In our current era of holy terror, passionate faith has come to seem like a present danger. Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have been happy to throw the baby out with the bathwater and declare that the danger is in religion itself. God, Hitchens writes, is not great.But man, according to George E. Vaillant, M.D., is great. In Spiritual Evolution, Dr. Vaillant lays out a brilliant defense not of organized religion but of man's inherent spirituality. Our spirituality, he shows, resides in our uniquely human brain design and in our innate capacity for emotions like love, hope, joy, forgiveness, and compassion, which are selected for by evolution and located in a different part of the brain than dogmatic religious belief. Evolution has made us spiritual creatures over time, he argues, and we are destined to become even more so. Spiritual Evolution makes the scientific case for spirituality as a positive force in human evolution, and he predicts for our species an even more loving future.Vaillant traces this positive force in three different kinds of "evolution": the natural selection of genes over millennia, of course, but also the cultural evolution within recorded history of ideas about the value of human life, and the development of spirituality within the lifetime of each individual. For thirty-five years, Dr. Vaillant directed Harvard's famous longitudinal study of adult development, which has followed hundreds of men over seven decades of life. The study has yielded important insights into human spirituality, and Dr. Vaillant has drawn on these and on a range of psychological research, behavioral studies, and neuroscience, and on history, anecdote, and quotation to produce a book that is at once a work of scientific argument and a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human. Spiritual Evolution is a life's work, and it will restore our belief in faith as an essential human striving.
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May 19, 2008
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Excerpt from Spiritual Evolution by George Vaillant
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, let me sow forgiveness;...
Where there is doubt, let me sow faith;
Where there is despair, let me give hope...
Where there is sadness, let me give joy;
O Master, grant that I may not so much to seek
compassion but to give compassion.
--"The Peace Prayer of St. Francis" attributed to Father Esther Becquerel (1912)
Just as a prism separates white light into a spectrum of discrete colors, so this book separates spirituality into a broad spectrum of positive emotions. By focusing on the positive emotions, I wish to perform for spirituality what the science of nutrition has performed for the world's discordant diets. Just as nutrition identifies the vitamins and the four basic food groups that make other people's peculiar ethnic diets nourishing, so neuroscience, cultural anthropology, and ethology identify the love, community building, and positive emotions that enduring religions have in common.
Here's a true story told by Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist. Traveling by train from Washington to Philadelphia, Dr. Kornfield found himself seated next to the director of a rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders, particularly gang members who had committed homicide.
One fourteen-year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim's mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, "I'm going to kill you." Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.
After the first half year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor [in jail] he'd had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step by step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts. Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend's company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job. Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, "Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?" "I sure do," he replied. "I'll never forget that moment." "Well, I did," she went on. "I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That's why I started to visit you and bring you things. That's why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That's how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he's gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you'll stay here. I've got room, and I'd like to adopt you if you let me." (1) And she became the mother he never had.
Her compassion! Her forgiveness! Where did they come from? We can all identify with the woman's primal growl of "I'm going to kill you." And when, in her living room, she reminded her boarder of what she had said in court, I feared what would come next. But then I was surprised. For Hindu and Jew, for Buddhist and Christian, that moment would have been equally moving, but this story lacked even a hint of "religion." What had happened? Unselfish love had conquered both Darwinian "selfish" genes and Kantian pure reason. The transformative power of positive emotion had interceded.
Positive emotions--not only compassion, forgiveness, love, and hope but also joy, faith/trust, awe, and gratitude--arise from our inborn mammalian capacity for unselfish parental love. They emanate from our feeling, limbic mammalian brain and thus are grounded in our evolutionary heritage. All human beings are hardwired for positive emotions, and these positive emotions are a common denominator of all major faiths and of all human beings.
Thus, this is, in some respects, a revolutionary book. I shall argue that the positive emotions are not just nice to have; they are essential to the survival of Homo sapiens as a species. In Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio, a sensitive clinical neurologist and arguably the wisest student of emotions on the planet, convincingly argues that the mind and the body are one. However, he concludes, "it is difficult to imagine that individuals and societies governed by the seeking of pleasure,