This is of course intended to be a provocative essay. My recent posts have tended to let my readership off lightly. But it seems to me to be an appropriate time to stir the pot again!
Those of you that have had the stamina to read my postings over recent years will probably have a reasonable understanding of where I stand on religion. Not to put too fine a point to it, I believe that Humankind has a need to develop an understanding of spirituality. However the mainstream religions seem to me to have short-changed us.
Most human beings are only familiar with the religion of their particular culture, their family or their geographical location which came to them as an accident on birth. So, in many ways our beliefs have been determined for us.
There are many competing belief systems, most of which claim they have unique knowledge and often suggest they have the only access to a deity which as a result has provided a unique but certain pathway to paradise, life after death, Nirvana or whatever that somehow will resolve our existential angst.
I suppose for we sceptics this seems such a random process. If we accept that there is a unique pathway to paradise (choose your own desired outcome), and that pathway is provided by one of these religions, how unfair it seems that someone might be able to access this desirable outcome merely by an accident of birth. If Christianity provides the solution and I was unfortunately born in Kabul, how fair is that? If Islam provides the solution and I was born in one of the Southern States of United States then I would also be excluded. If, as we are assured by the proponents of these religions, God is just, you would have thought He/She would have given equal access to all.
But let us have a closer look at religion and its role.
In my essay last week we saw that at least for eusocial animals such as human beings our evolutionary fitness was enhanced by:
- Our individual fitness, and
- The fitness of our particular group.
While writing that essay it occurred to me that perhaps religion has served a number of purposes.
The first purpose is one that I have written extensively about. Religion for many of us helps fulfil our spiritual needs. These are the needs we have for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. It is an essential need and none of us will feel satisfied unless it is met to some degree.
But following on from last week’s essay it doesn’t take much contemplation to come to an understanding that religion has provided one of the prime reasons that groups cohere together. In aiding group formation, loyalty, and commonality of purpose religions must have helped to promote group fitness which in turn assisted evolutionary progress.
As Edward O Wilson has written, “There is every good reason to explain the origin of religion and morality as special events in the evolutionary history of humanity driven by natural selection.”
History links religion inexorably with tribalism. Religions teach that their adherents are a special fellowship and that their creation story, moral precepts, and privilege from divine power are superior to those claimed in other religions and as a result from other tribes. Initially then religion would have been propagated as something that gave a unique advantage to a particular tribe or ethnic group. (If you have difficulty in accepting this just read the Old Testament!)
As an aside, I can remember vaguely in my youth hearing a comedy sketch about the “One Hundred Thousand Year Old Man” or some such title. The story featured a human being that had been frozen in antiquity and miraculously restored to life. (I know some people who have been figuratively frozen in antiquity but that is not what I meant!)
An interviewer keen to know what it was like to live in the antique past began to question him.
“Where did you live?” he asked.
“Well of course we lived in a cave.”
“And your whole tribe lived there?”
“And did you have symbols affirming your identity?”
“Of course – we had our flag and our national anthem.”
“Wow, that’s impressive. Can you still remember the words of your national anthem?”
“Certainly. You don’t forget your national anthem.”
“How did it go? Can you sing it for me?”
He clears his throat and then loudly sings, “You can all go to hell except for those in cave 86!”
And it is easy to argue that religion served a similar parochial service. It might also be argued that the illogical nature of religion is not a disadvantage. If proponents have come to believe something seemingly illogical, miraculous or just plain bizarre they probably have an even greater vested interest in banding together to drown the doubts that logic might uncover. In this way adherents reinforce the privileged position of believers creating group cohesion and thus providing an evolutionary advantage.
Of course as the body of believers in a particular religion increase in number it becomes more difficult to enforce uniformity of belief. This has occurred in most of the major religions. Christianity was split between Catholicism and Protestantism and even these subdivisions were further subdivided into various denominations whose beliefs to an outsider seem only to differ in miniscule ways. Islam similarly split between the Sunnis, Shia and Sufis among others. Once established each of these subdivisions begins to take on the nature of its own tribe, forming its own collective, reinforcing its own belief system, and repelling heretics.
The formation, preservation and often the growth of religious sects has been evidenced all over the world among humans. It is reasonable to assume that something so ubiquitous must have conferred an evolutionary benefit. It seems likely this benefit arose from the social coherence that such belief systems initially encouraged.
Indications of spiritual beliefs first occur in the late Paleolithic era where it seems people began to reflect on their own mortality. The earliest known burial sites appeared about 95,000 years ago. Then under a collection of priests, prophets and shaman often with the assistance of hallucinogenic drugs or physical practices that led to trances and visions religious sects arose on every continent on earth.
The dilemma we now face is that the religions that were so successful in making our tribes coherent and robust have become dangerous not because of the unity that they have imparted to our tribes but because of the divisions they create for our species. It is time to put aside our tribal gods and their priests and shamans in favour of a more universal spirituality.