Coded gray.

Wednesday 8 November 2000

Cat on building materials

Pic of the day: The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats. (And the cats seem to have grown to expect it...) [Photo from my brother's farm.]

Religion: Virus or vitamin?

Yes, I'll try to speak my mind again. This is supposed to be a "dry" rational entry. If you are very emotional about religion (either way) may want to just skip this one. I'm not going to speak about my own faith specifically, but rather about religion as it relates to the human species.


In the october issue of Scientific American I read an interesting article about memes. These are supposedly the cultural equivalents of genes, or perhaps more specifically virus. They are behaviors and ideas that are passed on from one person to another, originally by imitation. ("Imitation" has in this context been extended to all transfer of behavior, concepts or ideas from one person to another, it seems.)

The author rather bluntly uses religion as a example of how memes can spread big time even if they are not at all useful, or even if they are harmful. Without any deeper reflection, the article seems to assume that religion (and indeed other particular human activities like music) is simply imitation run wild, imitation for its own sake, something that happens because we are genetically designed to imitate.

I'm sure there are religious people on which this description fits scaringly well. Yet I think it is unseemly for an evolutionist to assume that any common trait is worthless.

To put it bluntly, religion would not exist if it did more harm than good. Through much of history human life was nasty, brutish and short. Staying alive and reproducing wasn't a given, and having your children survive too was no more certain. Remember that the number of humans rose only very slowly until a few generations ago. This means that on average, you'd be happy to survive and have two children survive too. Obviously people really had to keep their priorities straight.

Now imagine two tribes. Tribe A spends a day or more a week on religion: Prayer, meditation, rituals. The tribe also builds holy houses bigger and better than their own measly huts, and even sacrifice some of their food to please their deity. The neighboring tribe B does none of the above, preferring instead to do something useful: Gather food, make tools, instruct their children in practical pursuits, and make bigger and sturdier homes for themselves. Any idiot can see that in a matter of years, tribe B would out-compete tribe A hands down. Religion would be eradicated from Earth as one of the first things in human evolution.

Yet the opposite is closer to truth. Religions pop up on every continent in every age. While not all persons are religious, the majority are. Even when repressed by government, religion survives and pops back up as soon as the pressure is removed. Someone must be doing something right.

(Now you may say that religion is just a blind meme and will spread randomly, so no tribe is safe from it ... there is no "tribe B". But I argue that atheism is also a meme, and the belief that you're your own lord should be no less capable of infecting others. Particularly if it leads to visible success within a short time. As a matter of fact, we know from old scriptures that atheism was well known more than 2000 years ago.)


Note that the exposition above only seems to prove that religion in general is a good thing. It says nothing about which god, if any, is real. There have been lots of gods and spirits worshipped through human history. I don't think we can assume that they have all been real and all actively interfering in the mortal realm to help their worshippers!

The classic explanation of sociology seems to be that religion is a medium for sharing values. Myths help to solidify a shared view of reality, and religious taboos help to enforce a shared morality. The shared concepts get an extra gravity from being backed up by gods: If you deviate from the norm, you will be punished by an entity stronger than any mortal. If you adhere faithfully, you will be rewarded. In reality, the reward and the punishment are both meted out by society. The heretic and the sinner are avoided by good men, and sink to the bottom of society. At worst, religious zeal may move the faithful to outright eradicate the infidels.

This is nice as far as it goes, and I'm sure it explains most of religion even today. It would seem to me that religion is indeed a social thing to most believers. But it isn't that to all, and in particular it is not only that to all. There is also the question of the personal religious experience, or the mystic experience.

If you look at the truly dedicated or driven religious person, regardless of time and continent, you will often find that they have similar experiences. And often these are strikingly different from the accepted religion of their peers. Not necessarily contrary, though that certainly happens too. But different. These people turn inward and seem to connect to something in there. Some nameless power that breaks through and shatters their sense of self, then rebuilds it in a new pattern. They become genuinely new people. In some ways, the religious breakthrough is like the outbreak of a mental disease, but the effect is often the opposite. They become better at what they do; they become more responsible, more attentive, less selfish, better able to look at the big picture.

I tentatively conclude that human nature is designed with some internal resource that can be activated and greatly enhance some of their qualities. There is obviously a downside - to be less selfish may hurt your chance of survival and reproduction, for instance - but overall, the personal religious experience seem to confer advantages on the tribe where it happens. It is also often a catalyst for social change.

But who has designed us with this capacity for profound change? God, Allah, Jehovah, Krishna or evolution? Now that is a matter of faith, and for today I will leave that question for you to reflect on - if it be your will...

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