But how? Part four: Religious belief

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 4

For this topic of the series, I’m going out on a limb, because this is largely personal speculation, and I’m the first to admit I have no educational background in any of this. There are writers out there who have examined this in detail, but I have yet to read any of those works, so this is me talking out of my ass. It’s a blog – chill. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about a curious question that crops up from time to time: how come so many people are religious?

If we accept the premise that there is no supernatural force guiding our development, now or in the past, then we should by rights have little reason to keep expecting supernatural entities – in other words, from an evolutionary standpoint religion makes no sense, yet a whole lot of people accept it and follow it, well, religiously. There should be a method of explaining this in naturalistic terms in order to be consistent, shouldn’t there?

First off, from a broad perspective, there are some curious indications. Religion throughout the world, throughout history, has few common denominators. One god, many gods, young earth, old earth, heaven, Mt Olympus, dunmanifestin, niflheim, hell, purgatory… the list can be continued for pages. To even qualify religion with a meaning, it has to be vague enough to encompass all of this, and simply becomes “belief in supernatural cause and/or guidance” – and my local buddhist may likely argue that ;-). It is, however, reasonable to expect that, should any of it be true (as opposed to strictly natural origins,) then such a thing should be more concrete. How, for instance, did so many tribes of the world completely forget about adam and eve? Moreover, when they did so, and substituted janus and quetzalcoatl and bast, how could we then explain that religious belief still springs from contact with the divine and/or oral traditions of said contact? But, while a legitimate question, I didn’t set out to answer a question with another, but to provide answers in support of the natural standpoint.

We also need to dispel a common myth, which is that evolution produces traits that are only beneficial to the species (therefore, religious belief, if produced by genetic traits, must provide a distinct benefit); natural selection tends to weed out traits that are detrimental to the ability to survive or reproduce, and while this can seem very specific over time, it doesn’t mean any species can only bear traits that are beneficial. We talked about the Hemingway Cats in the previous part of the series; another example is the rising occurrence of white-tailed deer with overall white coloration in North America, where natural predators have largely vanished so blending in is less of a demand. Selection also works according to the environment the species is within, so changes in an environment actually mean that at any given time a species may be actively “catching up” to those changes (or, too often, being driven to extinction, which in itself is damning evidence that evolution does not produce perfect fits every time.)

So with that understanding, let’s proceed. To make sense of this, we need to consider religious belief from the standpoint not of how it’s commonly defined, which is a cultural and language-based thing, but of what it provides to either individuals or species, which is what can be selected for in evolution. Not everything here can apply across the board to all religions, but it doesn’t need to; if some trait applies solely to judaism, for instance, it doesn’t disprove that there are natural factors behind it – it simply means that there could a greater tendency to choose judaism over, say, shintoism, but both can have aspects that we intuitively desire. It’s not an “either/or” prospect, but can be shades of grey. So what can we say defines religious belief?

1. Supernatural entity. No, no, no, far too broad, especially since we don’t even have a decent definition of “supernatural” to start working with. Instead, what does a supernatural entity mean or do?

1. The power to affect large-scale events. Okay, fair enough, this is a common denominator, but it doesn’t do anything in itself. It’s safe to say most believers haven’t actually witnessed creation or the summoning of plagues, but this hasn’t stopped very many. What makes us see gods? If we think about it, though, what we seek are explanations – we want, very badly, to know how things work, and why certain things happen. This has been going on for a very long time now, evidenced by the ancient calendars and the early development of agriculture, both requiring the ability to find patterns. We like puzzles and challenges, quite a bit actually – think of how often we play nonsense games, like making “baskets” with trash (“two points!”) and reading/watching mysteries – for Bob’s sake, they’re fiction! Who cares? But we do, don’t we? And it’s useful, because it leads to knowledge in most real-world situations, so it’s a great trait to have.

When things are beyond our understanding, though, we get frustrated. Do “Dammit, what’s wrong with the computer now?” and “How much farther do we have to go?” sound familiar? It seems not only do we have a positive reinforcement for figuring things out, but a negative reinforcement when we don’t. That’s twice the strength of either alone. Though, not everything lends itself to simple answers. When the floodwaters come crashing through the valley where the house sits, when the prairie fire devastates the land, when the locusts scourge the crops… these are generally pretty bad for the people living nearby, and in years past they defied easy explanations. Not to mention they appear to be evidence of a lot of power. What causes them? And when we cannot figure it out, are we happy with simply saying, “I don’t know?” Or do we guess, speculate, and theorize? When we get to the idea of a deity with no physical traits and lots of power… well, that’s a working hypothesis all right.

2. The good and bad things that happen are consequences. The first thing that is ever asked, whenever misfortune befalls us, is, “What did I do to deserve this?” And we live in enlightened times. We’ve almost discarded the idea that there must be a reason for everything, beyond “It rained like hell upriver.” But we haven’t discarded the idea of deserving a punishment or reward. If we instinctively expect it, there must be a reason, right? And I’ve heard similar arguments many times before.

Of course, what kind of traits would be needed if a species were to function better cooperatively, as in a pack, hive, swarm, flock, or tribe? There would have to be a drive to seek community, to interact positively with others, to derive “good” and “bad” not from an individual standpoint, but from a species standpoint. Honeybees literally kill themselves defending the hive: their stingers remain lodged in victims and get torn off, a fatal wound, meaning the individual dies to protect a greater number of others – a selfish loss but a species net gain. Humans, in contrast, judge themselves by others, and gain status (or lack thereof) from how we interact; how others see us, not from how successful we are individually. The tribe that functions together thrives better. And we do this because we have inner drives to react to others, both in terms of praise and terms of punishment. If someone is mad at us, we need to know why.

While it may seem odd that we cannot distinguish between directed, human interactions and undirected, random consequences like floods, we also cannot distinguish between human babies and ducklings, at least in terms of cuddling and feeling protective – drives aren’t always specific, especially when cuddling ducklings doesn’t really produce any survival hazard (until ducks evolve into carnivores, anyway.) And the pattern-seeking part of us wonders if the ill fates that we experience aren’t part of something bigger. Again, this is good – we discovered bacteria and viruses in this manner.

Consequences are a major function within religions – they’re generally inescapable, and rarely immediate, so even when it seems some individual “got away with it,” the antisocial behavior that they might have engaged in will not go unpunished. It’s easy to see where the moral structure came from, and why. Many people consider it the other way around, that religion built this idea of morality into us, but this fails to explain the laws and social mores we have that contradict scripture. It also fails to explain why we use such consequences as a threat, an inducement towards better behavior, but do not trust in them enough ourselves to leave it all to god. Why have laws in the first place, when an omniscient being has it all under control?

3. Ultimate authority. Despite the accounts from history, the primary source of all divine pronouncements seems to be through mortals, isn’t it? Funny that. Theology hasn’t really provided a decent explanation of why this is, mostly speculative excuses about gods providing for free will by hiding, but it makes plenty of sense if you consider that the “word of god” is an unarguable authority, which pretty much makes prophet beat wise elder in the social rock-paper-scissors game. Even in the distant past, arguments about who had the more powerful gods took place routinely, often in terms of, “Let’s see whose god supports their army better.” Monotheism is a historically recent convention, but it’s a show-stopper – no more arguments about which god has more power, since there’s only one. Kinda – while many cultures have accepted this idea, there’s still a lot of argument about which one god it really is (all others being mere delusions, of course.)

Religious folk often complain about atheists being condescending and derisive about their beliefs, but it’s a bit difficult to look at the large numbers, historically and currently, of gods and think that there’s a reasoned, logical way of determining just one. When asked, there is never a decent answer as to how one was chosen over another – it is invariably either a reference to scripture (usually the only one the believer has read, if they’ve even read it thoroughly) or personal revelation. This is a distinct indication of religion being “instinctual” rather than explanatory, but it’s hard not to consider this incredibly childish all the same.

4. The ultimate parental figure. [No, seriously, the sequiturs have just been working out this way.] When we were young, the folks took care of everything, protected us from harm, provided food and shelter – you know, all the things that they were supposed to. It was a sweet deal, but eventually, we grew out of that. Certainly, we wanted some authority and power of our own, but would have liked to have kept the good bits, you know? Seemingly unrelated, there are very good reasons to heed the elders, because it takes advantage of years of knowledge. Imagine being like snakes, fending for oneself from the moment of birth. Everything has to be instinctive, or learned quickly before it kills you. It doesn’t lead to elaborate lives, certainly not to understanding electricity or metallurgy. In times past, those proto-humans born with the desire to listen to the elders learned more, gaining benefit from building memories rather than from glands and impulses, and moved ahead.

So this has two working parts. The first is simply the desire not to leave the protective wings of the parental figure, and the second is the drive to learn from those most experienced. Both of these would lead to favoring a parental figure even when none is around. Countless religious organizations use this as a major bargaining point in recruiting new converts. But let’s recognize something in here, a major stumbling block to the idea of an omnibeneficent god. The parental figure is great, but the trials and tribulations we go through as a species do not lend themselves to a beneficent overseer – especially when we’re picking through the rubble to find even the body of a loved one. Examined critically, there is nothing to demonstrate that any god is protective, loving, or active in our best interests. When this is pointed out, the answer from the religious always falls back on, “There’s a greater good,” or, “We can’t fathom the mind of god.” Neither of these, nor any other explanation, provides anything useful beyond, “Suck it up” – except to excuse the lack of evidence of this loving parental figure. But if we don’t actually have evidence of a beneficent god, why do we persist in believing in one? In the abrahamic religions at the least, for every line about a loving god, there’s at least three instances of a vengeful, petty, and authoritarian/despotic god. Why do we accept only the good side, unless it’s because we really want to? Moreover, why do we loathe the idea, so often expressed, of the unguided, indifferent universe that we have discovered upon examination? “Indifferent” does not equate to “cruel,” but that’s often the attitude. Why?

Further along the ideas introduced above, I’ve remarked before that we seem to have a desire to yield to tradition, which is kind of silly; most of our knowledge base is very recent, and the benefits that it provides are vast and undeniable, if you have a working brain. Ancient knowledge is, well, ancient, and hardly applies to anything that we do anymore. But we consider it sacred, in its own way. This makes sense if you realize there could be an instinct to follow the elders, the parental figures – but not at all otherwise. Scripture, of course, falls into this deference, though it offers no explanatory power of its own and what it does try to outline, it gets wrong. Rationally, there isn’t a reason to find it even slightly useful.

5. Quick, unambiguous answers. While we’re very proud of our developed brains as a species, we all too often eschew the wonderful functionality of them in favor of quick decisions and relegating things to unambiguous categories. This could have been a very old survival trait – am I far enough away to outrun the sabertooth cat or should I position myself for a good defense? – but it can be really damaging nowadays. Decisions are not always easy, or provide clearcut benefits, and simplifying or changing them to try and force such aspects is fraught with issues. We are relieved, in many ways, when the decisions we’re faced with are unarguable, and many (most?) religions take advantage of that. This is much the same as the assertion above that god is good, despite evidence to the contrary – ah, great, now we don’t have to think about it!

There is a long history within religion, generally called “theology,” of trying to puzzle out the vague and contradictory aspects of scripture, one of several reasons why so many splinters of most larger tenets abound (“christianity” encompasses catholicism, protestantism, mormonism, witnessing, et cetera.) Most people remain completely unaware of these efforts, and the distinctions that they supposedly made, especially here in the US. They really couldn’t tell you why their religion beats out any other, any more than they could tell you why their political party is superior – at least, without sounding petty and foolish. The general decision point boils down to little more than, “Us good, them bad,” and this is supposedly enough. It’s disturbing, really.

Like monotheism, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibeneficence, and perfection are all indisputable superlatives. If there is a god, it must be perfect, as is what it has created. When we find obvious examples of the lack of said qualities, it is argued that we mere imperfect beings cannot fathom the true perfect nature. You would think, however, that true perfection could not be mistaken, and that this would certainly be a particular facet of perfection. The fact is, “perfect” is not a scientific standard, nor even defined in any useful way – it is instead a value judgment, an opinion; nothing that can be demonstrated. Like “supernatural,” it is a self-referential term that exists only to dodge the disturbing lack of evidence. Gods are defined as being perfect and supernatural, and both “perfect” and “supernatural” are defined only by gods. That certainly settles the matter, doesn’t it?

6. Community. Does religion require weekly devotions, group meetings, or even the maintenance of a church/devotional building? Not in the slightest, according to the basis of nearly all of them. But as we examined above, humans are a social species. Not only do we generally tend to congregate in groups, most especially seeking out those that reinforce our beliefs (yes, atheists too,) we tend to avoid separating ourselves from them. This is why so many people have trouble with public speaking: it is a matter of an individual separate from a roomful of people, and the sides are clearly implied. It’s also why many atheists don’t feel comfortable in speaking out, and why those that do are considered improper somehow (even when this cannot be defined clearly.) Even when we (individual humans, in this case) express our individuality, we often do so in “allowable ways” – there are distinct trends in nonconformity, unless you really believe nose piercings make any sense.

Once established in any small facet of community, of course, religion (and countless other practices) gains momentum, simply because the more people that are participating, the fewer actually want to distinguish themselves as different. There’s really no other reason why so many geographic areas display firm trends towards particular religions – a great example is the blend of christianity, native American, and African religions that makes up santeria, practiced largely in the Caribbean where plantation slaves, bearing their own religious beliefs, were influenced by both local cultures and owner dogma. This is no different from the vast number of people who are muslim because their parents were.

When we return to natural selection, we can see that dissension within a tribe leads to splitting, making two weaker tribes or simply a reduction in cooperation, so obviously this is less beneficial than complete agreement. We may not like the implications for individuality, and there are good reasons to have this as well, a prime one being the sexual part of selection (and where the “rebel” appeal comes in.) On the face of it, this would appear to be a conflict in selected traits, to be sure – it’s not a perfect system. But this difficulty comes mostly from trying to see such things from too large a picture – a unified tribe can (and will) still have individuals better suited towards healthy offspring, and a church can have leaders and followers. If both drives (community and individual fitness) can be accommodated, there is no conflict and no selection between such traits.

7. Death is not the end. An overwhelmingly common factor among religions is the continued existence of a soul, spirit, mind, etc. after death. I would hardly think we need to examine this one, but let’s proceed anyway. The evolutionary benefits of fearing death should be blindingly obvious, but I did come across a question once as to why we should. It’s fairly simple: while it’s entirely possible, and even quite likely, that organisms existed that did not fear/avoid death, the chances are very high that this made them more foolhardy and thus died out without passing on their genes. Seriously, the rabbit that sits idly eating clover as the fox approaches ain’t having no more rabbitlings. But death is inevitable, despite the beliefs of many currently on YouTube, and thus the anxiety over its approach is unavoidable. Accounts of an afterlife or reincarnation serve to alleviate this. The question becomes much more interesting if you apply it from the religious standpoint. From that perspective, since we don’t really cease to exist and death is the ultimate reward if we’ve lived our lives the way we’re supposed to, why do so many still fear death? Shouldn’t religious funerals be happy occasions? And if you find it crass that I even asked that, why?

“I never told her how much she meant to me.” So? Tell her when you meet again across the rainbow bridge. “He never got to visit Paris.” Yeah, well, I imagine heaven’s better. The stress and anxiety we feel over death, ours or even someone we’re slightly close to, makes no sense unless you see it in terms of, again, survival as a species. Fearing our own death is easy to explain, but what of others? Well, like the community and dissension points above, it weakens the family and tribe, and represents even a loss of information and parental protection. During the mastodon hunt, if we only looked out for ourselves, we might soon find that we were all that was left, but a community approach to avoiding death makes for a stronger tribe.

There’s lots of discussion about the evolutionary benefits of altruism right now, most especially the kind that means sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. It might be seen as a sexual selection benefit to the individual, demonstrating selflessness and devotion towards others (good family and tribal choice,) though it kind of falls flat if the altruistic act results in the individual’s death. Or so it would seem – there may be a certain aspect of deciding that the person receiving the benefit of the altruistic act is considered better for the family/tribe than the individual sacrificing their self. This is easy to see in any adult saving a child at their own expense; there’s even the aspect of an adult being better able to survive the dangerous circumstance than a child or less capable individual. And of course, the drive to reproduce and pass on genes doesn’t really work if the offspring dies before they reproduce. Like the cute fluffy ducklings above, the altruistic drive may not be as specific as we think it could be, yet still provide a distinct species benefit.

There’s another aspect in here that bears examining. Many religious people point out that, despite its foibles, religion provides many benefits, among them being succor for the bereaved. Yet it seems that this is an assumption, not something necessarily demonstrated. Are atheist funerals more heart-wracking? Does the thought of divine retribution not somehow come into play, especially when so many things can be considered out of favor with a deity? How many religious people do you know that stress over the “unsaved” people, especially family members? Are the TV ministries that are so lucrative actually selling redemption from the threat they have introduced in the first place?

And, I feel compelled to ask, how much benefit does religion have to actually provide to offset the harm that it does? How many people “saved” is necessary to account for the Crusades, the pogroms, and the suicide bombers? Not to mention those that believe god will “fix everything” and thus avoid doing anything to treat their own, or their children’s, illnesses, or dodge the thought that our ecosystem is fragile and capable of being thrown out of balance? How many gay couples must be miserable to make god happy, and how many women must remain second-class citizens to let someone maintain that their belief is “good”? But that’s all grist for more posts later on.

Now, here’s the kicker. Hopefully, I made enough of a case to illustrate that we have numerous traits as a species, whether you agree that this is the root cause of religious belief or not. A key factor that should not be ignored is, we have no reason to possess any of these traits from the standpoint of a designed, intended species. All of them work only to push Homo sapiens into its particular niche among all of the species on this planet, but are pointless if selection does not take place. And, as I said in the previous part of the series, any change at all actively works against the idea. Genetic drift and combination, and environmental changes, will produce natural selection – it’s unavoidable.

So, given what I’ve outlined above, is religious belief selected for as a beneficial trait? Not necessarily, because all of the traits that seem to support it exist for other reasons, more immediate and influential. Religion has the potential of being a beneficial or simply neutral trait, and in some cases it is arguably beneficial; for instance, in alleviating anxiety over unobtainable answers or the fear of death. At the same time, the answers it provides do not lead to any advancement whatsoever, and one must ask if it’s reasonable to believe in something not demonstrably true just because it has a slight benefit to someone unwilling to accept reality? Additionally, the influence of both the belief in a protective entity, and the cultural rules springing therefrom, served to hamper our advancement of knowledge for centuries (and still do, with handwringing, bead-clutching “good christians” trying to suppress scientific education and medical advances.) Like our interest in puzzles, it can be a response to survival traits without actually accomplishing anything, but unlike puzzles, it also serves to hamper our lives in countless other ways. It’s exceptionally hard to consider this beneficial, and the desire to do so seems to spring entirely from the same kind of drives that makes us play games. That’s not proof of anything significant.

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