The Root Of Religion?

There has been a lot of research in recent years as to why we like to believe in religion, and where it came from in the first place. A lot of theories have been suggested, and there’s probably an element of truth to all of them. Plus of course, there’s our deep-seated fear of the unknown, especially death. We are so afraid of death that we desperately want to believe that we don’t actually die, a desire that religion fulfils in our minds. And before we had science to explain the true nature of reality, religion provided us with an explanation for the way the world is, however fanciful it may have been. The discussion we had after my last post, however, leads to another possible idea as to the origin of religion—surely not the only reason religion came about, but quite possibly a very important one.

As social animals, human beings are biologically programmed to co-operate with and care for each other, as it enhances our chances of survival, both as individuals and as a species. This is actually the origin of the moral sense that religious people have such a hard time understanding without God, but which is in reality a very simple and logical consequence of our evolutionary history. But like all animals, however, we also have a selfish survival instinct, particularly when resources are limited. This naturally leads to tribalism—we tend to form groups that are large enough to give us what we need to survive, but not so large that we run out of resources. Of course, just how big that group can be depends on how efficiently we are able to use the resources available to us, hence technology has led to an increasingly globalised society. But at the time the holy books of most of the world’s major religions were written, tribalism was rife, as our ability to utilise resources was indeed limited.

It is very clear that religion is both a cause and effect of tribalism—religion serves to reinforce the social cohesion within a particular tribe, as well as reinforcing the separation from other tribes with a different religion. This idea is nothing new. However, what may be a new idea (as far as I am aware) is that religion helps to resolve the conflict between our selfish and co-operative survival instincts. Even when we kill somebody from another tribe, we still experience natural feelings of guilt, as our co-operative instinct comes into play. Religion, however, provides us with a moral justification to kill anyone from another tribe, which allows us to overcome the guilt that our biological instincts would make us feel otherwise. In other words, religion is not only a leading cause of war, it actually helps us to wage war in the first place (even if that war isn’t strictly for religious reasons), by providing us with a moral justification for it. Hence, not only is religion completely unnecessary to explain human morality, it is actually one of the best explanations for human immorality, especially at a group level.

This is yet another reason why I cannot accept the religious moderate view that we would still have all these wars and do all these awful things without religion anyway. Once again, religion gives these things both credibility and moral justification, and that has got to make a huge difference to how we can get into a situation where large groups of people are willing to kill and/or harm others. On top of all that, we have the problem that the suspension of rationality and morality that religion allows can also lead us to harm those who are close to us, or even ourselves. And that is to say nothing of the fact that most of our holy books actually directly and clearly advocate murder and violence as well.

It is a mark of the progress of civilisation that the tribalism that religion facilitated—as well as all the other purposes religion once served—are now obsolete in the face of science and technological advancement. But the psychological power of religion remains as strong as ever, which means it is now not only obsolete, but actually a direct threat to the continued existence of modern civilisation.

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Sachiko: You are indeed the thinking man’s glamour model, and I have a link to you on my own blog!

Karl Marx obviously put his finger on something. Religion has been an opiate and an obstacle to almost all liberation movements, one that has been harnessed (usually by dominant elites, sometimes by new movements), to mobilize support and resistance. Of course, Marx was too deterministic and reductionist in thinking of it purely in class terms. Edward De Bono, in his book The Happiness Purpose, proposes a humanistic alternative to traditional religion, which he says evolved over centuries in order to help the great majority of humankind to cope with the generally miserable conditions they had to endure.

There are a couple of cautionary points that need to be made, however. The first comes from the very evolutionary perspective that you have articulated. If we are “hard-wired” biologically for religion or religious-like belief systems, then removing God in the name of Enlightenment will simply create a vacuum for secular ideology–the very thing that we have witnessed in the worst excesses of the French Revolution, communism, fascism and Nazism. If that is the case, the danger always exists that we may end up being no better off.

Second, atheists should always be prepared to turn their skepticism on themselves. Might there not be a spiritual world beyond our senses, that nonetheless “exists”, perhaps a parallel universe? Are we always better off with the arid theories of academic philosophers than with moralities and ethics that have evolved through practice over centuries? Even if expulsion from the Garden of Eden is explained in psychoanalytic terms as expulsion from the womb, why not honour that truth with a “story”? Why not look for the truth that traditional pre-scientific stories and histories contain? And if atheism hardens into an absolute and intolerant “belief” system, doesn’t it risk lapsing into self-contradiction?

  
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Mark asks “Might there not be a spiritual world beyond our senses..”

not sure about the ‘beyond our senses’ but from experience (mushrooms ;-) ) I’d say yes, all life on Earth (“Gaia” to some) is somehow connected spiritually.

my belief is that the established religions are exploiting this sense/feeling, explaining IMO our relative willingness to succumb to religious “leadership”.

that said I think your “cautionary points” are well made.

on a different note, perhaps we need a better word than “atheist”. why should we define our point of view in the terms defined by ‘theists’?

  
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Religion: from the Latin “ligio,” meaning to link, and “re-” meaning backward.
Thus “religion” is a method of linking backward to our ancestors through a culture of common myths, which are designed to explain the inexplicable.
In that sense I have no problem with anyone else’s “religion,” since it becomes apparent, at least to me, that there is no such thing as “the one true religion.” I think that all myths contain a certain amount of symbolic truth about the great mysteries of life and death, which are congruent given the context of a particular culture. Conflict arises when we view another culture as “strange,” and “the other,” and can therefore demonize them as “Satan” (quite literally, “the other” in ancient Semetish languages).
Otherwise, we’re dealing with the question of whether the moral impulse to “good” is innate or not. I think we’d all like to believe, along with Christopher Hitchins in “God Is Not Great,” that the moral impulse is innately human. Then someone like Charles Manson or Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin comes along to remind us that it’s not. My point is that each individual case is just that: an individual case, and we have to be responsible for the choices that we make and their consequences. I’m not sure that’s always a function of “morality,” although we like to make it so after the fact as a form of self-justification.
I think it’s much more pertinent to examine how the “righteous” become “self-righteous” and wind up twisting the prevailing “values” to their own ends. After all, demagogues have been with us at least from the time of Alcibiades, a good 3,000 years or more.
It’s like Piggy said in “Lord of the Flies”: “I don’t believe in the Beast. I think the Beast is us.”

  
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Originally Posted By Mark Crawford
There are a couple of cautionary points that need to be made, however. The first comes from the very evolutionary perspective that you have articulated. If we are “hard-wired” biologically for religion or religious-like belief systems, then removing God in the name of Enlightenment will simply create a vacuum for secular ideology–the very thing that we have witnessed in the worst excesses of the French Revolution, communism, fascism and Nazism. If that is the case, the danger always exists that we may end up being no better off.

I don’t think we are hard-wired for religion per se – I just think it serves a purpose that our instincts drive us toward, but which is now far better served by humanism and science. Indeed (as my article says), using religion to satisfy these instincts is now counterproductive, even downright dangerous. Communism, Nazism etc. are basically just new religions, and very anti-humanist and anti-reason.

Originally Posted By Firefly
I think we’d all like to believe, along with Christopher Hitchins in “God Is Not Great,” that the moral impulse is innately human. Then someone like Charles Manson or Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin comes along to remind us that it’s not.

I don’t think that proves the moral impulse isn’t innately human at all. As my article says, we have competing instincts that can sometimes led us astray, especially when given moral justification by something like religion (I think these people saw themselves as Gods, and created new religions).

  
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@Sachiko – I’m not sure about this. I think we find whatever self-justification we can when we do something we know is wrong or questionable. Yes, religion is one of the most frequently abused sources of self-justification, but so is “patriotism.” When someone chooses to combine patriotism AND religion as means of self-justification (hello, George W. Bush!), you’ve really got a mess.
I find it most peculiar to be in a position of defending “religion” here, since I have a lot of quarrels and gripes with religious fanatics of all stripes. I think we need to distinguish between “religion” and “religiosity.” I think anyone who’s been victimized by a professional con-man would argue that the moral impulse in not innate in all humans. Or, just read “Felix Krull, Confidence Man” by Thomas Mann, if you can find the time.
The point I’m trying to make is that, given the right circumstances, we are all susceptible to those temptations which appeal directly to whatever weaknesses we have. That’s the point at the heart of so much of Joseph Conrad’s work, and I tend to agree with that point of view. “What is it that men cannot be made to believe!” as Thomas Jefferson observed. I think the fault lies not so much in the belief as in the perversion of the belief by hypocrites advancing their own agenda. My gripe is not with “religion” per se, but rather with “organized religion,” which frequently promotes evil under the guise of good.

  
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@Firefly – I think you are still kind of missing the point. Yes, we can find whatever justification to do whatever crazy thing we want on a personal level, but it takes religion to allow people to do this en masse. I agree that throwing patriotism into the mix can make things far worse, but patriotism alone still does not have the power of religion to move vast groups of people to acts of utter insanity. Oh, and I think the way I use the term religion is probably more like the way you use organised religion.

  
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Firefly, Sachiko.

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
– Samuel Johnson.

  
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This is a special day in life, to see this much great discussion in one place. Sachiko and others have given this a lot of thought, getting to this point. And there is a light and airy quality to it all, which I feel contrasts much to the way I’ve felt, as I’ve tried to write on various topics leading to this episode.

I think something related to “religion” might indeed be hard-wired into living human cellular structure (usually one would think of the brain, but I’ve found some science stuff that suggests things more general). There seem to be special areas of the brain, and special physiological processes more generally, that are engaged when living beings undergo the subjective experience of contact with the occult, paranormal, or even vivid dreams of a “religious” nature. A modest mundane starting point for looking at this would be to wire people up to polygraphs and record their “activities” while they sleep (perchance to dream?). People have done this, and have worked on far more ambitious investigations, and have even enrolled some ultra-skeptics that would actually (perhaps cynically) build careers as paranormalists in the process. There is an unpleasant possibility that certain corporations, religions, and government entities may have also circulated some disinformation in this area. But the evidence persists, however much in disagreement the various scientific (or pseudo-scientific) interpretations might be, that there is very real physico-chemical and electromagnetic “stuff” behind humanity’s tendency to reach for the unknowable. There is also evidence that this feature is not simply an anomaly, or fly-in-the-ointment artifact, that pops up here and there to trouble proper academic scientists and tidy housekeepers. Rather, it’s like a basic feature that might have power to influence behaviors of entire populations, and it thereby demands respect and serious compassionate study.

I think it would be inaccurate to call humanity’s natural reach for the heavens and immortality simply a “religious” tendency. “Religions”, “beliefs”, “faiths”, “cults”, and various secular “followings” might be outgrowths of reactions to the basic physiology, but do not necessarily promote much constructive understanding of the physiological psychology itself. And, as for the very real concern about the fear of death and its sociological consequences, there has been, and continues to be, a very real individual and collective need to seek improvements in our “constructive understanding”. With the rather chaotic heap of intellectual resources now at our disposal, churned out from a history chewed up with religion- and finance-associated strife, we seem to need a new and strong dose of fresh natural inspiration. Sachiko seems to be helping us look for that in life.

  
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