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Spirituality and Evolution

Spirituality and Evolution

George E. Vaillant, M.D., in his book, “Spiritual Evolution”, has a most interesting take on religion and spirituality, positioning them in different parts of the brain, and emphasizing six positive emotions as the basis of spirituality. 

He situates religious doctrine and beliefs in the neocortex – the most recently evolved part of the brain – and the spiritual impulse hard-wired into the ancient limbic system – our so-called “heart” where emotions and instinct are located.

Basis of spirituality

SpiritualityGiven that we humans are such social beings, I am quite taken with his view of spirituality as “our biological press for connection and community building”. The positive emotions of faith, love, hope, joy, forgiveness, and compassion form the basis of spirituality and provide a common thread among diverse religions. Vaillant believes that these six emotions involve human connection and enabled our species to survive over the long term.

Religion and spirituality

Religions around the world link the spiritual and secular life, promoting the idea of doing good for others, presumably inspired by feelings of these positive emotions. Religion can help to keep these “prosocial emotions” in our consciousness, often through prayer.

Vaillant points out that religions based on joy and positive emotions help to cement human connection and are long-lived; religions based on “emotional incarceration” and control tend to be short-lived.

For others, the path to greater spirituality may be through such practices as mindfulness and meditation. Our challenge in today’s world is to pay more attention to, and bring greater awareness to, these positive emotions in whatever way works best for people.

Spiritual evolution

Vaillant speaks of genetic, cultural, and individual evolution, and asks what the purpose is of these positive emotions. He proposes that our genetically determined hard-wiring for these emotions enabled humans to survive by relying on each other, as nurtured by these feelings.

For example, of love he says, “In short, humans have survived by sophisticated social bonding – characterized by unconditional attachment, forgiveness, gratitude, and affectionate eye contact.” Faith “involves basic trust that the world has meaning and that loving-kindness exists”; hope “reflects our ability to imagine a realistic positive future”; and joy “is part of the bonding process” and the “primary neural reward system dedicated to separation and return.”

Vaillant also refers to cultural evolution of spirituality, urging us as society to attend to and nurture these positive emotions. As Vaillant says, spirituality today “reflects limbic questions about love, community, positive emotions, and the feeling of “being one with the universe”. He also points out that individuals tend to become more spiritual as they age, and we experience these positive emotions more often.

Certainly this has been my own experience, and it reinforces the idea of aging well. What do you think of Vaillant’s ideas? What role do these positive emotions, based on social connection, play in your life? And check out Is Your Spirit Shining Through? 


Reference: George E. Vaillant. 2008. Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. Broadway Books, New York, 238 pp.

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