Evolution of Beliefs

(A sermon by L. David Roper at Christ Episcopal Church, Blacksburg VA, 25 Feb 2001)


Two weeks ago our Rector asked me to deliver the sermon today, while the clergy are away at the Diocesan Council Meeting in Roanoke. Putting a sermon together is a difficult exercise in focusing on and clarifying one's beliefs. In trying to do so I saw clearly how much my own beliefs have altered over the years. Therefore, I decided to make the theme of my sermon "The Evolution of Beliefs."

It is not comfortable to admit that our beliefs evolve with time. Such admission requires us to accept that important things, things that we may have thought were fixed, do change. I ask each of you to examine with me how your religious beliefs have evolved throughout your lives and think about how they might evolve in the future.

I was raised in a Southern-Baptist farm family in northwest Oklahoma. Life was mostly hard labor on the farm, school and at least three services a week at the church. I was taught strong moral principles in church and at home, but I do not remember strong pressures to follow a strict list of religious beliefs.

In college I learned to question some of the beliefs I had been taught in church as a child. My beliefs evolved rapidly during my college years.

I regularly attended church while in graduate school, where I met people from many backgrounds who helped me grow in the evolution of my beliefs.

While in graduate school I began work on the genealogy of my families to gain knowledge of my ancestry. This eventually led me to know more about the early Anglican churches in England and colonial Virginia where my ancestors attended.

I continued to be very active in Baptist churches until about a year before I arrived in Blacksburg in 1967 to join the Physics Department at Virginia Tech.

After several years of not attending church, I began to visit Anglican churches in England where my ancestors had attended. That helped me develop a greater respect for the traditions that have been handed down for centuries in the Christian church; most of which I had not experienced in my church upbringing.

When I fell in love with my wife, Jeanne, who is a long-time member of Christ Church, I immediately began enjoying the traditional character of the Anglican services with her here. I regard the Anglican rites not only as excellent opportunities for meditation, but also as a way to connect with my ancestors. I quickly developed an affinity for the respect that existed in the membership of Christ Church for the wide spectrum of beliefs in its membership. I had found a church home again.

Eventually, I quit attending Christ Church because I thought the emphasis on the Bible was too much.

I regard myself as a Secular Humanist or a Rational Humanist. One can be moral without a religious belief.

Evolution of Beliefs

Prominent societal beliefs evolve with time because some brave individuals evolve their beliefs first, becoming a vanguard. Certainly Jesus was one of the greatest catalysts for the evolution of religious beliefs. It is obvious that individual beliefs are greatly influenced by the prominent beliefs in a society, and society puts constraints on how fast individuals can evolve in their beliefs. I think that we live in a time when individuals, at least in this country, are freer to evolve their own beliefs, even if they are divergent from the society's prominent beliefs, than ever before in the past.

Beliefs evolve because minds mature and because knowledge and understanding increases. I have heard it said that some people evolve away from their youthful beliefs in middle age and then return to them in old age. I don't think that this is the case for most people.

When humans are in an era of rapidly evolving beliefs, some often cling tenaciously to old beliefs out of fear of the new beliefs; some even try to force others to hold on to the old beliefs.

I am not going to tell you the details of how my beliefs have changed since my youth. It's enough to say that my beliefs have greatly changed and continue to evolve. My wife and I often have animated discussions about our beliefs, which evolved from different starting points (her Catholic and my Baptist upbringing) to different points now. I am sure that those discussions are not yet finished.

Christians and other people of faith have had trouble adjusting their beliefs to emerging knowledge and understanding in the past, the troubles often lasting many generations. The historical studies of Jesus in the last few decades have surely caused beliefs to evolve. The globalization of commerce has surely caused beliefs to evolve as people of different religions and cultures have increased their interactions. We are still in the generations adjusting to the increasing knowledge and understanding of evolution in geology and biology, which exploded on the world in the nineteenth century. It is refreshing that our church can sponsor discussions on evolution, as we have just done in our forums, without controversy.

Christians and other people of faith are facing what undoubtedly will be traumatic belief-evolving experiences in the near future. How can Christians cope with such challenges to their beliefs? By evolving in their beliefs, as they have done before.

I will concentrate on five of the many possible challenges to Christian beliefs that I think will be important in the next few decades:

  1. The discovery and understanding of the role of genes in helping to determine the behavior of humans, especially religious behavior.
  2. The discovery and understanding of the role of electrical impulses and chemical actions in the human brain as determinants of human behavior.
  3. Development of theories of human consciousness based on increasing knowledge of the brain and the nature of intelligence.
  4. The development of composite humans made of parts of other humans, other animals and other materials, particularly the parts associated with intellect.
  5. The development of man-made intelligent entities that have characteristics that appear human and perhaps super-human.

One certainly belief-evolving discovery would be the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligent entities. Even though I constantly dedicate large amounts of computing power to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, I will not discuss it today. One reason is that a recent book, Rare Earth, has convinced me that the probability of the existence of such entities is much lower than previously thought.

The Religious Impulse

Why is it that religious beliefs are prevalent in every culture? Surely it is because much happens that is inexplicable and fantastic to the human mind; beliefs help human minds fill in the gaps in knowledge and understanding. Many researchers are studying the nature of the religious impulse by several different methods.

Some human genes have been discovered that to some degree determine and regulate various aspects of human behavior, and more will be discovered in the near future. I have no doubt that genes will be discovered that are explicitly connected to human religious impulses, now that the human genome has been mapped.

Several researchers who study the human brain have found an area in the front of the brain that can be stimulated by electrodes and/or chemicals to make a person act and proclaim to be more "religious" than otherwise. (Unfortunately, some have called the area the "God spot" or "God module.") One team studying this area of the brain stated "There may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion. This may have evolved to impose order and stability on society." One Anglican bishop said "It would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief."

Some who study the religious impulse in humans think that evolution favors survival for individuals who have a belief in a God or gods and in some kind of a life after death, because one is more likely to persevere through life's difficulties if one believes in a higher being and in an after life.

It is now possible to think about mapping in detail the neuron cells and synaptic cell connections in a human brain. The National Institutes of Health have formed a National Neural Circuitry Database to collect such information. This project is much more difficult than the genome-mapping project. Obviously, the brain is not present in every cell of the body, as is the genome. There is as yet no automated machinery for doing the mapping as there is for the genome, and brain structure changes greatly throughout an individual's life, depending on the environment; whereas, the genome changes very little in a lifetime. And the mapping needs to be nondestructive!

When some human brains are finally mapped, it will be interesting to learn how parts of a genome map correlate with a brain map; this will help to understand better the classical nature-nurture problem in psychology.

If and when brain mapping occurs, we can expect an explosion in knowledge and understanding of how the brain, along with the environment, determines human behavior, including the expression of religious beliefs.

How will our religious beliefs evolve when we understand better how electrical impulses or chemical actions or some damage in certain places in the brain can cause certain religious beliefs?


What is consciousness? The major difficulty in answering this question is undoubtedly due to the fact that the human mind is trying to understand itself.

There are many researchers who are working diligently to try to develop an understanding of consciousness in terms of human brain processes. Some are trying to show that an entity is conscious when its logical processes and memory become powerful enough to create and maintain a complex model of itself.

Perhaps the human brain does not have enough computing power to understand its own complexity.

We may be able to augment human minds to have a higher level of consciousness or construct entities that display what appears to be human consciousness in the future. There is the possibility that such augmented human minds or intelligent entities created by man may be able to help us understand consciousness.

How will our beliefs evolve if and when an understanding of consciousness becomes well developed?

Composite Humans

The current practice, called bionics, of using parts from some humans or man-made parts to put in other humans is going to expand greatly. There was much excitement in the early days of heart transplants and artificial hearts, I think because of the vital role the heart plays in life.

What do you think will be the effect on peoples' beliefs when brain modifications become widespread? The following remarkable fact may affect you in a way that will give you some idea of what that effect may be: In 1970 a monkey head was taken from one monkey and put on another and it lived eight days with some normal functions intact. The team that did this is planning a similar transplant for a human in the future. I cringed when I first read about this event. However we and others initially react to such an event, I think that the long-term consequences of events such as this will be to change peoples' beliefs about the nature of the mind.

Already there are neural implants to control Parkinson's disease and to help paralyzed individuals do some physical tasks. One researcher has used electronic-chip implants to try to control his emotions.

My wife has a terrific memory, especially about things I would rather she did not remember. I look forward to having a man-made memory module connected to my brain, so that I can have a larger fraction of the memory that she has. I have seen claims that I will be able to get my memory implant by 2020, maybe too late.

Perhaps it will require such an augmented human mind in order that the human mind can eventually understand itself.

These kinds of developments will surely cause evolution in beliefs.

Spiritual Machines and Transcendant Minds

In two recent books, The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil and Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind by Hans Moravec, the theme is that it will not be long before entities created by man, which some call "artilects" or "machina sapiens," will be indistinguishable from humans as far as intelligence and proclaimed consciousness are concerned, and possibly will even exceed humans in these characteristics that we have always regarded as distinctly human.

An important feature of such artilects will be their ability to exchange information rapidly with each other, much faster than human brains are able to do. This will allow much faster growth in the artilects' knowledge and understanding than for humans, and thus cause rapid growth in the artilects' capabilities.

Perhap such super-intelligent entities will teach us finally how to understand our own minds.

An increasing number of the people who follow closely the work to create intelligent entities are sounding alarms about the possibility of such artilects eventually turning humans into their servants, if not their slaves. They urge societal controls to keep that from happening. Others regard this as a natural and inevitable continuation of evolution on earth.

The same reasons given in the book Rare Earth for the low probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe also can be argued against the long-term existence of intelligent entities created by humans. Artilects cannot come back into existence until long after biological intelligent entities come back after all are destroyed by earth-wide natural disasters, such as a huge comet's collision with earth. Such disasters cause most species to become extinct and have a nasty history of happening on the earth every fifty million years or so. (The last really big one formed Chesapeake Bay about thirty-five million years ago.) Civilization-destroying asteroid or comet collisions, which would surely be disastrous for artilects, occur every million years or so. So even if Artilects make us biological beings their slaves, we will have our days in the sun again a few million years later.

How will our beliefs evolve if and when such super-intelligent entities are created?


Are there some general principles about how to guide the evolution of our beliefs in the future? I think that, for most people, if they are to be emotionally stable, their beliefs must be rationally consistent with the knowledge that they have about the universe. Beyond that I think we can use Christian moral principles as a guide.

I end with the tradition of sermons borrowing material from other sermons by quoting a sermon, called On the Nature of Belief, by Jim Dollar, minister of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Greensboro NC:

All beliefs are not "created equal." Thus, we might wonder how we might determine what "ought to be" believed? What basis would we use for deciding whether one belief was better than another? ...

The only method I can imagine for evaluating beliefs is in terms of whether, and to what extent, they "work." And by "work" I mean the capacity of a belief to enable us to live better lives. And by "better" I mean lives that are good for us and those around us. And by "good" I mean what cultivates "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22). ...

So, in deciding what we "should" believe, we might say that we "should" believe those things which assist us in living lives we can be proud of; which allow us to live lives that are sources of good upon the earth; which guide us in the ways of justice, righteousness, compassion, and peace; which promote neighborliness and good will; which make wherever we are a good place to be. This means that there is no way of knowing if our beliefs are true or not. We cannot verify our beliefs; we can only believe them and live in light of them, shaping them, and being shaped by them, through the events and circumstances of our lives, toward ends that we believe to be good.