Skip to main content


Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith

Vaillant, George E.  Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith (Three Rivers Press, 2008).

Excerpt from Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith                                                                


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.” 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, as much as or more than by the avoidance of pain, can survive at all.” If readers will permit me to define pleasure as the result of positive emotion rather than mere hedonism, then Damasio is in error. This book summarizes scientific evidence—gathered over the fourteen years that have elapsed since Damasio made his assertion—suggesting that positive emotions are very important indeed. As noted in chapter 6, by the year 2003 Damasio too had softened his position.

As the twenty-first century begins, a great many people—especially in the English-speaking world—are in search of some kind of common spiritual ground. On the one hand, increasing education and intolerance for patriarchal dogma have led to steady erosion in membership in most mainstream religions. On the other hand, this shift toward secularism has been offset by an equally steady increase in fundamentalist religions that isolate their believers from the rest of the world. As a result, contemporary culture holds no universally accepted view of human nature. If the world is going to function as one small planet, the development of some kind of consensus regarding human nature is essential. That consensus should include the recognition that human nature is more than a bunch of "selfish" genes.

Recently, I tentatively began to discuss spirituality with a close friend of mine, a brilliant woman and a devout Episcopalian to boot. “When I hear the word 'spirituality,'” she exploded, “I break out in spots!” I was surprised to hear her voice her sentiment so strongly, but to her spirituality was no more than illusion. The problem, of course, is that the word “spirituality” has many meanings. While spirituality is both the source and the outgrowth of faith for many people, for just as many others it is considered suspect. For them, spirituality is equated with the occult and with bogus faith healers; it brings to mind reincarnation, telepathy, crystals, angels, and tarot cards. To others, spirituality can appear as nothing more than covert narcissism and a new-age mandate to follow your bliss. I believe these mind-sets to be terribly mistaken.

True, we may have trouble defining spirituality, but we all know and admire it when we see it. Let me mention three men who would be on most people’s list of spiritual exemplars. For reasons embedded in our evolving genes, it is likely that the behaviors of three forgiving and compassionate leaders, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi, will remain in memory and continue to shape human behavior.

This book defines spirituality as the amalgam of the positive emotions that bind us to other human beings--and to our experience of “God” as we may understand Her/Him. Love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, faith, awe, and gratitude are the spiritually important positive emotions addressed here. I have omitted from the list four other positive emotions—excitement, contentment, hilarity, and a sense of mastery—because we can feel these latter four emotions alone on a desert island. In sharp contrast, the eight positive emotions that I have selected all involve human connection. None of the eight are “all about me.”

Negative emotions such as fear and anger are also inborn and are of tremendous importance. Dedicated to individual survival, the negative emotions are “all about me.” In contrast, positive emotions have the potential to free the self from the self. We feel both the emotions of vengeance and of forgiveness deeply, but the long-term results of these two emotions are very different. Negative emotions are often crucial for survival—but only in time present. The positive emotions are more expansive and help us to broaden and build. They widen our tolerance, expand our moral compass, and enhance our creativity. They help us to survive in time future. Careful experiments document that while negative emotions narrow attention and miss the forest for the trees, positive emotions, especially joy, make thought patterns more flexible, creative, integrative, and efficient.  In the example of the mother and her son’s killer, positive emotion led to a remarkable expansion in the lives of each. In contrast, negative emotions like disgust and despair freeze us in our tracks. When we are frightened, angry, or depressed, it is hard to create or to learn new things.

The effect of positive emotion on the autonomic (visceral) nervous system has much in common with the relaxation response to meditation popularized by Harvard professor of medicine Herbert Benson. In contrast to the metabolic and cardiac arousal that the fight-or-flight response of negative emotion induces in our sympathetic autonomic nervous system, positive emotion via our parasympathetic nervous system reduces basal metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscle tension.



←  Go back                                                  Next page