Earth to God
Religion. An interesting subject, and we can safely say that it's one of the most controversial as well. in this little piece of text here I'm going to try and address a couple of issues concerning religion:
- Why does a thing like religion exist in the first place?
- How does a religion survive?
- What kind of people "believe"?
- What does evolution have to do with religion?
- What's the difference between a religion and a cult?
- How powerful is a religion within a community, and how powerful are the leaders?
- Is religion "good" or "bad"?
And, believe it or not, I'm going to answer the following question:
- Is there a god?
Why does a thing like religion exist in the first place?
First, and very interesting I believe, why does a thing like religion exist. First of all, we're blessed (cursed?) with intelligence; this means we "think" about things. Some would say that we're trying to make sense out of chaos around us, but, to go back to very basic, instinctive thinking, I think we are trying to create comprehensive patterns in our minds to explain what happens around us. I say "instinctive", because it's a simple survival thing: if you can make out a pattern of what is happening around you, then you can use that pattern to predict what will happen next time if the same situation occurs. Through simple trial and error this is a very useful protocol to enhance your chances to survive enormously. Man evolved very fast though, and went from simple patternrecognition to more complex cognitive processes, of which the most important three are:
- Memory capacity expansion
- Development of communicative skills
- Conciousness, or self-awareness (self-reflection if you will)
Which of the above came first is ofcourse hard to say. Most probably the evolvement of each one seperately, enhanced the evolvement of itself and the others, as each seperate concept allows the others to expand. But as usual, I digress. In this evolutionary process, a very important thing happened for mankind: he started to realize there were restrictions to his mental abilities.
Ai. Problem. I mean, we're human, we're intelligently the most advanced creature on this planet, and yet we are restricted in our ability to understand things? How frustrating. There must be an explanation for that as well! Anyway, what kind of questions exist that are left unanswered due to our inability to see things in the correct perspective? Well, for example:
- How did "life" come to be?
- Why do we have "special" cognitive abilities, as opposed to other creatures?
- Why do we suffer so much demise for no apparent reason?
- What's our purpose in life?
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The answer to the first question is easy: creational theory. God created earth, heaven and life. Next question please. Seriously though, I do understand that the first people involved with religion weren't too bright, but isn't this a bit too simplistic? This explanation has far too much resemblance with a homunculus idea: we were created by an intelligent being, which is why we are intelligent. But who created this original intelligent being then? Oh, simple answer to that question: he's omni-present, omnipotent, omniscient. Whew, that was a hard question, but we weasled our way out of it. Note: throughout this essay, try to ask yourself the question whether creating an explanation to a certain question is useful, if this explanation itself raises questions at least as puzzling as the original one (and keep in mind that proof is a key word here).
The second question then. Well, this shouldn't be too difficult either. God created a world as complex, dazzling and overwhelming as he did, to allow for a symbiotic society at all levels, which was to be enjoyed by mankind, the elite creature he made after his own image. This society was completely self-sufficient, leaving enough useful remains (food for example) to nourish mankind. Why does the word "arrogant" pop into mind while I'm writing this?
The third question is one that is possibly the most interesting of the four. If god (yes, lowercase g, god is a concept, a simple noun, not a name) created us after his own image, then why would he knowlingly hurt, damage or even kill his own children, the pride and masterpiece of his creation? The answer (or even answers) to this question varies per religion, and usually has a strong moral foundation, of which punishment is the most common version. In many religions it's possible to prevent from being punished by praying, sacrificing or simply by living a morally correct life (a life without "sin"). Since there is no explanation for the demise that is sometimes cast upon some of us (imagine the young well-mannered girl who gets the most awful illness), some religions state that all people are sinners at birth, which creates an opening for punishment for even the seemingly most innocent person. Why are all people sinners then? Well, for example, see Adam and Eve and how they got themselves thrown out of paradise. They condemned mankind to punishment for eternity by doing so. Note that the paradise concept matches closely with the answer to the second question: we were put down on earth to enjoy a perfect life, but sadly that went wrong. On the other hand there are also religions that state that good and evil are always in balance, although this balance might not be apparent to us. A simple explanation, extremely difficult to grasp, and once again it raises many questions to keep us busy.
Then the final question I mentioned: what's our purpose in life. Again, the answer to this question as given by many religions acts upon our strong feelings for morality. We are here to "do good", to obey and glorify our creator, to create a firm foundation for a good afterlife (be it in heaven or after reincarnation) and so on.
Before I continue, let me interrupt my own thoughts and ask you a question. Was any one of the explanations above satisfactory? Completely and without a doubt? Ofcourse, I might have missed important things, and I probably do not grasp to the full extent what religion is, but I do think I've addressed the most important issues, right? This is why I have a bit of a problem with religion. Not a specific one, but the concept of religion as a whole. We humans have a certain greed for knowledge, explanations and clarity. As one grows older, one might be less hungry for those things, since trial and error has learned you that you'll never understand life to the fullest. But to accept the fact that "god created us" is just not satisfactory to me. Even very plausible answers to the question "why" cannot still my hunger; as I stated earlier, I need proof! A dream of a man, a vision that seven good years will pass, to be followed by seven bad years, is nice, but still, where's the evidence? And please... "it's written in the bible" is not proof! (Why not? Because the bible was written by religious humans; it's very doubtful that these humans were objective, and their writing hardly consisted of any hard evidence.) I think that my strong inclination towards science can also be seen as a sort of religion: the teachings of scientific research provide me with answers to certain questions (evolution theory), and create a mental foundation on which I can build my view of the world. There are two very distinct differences between science and religion though: first, science relies on proof. Without proof, scientists will not accept theories or concepts as true before sufficient proof has been delivered. Secondly, science evolves. A certain proven fact can easily be disproven if the facts are there to support that, and scientists all over the world will accept it. Ofcourse, there are things as egos and "higher goods" that sometimes prevent the whole truth to come out, but generally I believe this system works, especially in due time. Sure, you might say that religion evolves as well. Just look at the enormous variety which exists amongst christian religions. I dare to state though that within one lifetime, not many people change religion more than once, if they ever change religion. This tells me that not many individuals will change their opinions, even if the proof is there. If these kinds of people are gathered within a religious group, then chances of them changing their minds will be even smaller. To illustrate the stubbornness of religions: in 1992 Pope John II admitted that Galileo Galilei was actually right when he stated in the 17th century that the earth was round, and not flat. 1992. That's 14 years ago, yes. Need I say more?
My apologies for the above interruption, and without further adue I move on. I think we covered the part about why religion exists: it's to answer questions and give explanations to things we cannot grasp. Sadly, religion is doing a poor job at this as well, but we cannot let that spoil our fun. Still, how painfully obvious it may seem that religion is not the answer, why is it that people stick to a certain religion? Or, as I stated in the introduction:
How does a religion survive?
First of all, man is stubborn. This may sound like a silly reason, but in actuality it is not. The innate stubbornness of humankind provides the species with continuity. As I said before, religion (or any other set of basic moral and conceptual rules) can be your foundation of how you view the world. In other words, it provides with a basic toolset to perceive what happens around you, and how you respond to it. If you'd change your basis like this, you can imagine that you might have to learn all over again how to perceive the world from that new point of view, and how to respond to things that happen around you. This would also render an important part of your memory databank useless, since those memories are built upon an old, from then on invalid ruleset. Those memories might generate very odd and incomprehensible output. So, changing your mind should not be done lightly, and certainly not without being conciously convinced that the newly accepted rule(set) is the right one.
Secondly, people have a strong notion of wanting to belong to a certain group. Religion is a good form of glue to keep people together. People of similar backgrounds traditionally stick together (whether the sticking together or the religion came first, I leave up to you to decide), mostly because it provides for solid grounds to relate; when your mindset (and with that your way of thinking, responding and ways of social behaviour) is close to that of other people, it's easy to live within such a community. Especially if religion is an active part of that community, the religion can keep itself alive very well, by being a cornerstone of that society.
Finally, and closely related to the last explanation, there are reasons that come very much from within the values of religions itself. One of the most important values of each religion is to honour and practice that religion actively. This ofcourse creates a self-satisfying system, not really allowing any room to move to another (or none) for any of the followers of that religion. Also, religions can contain explicit warnings, which tell you that abandoning your faith will lead to "bad things happening to you", now or in the afterlife (not going to heaven for instance, or reincarnating as a rat). Then, ofcourse, each religion is filled with promises that that particular religion will bring you enlightenment, peace, happiness, glory, power and riches, referring to simple dreams embraced by probably every single human being. Advertisement is nothing new, religion has embraced the cheapest form: holding a piece of candy in front of your face and "could you please sign here... in blood" was invented long before television (wow Mike, that's an amazing discovery!).
What kind of people "believe"?
Moving on to the next issue: what kind of people "believe"? Can we possibly grab someone's profile, without knowing anything of his/her religious background, and state correctly whether this person is religious or not? Let's see, what kind of information could be useful to determine such a fact:
- Educational level
- Rural or urban
Age is a funny one. There are different stages each person goes through during the course of his / her lifetime. There are different stages, during which a person can either rebel against the the morals, values and rules which are familiar to him / her, or periods where this person might actually seek out those old values to find peace in those things that are familiar and comforting.
Both a high IQ and educational level should, almost logically, imply less affinity with religion. An IQ test is a scientific tool, attempting to measure one's intelligence. An education (as defined in western terms) and natural insight into scientific matters will give you a high score on this test. But, does this mean you're intelligent? Well, I guess it does, but only because the test defines intelligence. An important issue to note though, is that people with higher IQ's tend to ask more questions (why...? what...?), and they are less likely to be satisfied with simple answers as "because god said so" or "it's written in the bible". Because of this, it's more likely for people with high IQ's to be inclined to think in a scientific way, wanting proof, than to accept a religiously based answer to their questions. I would love to see studies and statistics on this subject.
Next is wealth. Wealthy people are often just too busy to deal with religion. And if they do have the time, then they go overboard with it. Poor people on the other hand, they often need eachother, and need a strong bond between eachother to survive. This works just like I explained when discussing the "why" of religion, and gets reinforced if the need is there. It can both be comforting and uplifting to a community, as well as useful when it comes to caring for eachother and basically enhancing the primal instinct for survival of the group. This is not a necessity for wealthy people, as they can take care of themselves just fine; an important reason why religion isn't as popular in western countries compared to other parts of the world.
Another way to see who's more accepting towards religion is what kind of area they live in: rural or urban. This is quite obvious, I would say. In rural areas there's much more social control, so people keep an eye on eachother; they know who was and who wasn't in church last sunday. In urban areas life moves faster, people live more irregularly and will not accept having to go to church each sunday. On top of that, no one is watching them anyway, so skipping once or twice is not a problem... and becomes a habit.
Nationality then. I think that looking at religion form a national perspective makes much sense. Regions on the other hand can definitely say something. Compare for example the Benelux with the Middle East. I don't think this needs any further explaining.
And then finally, skincolour. A hot topic. Some people are just waiting to pin me down on racism and racial slurs. I can just say three things about it: people might be drawn to eachother because of their skincolour, and religion might enforce that bond. Also, skincolour relates to having a heritage from a certain region in the world, which I discussed before. The third thing is that on average, people with a non-caucasian skincolour are on average less wealthy than people with a caucasian skincolour, which relates to the wealth issue I already dealt with. So in a limited way, skincolour might have something to say about the level of affinity with religion, but hardly consists of more than a circumstancial pointer.
So, to sum this part up: yes, some of the forementioned properties can give you some idea about whether a person will be religious or not, and even say something about the power of that religion for that person. But, since we're human, we're always confusing and never completely predictable. So, these properties can be an indication, but not more than that.
What does evolution have to do with religion?
To jump to the next topic: what does evolution have to do with religion? I would like to discuss two major topics: how has religion evolved, and how does religion itself explain evolution.
The evolution of religion itself is hard to describe, since there are so many different religions who all have their own origin and evolved without any interaction between communities which practiced them. Most religions do share a few commonalities though:
- Their origin lies in times of primitive civilisations
- They try to explain life's questions
- Religions go hand in hand with habits and rituals
- One or more deities form the centre of the religions
- "Holy places" are a part of every major religion
- They support a form of afterlife
The first three issues are very important when it comes to evolution of religion. As the second statement poses, religion is an explanation for difficult or inexplicable issues, that keep our minds running in circles during our entire lifespan. Since religion fills up that void, and gives humankind something that nothing else (not even science) can do, it's something that humans hold on to very tightly; it's one of those certainties in life that can give you peace of mind. This conflicts heavily with the first statement though; if a certain concept is explained in an environment that lacks basic knowledge of the concept and its circumstances, then this explanation should be reviewed when the knowledge is available. But we are reluctant to change our views, so this change takes an enormous amount of time (often generations, since these views will not change in one person, but only next generations will accept the flaws in the earlier views - as I stated before, not many people change religion even once in their lifetime).
If you combine this all with the third statement, that habits, rites and rituals are embedded within every religion, and you consider that man is a creature of habit, you can see that evolution of religion is slow, intolerant and often completely against logics. This concurs with my earlier statement about catholicism and their recent discovery of the fact that the earth is indeed a sphere.
Ofcourse, most religions do not mention their own evolution. The religions have always been the same, will always be the same and are right and true in all their facets. Most religions are extremely criticising about everything, except the religion itself; not very introspective, so to speak. Mind you, most of them do mention their history, but that's fundamentally different from the evolution. The history will fail to mention changes within the views, except if the changes created a new (sub-) religion and the new religion tries to prove the fact that it's "better" than the old one (for example second testament versus first in christian religion).
Therefor, the only two sorts of evolutions mentioned by most religions are how the world and mankind were created, and how a person should "evolve" in his or her lifetime. The last kind is not mentioned much in christian religions, but more so in buddhism and other, more spiritually focussed religions.
The first type of evolution mentioned by religions is immensely interesting though. How did the world, nature, and everything in it, come to be. Once again, I will have to stick to christianity, since my knowledge on other religions simply falls short. I can promise nonetheless that it will remain interesting. Also note that christians refer to thier explanation for evolution as "creationism".
This name is explained by the start of christian evolution: god created the heaven and earth, and everything in it, in six days, and rested on the seventh.