Showing posts with label god. Show all posts
Showing posts with label god. Show all posts

Friday, January 25, 2013

Religious Belief

Readers of Socialist Courier may find this article by Jeff Schweitzer on religion of interest.

The human brain manages to make sense of a chaotic world by picking out patterns from the noise bombarding our senses. We don't see the trillions of photons coming into our eyes as pointillist smears of colors; we see trees and forests. We process all of that incessant sensory input and come up with a familiar scene filled with grasses, animals, lakes and mountains. In addition, we are extraordinarily good at matching cause to effect so that we can quickly learn the behaviors necessary for survival. Burning your hand quickly teaches that fire causes pain. Understanding patterns, combined with correlating cause and effect, will save your life.

Unfortunately, this incredible talent for seeking patterns and linking cause to effect has a dark side, too. Humans see patterns where none really exist and cause where only chance reigns supreme. We cannot seem to turn off our pattern-seeking or cause-effect neurons. Sometimes the results are benign: We identify animal shapes in cloud formations or see a human face in a rock cliff or in an outcropping on the surface of Mars. A baseball player wears the same underwear during a hitting streak, believing that the underwear is the cause of his good fortune. These are silly manifestations of our mental abilities, but with no consequence. The dark side appears when we attribute cause and effect falsely in a way that has long-term impacts on our behavior and society.

Religion was born of fear of the unknown, of the drive to control the uncontrollable, of the need to have mastery over one's fate in the face of an uncertain world. The first ideas of religion arose not from any awe of nature's wonder and order that would imply an invisible intelligent designer but from concerns for the events of everyday life and how the vast unknown of nature affected daily existence. To allay fears of disease, death, starvation, cold, injury and pain, people fervently hoped that they could solicit the aid of greater powers, hoped deeply that they could somehow control their fate and trusted that the ugly reality of death did not mean the end. Hope and fear combine powerfully in a frightening world of unknowns to stimulate comforting fantasies and myths about nature's plans.

The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept "I don't know," because we cannot turn off our instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, even when none exist. So we make up answers when we don't know. We develop elaborate creation myths, sun gods, rain gods, war gods and gods of the ocean. We believe we can communicate with our gods and influence their behavior, because by doing so we gain some control, impose some order, on the chaotic mysteries of the world. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world. Religion was our first attempt at physics and astronomy.

Of course, the biggest and most wrenching unknown served by religion is that of our fate upon dying. As a matter of survival, we are programmed to fear death, but perhaps unlike other animals, we have the cruel burden of contemplating this fear. Religion is one way we cope with our knowledge that death is inevitable. Religion diminishes the hurt of death's certainty and permanence and the pain of losing a loved one with the promise of reuniting in another life.

But fear of the unknown, fear of mortality and hopes for controlling and understanding nature's course do not represent the only foundation on which religion stands. Another is social cohesion. We are social animals, gregarious by nature. Cooperation is what makes the human animal -- a weak, slow and vulnerable creature -- a powerful force on Earth. But cooperation becomes more difficult with increasing numbers. Some means of maintaining social order is necessary. Early societies soon learned that rules of behavior imposed in the form of rituals enabled large groups of people to live in close proximity. Rituals create norms against which people can readily judge the behavior of others in diverse social settings. Any deviation from the norm is easily spotted and can be quickly addressed. In this way order can be maintained. Notice that modern-day teenagers express their rugged individualism by dressing identically. Any nonconforming outlier would be easy to spot. Religion offered, and offers still, an obvious means of enforcing societal rules by promising a joyous afterlife for conformers or eternal punishment for those who misbehave. Religion is used as a bribe to induce good manners.

Finally, religion was eventually transformed into an important source of raw political power, divorced from any role more benign. If religion is used as a tool to control individual behavior, someone needs to develop those rules and ensure their enforcement. Who better to act as behavior police than religious elders, shamans or high priests? What better way is there to manipulate and bend people to your will than by making up the rules by which they must live? With that influence over the daily lives of every citizen comes power traditionally reserved for city-states and empires, with all the normal trappings, including armies, treasuries and palaces.

Fear of death, the need to explain away the unknown, hopes for controlling one's destiny, a desire for social cohesion and the corrupting allure of power are the combined masters of all religion. We see all of that in the face on Mars.

The full unedited text is here

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