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