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Entry 23 – Religion: why so fit?

January 19, 2010

A dear family member of mine, who will remain nameless to protect the guilty, over the holidays asked me two poignant questions regarding my entries thus far. 

1.  “What do you think of the recent evolutionary biology literature related to trying to find an “adaptive benefit” to religion?”

2.  “Given that religion is so obviously fanciful and downright silly – think virgin birth, resurrection after death, single person inexplicably also 3 people, etc. – why do so many people – really, almost everybody on the planet – profess belief in it to some degree?” 

Getting out of the way, up front, that I am in no way, shape, or form close to being an evolutionary biologist, nor claim any kind of expertise in how I like to refer to it as,  ‘meme‘ transfer, (Richard Dawkins originally coined the term), I thought it would be a good exercise to explore these questions a bit further for my post today. 

My reaction to the first question is that I think it’s as fascinating, as it is ironic.  Especially when you consider how visceral a reaction you get from some Christians when you even mention the ‘e’ word (evolution), in any context.  Evolution of thought and consciousness is something that I think should be of interest to all of us, and something I am looking forward to in this life hearing more about.  Scientists discovering the inner workings of the animal mind; what’s not to like?!  And while I think sometimes the conclusions of the studies are a bit over-reaching, they are nonetheless incredibly interesting.  I wouldn’t be surprised if in our lifetimes scientists discover a suite of ‘god genes’, if you will, in all populations of people the world over.   

As to the second question, I think religion in general, and Christianity in particular, appeals to a wide audience because of its ability to tell a compelling story.  If we humans on planet Earth are all completely honest with ourselves and each other, we are incredibly gullible for a great story.  We flock to movie theatres in droves to see plot driven accounts of two people ‘finding’ each other and falling in love, despite all the odds (think ‘The Notebook’, ‘Titanic’, ‘Casablanca’, etc.).  We beg our spouse, family, and friends to spin us a good ‘yarn’ at the dinner table.  We watch crime dramas, reality TV shows, and situation comedies on television like it’s going out of style. 

As simple as it sounds, religion, in all its forms, as I see it, is just the ultimate story telling experience.  And its ability to persist in our memetic code, if you will, is testament to its ability to weave a cast of characters so full of tragedy and redemption that we keep coming back for more.  Oral or written, these stories have been, and still are, embellished, embraced, toned down, tuned up, canonized, choreographed, you name it, to appeal to a wide array of people wanting to be entertained.  And believing in these stories is comforting.  Let’s face it.  The story about an afterlife where you zoom around on a Jesus scooter on streets paved with gold takes a certain ‘edge’ off of the cold, hard reality that we are all mortals, and waiting to die at some point in our lives. 

There are so many wonderful books out there that speak to this very subject of our willingness to believe these stories.  A few that spring to mind are Carl Sagan’s classic, ‘The Demon Haunted World’ or Michael Shermer’s ‘Why People Believe Weird Things – Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of our Time’.  I don’t think I can really add more to the ‘equation’ so to speak than what these wonderful treatises on why we believe what we do have already contributed. 

I will say this though, as strange as I might look at the possibility of anything being born of a virgin, resurrecting from the dead, or inhabiting 3 different states of being, I am fully convinced that these same people that do believe in these things that I find quite strange, find me NOT believing in them equally strange. 

Let me say that again, the same people that believe in these, what appears to me to be strange and fanciful, supernatural stories, are most likely looking at me with an equally strange stare of NOT believing in same said stories.  

And it is at this nexus, this intersection, that I think the conversation between me and the true believer in these supernatural stories can make some ‘headway’ if you will.  I want to try and have some understanding on both sides of the aisle, so to speak.  I want there to be an honest discussion of the reasons for these beliefs, or the lack there of.  I don’t want to spend time name calling or trying to make people who think these stories true to be strange (according to my viewpoint) or feel like a moron, or any less of a person.  Most likely there are reasons for why people believe what they do.  It’s really just a matter of trying to understand why, while not making this same person feel inferior or less than intelligent for holding said belief. 

What do you think?  Am I being a bit naive on this point?  Am I capitulating too much to the ‘other side’?  Is this too ‘Pie in the Sky’ mentality to think that an honest discussion can occur on such topics? 

Curious to know your thoughts, and thanks for stopping by,


3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2010 7:52 am

    Actually, examining the history of religions, I believe that their origins spout from much more than just a good story to tell. (BTW, be careful of the negative connotations of the word “gullible,” especially if you don’t want to offend the faithful in your heart-felt discussion.) I believe religions come from an innate sense of trying to understand the world in which all humans must live, even though that world is, at least sometimes, beyond human comprehension.

    For example, the original spirits and gods came from animism–a belief that anything with movement has a soul. From a pre-scientific point of view, this makes quite a lot of sense. When a person would see the wind move through the leaves on a tree, something had to be making those leaves move, even though the wind itself is completely invisible. Thus, with no scientific data or even instruments to measure that data, a spirit or god of the wind was born. The same case can be made for every single observable scientific phenomenon–the sun’s rising in the east, the wave’s lapping against the shore, the rain’s falling from the heavens, etc. Hence the gods of the sun, the sea, and the rain.

    Of course, ironically, this point of origin is the exact same point of origin of all the great scientific discoveries–wanting to know WHY an observable phenomenon is occurring. (Maybe the two sides aren’t that far apart after all.)

    I believe that in the human being such an innate desire of wanting to know the WHYs of the world still very much exists. It just so happens that some answer this very basic question of human existence with religious stories of faith, whereas others answer it with scientific data. Others, sadly, choose not to try at all.

    I would simply warn both sides not to discount the other completely. For man to believe he has all the answers wrapped up completely concerning an infinite and unfathomable universe–whether those answers come through religion or science–would be nothing more than utter arrogance.

  2. Anonymous permalink*
    January 24, 2010 7:30 am

    Nicely put, Rob.

    Your point on my “gullible” comment is well taken. I do agree that this word carries negative connotations, and most likely deserves to be relegated to the ‘corner’, so to speak, in these kinds of discussions. I certainly didn’t mean to offend. I think I was just trying to emphasize how much humans like good stories, myself included.

    I also appreciate you pointing out my glaring omission of the very important animistic elements of religion’s origins. The wind, sun, waves, and rain were all great examples of how a god or spirit can arise out of trying to explain observable phenomena.

    I am curious though about your statement on our ‘innate desire of wanting to know the WHYs of the world’ and the three ways of handling this desire; faith, science, or apathy. I agree we all to some degree have this desire to know why. It seems to me, however, that many with religious faith, at least in this country, are becoming more and more prone to rejecting what science ‘brings to the table’ and simply going straight for the ‘God did it’ route. And vice versa, people of strictly scientific persuasions, reject all semblance of taking things on faith, and think at some point we’ll have explanations for how all this around us came to be.

    I guess my first question is, do you think we need to be concerned about people who reject science because it interferes with their religious worldview? And my second is, do we need to be equally concerned with people who reject religion because it interferes with their scientific worldview?

    I think your last paragraph is something both sides need to take into consideration. Arrogance, whether it be from a sacred text, or a textbook, is a dangerous tactic. We human beings don’t have all the answers. Never have, and most likely never will. It would just be nice to see both sides admit it, and admit it openly.

    Thanks again for your comment, Rob. Really appreciate it!


  3. Justin permalink
    February 3, 2011 10:51 am

    I don’t think there is much benefit of maintaining dialogue with many theists. Most of their religious views seem irrational and unwavering. You can not convince them that there is room for another point of view, and your profound thoughts and discoveries would be wasted on them. I know I sound kind of preachy right now but I speak out of my own experience. I used to debate religion every day and have found that it was in the end a fruitless effort. People need to discover these things for themselves, all we can do is put that thought in their head that there is another way.

    I believe that if we continue to teach respect for knowledge and truth above all things, that more people would eventually become atheists. They need, however, to arrive at this conclusion on their own.

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