Monday, November 25, 2013

The Nature of Religion



So far in my blog, I’ve discussed the evolutionary, historical, cultural, literary, moral, psychological, and neurological nature of religion and of Christianity in particular. Before I delve into the issues created by religion and provide explanations of a more rational worldview, I would first like to summarize what religion is actually all about.

Supernaturalism is Innate

There are several ways in which supernatural beliefs are innate. Evolution guided the development of a mind built to function in complex social groups. This causes humans to view the world through a social lens, which leads us to naturally presume that events which affect us emotionally are the result of conscious agents. For example, even atheists feel the need to say “thank goodness” when positive events occur. In addition, psychological studies on infants and young children show that we innately believe our minds are distinct from our body. This belief is then reinforced when we experience the transformative and transcendent emotions and hallucinations that occur upon ingestion of drugs and/or during moments of deep concentration.

http://www.skepticmoney.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/religious-war.jpgReligion is the Ultimate Motivator

Religion is the marriage between our innate group-oriented minds and our tendency to believe in supernatural forces and agents. It encompasses shared beliefs, histories, rituals, and rules of conduct that promote cultural identity, unity of purpose, conformity, and in-group harmony. Given the natural desire to feel accepted by our peers, as well as the strong emotions elicited by religious rituals and beliefs, religion can inspire passionate devotion. This may be manifested in the desire to help the less fortunate, or to simply be kind to others. In some people, it inspires extreme self-sacrifices such as body mutilation, starvation, social isolation, sexual abstinence, or even death. For others, it engenders a sadistic desire to punish those who stray from the group, who are different from the group, or who challenge the group. It is because religion is such a strong motivating force that it has been one of the primary sources of divisiveness, conflict, and atrocities throughout human history. There are those who would argue that greed, not religion, is the cause of these phenomena. However, religion is a tool used by those in power to manipulate the masses. What better way to get people to join your cause than to suggest divine sanction and rewards for those who buy into it?

Religion is a Source of Comfort

Organized religion as it is practiced today provides a haven for like minded individuals to form communities founded on shared beliefs. These beliefs often include a narrative regarding our place in the universe, how we relate to the supernatural world, and steps required to achieve the highest level of spirituality, purity, etc. Thus, religion provides people a sense of meaning and importance. Given that religions encompass communities of individuals with shared beliefs, they also provide their adherents with a strong social support system made up of members who truly care for one another. Since quality interpersonal relationships are associated with psychological health, so too is participation in religious communities.

Faith is also a strong source of comfort for the religious. Many believe that if they communicate in just the right way to gods, spirits, etc, these invisible agents will help them out in some way. For those in the Abrahamic faiths, their deity not only helps them out occasionally, but wants to form a loving relationship as well. This relationship is an exceptional source of comfort, as we are all prone to loneliness on occasion. It’s nice to know someone who loves us is always listening, and has our back. A potentially greater comfort is the knowledge of what happens when we die. Few people are comfortable with the notion that someday their conscious minds will no longer exist. Even fewer enjoy the idea of never seeing their dead loved ones again. Thus, the notion of surviving one’s death and reuniting with loved ones is a strong motivator to adhere to religious beliefs.

Religion is Wrong

Despite the fact that religious inclinations are natural and even psychologically beneficial, they are simply wrong. To be fair, they are only probably wrong, but let's not get caught up in technicalities. So why is religion wrong? Well, as I've outlined in my blog so far, there are evolutionary reasons why religious impulses are innate, there are cultural and historical reasons why religions evolved the way they did, and psychological as well as neurological explanations for sincerity of belief and spiritual experiences. Let's also not forget that religious texts tend to be historically, scientifically, logically, and ethically flawed and unreliable. In other words, every historical, logical, and experiential piece of "evidence" regarding gods and spirits can be better explained by natural forces. There is simply no need to presume even the possibility of the supernatural outside of emotional preferences.

Author’s Note: Readers of my prior posts may notice that this one lacks the usual citations and resources I commonly provide. The reason is that this post is a summation of the topics discussed earlier in my blog. There are some new themes in this post, however, they are either commonly accepted or they derive from my own personal experiences.

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