The Role of Religion in General


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    Theology is but the ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system.
    Baron d"Holbach, Good Sense, Preface

    It is a curious fact that religion is to be found in all cultures. Some Christians regard this as evidence for the existence of God, although it is not clear why God should permit to flourish a range of religions that Christians have always regarded as barbaric devil worship. Nevertheless, the fact that religion is so widespread does invite explanation. We will first address the general question of why religion is so widespread, and then the specific one of why Christianity has had such an appeal.

    One of the main characteristics of human beings is our inquisitiveness. Humans appear to have developed this inquisitiveness, along with intelligence, in the course of evolution. As other animals developed weaponry (teeth, claws, poison), or defensive capabilities (armour, spines, speed), the factors that gave us an edge, and so were naturally selected for, were intelligence and inquisitiveness. So it is that humans like to explain things. If we do not have a proper, testable explanation, we make a guess that provisionally ties up the loose ends. Religions tend to offer explanations for natural questions that could not be answered properly. How did the world come into being? How did humans come into being? How did language come into being? What caused illness? What was death? Why did the Sun and Moon behave as they do? What caused phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, whirlwinds, meteor showers, eclipses?, and so on. In an unconscious application of Occam's razor (which states that when competing hypotheses have equal predictive powers, it is best to select the one that introduces the fewest assumptions) a small number of hypotheses seemed to explain everything. These sets of hypotheses are what we call primitive religions.

    A typical primitive religion requires a single principal hypothesis, that there are supernatural beings more powerful than humans. These beings created the world, they populated it with people and animals, they gave people special gifts such as language and fire, they caused illness to punish wrongdoers, they set the Sun and Moon in place to provide light, and they controlled natural phenomena, sometimes giving messages through them. In pre-scientific times religion provided a service in giving credible explanations for difficult questions. It was a natural result of mankind's inquisitiveness that could not be fulfilled otherwise.

    Different religions tended to answer the same questions in similar ways. If we look at Greek and Jewish beliefs, we find clear parallels. Both explain the beginning of the world by having it created by a god (Jewish Yahweh, Greek Chaos). Both have explanations for the creation of humans (Jewish: Yahweh made us out of clay in his own image; Greek: Prometheus made us out of clay in the image of the gods ). Both have explanations for humankind gaining the knowledge that made it distinctively human (Jewish: Adam and Eve eating of the tree of knowledge, Greek: Prometheus giving fire to mankind). Both explain this event as the end of innocence and the cause of all manner of evils and annoyances (Jewish: expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a consequence of Adam and Eve's disobedience; Greek: end of the Golden Age, a consequences of Prometheus and Pandora's disobedience). Both explain widespread flooding as the result of further divine displeasure (Jewish: the story of Noah: Greek: the story of Deukalion). Both look back to a series of distinct ages (Jewish pre-fruit, pre-flood and post-flood: Greek Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages).

    The reason that primitive religions have so much in common seems to be that they share the same human egocentricity. Human beings tend to assume that they must be special. Humanity, they deduce, was specially created by the gods. The world exists wholly or primarily for humanity. Animals were created for the benefit of human beings. The gods spend their time taking an interest in human affairs, listening to prayers, consuming sacrifices, rewarding favourites with good fortune, and punishing others by misfortunes such as disease, infertility, bad weather and natural disasters.

    Typically, people invent gods who look like them and behave like them. The gods of the Greeks, for example, spoke Greek. They had familiar Greek motivations: honour, glory, fame, lust; and they practised familiar occupations like weaving and making armour. They practised customs identical to those of Homeric Greeks, for example providing each other with chairs and footstools, and offering food and drink before getting down to business. The Greeks were not unusual in this. All cultures invented gods in their own image. This observation has been made many times, in many different ways. Here are just a few examples. Xenophanes observed that if bulls and lions were to speak about God they would doubtless tell us that he was a bull or a lion, and again: "The Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black skinned; the Thracians say that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair". More recently, "There is a very good saying that if triangles invented a god, they would make him three sided" (Montesquieu). "If God created us in his image, we have certainly reciprocated" (Voltaire). "During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution, human fantasy created gods in man's own image" (Albert Einstein)*. "The god of the cannibal will be a cannibal, of the crusader, a crusader, and of the merchants, a merchant" (Ralph Waldo Emerson ). In the Andes Jesus wears a skirt in the local style, and in China he wears a Chinese gown. In Europe God is white and the Devil is black. Bertrand Russell was amused to note that in Haiti representations of God were black, but those of Satan were white. Modern religions also betray similarities between their adherents and their gods: "Show me a man and I will show you his God". The gods of national religions are particularly vulnerable to this criticism. Zoroastrian gods are clearly Persian, Shinto gods are clearly Japanese, and Hindu gods (even the blue ones) are clearly Indian. The English once took it for granted that God was English - a sixteenth century Bishop of London actually said so. Many modern pastors and believers in the USA harbour no doubt that he is American. The French have always known him to be French.

    John Aylmer, Bishop of London, had no doubt that "God is English".
    (Consecrated Bishop of London in 1576, he had noted that "God is English" in a marginal gloss of An Harborowe for Faithful and Trewe Subiectes (1559), a refutation of John Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women.)

    Another element that determines belief is what we might call theological inertia. People tend to believe what their families believed, which is why different religions continue to dominate in different parts of the world. Religions continue steadily on their way, just as moving objects do, unless an external force acts upon them. Alexander Comfort pointed out that once established, beliefs are difficult to change:

    I have sometimes imagined the kind of literature which might exist in our culture if one of the most deepseated and comforting tenets embodied in our traditional religion had been the real existence of mermaids. It would be no good, I think, pointing out that they were improbable organisms, counter to almost everything we know about vertebrates, or that the legends of this kind are general among savages, or that supposed mermaids were probably dugongs. We would still be told in sermons that humanity by its nature cries out for the reality of mermaids, that we need only believe and we should see them with our own eyes — which is quite true — that the seas were full of surprises and coelacanths, and that no biologist could prove that it did not also contain mermaids. At the last ditch we should be told that they exist in a symbolic manner*.

    As a notable scientist has noted, there is a tendency to reject evidence or ideas that are inconsistent with current beliefs, particularly if they undermine central beliefs*.

    Occasionally one religion, that is one set of explanations, is superseded by another. This might happen because the local ruler simply decided that the new one suited him better, or by force of arms, or because one culture came to be otherwise dominated by another. In any case the general pattern is that the old religion decays into superstition, and in the course of time people forget that it was a religion at all. So it is that the religions that have been suppressed by Christianity are no longer regarded as religions. The gods of the Greeks and Romans are just myths, little different from characters in fairy tales.

    Religion also has a role in validating cultural values. Indeed, it is often difficult to disentangle social convention from the fundamentals of religion. To take an example, many of the practices of Muslims have nothing at all to do with Islam, and everything to do with Arab convention, although many Muslims are as unaware of this as non-Muslims. It is common for male Western converts to grow beards, and to start wearing robes, skullcaps and turbans, yet none of these is required, or even mentioned, in the Koran. They are simply Arab conventions. Women are required to veil their bosoms (Koran 24:31 ), but there is nothing about the chador or hijab, or about purdah, all of which are Arab fashions adopted from the Persians or Byzantines. Neither is there any religious reason for converts to adopt Arab names, as many do. Neither did the crescent have any religious significance. It was an Arab, not an Islamic, symbol. But religion and culture are so closely intertwined that many of the devout regard rejection of these cultural conventions as an attack on Islam itself. Again, it is remarkable that the Islamic Heaven is so similar to the Middle Eastern idea of an earthly Paradise made by humans. The Koran emphasises aspects such as the gardens and fountains, bashful virgins and dark-eyed houris, every kind of fruit served on golden dishes and drink served in golden cups. The blessed are dressed in rich silk robes, decked in pearls, and wear gold bracelets (Koran 35:33 36:55 , 38:53 , 43:70-2 , 44:48 ). This might be Heaven for Middle Eastern tastes, but it would be considered unspeakably vulgar by many Europeans. American feminists might not recognise it as Paradise at all.

    There have been a number of attempts to explain why religion is so pervasive in human society. It has to be said that no single scientific theory satisfactorily explains all aspects of the appeal of religion. Lewis Wolpert thinks that religions have their origin in the evolution of causal beliefs which in turn have their origin in tool use*. According to him human beings posses a sort of “belief-engine” programmed in our brains by our genes: “…it is bad with numbers, loves representativeness, and sees patterns where often there is only randomness. It is too often influenced by authority, and it has a liking for mysticism” *.

    Perhaps the most convincing theory is Richard Dawkin's idea of memes or "viruses of the mind", which is essentially Darwinian in nature*. In essence the theory is that religions propagate like incorporeal viruses, infecting human minds. These viruses of the mind evolve like ordinary viruses. Those best-equipped to survive and adapt will flourish, while others will die out. Thus we might predict that a successful mind virus will typically behave as follows:

    • Appeal to natural human desires of potential hosts (it might answer questions, give a sense of superiority, remove fears, provide comfort and security).
    • Protect itself (it might provide a sense of well-being to those infected so that they would not want to be "cured", and would even deny that they had even been infected; it might engineer the suppression of anything that might undermine its hold).
    • Adapt to changing conditions (it might provide cultural validation, and mutate along with other successful thought systems, for example to agree with current concepts of morality).
    • Propagate itself (for example through encouraging missionary activity, indoctrination, or forcible conversion, and inducing its host to out-breed other members of the population).
    • Seek to suppress the competition (it might demonise and try to exterminate other mind viruses, rational thought, or anything that might threaten its existence).

    Interestingly, the basic idea is echoed by other people, even a Christian historian. As Paul Johnson says:

    A dominant orthodox Church, with a recognisable ecclesiastical structure, emerged only very gradually and represented a process of natural selection — spiritual survival of the fittest. And as with such struggles, it was not particularly edifying.

    The Darwinian image is appropriate: the central and eastern Mediterranean in the first and second centuries AD swarmed with an infinite multitude of religious ideas, struggling to propagate themselves*.

    It should be noted that viruses of the mind are not necessarily religious. The theory can equally well explain other exclusive belief systems, for example communism and fascism, and also a whole range of psycho-cults. It is more than suspicious that such thought systems are closed — any criticism is demonised, and non-believers are regarded as dangerous (religious doubters are said to have submitted themselves to Satan, non-communists are branded as reactionaries and recidivists, critics of psychoanalysis are dismissed as being "in denial", and so on). Note too that successful systems demand lifetime commitment and evangelical zeal , and also that successful systems always reproduce and mutate — consider the frequency of schism in all religions, all political systems, and all theories of mind. To non-believers this virus theory looks promising, since it appears to fit the facts well, and it should be possible to test it scientifically. For the time being we note only that successful religions are those that share many characteristics with a hypothetical successful virus of the mind. As Daniel Dennett has recently noted in his book, Breaking the Spell, a proper scientific investigation of religion is long overdue.



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    §. Albert Einstein, essay on "Science and Religion" delivered at a Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in 1941, reprinted in D. J. Bronstein and H. M. Schulweis (eds.), Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion (New York, Prentice Hall, 1954), p 69.

    §. Alexander Comfort, "The Case for Humanism — or can Science make us good?", contribution to a discussion before the Fifty-One Society broadcast in 1957, cited in Knight, Humanist Anthology, p 135.

    §. Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, p 85

    §. This is the main argument in Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

    §. Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, p 220

    . Richard Dawkins, Viruses of the Mind, 1992 Voltaire Lecture.

    §. Johnson, A History of Christianity, p 43.

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