Thursday 27th October 2016
It had to happen eventually, I'd get round to writing down my thoughts on religion. I must say from the outset that I am not a religious person, I don't believe in an after-life or the existence of a god or gods. That said however, I am perplexed and mystified by the human need for religion, the need for something to believe in, rely on, blame, love or hate for the wide array of experiences we have in a normal life.
In order for religion to exist and be so prevalent in our society, their must be or have been some benefit to religious individuals. This may be simply that other religious people have a tendency to subjugate and convert or exterminate people with faiths other than their own. I suspect rather that religion serves as an effective crowd control mechanism and as such, it was valuable to any large population as a means of maintaining group harmony and purpose. It of course does not matter (genetically speaking) if you're worshipping a giant mushroom, a sky-pixie or one of the more well established faiths as long as you adherence to a religion some how increases your survival and breeding chances. There's no doubt that your chances to thrive are negatively impacted if you're a "non-believer" or even a "wrong-believer" in a religious group. History is full of accounts of holy wars, religious persecution, witch burnings and general prejudice on religious grounds. So I think it's fairly safe to say that in religious societies, being religious (in the right way) meant you reduced your chances of being burnt at the stake. Conversely if you didn't end up on the barbecue, you were more likely to be one of those contributing genetically and memetically to the next generation.
Their is a lot to be understood by looking at how we come to believe things in general and how we cling irrationally to our beliefs even when they do us no good. We tend to learn our beliefs from those around us when we are children, people ape those they interact with in order to "fit in" with them and be part of the group. It helps to have shared beliefs with your community because a community with shared beliefs cooperates better and is arguably more effective (we're back to survival pressure here). People also adopt beliefs of charismatic leaders and act on them even if those beliefs and actions are detrimental to the individual. Once again I suspect that groups, tribes or communities with shared beliefs and a charismatic leader were far more capable and effective at whatever they set out to achieve when compared to a disorganised group with diverging beliefs. When organised group activity benefits the group, the groups prosperity, population, dominance and influence all increase. Successful group genes and memes are all handed on to the next generation. It is fair to say that we are culturally and biologically predisposed to doing that which enhances, protects and prolongs the existence of our group even if doing so sometimes results in our demise.
Not all religious behaviour can be said to be of group benefit however, some of it is simply reinforced behaviour. B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist who (among other things) studied the behaviour of pigeons in an environment where food was periodically automatically dispensed; the pigeons started to exhibit superstitious behaviour when it got near feeding time that is to say, the pigeons took whatever random behaviour (twitching, head bobbing etc) they had been doing when the food arrived and repeated it in order to try and get more food to arrive, some times this "worked" by chance and these weak associations between their behaviour and the arrival of food became reinforced behaviour patterns for the birds. The crazy beliefs of the pigeon-shamans didn't actually negatively impact on their ability to thrive and breed and like so many other random mutations, there was no reason (in terms of natural selection) to purge them from the gene pool. Religious belief and appropriate religious behaviour is further reinforced by the religious community using both positive and negative reinforcement, in short, religious communities condition their converts and offspring to conform to the group behaviour.
The down side
So far I've looked at the positive and benign effects of religion and frankly if there was no downside to religion, I doubt I'd be writing this at all.
I believe in basic human decency, it serves our purposes well to get along with each other, even if only superficially. People like to try to fit into a group (even if it's a group of outcasts or misfits that "don't fit in") and are usually quite prepared to gloss over or put up with flaws in each others behaviour in order to maintain group cohesion. Humans are also largely complacent creatures, happy to move with the herd and maintain the status quo. We like to keep the peace. Those who are not part of our group however are not regarded in the same way. To the feral human outsiders represent competition for resources and mates. Outsiders are often dehumanised and exploited. We can see this time and again in human history.
Humans for the most part are fairly scary creatures, more so when they are convinced of their own righteousness. Couple self-righteous belief with the human predilection for compartmentalisation and you have a recipe for disaster. Religion all too often provides the line across which societies are divided. The religious more often than not utterly denounce all other religion as falsehood and declare their religion as the one true way to enlightenment/happiness/immortality.
Religion polarises people, thoughts and feelings into simple values of "good" and "bad" with disasterous results. Very quickly other religions, non-believers or even different sects of the same religion are considered "bad" and either exploitation or worse their extermination results.
Jumping to conclusions
If a person is unsure of their ability or uncertain about being right they tend to be more open to new ideas and the possibility of change. Sadly (most) humans detest uncertainty, they find the unexplained to be a very uncomfortable, anxious and even frightening experience. Humans cope with the unexplained by trying to rationalise it or at least by compartmentalising it. Things which are not understood are quickly explained away as either good or bad until a feeling of closed-minded calm returns.
I personally regard religion as the stupid mans alternative to rational thought. Those of us who are prepared to question the world and not simply believe everything we're told must also be prepared to robustly debunk religion for the mindless twaddle it is. To not do this is a disservice to humanity as our inaction permits this superstitious nonsense to continue.