Thursday 22 August 2019

Where does religion come from? Given that religion is necessary (but not sufficient) for the long term survival of humans

The history of human societies is consistent with an assertion that religion is necessary for long-term human survival.

Without a religion, humans go crazy (become incoherent about matters of basic common sense - look around you...) and they despair; strategically destroying their own societies; and on-average they grossly fail to reproduce even at the minimum replacement level.

Of course some religions 'work' better than others in any particular situation, they out-compete the others; but I want to focus on the fact that religion-as-such is necessary, and to ask: Where does religion come from?

A true but partial answer is that a religious perspective is built-into all healthy humans, and is present at least in young childhood - even if it is later suppressed or lost.  In other words, religion is innate; and atheism and materialism are acquired.

But why is religion innate? Why are we all born into the world with a spontaneously religious attitude - believing in all sorts of immaterial things like the soul, gods, life beyond death, the aliveness and consciousness of (what adults term) 'inanimate' objects etc. ?

One answer is that religion is a fortunate accident.

It 'just happened', for no purposive reason (maybe some undirected mutations that just happened to happen...); but religion is found in humans because if it were not found, then there would be no humans.

(As a negative thought experiment: those ancient humans that inherited an immunity to religion, did not leave behind as many offspring, so their genes became extinct - or something on those lines...)

This is a non-explanation, masquerading as an explanation; but some modern people are happy for things to be non-explained that way - and if so then that is an end of discussion.

Or else (if we actual require a real explanation) religion was Put There.

But what-by? Some kind of deity must be the answer; even if that deity is just 'the way things are in this universe'. Or it may be put-there by a personal god or gods.

Religion may be found because it is 'in-born' or because it is externally-communicated - or both.

If it is inborn; then we know about religion by knowing what is within us (by introspection, or intuition); although we will surely make mistakes about this knowledge due to our limited capacity and various biases (accounting for the variety of religions around the world and through time).

(And - for Christians - we all know inwardly about religion because we are children of God; we know about deity because there is deity within each of us.)

And/ or we may have religion communicated to us by revelation (by being told by the deity, one way or another) - or some variant of revelation, such as divination. Again the constraints will apply - we can only know as limited by our capacity and via our personal biases.

That seems to be the situation: everybody normal (non-pathological) is born with religion built-in by some combination of, or selection from, inborn-internal and revealed-external sources. Such 'generic' religion is necessary for the sustainable biological and psychological functioning of humans.


Geir said...

Religion is simply a model of the world which we use in order to compare what is happening in the real world with what ought to be happening. This model is first presented in the story about Adam and Eve. To be human is to have a model of the world in one's mind, and animals, while they might have some kind of model in their mind too, they don't measure the difference between observed behavior and wanted behavior. They have no idea of what an ideal is as opposed to reality. So this model is a set of statements about the world which we use in order to understand what is going on and why, and the morals that follow from these statements, that is, what kind of behavior we ought to perform. A religion may be right in many of its statements and wrong in some, but a religion may not lead to a long term survival of humans if it is not right in its ideals and with a moral that leads to the right kind of behavior.

Also, it is somewhat wrong to say "just a model" as a model is something entirely complex and intricate and the total model out of possible grasp for ordinary humans. The model includes the conscience, of course.

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - Well, defining religion is notoriously difficult/ impossible; but I find that definition Way too broad. For the purposes of this post, it is sufficient to 'define' religion in terms of the actual historical religions found in all societies until the modern West. These are always 'supernaturalist'. The distinction is From all variants of modern materialism/ scientism/ positivism/ reductionism.

Geir said...

I don't think it is difficult or impossible to define religion. I was actually influenced by Belloc in my definition. One can be more precise, stating that any religion will contain statements on creation, the world and the role of human beings in it, the relations between human beings, mythological "explanations" in the form of stories where the purpose is to give a fuller account of the phenomena we observe, a narrative including some kind of golden age, a fall, a future, but all these are "statements". These statements imply also some sort of gratitude towards the creator, one may almost say that religion originates in being grateful for being born towards an unknown creator, and from all these observations of the universe and the human behavior, one builds a model of how all this has become what it is to the observer. Moral is behavior that is asked for, as a consequence of having this model of the ideal and obviously not behaving according to it in daily life. Religious rituals follow from the gratitude. Cfr. latin religio, which is following from what I state is the basis of a system of statements. The statements themselves obviously must have come from trying to make sense of the observations that humans began to take in, as they developed language. I would go so far as to say that humans are defined as "the kind of animal having a model of the world, and being able to measure deviations from the model in real life". Thus religion becomes the set of statements "necessary" to guide the life of humans.

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - It doesn't work for all the examples I want/ need to include - for example the relgion of hunter gatherers or young children. This isn't a model, and is indeed fluid and mostly unconscious.

Andrew said...

Dr. Charlton, not that you asked but here's my take. I don't subscribe to the standard model of history. Human history began 6,000 years ago with Adam and Eve. The Earth itself may be millions or billions of years old and undergone one or more transformations/renovations (Lucifer's fall, etc.) in that time. But the human species began with Adam and Eve and there were no 'proto-humans' prior from which humans evolved. In the garden, before the Fall, religion was unnecessary as they enjoyed direct communion with God without mediation. After the Fall, mediation became necessary thus religion was born because we are created with an inborn desire to know and worship (ie. love and commune with) our Creator. The eternal being Melchizedek was sent by God to show Adam, Eve, later Abraham and others, how to properly sacrifice and worship God the Father until the Mosaic Law arrived. So religion comes from within (our Nature) and without (Revelation). I don't believe 'hunter-gatherers' are prior to civilizations or agriculture. Adam and Eve had to learn to work the ground (farm) after being expelled from the Garden. All other non-Abrahamic and Christian religions come from the same innate desire to know our Creator mixed with Revelation that contains varying degrees of corruption.

-Andrew E.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Andrew - For me, each human's history extends back eternally; but we spent most of it as spirits, before being incarnated.

I agree that a reasonable distinction that can be made between 'religion' as a formal system (much as Geir describes; beginning, perhaps, with the 'totemic' religions of Pacific Northwest Amerindians, Australian Aborigines and the like), and 'direct communion' that we once had in premortal life, which was approximated in early cultures; and which we may have again if we choose.

But I also think we need a term for that which all cultures and peoples and individuals have -- unless/ until they reject it and assume the validity of atheistic materialism. That's what I mean by religion in this post.

Andrew said...

@Andrew - For me, each human's history extends back eternally; but we spent most of it as spirits, before being incarnated.

I agree. My view is that humans began incarnating into this world starting 6,000 years ago. And I would say that as pre-mortal spirits there was no religion as it was unnecessary, same as before the Fall.

-Andrew E.