Saturday, October 16, 2010

Good Sides of Religion?

I shall respond to some of your comments (it's only fair that I do) and clarify a few things. For now, I will write a separate post, but I might reorganise it later.

First of all, I do not intend to make this an anti-religion site, but a pro-reason one. Religion just happens to be what I am interested in at the moment, and it's a very popular subject. I am not trying to demonise it, but to study it objectively. Perhaps religion was a wrong choice, as it is a complex matter, and I should have started with something simpler, but there's no use crying over spilled milk now. In my next few posts, I will try to get everyone familiar with the "background" and make a case for certain assumptions that I use. Until then..


Usefulness of religion is debatable but irrelevant. I am interested in the truth, not usefulness. Sam Harris said in a debate once that it would be very useful to indoctrinate children with the idea that they have to study science or they will be devoured by a demon, yet no one is doing it. Indeed, the usefulness of religion is irrelevant to the religious folk as well. I've never heard anyone say that they believe something because it's useful. Usefulness only joins the argument when someone is trying to defend religion, claiming that it is responsible for certain good things too and that it provides answers to questions that (they think) no one else can answer. I disagree on both accounts. I can't think of a truly good thing that religion is responsible for, that did not cause more evil than good. As for the provision of certain answers, this is a bit complicated issue and I will deal with it in detail in some other post. For now, let's take a moment to bask in the words of Bertrand Russell, a man I greatly admire.


A common argument is that of morality i.e. that a good thing religion did is that it spread and/or invented morals. This argument is so lame that it should be ridiculed. On what grounds does one claim that the morality of their religion is superior to any other morality? Because a book says that something called God thinks it is superior? Assuming he exists, why should I think that he is right? How could God possibly convince me? Do you remember the Euthyphro dilemma? "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?" Think about that for a moment. Imagine standing in front of God and asking him "God, why should I accept your moral code?" and he answers either "Because I say so" or "Because it is the right thing to do". Without analysing whether or not these answers mean the same thing, I can say that they are both meaningless. I will address morality in detail at some later point, and further invalidate such arguments.


I did not say that the world would be at peace if it were void of religion nor am I so naive to believe it. Religion does not necessarily cause war. For example, it is quite reasonable to believe that the Crusades, or something equivalent, would have happened anyway, if it weren't for Christianity. However, religion is like a drug that makes soldiers more obedient and makes them do things they otherwise would not. When a leader wishes to wage a war people are more likely to support him if they believe that his word is God's word and you don't question God. We all know from experience that there are certain things only religious soldiers can do. Religion doesn't cause war, but it makes supersoldiers.

Old friends.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Origins and Evolution of Religion

As it is a rather popular topic, I decided to write some more about this repulsive antithesis of reason. You might find this post boring but it might give some more insight into why religion is the way it is. Perhaps you will find interesting the fact that evolution of religion mirrors greatly the evolution of living creatures. Bear that in mind while reading this.


The right eye of a giant bird-god.
..Or it's a large ball of hydrogen.
The first "religious" memes came into existence when a member of some primitive tribe of apes claimed that they figured out some of the following: volcanoes, thunder and lightning, the wind, the Sun, the Moon, the stars, disease etc. Their explanations included magic, giant/invisible humanoids, anthropomorphic animals etc. (Most of them have since left religion because science explained it all.) Some of the reasons why people come up with and spread such nonsense, include:

  • Desire to impress or deceive (cf. "bullshit")
  • Mental disorders
  • Mushrooms, yopo, virola, cannabis ...

The first one listed being by far the strongest. I rarely encounter people who readily admit that they do not know, they bullshit instead. Impressing others is of vital importance to the continuation of the species, and no one is impressed by ignorance.

But why would anyone believe any of it? Well, the human brain is not perfect, it's a kludge. We tend to believe authority figures (especially when we are children), we tend to conform to the majority, we make plenty of logical fallacies, we tend to not understand large numbers, probabilities etc. I will come back to this point in a future post.

The crucial meme of religion is the idea that death is actually not the end of life. It's a very pleasing idea to someone whose main fear is death*. It is so pleasing that it is almost certain to occur and spread.

The first religion is formed by connecting several such memes. E.g. "when you die, you join the bird-god".
*Fear of death and desire to live are products of evolution. People who have neither tend to die without progeny, it's as simple as that.


Once you have this basic "organism" called religion, the evolution takes care of the rest. New memes can be added and mutations can occur on existing memes, changing them a little bit. This organism will be attacked by reason and by other religions that contradict it. Its fate is either to perish, as the vast majority of religions have, or to evolve. Religions today are the lucky ones that have evolved rather than perished. Just like living organisms, they have adapted to their surroundings.

A nice example are the Abrahamic religions. A mutant child called Christianity was born and it had Hell, and eternal love and forgiveness. It might not make much sense but that does not matter. It works. That's why it's still there. If you join them, they promise salvation and if you don't, they promise eternal fire. It is an effective weapon against atheism, agnosticism and many religions. The other offspring, Islam, was born with additional mutations: Muhammad was the last prophet and apostasy means death. These are even more effective. Had any peaceful religion been born in that area in place of Islam it would have perished. Islam, and religion in general, is a product of its surroundings.