Deep Thoughts on Religion

The best guess of science is that belief evolved as one of man’s first cognitive traits. Most likely it evolved with language, but that’s a guess. Until science is able to pin down the exact spots on the genome that control belief, which will never happen in our lifetime, all we have is speculation. What we know about language and belief says the two most likely evolved as complimentary traits and emerged very early in humans.

In our current age, we tend to think of belief as religion, specifically monotheism, like Christianity and Islam. It’s more accurate to think of religion as a subset of belief, which includes culture, altruism, faith in what others say and so on. There are lots of things we accept as a matter of faith that fall outside the supernatural. Belief is what allows acquired knowledge to be passed around and passed between generations.

Religion, like language, is an incredibly efficient storehouse of acquired knowledge. If you believe the tides operate on the digestive rhythms of the great invisible guppy beyond the horizon and you have jotted them down in the Book of Guppy, your people now have a very useful chart of the tides. It’s also easy to pass this knowledge from one generation to the next by teaching the great faith of the guppy to the children. The fact that there is no big invisible guppy is irrelevant.

The evidence we have suggests that the first religions were naturalistic. When you live off the land as hunter-gatherers, explaining the natural world is an important part of survival. The first “gods” were probably spirits associated with things early man observed in nature. The winds, the rains, thunder, lightning and the changing of the seasons would be things early humans would know and “explain” by associating them with the supernatural.

Fertility gods have been found in human settlements all over the world, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. What makes life possible is the reproductive urge. Associating human fertility with animal and plant fertility, the fertility of the earth, is just another way of storing what has been learned about the natural world, including the people in it, into a portable set of beliefs that can be passed onto the next generation.

Most likely, religion became more structured and the gods more human, when man began to settle and develop agriculture. Human settlement requires cooperation and that means rules of conduct, enforcement of the rules, ways to deal with free loaders, how to defend property and so on. Religion makes for a very useful way to establish rules and enforce them. After all, if the gods say stealing is wrong, then punishing thieves is pleasing to the gods. Religion, it would seem, is essential to human settlement.

Something people often forget is that a big part of man’s environment is other men. Just as we have evolved to be a social animal, our cognitive toolkit evolved to benefit the social animal. It’s entirely possible that our sense of belief, our religious urge is what drove man to settle. Once man was able to accumulate enough knowledge about the natural world, settling down in one place may have been a natural development.

One of the great challenges of evolutionary biology is knowing which way the causal arrows point. More often than not, they point in both directions. The point here is that belief is one of the more important and powerful parts of the human animal. It lies at the core of what we are and how we went from foraging about in packs like chimps to living as we do today. It also shaped how we settled and how we altered our environment, which in turn helped shape humanity.

Modern people like to think we have abandoned all of those primitive things like gods, superstitions, rituals intended to change the direction of events. Christianity has mostly died out in Europe. About 70% of Czechs never attend church services. Only 44% of Germans say they believe there is a God. Churches in the Low Countries are being auctioned off as they no longer have parishioners. The main area of the Thirty Years War is no longer Christian. Imagine that.

It’s tempting to think humans are losing their religiosity, but that’s not how biology works. We can no more consciously abandon belief than we could will ourselves to be left handed Bolshevism, Marxism, Nazism and Fascism competed for a while to be the new religion of Europeans. Now it is multiculturalism and the nature cults like global warming and environmentalism. If the news is correct, the American cult of anti-racism is finding a home in Europe as well.

In the early years of wide spread narcotic trafficking, well organized gangs that operated under strict rules ran the trade. They were violent and chaotic, but the violence and chaos was manageable. Then the cops decided to chop the heads off the drug gangs, thinking the organizations would die or be great diminished. Instead, the bits and pieces of the shattered organizations became block-by-block street gangs, making war with one another over drug corners and sneakers.

The collapse of Christianity in the West has followed a similar pattern. The various national and regional expressions of Christianity provided order and rationality to human belief. The slow motion collapse of these organizations resulted in crackpot death cults like Nazism, Marxism and Bolshevism. Today we have various forms of nature worship and minoritism, which are just as nutty and self-destructive, just less bloody so far.

J. B. S Haldane identified fanaticism as one of the four important inventions, which he associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. He was mistaken. The Greeks figured out that men would fight harder when they had a reason to fight. In all probability, fanaticism evolved not long after man had a reason to believe. Like belief, it is something that is a permanent feature of the human condition.

Humanity staggered along through the agrarian age with religions that helped make agrarian life sustainable. Christianity eventually allowed the West to advance beyond sustenance farming and finally became an asset in the rapid technological advance of the West. Whether or not the new religions will be an asset or the undoing of the West is impossible to know from where we sit. What we know is people will keep believing in something with some portion falling for it fanatically.

19 thoughts on “Deep Thoughts on Religion

  1. Figuring out how mankind adopted religion is one of those things that seems blindingly obvious to me. It’s just a logical evolution of human behavior.

    It all starts with self-awareness. From self-awareness, man then recognizes he can, through his direct actions, meaningfully affect his environment. However, man’s ability to directly affect his environment is limited. This then leads to two conclusions. First– if my ability to affect my environment is limited, this also implies my ability to perceive my environment is limited. Five senses are insufficient, and thus world I perceive is merely a subset of the entire world that I live in– “natural” vs. “supernatural” if you will, although that is a foolish misnomer when you bother to think about it, as it’s all “natural”. Second– just because I cannot directly perceive these hidden parts of the universe, doesn’t mean I can’t manipulate them, either (a) directly (by somehow tapping these powers and using them to affect that part of the world that I can perceive) or (b) indirectly (by appealing for the intercession of conscious entities that exist in the world, but are hidden to me. After all, just because these entities are hidden to me, doesn’t mean that I am hidden to them). From (a), man proceeds down the path of the Occult; from (b) man proceeds down the path of spirits and gods– nature spirits, forest and animal gods, then larger gods like the Egyptian/Greek/Roman gods, and finally the eventual logical conclusion, monotheism.

    “Religion” is simply the practical application of any and all of the above. As Engineering is to Science, Religion is to man’s growing understanding that there is a portion of the world that exists outside the boundaries of his limited faculties.

    Moving along, the modern crisis of Religion is easy to deduce. The first is obvious: as man’s ability to control his environment has increased exponentially in the last hundred years, so has his arrogance, and consequently his indifference to that which he cannot perceive or control. One simply cannot approach matters of spirituality or religion from a position of arrogance. The second is less obvious: being arrogant, we are ruled by the arrogant, and the arrogant adopt arrogant ideologies, like Marxism and Technocracy, which presume ideas like the perfectibility of man, the supremacy of man’s technical achievement, and the supremacy of the material world– i.e., the world that is encompassed solely by our senses and manual faculties.

  2. Christianity has a tortured history. In some cases the torture was literal. But nothing in it’s instruction manual supports unkindness, to the contrary. Islam demands barbarism. What Asian religions offer I do not much know. Ancestor worship seems to work for some. In general they seem to be philosophies of acceptance (obedience) more than they are religions.

    For better and for worse–and why not both?–Western Civ rode with Christianity. When Christians lost their faith they retained the sense of sin without the saving belief in redemption. We are left with Progressives.

    Tocqueville–
    Whenever among the opinions of a democratic nation you come across some of those evil theories which promote the belief that everything perishes with the body, you may consider men with such views as natural enemies of the people.
    If their system could be of some use to man, it would be in giving him a modest opinion of himself. But they do not demonstrate such a truth and when they think they have done enough to prove that they are brutish, they seem as proud as if they had demonstrated that they were gods.

  3. Good post, though I tend to agree with Karl Horst.

    Religion is something that is both extremely important and not important at all for a civilization.

    The best analogy I can come up with is the clothes people where. Fashions are an obvious way to distinguish yourself and the tribe you currently affiliate you, and mark you out from the crowd or make you indistinguishable. Clothes can be more or less comfortable, practical, smart or sloppy, or expensive. So in some ways clothes are a big deal. On the other hand, no one walks around naked (its been claimed that some very primitive tribesmen, such as on Tierra de Fuego, walk or walked around stark naked, but I’m skeptical about these claims and even if they are true this happens rarely, and with groups that are pretty much irrelevant). Everyone is going to wear clothes, and by wearing clothes you wind up making some sort of fashion statement. Its not really that difficult to change fashions.

    So Karl Horst has a good point that tech development closely tracks previous tech development and resource availability. The type of religion is irrelevant, though everyone has one. Christian Europe was behind other civilizations in tech for almost a thousand years, then surged ahead. People tried to tie this to Protestantism or the Enlightenment, but there were lots of other factors that were more credible. Catholic sailors and kingdoms did and exploited the voyages of discovery, Cortes entering Mexico City the same year that Luther posted the thesises, then it was Protestant Englishmen who first started digging up coal and burning it on a large scale. China, which historically doesn’t even fit within a monotheistic religious framework, has always been either slightly behind or slightly ahead of Christian Europe in tech. Moslem countries are now and have usually been well behind, but there was an extensive period where they were in the lead, and so on.

    However, there has always been different civilizations and different approaches to religion to be found on the European shores of the Mediterranean as opposed to the Asiatic and African shores. But the thing is, this pre-dates both Christianity and Islam. It was obvious during the wars between the Greeks and the Persians/ Phoenicians. Even in the centuries when Christianity was dominating the entire Mediterranean, there were big arguments over what seem to us to be incomprehensible points of doctrine, and as it turned out the Egyptians, Syrians, and Tunisians always lined up on one side in these quarrels and the Europeans on the other.

    This is incidental, but one thing that has distinguished Christianity is that once the highly bureaucratic government of the late Roman Empire got involved, the bulk of Christianity has been structured using the big drug lord model. In other religions, most notably Islam, the chaotic block-by-block model has been more prevalent.

    But I think Z Man is making too much of this.

  4. Absolutely love the posts on politics, history and culture. Real insights there. Whenever you wander into religion, you come off as just another insufferable atheist douche like Richard Dawkins. Deriding “the great invisible guppy” is the Zman doing some real Yankee culture signaling there — making sure the reader doesn’t mistake him for one of those icky Dirt People he often writes about. He just sympathizes with their political and cultural plight. Glad you got that straight.

  5. We already know what happens when Christianity is replaced by Islam. When Rome fell, the classical world continued on under Goth rule. And North Africa continued on as a prosperous area of trade and farming.

    When the Muslims took over there was that brief “golden age” we hear about (a generation of North Africans converted to Islam but not yet culturally Muslim). Then, a slow steady decline into goat-herding poverty, piracy, and tribal bickering.

  6. “Christianity eventually allowed the West to advance beyond sustenance farming and finally became an asset in the rapid technological advance of the West.” I would disagree.

    Take three examples all of which are on completely different continents; the Egyptians, the Aztecs and the Chinese. At their peek, all of these civilizations were well beyond sustenance farming without any influence from Christianity whatsoever as were their engineering and scientific capabilities. It wasn’t religion that held them back, it was only the lack of access to resources such as coal and iron that kept them from advancing. In fact, the Egyptian and Aztecs civilizations declined only after they encountered the Hebrews and the Christian Conquistadors. The Chinese, on the other hand, have shown what they are capable of doing economically under a communist policy that openly oppresses Christianity. Advancement is not about religion, its all about access to resources.

    Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom were all Christian and their empires have all declined. Was their decline because they were less religious or because they ran out of resources?

    • We can only know or even speculate about the role of Christianity in the West. Would ancient Egypt have been different if Christianity burst on the scene at the beginning of the Bronze Age in the Nile Valley? Surely, but how is impossible to know or even speculate about in any useful way. The same is true of China and the Aztecs.

      What we can know is that relatively soon after the West was fully Christianized, it began to rocket past the rest of the world technologically and culturally. It turns out that a belief in a fixed, orderly universe that one is compelled to discover and understand is a pretty good asset.

      • @ theZman – I won’t argue the benefits of Christianity from a personal perspective; I’m a born again Christian and an engineer by profession. But In James 2:20 “Wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” The idea is that faith alone won’t accomplish anything. To take this premise a step further, you can have all the faith in the world about traveling to the moon, but without the resources and the ability to turn them into a rocket ship, its just empty prayers. Conversely, it is still possible for secular man to accomplish great things, given the right resources. Your own founding fathers, some of whom where not Christian, gave the world one of the greatest secular documents in history.

        • @Karl

          A point I try to make is that Christianity expanded upon the Hebrew concept of a rational, immutable universe. The religions of man have always been occasional. God(s) could and did alter physical reality all the time. Muslims believe Allah can change nature and there’s no way for man to know when or why. When your faith drives you to discover the workings of a rational universe, technological advance is a grace of sorts. When your faith tells you that it is impossible to discover the workings of a rational universe, technological advance is impossible.

          I think there is something else to Christianity that allowed the West to rocket past the world. Christianity gave shape and limits to altruism. Trust in strangers is only possible in a world of transcendent rules enforced by the ultimate of judges. On the one hand, this allowed the natural altruism of Western people to flourish in the form of commerce, markets, contracts, the law, etc. On the other hand, Christianity provided a brake on this trait. That’s what missing with the obsession of our elites with regards to ministering to the barbarians. They can’t think of a reason to say no.

          • @ theZman – If you read Job from chapter 38 through 41, it starts in 38:4 with “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” In the next few chapters God goes on to question Job about chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, oceanography and just about every topic of science. I think it was God’s way of saying, “Here’s a list of questions. Now go use that amazing brain I gave you, use some of that logic and reason that came with it, and go figure it out.” 🙂

      • An interesting aspect for me is that in the UK in the ‘age of enlightenment’ was the most prevalent ‘first’ profession of many prominent scientists, discoverers and even the students of other cultures was that they were vicars. The way the Church of England organised itself was to basically give money and a decent house to people who, once or twice a week, would read a sermon in church. As they were not particularly ‘humanitarian’ in the way most people might think of preachers and so on, they had lots of free time to study obtuse things. I believe the first person, at least the first English speaker, to compile a dictionary of the Icelandic language was am English country vicar. As he probably had no intention of actually going to Reykjavik to preach it was purely an intellectual exercise that he could devote considerable time to, without distraction.

        If this was a key part of the intellectual root of the age, and from then on the Industrial Revolution, it was a clever system that not only didn’t decry God or his works, but allowed human beings to move forward.

        • A great book: How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill,, brings us from Rome to the Middle Ages but shows the power of a few clerics with time on their hands.

  7. In general, people who believe themselves to be free of religious belief fall prey to unquestioning belief more often than any other, and defend it as if it were their inheritance. Which, unfortunately, it will be.

  8. Somebody, maybe C.S. Lewis or Chesterton said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in everything.”

    Whether or not there is a God, that has turned out to be true.

  9. Hi Z-Man:
    Your blog is incredible. Modern day Plato. As for the genome marker for “beliefs”, could you please Google “V-MAT gene”. There is a gene sequence motivator.
    Thank you.

    • My complaint about the God Gene approach is that belief is narrowly defined as belief in the super natural. Belief in the worker’s paradise of communism is no less a belief because it lacks the super natural.

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