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Imaginary Friend

Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:2)

My granddaughter Alex and her little friend Findley are pretending to be princesses. A Brooklyn playscape is their castle, and I am the designated dragon. I duly roar and gnash my teeth and paw at them through the bars of the playscape. I guess I play my part a little too convincingly. “You are a mean dragon!” Alex sternly admonishes. “Be a nice dragon!” So I tone it down a bit. “I’m a hungry dragon,” I explain meekly. “Please may I have a little princess for supper?” My young playmates shriek in unison, “No!” But they do bring me leaves to eat, hoping that the nice dragon might be placated with a vegetarian diet. And so it goes in the land of make-believe.

Some 300,000 years ago there were rapid evolutionary changes in the structure of the human brain, making it possible for the likes of Alex and her friends to engage in imaginative play not seen in other primates or even in earlier hominid species. Neanderthals, who came along at about the same time as modern humans, actually had a larger cranial capacity than we do, but their frontal lobes were much less developed. This is the area of the brain that controls higher cognitive functions, such as symbolic speech, abstract reasoning, and foresight. Embedded in the frontal lobes is the prefrontal cortex, which is what enables modern humans to imagine things that are not immediately present in their sensory experience, like dragons or gods.

Why are gods ubiquitous in human culture? According to some evolutionary biologists, you can explain religion as the inevitable byproduct of those structural changes in the brain that enable us to imagine things that aren’t there. In effect, we believe in God because we are hard-wired to do so. However, there is a certain chicken-and-egg problem that crops up here. Genetic traits, such as enlarged frontal lobes, get passed down because they presumably have a selective advantage in the struggle for survival. But even if there is some eventual survival value in religion and other cultural innovations made possible by enlarged frontal lobes – and that point is debatable – it’s hard to picture how they would help you stave off predators in the meantime. Thousands of generations were required to rewire our brains, and then another 250,000 years elapsed before anatomically modern humans left behind any religious relics or other cultural artifacts that would truly set us apart from our dim-witted Neanderthal cousins. So what were all those beefed-up neurons doing to keep themselves occupied in the meantime?

You can now find T-shirts for sale on the Internet with the slogan, “God is an imaginary friend for adults.” Yet just because imagination is required to conceive of a non-corporeal entity like God, it does not follow that God is imaginary. Much of what we think of today as hard science originated in the imagination, and some of it – notably string theory in particle physics – remains there. Historically, a lot of theories dreamed up by scientists of an earlier age turned out to be laughably incorrect. We may yet discover that string theory, dark matter and multiverses are nothing more than fanciful hypotheses designed to plug holes in our understanding of the natural world. Much the same can be said about our concepts of God, especially when scientific explanations of any sort are hard to come by. Part of our hard-wiring inclines us to ascribe invisible causes to visible effects. Something bad happens, like an earthquake or a terrorist attack, and somebody is sure to tell us that God is punishing us for our sins. As our scientific understanding of the natural world has increased, however, we are less inclined to think of God as some sort of cosmic enforcer. Gradually, the mean dragon gives way to the nice dragon.

For a more sophisticated understanding of God, we would do well to stop thinking of him (or her or it) as merely the product of our imagination and to start looking at the imagination itself. What is it that caused that sudden proliferation of excess brain cells in human evolution that seemingly did so little to ensure the immediate survival of the species? Why, after 250,000 years, did we suddenly shift mental gears and begin ascribing invisible causes to visible effects? How is it that we were suddenly able to envision things that otherwise had no tangible existence? Is not the human imagination itself the very embodiment of what it means to be created in God’s image?

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