death, be it at the personal, planetary or cosmic level, constitutes a factor in the rise of religion. Why? Well, one of the functions of religion is that of making sense of death. For his part, the French Jesuit finds unacceptable the prospect of an ultimate, total death for humankind, be that death individual or collective. In his view, should we humans, as a whole, ever become persuaded that our destiny, individually and collectively, is inexorably pointing us towards a dead end of total extinction, then terrestrial evolution will come to a standstill. As Teilhard sees it, the human species, confronted with the unavoidable prospect of complete annihilation, would 'realise once and for all that its only course would be to go on strike' (1), to shut down the shop-floor of evolution, so to speak. Why bother, we would ask ourselves, to toil away, pointlessly, at advancing a development that is, in the final analysis, going nowhere except to extinguishment?

'An animal', Teilhard tells us, 'may rush headlong down a blind alley or towards a precipice.' (2) But not so humanity, for 'man will never take a step in a direction he knows to be blocked.' (3) In the opinion of the Auvergnian Jesuit, no human being, having arrived at a certain critical level of awareness, will ever consent to enter the blind alley of ultimate pointlessness or hasten, unthinkingly, towards the precipice of complete annihilation. As Teilhard sees it, one of the functions of religion is to point out to humanity that its efforts are not pointless and that, by way of that part of its make-up which has become spiritualized, humankind does escape extinction, individually and collectively, through the attainment of immortality, or as he sometimes terms it, 'irreversibility' (4). 

For Teilhard, then, in a certain real sense, religion, and its associated grapplings with the problem of death, arise out of biology, out of life, at the reflective level, at the level where life asks itself ultimate questions.

2. The Blurring of Boundaries Between Biology and Religion

Teilhard declines to draw a clear line of demarcation separating science (which includes biology) from religion. Does he not tell us that 'religion and science are the two conjugated faces or phases of one and the same complete act of knowledge'? (5) He also opines that 'there is less difference than people think between research and adoration.' (6) Here he comes very close, it seems to me, to blurring the line that divides scientific research from one of the forms of prayer, that of adoration or worship. [In some theological circles it is held that there are four general kinds of prayer as follows: a) that of adoration or worship; b) that of thanksgiving; c) that of repentance; d) that of petition]

3. Christianity Assimilated to a Living Phylum

Speaking of Christianity, Teilhard states that:

'Biologically, it behaves as a "phylum"; and by biological necessity it must, therefore, have the structure of a phylum; in other words it, it must form a coherent and progressive system of collectively associated spiritual elements.' (7)
And under the rubric of Christianity as a whole, he alludes to his own Roman Catholicism as 'the living organic axis' of the veritable 'religion of tomorrow'. (8) Further, in the eyes of the French Jesuit, 'the Christian phenomenon, historically speaking, is simply the final and central form assumed, following a long and complex phylogenesis, by the persistent emergence at the heart of hominization of the need to worship'. (9)

So, there would seem to be justification for claiming that, from a Teilhardian perspective, biology, in general, tends to introduce itself into precincts traditionally held to be the exclusive preserve of religion


In conclusion, let's review some of the main points put forward in this submission.

1. Only human beings, among all the living forms on the globe experience religious aspirations or as the French Jesuit puts it, "the need to worship".

2. Finally, we noted that, for Teilhard, there is a blurring of the boundaries between biology and religion and that, in his view, Christianity itself behaves like a biological phylum.

(1) 'The Phenomenon of Man' (Fountain Books, 1977), p. 335. 
(2) 'Phenomenon', p. 254. 
(3) 'Phenomenon', p. 254. 
(4) Cf. 'Phenomenon', p. 335. 
(5) 'The Phenomenon of Man' (Fountain Books, 1977), pp. 312-313. 
(6) 'Phenomenon', p. 275. 
(7) 'Introduction to the Christian Life', in 'Christianity and Evolution' (Harvest Book, 1974), p. 168. 
(8) 'Introduction to the Christian Life', in 'Christianity', p. 168.
(9) 'My Fundamental Vision', in 'Toward', p. 189.

Posted 26/3/02 in the Teilhard eGroup - The original text by Brian Cowan - The actual version of the first part of this original text