The Body of Faith: A Biological History of Religion in America

The Body of Faith: A Biological History of Religion in America

by Robert C. Fuller


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The Body of Faith: A Biological History of Religion in America by Robert C. Fuller

The postmodern view that human experience is constructed by language and culture has informed historical narratives for decades. Yet newly emerging information about the biological body now makes it possible to supplement traditional scholarly models with insights about the bodily sources of human thought and experience.

The Body of Faith is the first account of American religious history to highlight the biological body. Robert C. Fuller brings a crucial new perspective to the study of American religion, showing that knowledge about the biological body deeply enriches how we explain dramatic episodes in American religious life. Fuller shows that the body’s genetically evolved systems—pain responses, sexual passion, and emotions like shame and fear—have persistently shaped the ways that Americans forge relationships with nature, to society, and to God.

The first new work to appear in the Chicago History of American Religion series in decades, The Body of Faith offers a truly interdisciplinary framework for explaining the richness, diversity, and endless creativity of American religious life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226025087
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2013
Series: Chicago History of American Religion Series
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Robert C. Fuller is the Caterpillar Professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University. Fuller has published a dozen books, including Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality, and Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience.

Read an Excerpt

The Body of Faith

A Biological History of Religion in America

By Robert C. Fuller


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02508-7



History's Body

Evolution has provided us with adapted bodies and brains that allow us to accommodate to, and even transform, our surroundings.

Linguistic philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Religion is the process by which individuals are persuaded to subordinate their personal immediate self-interests to the interests of the group.

Biologist E. O. Wilson

Where does the history of American religion begin? With the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock? With the rise of Puritanism in England? With the Protestant Reformation? With the Native Americans who inhabited the continent for centuries before the first European settlers arrived?

Identifying a starting point for historical narratives is actually quite easy. Historical beginnings become obvious once we know what kind of story we want to tell. Most histories of religion in the United States try to explain the arrival and subsequent transformations of European Christianity. They subsequently begin with a "European prologue" outlining the theological rationale motivating the continent's earliest settlers to found a new Zion in the west. This, however, is a story about the religion born of Americans' biological bodies. Its starting point is therefore the emergence of the human species in the grand scheme of evolution. Seen in this context, all of human history is the record of our efforts to further life's creative impulse. Our bodies are designed to survive, to express themselves creatively, and to transmit life into the future. They are, therefore, agents of life-enhancing faith. The body's faith is a hopeful presumption that the universe is amenable to the impulse of life. The body's faith operates through the many complex mechanisms distributed throughout our bodies, including humanity's imaginative powers for making and unmaking the world to best ensure our biological well-being. Religion is the quintessential expression of humanity's capacity for imaginatively constructing its world. Religious history must therefore begin with the story of how our bodies acquired these remarkable capacities.

American religious history thus begins with the history of our biological bodies. Knowing something about the history of our biological bodies will put us in a position to address some of the interesting puzzles in the early years of American religion. We might wonder, for example, why did Europeans undertake the hardships of an ocean voyage to start their lives all over again in the American colonies? How do we explain Native Americans' fascination with the invisible powers they believed suffuse the realm of nature? How did the African slave population, forcibly bound and transported to America against its will, develop forms of spirituality befitting its new surroundings? These are riveting questions and scholars have already shed a great deal of light on these important themes in the early years of American religious life. Yet attention to biological knowledge promises to take us at least one more step toward an understanding of the patterns of our religious thought, feeling, and behavior. After all, Americans have never been born into the world as blank slates simply awaiting the cultural environment to shape their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. They have come into the world with genetically encoded bodily systems that enable them to identify and pursue their many needs, hopes, and desires. The rich history of American religious life thus has its roots in the history of these bodily systems.

The Body's History

Humans did not arrive on this planet in a historical or biological vacuum. We are the products of a long evolutionary history that has spawned the vast web of life existing on earth today. This historical process has been marked by ceaseless change and transformation. New species come into existence. Some become extinct. Most modify over time. Biological existence is a dynamic process, creating and improvising as it goes along.

It was Charles Darwin who first educed the fundamental laws that have shaped this long historical process. As a young man, Darwin read the writings of the British economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus had developed the rather pessimistic thesis that because the human population was growing at an exponential rate, we would eventually outstrip available food supplies. He saw no way of avoiding widespread famine unless population growth was curbed by war, disease, or "moral restraint." Darwin was intrigued by Malthus's argument because he had observed that most populations of animals and plants are in fact fairly stable. It became obvious to him that many more individuals are born in any species than ultimately survive. He reasoned that the survivors must possess some characteristics that permit them to make use of the limited resources at their disposal, while other members of the species, lacking these same characteristics, simply die. Darwin further concluded that the survivors then pass these survival-oriented characteristics on to their offspring. In the meantime, those organisms that lack these characteristics will have fewer or even no offspring. If this process repeats itself for even a few generations, the entire species will be transformed.

Darwin's genius was revealed in his uncannily precise explanation of how this competition between organisms drives the evolutionary process. As he put it,

Owing to this struggle, variations, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if they be in any degree profitable to the individuals of a species, in their infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to their physical conditions of life, will tend to the preservation of such individuals, and will generally be inherited by the offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection.

Darwin's contribution to biological science was this delineation of the two principal factors that influence the change and development of living things: variation and natural selection. Unfortunately, Darwin lived a few decades too early to be able to understand just why and how variations occur. He knew that variations occur but could only guess at "from whatever cause proceeding." It was the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel who later pioneered the modern science that explains how variations arise in the genetic code that transmits life. The scientific study of genetics has completed the Darwinian revolution in our understanding of nature's ceaseless transformations. We now know that accidental alterations sometimes occur when a DNA sequence is being replicated. The most common type of alteration is called a "point mutation," which happens during replication when one or more nucleotides are substituted for others in the original sequence, or when one or more nucleotides are added or deleted from that original sequence. This spontaneous variation in genetic codes is commonly called a mutation. Mutations occur randomly. They are completely a matter of chance. It is also important to understand that mutations are essentially a disordering process and occur wholly irrespective of whether they are harmful or beneficial to the organism that inherits these altered genetic codes.

Some changes in the genetic code may be so slight that they neither impair nor improve the organism's ability to function within its environment. These changes will then be passed to subsequent generations and impart additional variety among members of that species. In many other instances, changes in the genetic code can lead to serious malformation of the organism inheriting the changed DNA and thus impair both its ability to function within its environment and its ability to produce offspring. These genetic mutations will then disappear with the individual organism in which they appeared. Occasionally, however, a newly risen mutation may alter the organism's development in such a way as to enhance its ability to adapt successfully to the environment. Genetic variations are more likely to be adaptive when organisms colonize a new habitat, or when environmental changes present a population with new challenges. In these cases the population is less than optimally adapted to its surroundings, and there is greater opportunity for new mutations to be adaptive.

Natural selection is the process whereby originally random and accidental genetic changes are either "selected for" or "selected against" by the larger environment. Darwin wrote that "natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations, rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life." Natural selection screens out genetic codes that impair an organism's ability to compete successfully for limited resources. Alternatively, natural selection favors genetic codes that promote the adaptation of a species to its environment. What is often called "Darwinian fitness" refers to an organism's ability to survive and even flourish by taking maximum advantage of the resources within its environment.

From the standpoint of natural selection, biological fitness is measured by a species' ability to survive and successfully generate offspring. Biological fitness is a quality that is specific to each species. Thus, for example, an ant is every bit as "fit" as a human in terms of adaptation to the environmental challenges it must surmount en route to successfully generating offspring. For this reason some species have existed with the same genetic structure for over eighty million years. Natural selection, or the "survival of the fittest" as it is sometimes called, does not necessarily require continuing change in every species. What natural selection does require is that every species possess biological structures that ensure survival and procreation.

The "struggle for survival" needn't entail combative struggles in the sense of one species or individual doing battle with another (although it might include this). This struggle is instead about a species' ability to accomplish such things as making efficient use of available food, caring for its young, eliminating intragroup discord, and controlling the destructive consequences of unrestrained aggression. In humans, for example, natural selection has favored many cognitive and behavioral traits that promote social cooperation. It follows that natural selection should be thought of not only in a negative way (e.g., eliminating inferior gene groups) but also in terms of its positive function of favoring genetic codes that enhance a species' ongoing adaptation to its environment. In this sense natural selection might be called creative. For even though mutations are themselves "blind" in the sense of being chance alterations with no foresight of their consequences, natural selection represents the cumulative trend of changes tending toward a species' improved relations with the surrounding world.

It is important to highlight the fact that evolutionary change occurs in the genetic code existing within populations and not in the acquired behaviors exhibited by individuals. Characteristics and traits acquired during an organism's lifetime have no influence on the genetic code that will be transmitted to offspring. From a strictly biological point of view, the individual is ephemeral. It is DNA that lasts over time. Biologist Edward O. Wilson put this in stark terms when he pointed out that the individual organism is simply a mechanism enabling DNA to make more DNA. Our genetic codes construct individual organisms that are programmed to survive and to reproduce. Individual organisms are genetically encoded to perform very specific biological functions that are designed to perpetuate these genetic codes to the next generation. In this sense our biological bodies are agents of faith. That is, they possess rich suites of genetically encoded instructions all designed for carrying forward the impulse of life. Our bodies reach out into the world hoping to ensure the ongoing transmission of the creative sequence stretching all the way back to the moment of cosmic creation.

The Human Brain: Rendering the World Actable

The genetic variations that drive biological evolution occur in random, capricious ways. There is thus no overall goal or purpose to evolution per se. Natural selection does not direct evolution toward any particular organism or toward any particular properties. Yet even though there is no direction to evolution as a whole, each species has emerged through a succession of mutations that have enabled it to thrive in its own ecological niche. What seems to best characterize the direction of evolution leading to the human species is the gradual emergence of a complex suite of neural structures coordinated by an unprecedentedly sophisticated cerebral cortex.

Humanity's cerebral cortex permits greater flexibility in responding to the environment than can be discerned in any other species. To be sure, humans have inherited a massive array of genetically encoded behavioral tendencies. We have more, not fewer, emotions and instincts than other animals. Yet what is biologically unique to us is that our cerebral cortex makes it possible to override some instinctual responses to environmental stimuli and to substitute other responses instead. In short, we have some measure of cognitive control over our behavior. We can think hypothetically, envision two or more possible behavioral strategies and select from among these that which seems most likely to serve our interests. To this extent the human brain is "plastic" or malleable. Because our brains are not exclusively controlled by the information encoded in our genes, they require extrasomatic sources of information. Culture supplements our genetic codes in ways that make possible systems for gathering or processing information that far exceed their strictly biological foundations.

What makes human behavior so distinct from that of other species is that in humans, genes have given away most of their sovereignty to culture. That is, human behavior is often patterned more by structures outside the body (culture) than structures inside the body (genes). The significance of this fact can hardly be overstated. Culture adds a new dimension to the historical development of life on earth. Nothing in the previous history of life on this planet even remotely compares to human culture in terms of its rapid ability to invent new forms of life (roughly analogous to mutations) and immediately test them for their capacity to enhance life (roughly analogous to natural selection). Whereas acquired characteristics are irrelevant to biological evolution, the species' development peculiar to humans operates directly by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, knowledge, and learned activities. This explains why individuals and their personal achievements have such historical significance for humans compared to any other species. The specific behaviors of other individual animals have no long-lasting influence on their species. Yet, because of the role of culture in shaping human behavior, individual humans can affect significant changes in subsequent generations' mode of living. The causal role of culture also explains why it is impossible to interpret complex human phenomena such as religion on a strictly biological basis. The continuum connecting genetic and environmental factors that influence human behavior is a particularly subtle one, making generalizations difficult to come by.

It is important to understand the brain—including its capacity to create cultural environments—in an evolutionary and biological perspective. Natural selection shaped the brain to coordinate adaptive behavior. Most of this activity is unconscious in the sense that it is performed without an individual's awareness. We breathe, digest food, fight off infections, and execute habitual behaviors with no deliberate mental effort. Every act of perception involves selective attention, the labeling of sensory data, and cognitive categorization that all occur without conscious awareness. Every human possesses a host of cognitive structures that automatically and unconsciously enrich conception by shaping sensory stimuli into patterns that make inference and expectation possible. We aren't typically conscious of such mental activities unless we encounter situations that are sufficiently novel or complex that neither instinct nor acquired habit is able to guide us automatically toward the correct adaptive behavior. It is in these situations that we become aware of our brain's role in both constructing and selecting between hypothetical strategies. Yet whether conscious or unconscious, the biological purpose of mental activity is to guide behavior in ways that maximally adapt us to our surroundings.

Excerpted from The Body of Faith by Robert C. Fuller. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One: History’s Body
Chapter Two: Incorporating a Civill Body Politick
Chapter Three: Sectarian Sensibilities
Chapter Four: The Varieties of Emotional Experience
Chapter Five: Pain and the Creative Imagination
Chapter Six: Passion, Devotion, and Religious Transformation
Chapter Seven: Denominational Bodies, Individual Postures
Chapter Eight: The Body of Twenty-First-Century Faith

Afterword: Historiography in the Twenty-First Century


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