The nature and history of religion

Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.  

 – Bertrand Russell

If the ignorance of nature gave birth to such a variety of gods, the knowledge of this nature is calculated to destroy them.  

 – Baron d’Holbach

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.  

 – Friedrich Nietzsche

Religion was humanity’s first attempt to explain the nature of the world, since without understanding science, how other than with gods and superstitions were ancient persons expected to comprehend the phenomena within the world around them? In such absence, mysticism and superstition are the forgivable ignorance from which religions of all stripes were born. The origins of religion are, I think, therefore completely understandable. Since the advent of modern science, however, religion has lost its purported ability to explain the nature of reality, and has thus been reduced to a matter of faith, as which it continues to endure as a thing which most people, despite the evidence of science, still desire to see proven valid. Religion persists in this way, in my opinion, due to four primary factors, which I view as the central reasons why people maintain religious beliefs which are contrary to logic and evidence.

First, religions typically predicate a perfect God, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, who not only loves us but has a plan for us. Second, they typically provide a basis for belonging, along with an identity by which to define ourselves. Third, they provide simple answers to questions about the nature of the universe so complex that even modern science cannot explain. And fourth, people on the whole don’t have an education in science, nor ambition to pursue one, due to which it’s easier to be ensconced by comforting religion than accept unfamiliar science, particularly when the truths which science discovers dispel illusions which people very much enjoy and would, if given a choice, prefer to retain. Therefore, in my view, it’s these factors which enable religions to promote themselves within societies, recruiting believers despite having at best terrible evidence to support their doctrines.

If this is true, to discuss the nature and history of religion means to discuss the main factors behind why people have believed, and still believe, in superstition and mysticism even though we now have good reasons not to. Further, since, in my view, it’s the main factors just mentioned which most compel people toward religious belief, they seem the most suitable framework for analysing this question. Thus, the following post will be structured according to them in the order above.

Before beginning, however, it’s worth pointing out that the reason why these primary factors are so effective in compelling religious belief has, in my opinion, little at all to do with religion itself. Rather, religion owes a debt of gratitude to the world for being such an unjust and imperfect place, because it’s not so much religion that wins people to belief, but the techniques religions provide for enduring the harsh realities of life, of which history has always played host to many. For instance, corruption is common and good people are bankrupted and foreclosed on everyday due to the greed and villainy of banks and insurance firms. Children starve to death because warlords control food supplies as a means of maintaining authority and recruiting soldiers to their militias. Women are stoned to death because they’re raped by men, the preposterous justification being that they brought it on themselves with lascivious behaviour. And, on the streets of the world, homeless people sleep during the day because it’d be too dangerous at night. Indeed, when these are but some of the world’s grim conditions, it’s small wonder that the primary factors compel belief in the comforts of religion amidst the terrors of reality.

However, these benefits are not the only things which the primary factors produce. Indeed, their benefits, and by extension the benefits of religion, are in fact dwarfed by the many concomitant detriments by which I think they’re necessarily accompanied. Therefore, when analysing the causes of religious belief in the age of modern science, I think that a further question should also naturally arise when discussing the primary factors which compel religious belief: are religion’s benefits worth its detriments? This, as I see it, is the next logical question to ask once we understand why people believe in things for which there’s no good evidence, since if those beliefs were absurd, but brought overall happiness and benefits to believers, a good case could surely be made to retain religions despite their falsity.

However, if, as I’ll attempt to show, religions are actually more detrimental than beneficial; and if, as I’ve touched on above and will expand on below, religious beliefs aren’t based on truth and have no compelling reason to retain or promote them, there should then be no good cause to defend religions or argue that they should continue to exist, since they’re both false and on the whole detrimental. Thus, in addition to analysing the primary factors which compel religious belief, I’ll also use them to try and illustrate that religion’s benefits are at least equalled or exceeded by its detriments. While one might now argue that this approach is wrong because religion’s many benefits and detriments are too numerous and diverse to explore in entirety, religion’s greatest benefits surely lie with the main factors which compel belief, as the greatest benefits give the greatest cause to pursue and maintain religiousness.

Therefore, since religion’s many benefits and detriments are indeed too broad to all be presently discussed, using its greatest benefits and whatever detriments they paradoxically require as a gauge by which to predict the probable helpfulness or harmfulness of religion overall should suffice for our current purpose, in lieu of a totally comprehensive assessment of every benefit and detriment religion entails. Thus, to analyse why people hold religious beliefs and whether religion is beneficial or detrimental for believers, it makes most sense to me to use the primary factors which compel belief as a framework for the coming discussion. However, in addition to and as a useful segue for the coming discussion, it’s worth first noting one final piece of our framework – that religion’s origins directly contradict what it’s become.

Historically, as I touched on before, religion was initially sensible. Based on what people observed and without science to provide answers, it was the best explanation human beings could conceive. In fact, if you place religion and science anywhere it should be in connection, since religion was the first instance of the scientific impetus to provide answers for ourselves about the unexplained properties and events of the world. The problem, however, is that as our knowledge and understanding evolved beyond the need for religion, most societies and their people didn’t follow in kind. We invented polytheism because it made sense, some then saw greater sense in monotheism, but despite the subsequent advent and progress of modern science religion has endured, which begs the question, why?

Why were we content to invent religions but can’t bear to abandon them now that science has provided genuine answers to the mysteries they originally sought to explain? Why do we happily give priority to faith instead of knowledge? And why do we readily esteem the moral reasoning of people from bygone ages of utter ignorance ahead of our own? These questions clearly relate to how the primary belief-compelling factors impel religiosity over rationality, reinforcing that we are apt to use these factors as a framework for discussion when analysing the causes for religious belief. With that, then, let’s begin.

In my mind, the primary factors compel people to be religious, to esteem belief above reason and to neglect one’s own rationality for that of people from profoundly ignorant times, because it’s easy and comforting. Indeed, in large part, the primary factors and the benefits they offer plainly impel us toward belief due to how easy and comforting it is.

As for the first factor that compels belief in religion – the prospect of and belief in God – its inducement to faith despite evidence is simple. In a complex world, where people endure great hardship, it’s enticing to embrace the beauty and simplicity of a religion which says you’re special, you’re loved and you have waiting for you a blissful life after death so long as you follow certain doctrines. For most people, this makes religion very much desirable despite its logical faults. However, despite its desirability, this notion is at least as harmful as it is helpful, since people often deny themselves ambitions and jeopardise their wellbeing due to religious imperatives. Indeed, the world abounds with bereaved families who lost loved ones to whom they chose to deny necessary medical treatment due to religious beliefs.

Similarly, there would be too many people to count who, due to religious doctrines, refrained from friendships and careers which might have otherwise provided the great loves and passions of their lives, as well as many other similar deprivations. Indeed, in my view, it’s reasonably clear that unfalsifiable religious beliefs which run contrary to common sense and facts of science distract people from genuine understanding of themselves and the world which they inhabit. Consequently, this prevents them from appreciating the true nature of reality, compelling them to instead choose to engage with poignant and comforting falsehoods, sometimes with truly damaging consequences.

It therefore follows that although accepting religions due to the prospect of God and the benefits this prospect may provide does offer peace of mind, this comes at the cost of proper understanding and the ability to live in the manner we choose, free from the arbitrary and often illegitimate constraints of the religious preachments which so often lead people astray. Truly, the balance of detriments and benefits is at least equal, if not much more heavily detrimental. Thus, I believe it’s clear that, on inspection, the so-called benefits provided by the first primary belief-compelling factor are certainly negated by the detriments they entail, if not exceeded.

To the second primary belief-compelling factor – the invitation to belong to a community and an identity by which to define ourselves – its advantage is equally straightforward. When most people are religious in one way or another, as is and has always been the case in most and perhaps all societies, it’s rather easy to have faith, since doing so is to be in the majority, where, for the most part, we’re shielded from ridicule. In offering a means to belong and by having followers develop a community, religion becomes not only acceptable and convenient, but often necessary, since being irreligious is to be different, and to thereby expose oneself to alienation and ostracism. Certainly, when the consequences of unbelief are so serious, it’s easy to appreciate why many people overlook the nonsensicalities of religion in order to belong and live happily.

However, the insincerity of this kind of belonging is strikingly obvious: not inspired by genuine bonds of friendship or solidarity, but by a fear of isolation – though certainly genuine relationships could also still develop by happenstance. People will no doubt grow accustomed to these situations, but this explains the circumstances of this belonging without removing the facts that it’s inauthentic and designed so that people don’t pay attention to religion’s many absurdities. It becomes clear, I think, that to define oneself by attachment to religion is unnatural, because it requires and forbids many harmless human propensities, limiting our very nature. And while a person may contend that religions can be a force for good, prohibiting murder, theft, and so on, we should consider two things.

First, these are entirely common sense conclusions which people by no means need religion to figure out. And second, slavery, infanticide and murder (with certain conditions) are just some examples of abominable actions that religions have advocated that aren’t even compatible with basic morality. Thus, while religious doctrines doubtless have some merit in promoting ethics, far from being a purely positive force for morality, religions have actually been, and in some ways continue to be, obstacles to human decency.

If these assertions are true, as I think they are, given how regularly religious doctrines have conflicted, and still conflict, with moral and libertarian philosophy (like regarding the rights of homosexuals and women, for instance), human beings defining themselves by adherence to religion is, in my view, tantamount to suppressing or at least restricting one’s own nature. I admit that the reasons why people demean themselves in this way are somewhat tempting, but still unambiguously unacceptable, since the benefits provided are nullified or surpassed by corresponding detriments. Therefore, the second primary factor meets the fate of its predecessor, entailing detriments that can’t be justified by the limited and questionable benefits it provides.

For the third factor – that religion provides simple answers to complicated questions – its inducement to belief is basically axiomatic. By employing answers founded on fantastical premises and by indulging people with self-aggrandising chicanery, religion offers simple answers to the mysteries of the world, some of which even modern science can’t yet totally explain, including the origins of life and the universe. Because of human vanity and our preference for simplicity, it’s unsurprising that most of us accept these conclusions, undisturbed by their illogical, supernatural and downright untenable character.

For instance, the idea that humans have a soul that no other species possesses which allows us to enter Heaven; the idea that we are capable of reincarnation; and the idea that in all the vastness of the universe, we were specifically chosen by some benevolent creator to be their worshippers and primary benefactors are just a few of the wildly doubtful notions, without any good supporting evidence, on which different religions are based. They’re not just unlikely, but radically implausible, and yet we happily accept them despite their contradiction to the known evidence, facts and laws of science, and this is considered permissible in society because it’s the norm, making blind, unreasoned faith socioculturally justifiable.

It’s an excellent and perhaps unparalleled example of ad populum, capacitated by people’s preference for comforting illusion over critical rationality. This is the essential and disturbing point at which faith supersedes knowledge, for which people are directly and wilfully responsible. In sum, it’s plain, I think, that the third primary belief-compelling factor provides comforting illusions at the expense of genuine understanding, with detriments dramatically exceeding its unimpressively marginal benefits.

The fourth and final factor – widespread scientific illiteracy and people’s lack of ambition for an education in science – is also easily understood and clearly related to the third factor just discussed above, but less of a benefit to believers than an explanation of their belief. Hence, its analysis has less to do with the question of religion’s beneficence and more to do with the causes for religious belief, though it certainly relates to religion’s detriments through its relation to the third factor discussed above.

While, of course, scientific illiteracy varies from nation to nation, the principle that science yields to religiousness pervades many and perhaps all countries to one degree or another. Problems arise when science is deprioritised in society, and relegated to the shelf of extraneous information and esoteric minutiae. Much like how people can justify belief in absurdities when lots of others do it too, denying the ambition and need for science becomes easy as it becomes common. The quality of science education, always entwined with the vibrancy and popularity of science itself, deescalates such that obtaining a science education, wherever people are inclined to it, remains possible, but of poorer quality than we ought to want.

This harms both the present and the future, since it impoverishes the accessible wealth of knowledge and the hands in which it’s contained, both of which continually diminish in number and quality. Incidentally, the infirmity can propagate, broadening and deepening until it becomes virtually unsolvable, except for extravagant and fortuitous occurrences which seize attention back toward science and knowledge, contrary to the dominant currents of society. These often manifest in the startling and brilliant revelations of history’s geniuses, whose inspiring examples revitalize young people’s desire to make discoveries of their own. However, such figures remain frustratingly rare.

For the most part, trends like these continue and can grow to diabolically harmful proportions, during which times religion rises as a brand of thought entirely consistent with the spirit of fantasy, self-deception and willful ignorance. And as it works to embed itself tenaciously in societies, generating and tightening its sinews more firmly, religion becomes difficult to repel, and harder still to remove, especially when the greatest tool against it is the knowledge of science that’s been erstwhile rarefied. Therefore, the decline of science enfranchises the waiting religiousness which resides in all societies, eliminating or at least undermining the essential tool by which religion ought to be invalidated and removed.

Evidently, when lack of science has these consequences for people and societies at large, it’s unsurprising that religion becomes bitter, hostile and persecutorial against even rudimentary advances of science which encroach upon religious doctrines and the purview of answers which religions seek to dominate, including the origin and nature of life and the universe. In such times, when religion reigns and science has been marginalised, zealotry and fundamentalism become quite easy, the prevailing outcome of which is that ignorance dominates knowledge, often inciting trends with terrible outcomes which are difficult to reverse. Without need to dwell on it further, this factor plainly invites dreadful detriments of magnitude far beyond the extremely limited comforts offered by simple religious answers to reality’s great mysteries. And though it’s not fair to lay these detriments squarely on religion’s doorstep, there’s no doubt an obvious relation to religion insofar as religion conflicts with, and seeks to combat, science and its progress.

Therefore, it seems palpably clear that religion’s more detrimental than beneficial, as evinced by no less than its most essential benefits. Importantly, it appears self-evident that if religion were proven untrue, i.e., if the notions of gods and miracles were annihilated, there would remain no good reason to persist with religion. This, in my opinion, is the situation which humankind presently faces, as the rise of science has eliminated much of the ignorance which inspired religion, answering the questions which religions were first contrived to explain, thus removing all reason to maintain religious dogmas. Hence, I believe it’s time we discard religion and embrace the reality which science is revealing.

Though it’s therefore clear, in my view, that religions are essentially harmful and ignorant institutions with which we have no good reason to persist, there’re many further condemnations one can level against them. While these are not central to whether religious doctrines are true and beneficial, discussing them, or at least a few of the outstanding ones, will, I think, reinforce the conclusions I’ve so far attempted to draw.  Thus, in addition to the primary belief-inducing factors and their necessary detriments, it’s worth discussing two aspects of religion.

First, the role of states in its continuance; and second, the manner in which religions disseminate their doctrines and proselytise future believers. By its nature, the state as a mechanism compels conformity, while discouraging or even punishing nonconformity. This is fortunate for religion, which, as a popular aspect of most and perhaps all societies, is therefore endorsed by the state in order to help sustain stability and control. Though it can be, this isn’t necessarily a conscious decision made by figures of authority, but rather a natural, unconscious outcome of the way institutions of power and mass psychology interact in society. Things which upset the status quo are repressed, while things which support it are encouraged.

However, this assumes that all countries separate church and state, when, in fact, a great many don’t. In these cases, where states need not be subtle and vicarious, they simply support religion directly and obviously. The Maldives, for example, directly predicates an official, mandatory religion, observance of which is a legal requirement. However, not all countries without separation of church and state are so direct, as there’re ways of unofficially and more subtly establishing a state religion which handily circumvent the pesky secularism which democracies now tend to require to at least appear rational. For example, while, at last check, Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia don’t legislate Islam as their official, obligatory religion, they enshrine Islamic doctrines in their constitutional law, which, compared to establishing an outright official religion, is equally effective and better concealed. Further, the people who enforce the law in these countries are deeply religious and entwine their enforcement of the law with their religious sensibilities, creating another means by which religion is subtly made into law.

While there’s therefore a distinction between the manner in which religion is co-opted in putatively democratic societies, like Australia, and in more authoritarian societies, like the Maldives and Saudi Arabia, when you look at the situation it becomes clear, I think, that this difference is somewhat superficial. Only the particular means of distribution and the consequences for unbelief are different, while the principles of spreading religion and discouraging unbelief remain constant. Overall, it appears that between the supposedly modern, democratised West and the countries it considers radical and authoritarian, like Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s little or no difference, in principle, in the way that the states promote and support religious belief.

This is even more striking if you consider that Australia is supposedly a fairly irreligious and irreverent country, and yet in principle isn’t overly different from those states it regards as fundamentalist and fanatical. Even more striking, if we compared the Maldives and Iran with, say, England or the U.S., even the superficial means of distribution and consequences for unbelief aren’t as dissimilar as in the case of Australia, as there have been now for some time large and growing elements of fundamentalism in both the U.K. and the U.S., a parallel I find rather disquieting. Thus, in light of this, I think we should further consider the techniques and mechanisms by which religions are subtly and vicariously endorsed by supposedly secular states in order to see how we can prevent this from occurring.

More or less, this state-condoned endorsement begins with parents passing belief systems to their children. Perhaps most of all this is dangerous to people’s ability to question and think critically about religion, to not only have it introduced at such an impressionable age, but by those we most trust and least expect to deceive or mislead us. No doubt, by this early teaching religion can become so embedded in our psychology that to extricate ourselves is an imposing task. Indeed, this is one of the few kinds of childhood indoctrination not only tolerated but condoned by the democracies of the world. From here, it’s a matter of sustaining that belief, which religion does for us, promoting itself in society so that it can survive, just like all organisms naturally try to preserve themselves. Though religions might call this ‘saving’ or ‘enlightening’ people, it does nothing more, as we’ve seen, than sustain religions and their institutions.

However, this isn’t to suggest that the motives behind proselytising are entirely sinister. On the contrary, I expect that the people on whom religions depend for proselytising newcomers are more or less guided by a sincere desire to help others. But good intentions alone can’t justify preaching falsehoods, even if you believe them to be the true means of ‘salvation’. For even the most congenial heart, when equipped with falsehoods, will harm those it intends to help, since kind intentions are inconsistent with spreading untruths and as if they were facts. Likewise, the actual manner in which religion is disseminated also helps to illustrate why this state-condoned religious indoctrination is necessarily harmful, even if unintentionally so.

Considering how religion is spread, it’s obvious that it relies on a fashion of demagoguery which would be deplored if used by other institution to win support for a cause or belief. People are guaranteed that there’s a God, a Heaven and a Hell, and that if you don’t follow certain teachings you’re bound to damnation, all of which stands supported by no serious evidence. Certainly, it’s easy to see why many people feel that such things are worth serious consideration, particularly when they are pronounced by movements which are supported by the majority of the population, including your own families, and condoned by the state. In this there’s yet another telling parallel, since there’s striking similarity between how religions obtain support and how propaganda sensationalises information and defrauds the public to win support for the state’s favourite ambitions when it’s concerned that if the people are given the facts they might unfortunately think for themselves and come to conclusions with which people with power wouldn’t be pleased. Without labouring the point, the similarity’s quite telling.

Therefore, I think the way religion disseminates its doctrines is clearly harmful and immoral. These are the reasons I think religion is apt to be abandoned, but, before concluding and in the interest of balance, it’s worth dissecting just one argument often used in this situation to defend the manner in which religion tends to distribute its doctrines, or at the very least the way Christianity does.

A religious person may contend that, contrary to my suggestion above, religion doesn’t use the prospect of Hell as a tool for demagoguery, suggesting instead that ‘there’s no Hell, only Heaven, and that God’s all-loving and all-forgiving.’ Of course, if this were true and were an espoused teaching, the argument above would take a heavy blow. Fortunately, however, this contention invites a paradox which protects my prior argument while actually eliminating any prospect of truth in religion, contrary to its objectives.

Consider this. If Heaven exists and anyone can enter, regardless of how they behave, why should anyone bother to follow any religious doctrine at all? Of course, there’d be no reason. Therefore, if it’s taught that there’s no Hell, this’d mean that the teaching gives people licence to altogether disregard the moral teachings which religions like to vaunt, making themselves superfluous. If this were indeed true, it’d seem that their teachings are rather confused, and since God, being omniscient, surely wouldn’t be confused, they either don’t exist or the teachings aren’t from them, both of which make religion inviable. Either way, it seems that no one who believes in religion but not in Hell could escape this conclusion, which believers should therefore avoid if they’d like to maintain their faith. Moreover, it’s important to take not of and consider the mere fact that this logical impasse exists, which in itself ought to suggest that there’s something gravely wrong with any religions whose teachings are prone to this paradox.

However, while I think this is an interesting point, it’s only one of many reasons which militate against belief in religion’s untenable impossibility, and not even one of the more significant ones. There are, of course, many other contentions which religions and believers propound in an effort to defend their doctrines, but, like with the scope of all religion’s benefits and detriments, they too are certainly too many to now go through entirely. But hopefully it’s clear at this point that, in any case, going through each is unnecessary, because we can reasonably reliably predict the outcomes of analysing them based on the prior examples and the rest of the arguments above. Therefore, with that objection discussed and the mechanism of state-supported indoctrination described, I hope it’s apparent that religion relies on a fashion of demagoguery and vacuous poignancy that would be deplored if used by other institutions.

Interestingly, the way religions recruit and disseminate information recalls the way Nazi propaganda once promised a better world and future if people commit to strict principles. Plainly, while religion provides a certain comfort and protection which helps to endure the harsh aspects of life in an imperfect world, this comes at the cost of being fearful of damnation, something not only fictional, but arguably more frightening than what we’re being protected from. It seems like an absurd exchange, not even to mention that it’s most commonly levelled against children who’re perhaps most impressionable and vulnerable to this sort of manipulation. Parents are therefore not only complicit in allowing this indoctrination to be done to their children, but are typically the ones directly responsible for it.

So, then, in terms of the usefulness and benefits of religion, it’s telling that the comfort and peace of mind which religions provide aren’t only founded on the unsupported principle that God exists, but also carry the necessary consequence that people have to subject themselves and their children to forms of state-condoned indoctrination for which religions appear to have absolute impunity. Further, the unavoidable detriments inflicted even by religion’s greatest benefits seem not to be aberrations, but rather necessary outcomes which result from the fact that religion is counterproductive and detrimental by nature – they are, I think, manifestations of religion’s true character and give insights from which we can draw deeper conclusions.

However, despite this, religion’s permitted to endure because it promises things people desperately wish were true, compelling believers to focus on religions’ superficial benefits rather than the obvious and serious detriments they enjoin. Thus, one struggles to find a cause to persist with religion that can withstand the test of scrutiny, which, I think it’s fair to suppose, is because there’re probably none to be found. While religion has undeniable benefits, they’re accompanied and exceeded, or at least matched, by the concomitant detriments they presume to justify.

It’s apparent that religions’ survival in spite of these detriments is due to a kind of superstitious, fantastical residue lingering from humanity’s early history, sustained, despite no longer being able to explain the nature of reality, because they offer people comforting illusions within a world replete with injustice, corruption and suffering. Indeed, people otherwise so reasonable easily succumb to the allure of religion on this ground alone. Thus, this is the irrational, manipulative means by which religions continues to endure, even though they run contrary to many established facts of science.

Given these conclusions and the injuries religion has hitherto inflicted on the world and its people, religiousness has surely run its course, is no longer of benefit to society and should vanish to allow humanity to grow, improve and put an end to the zealotry and fanaticism which has until now marred our history. In truth, to me religion’s demise seems inevitable, but drawn out because belief in religion is an issue of emotion and preference rather than evidence and reason. Indeed, if religion’s abandonment were a matter of logic and evidence over hope and yearning, religion would have undoubtedly perished from the world long ago, as it ought to now.

Fortunately, though, people on the whole are growing rightly skeptical of doctrines for which there is, and perchance can be, no satisfying evidence, and may soon hopefully be poised to realise that human beings are more than the supplicants we’ve become. However, even though it might seem to some that this is assured by the course of time, if we can by any means accelerate the process, every day without religion is a day won for the better future of all, which it’s now and always our moral duty to pursue.


One thought on “The nature and history of religion

  1. Pingback: My case against God | Matthew Williams-Spooner

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