Religion.

There are thousands of exclusive faith based belief systems; sure they have some features in common, but at best only one can be right, all the rest must be wrong.

But it's much more likely that ALL of them are wrong.

Why are we so intent on clutching to beliefs that are wrong, or at least so highly improbable as to be absurd?

It could be just the accidental bi-product of some other evolutionarily advantageous step which isn't sufficiently disadvantageous to have yet been cleared out, or a left over from some previously useful function- like our appendix'.

But it seems more likely that religious beliefs have had some survival advantage during the recent (say a few hundred thousand years) evolutionary development of our species. Presumably, prior to this, our brain capacity wasn't sufficient to support complex cosmologies, though it's possible that our ape cousins do show rudimentary religious tendencies by way of shared rituals and the like.

How was an individual or group of our species that believed in some provably wrong (as compared to just untestable) belief system likely to leave more descendants (the survival advantage) than those who exercised more rational thought were able to? Why does believing that the position of the stars is causative in human affairs, or that the universe is supported by four elephants standing on the shell of the great Tortoise A Tuin, have a survival advantage- even though demonstrably wrong?

How is it, that reaching for an understanding of the universe step by careful testable step as knowledge accumulates, (which would seem to be the sensible approach) hasn't been a clear winner?

How have individuals and groups gained evolutionary advantage by believing passionately in things that aren't true- basically anything, doesn't matter how bizarre- and requiring everyone else to agree with them on pain of death, or at least ostracism?

Could it be that such belief systems, even when erroneous, strengthen the bonding within groups of believers to an extent that outweighs the disadvantages of, for example, ritually sacrificing a proportion of the youngest and strongest so that there will be a good harvest, or forswearing productive food sources long after the health risks (of pork for example) has been understood and eliminated?

Or could it be that there's a survival advantage in making and committing to some course of action, even if it's essentially a random choice, rather than dithering. People who are brain damaged in ways that leave their rational abilities intact but excises emotion are said to be unable to make even the simplest decisions.

Or maybe religion is a path to power over others for manipulative individuals, and that being ruled by such forceful people makes us more likely to leave descendants than when we just bumble along on our own.

An intriguing clue is that surveys repeatedly show that we are more inclined to trust (and vote for) a person who professes to some established faith based belief system, than for a candidate who owns up to secularism- even if it's a belief system that's hostile to our own!

A logical explanation for this would be that it's much easier to predict the behaviour of someone who's constrained by a specific known set of beliefs than it is someone more open minded.

Of course, predictability is not the only element of trust, we also require that those we trust hold to various norms such as honouring commitments etc with respect to ourselves. Though we rather admire deviousness in our leaders when it's practised on others- which is perfectly sensible as they are our agents when dealing with outside groups. But this explanation is suspect because we're not logical in these things. Sure we can BE logical, but it's well proven that we make choices based on emotion, then use our intellects to construct rational explanations for these decisions-convincing ourselves in the process. Humans are rationalisers rather than rational.

Surveys also seem to show that people who have strong religious beliefs are 'happier' than those who don't- and if being happy, correlates with being healthier in a causative way- which is often claimed, then this alone could lie behind our puzzling propensity for believing weird and silly things even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. When a collapsing Moroccan minaret killed 41 of the faithfull while they were at prayer in February 2010, how many of the world's Islamists took this as cause to question their beliefs?. Any?

There are sure to be more possibilities than the above for why we can believe strongly in things that are so obviously false and multiple reasons are quite possible- but it is, eventually an answerable question. The field of evolutionary biology generates testable hypotheses about this sort of question, and active brain scanning can now reveal detailed information about how thoughts are formed in real time. Our hardwiring is gradually revealing it's secrets.

For now though, we don't actually need to know the specifics of why and how we come to believe so passionately in silly things and then demand that everyone else agree with us. That we are this way is a 'fact' in so far as anything is.

What we do need is ways to deal- or at least live with- the consequences of our being this way-and now with the uncomfortable self knowledge of our irrational behaviour as well.

Even in open liberal societies about 70% of adults hold the same religious views as their parents. Reason based beliefs can change in an instant, but faith based beliefs are not much influenced by rational argument and tend to change only very slowly, a little bit every generation

And we take attacks on our faith based beliefs very personally.

Religions routinely use threats and worse to enforce agreement- but those who have been coerced don't forget- sometimes over many generations- and often take the opportunity for revenge and to permanently remove the source of such threats when the opportunity occurs. From gut wrenching experience (sometimes literally), we know that the use of threats and intimidation to impose and enforce religious beliefs often leads on to vendetta and genocide.

Personally I have a problem with the notion of tolerance of screwy belief systems. Why should I 'respect' someone who believes that there is an omnipotent benevolent god intimately interfering in our every day lives who is open to persuasion by prayer any more than I (don't) respect someone who thinks 2 + 2 ='s 5?

But there is wisdom of the most basic kind in the injunction that we should 'respect' other peoples beliefs, even when we disagree with them, even when they are false.

We have learnt, painfully , that offering respect for others beliefs and trying to coexist rather than convert can be the safest course.

But proselytising religions - those that actively seek to convert, and penalise any who renounce- are dangerous. With the recent availability of nuclear and biological weapons they have become an existential risk . For all of known history and no doubt before this, religion has been a prime driver for intra species slaughter of the retail (personal) and wholesale (genocide) varieties. Now that this behaviour poses a threat to our species survival it's become intolerable.

Even those proselytising religions that claim to be peaceful threaten safety- because they too often revert to the sword, in it's modern manifestations when persuasion inevitably fails.

Perhaps the intensity of such religions does fade as education and wealth spreads- but this is by no means certain- being smart , educated and wealthy is not a sure inoculation against having wacky dangerous beliefs.

Most of the 9/11 bombers were affluent educated Saudi's.

It is arguable that some religions are harmless, their followers innocuous and that they can safely be left to their silliness's. The border might be that they don't proselytise and don't impose special sanctions on back sliders.

This is a reasonable distinction, but I'd take the line that believing things that aren't true is always harmful- because it makes it's adherents more susceptible to messianic manipulation and because it's unproductive; a waste of time and energy that could better be applied to our learning to better live in the dauntingly large and complex universe we have found ourselves to be a part of.

--A position that could be called proselytising secularism.

Does this qualify as a religion do you think?

Peter Lynn, New Zealand, February '10.

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