On Belief, Part Two

Okay, I suspect I’ve given enough to support my point that very few people seem to believe (that was Part One). To be honest, I think it’s not a dividing line, but a gradient – levels of belief ranging from “Not at all” to “Established fact,” with most people falling well short of the upper end. Some grad student can figure out how to quantify belief if they like. So we come to the question of, “If people don’t believe, why do they profess to?” And I think there are a lot of answers to that.

To begin with, many were raised to. In their formative years, they were told that belief was important, and did not get to the point of actually questioning this later on. And alongside that, many cultures (and here I’m talking about local culture, such as an individual’s town, not that of the country or ethnicity) put enough emphasis on it that someone may feel pressured to conform. And on a broader scale, there’s the peer pressure of uncertainty: “If so many people throughout the world believe, can they all be wrong?”

Short answer: yes, and it’s happened before, countless times. Not only with religious bullshit like demonic possession and witchcraft and such, but with numerous medical misunderstandings like the four humors, bloodletting, chi, chakra; and other things like astrology, alchemy, geocentrism – basically, most of what science has now established has proven wrong some belief system from the past. Taken that way, it’s almost better to ask, “Can a large number of people be correct?” And to be perfectly honest, this is most likely a better standpoint to hold, because it forces us to seek answers, not conformity or assumptions about intelligence.

The question itself, rephrased, becomes a much more interesting topic: Why do so many people put emphasis on religion? Or even, How has religion continually sprung up throughout the world? Such questions are the trump card of the religious debater, conveniently ignoring that most of the world’s religions are in gross disagreement, except over some very simple social concepts. And it is, in fact, these concepts that might give us the greatest clue as to how this occurred.

I’m going to try and be fair, and start with the answer from a religious point of view: Religions came about simply because they were dictated by a deity, and the wide variations are the result of mistranslation and local influences. The problem with this explanation is, it doesn’t explain why so many faiths got it so radically wrong while just one got it bang on – nor does it explain how anyone can be sure of the right one. Is it suspicious that the correct one just so happens to be the one that the person promoting it was raised within? And how come so many claim to be correct, but cannot convince others?

From the secular point of view, however, you start working from the parts that are similar among most of the world’s faiths – and find that they largely revolve around empathy and cooperation. Are these things that are possible to come about naturally, through an evolutionary process? Absolutely, and several recent studies have shown that they exist among other species as well, albeit in less well-developed forms.

So if that’s the case, that this is a natural development of our species, why religion? We’re now in territory where I’m simply speculating, because I admit to not having read enough of what others have written on the subject – what follows comes from my feeble little mind, almost all by itself. But we also have some basic conflicts within ourselves as well, those of competition. Is it easier to farm your own food, or steal it from your farmer neighbor? From a standpoint of energy expended and time saved, stealing wins by a huge margin, doesn’t it? But it eventually results in fending for oneself, instead of the long-term benefits of cooperative farming and sharing labor. In the long run, cooperation wins. What has to be considered here is that, we are still evolving – we’re a work in progress, rather than a finished state. In evolutionary terms, it wasn’t that long ago that we were hunter-gatherers without a large scale social network. Not only that, but when you’re starving, the short-term is the only thing that comes to mind, and stealing food may mean the difference between seeing tomorrow, or not. Species that don’t manage the short-term never even get to the long-term benefits.

Yes, we’re still talking about religion, believe it or not. Imagine us in the early stages of farming, stockpiling, and villages. We (the proto-humans) are also using a more advanced thing for species on the planet: communication. We use it to teach new methods, and barter for services, and to convince others of the best way to approach problems. We are now able to learn from others’ experience and mistakes. But we still don’t really know about survival of a species, except on very basic levels. How do you convince the wayward child that working is for everyone’s benefit, as opposed to stealing or simply being lazy?

The same way you do it today: with consequences. But what if the consequences aren’t immediate or visible? Then they have to be dire, really terrifying, don’t they? Something that no one would take a chance on because they’d be so totally screwed if the consequences were really true. I don’t have to spell this out anymore than that, do I? Is it an accident that nearly all deities are parent figures?

No, there’s more than that. Religion also served another purpose, which was to provide answers that we couldn’t, then, possibly hope to find on our own. It’s been said before that knowledge is power, and while this might be hard to prove in today’s societies, it certainly applied much better in the early tribal/village ones, especially before written records. The shaman/chief/elder who had the most answers was the most useful and revered, and it’s really a short hop from not having a real answer to providing one that sounds good. If you don’t believe this is a distinct trait, you’ve never hung around zoo exhibits and listened to the folklore about the various animals there coming from the visitors – some of it’s hilarious, but little of it is factual.

But why should this be important to proto-humans as a species (rather than culturally)? I’m still speculating here, and may be talking out of my ass – you’ve been warned. But one trait that we have, perhaps the one that led us up the path to where we are today, is figuring things out. “How does this work, and why?” We even do this in our spare time with meaningless puzzles – is it an accident that we get such a sense of accomplishment from solving something inane like a crossword? Quite possibly, not at all – it may well have been the thing that made our brains different from all other species on the planet. And it’s very frustrating when we can’t find the answer, isn’t it? We can even get mildly violent – over what? A video game? A Rubik’s Cube? How trivial is that? But it’s really there, in our minds.

Back to the new villagers, now – how frustrated might they get over things like lightning, droughts, illnesses, and so on? Frustration is a bad thing, and we seek many ways to alleviate it – why not an answer that seemed to cover all the bases? It’s meant to be this way, there’s a bigger plan, we’re being tested, we are heading in the right direction – is this sounding familiar? I don’t even have to ask what religion you’re thinking of right now – it’s a pretty common thread. And as an example, what kind of explanation do you think sounds most reasonable when talking about powerful, frightening things like lightning, floods, hurricanes, and so on? Air masses and an evaporation cycle? How pathetic! Something that imposing must come from a source even more imposing!

So, religion is a social construct, a tool to alleviate frustration and induce cooperation and community? It is entirely possible – how many questions doesn’t that answer?

And we have a hard time believing in it, right now, because we found better ways to determine answers. It’s really hard to accept the whole worldwide flood premise, or that the deity didn’t know enough to tell us about the sun actually being the center of only our tiny system, a mere speck among billions of others. It’s hard to reconcile all of the faiths as being offshoots of one, when they have almost nothing in common, and even languages are so drastically different for being born from one small tribe of people. It’s really crushing to think that we suffered for thousands of years when germ theory could save millions of lives, if only we’d known. And it’s pretty hard to accept that the most important thing on an omnipotent being’s mind is, “Worship me!” I mean, isn’t that vanity?

We’ve moved beyond foraging for berries, and beyond the simple stockade. We can move beyond other things as well. Their purpose is long past. We are no longer nomads and goatherders.

The answers that we seek are required, now, to stand up to some much tougher standards. We still get the same emotional kick from finding them, however. And now, you know a bit about why I’m an atheist – you’ve just witnessed a much shorter version (no, really) of my own struggle for answers. Maybe it makes sense to you, maybe it doesn’t, and I welcome arguments – I’d much rather try to find the best, most accurate answer than settle for one because it’s quick or easy.

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