By F. LeRon Shults
Where do babies come from? Why do parents keep them around? Although they may embarrass or annoy some of the adults to which they are directed, these are quite natural questions for children to ask. As the oldest of six, I had five rather obvious opportunities to pose them – and I learned over time that it was best to curb my curiosity about human reproduction in certain contexts. I did eventually get a straightforward answer and, as the father of three grown children, I have now had multiple opportunities to explain, maturely and directly, that infants appear in human populations as a result of, well, the same basic procedures that, well… you know.
Now, where did baby Jesus come from? At first blush, this appears to be another quite natural question. But in this case, children get a very different – supernatural – sort of answer:
Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity!
Seriously? Many atheists find it difficult to understand how so many of their adult friends and neighbors can believe that about two millennia ago a Virgin was visited by an ambiguous spiritual presence that “overshadowed” and “came upon” her (Luke 1:35), leading to the birth of a supernatural baby who would reveal a divine plan for ruling the world. Even relatively liberal Christians, who do not take the gynecological and cosmological aspects of the story literally, still typically believe that the man Jesus was in some sense the “Son of God” who disclosed the true meaning and goal of human life.
From the point of view of the bio-cultural sciences that study the evolution of religion, however, this is not so difficult to understand. In fact, the concept of “Christ” is just the sort of minimally counter-intuitive idea that scholars in fields like cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, archaeology and anthropology would expect to find widely shared among members of a religious in-group. We have to start by asking a different sort of question:
Where do gods come from – and why do people keep them around?
Scientists now have answers to these questions about religious reproduction that are as plausible as the answers to questions about sexual reproduction.
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