That Which Binds

Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 1 comment

ThatWhichBinds2

 

When I started this blog over three years ago, my main focus was on the evils of religion. At the time it seemed that the biggest evil stemming from organised religion was the way women are treated, childhood indoctrination into religions, and the willful ignorance shown by people who practice religions on matters of fact. To me then, there was nothing more insidious as the age old superstitions which are held high in adoration, being in fact nothing more than powerplays in society masquerading as moral guidance. Then, I would stand tall and say “Organised religion is a a tool used by the powerful on the weak as an excuse to hold power over others.” I still stand by this, but as we all grow and learn, we come to realise that nothing is as simple as just that statement. There is no true “black & white” here, only multiplicitous shades of grey, each unique to the person, the situation and the events leading up to the present moment.

I can only speak from experience I have had with the religions I know, and the ones I have had the most contact with. These are the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To save on differentiating between these Abrahamic religions and the hundreds of other religions in the world (Buddhism, Hindu, Zoroastrianism, et al), my focus has always been on these 3 major religious streams. So when I say “religion” in this case, it is the Abrahamic religions I am referring to.

Because these religions are so deeply ingrained in our cultures, it is often difficult to separate the actions of a person from the religion they espouse. In fact, many will take a questioning or dismissal of their religion as a personal attack upon them, with their religion in a psychological position near to the core of what makes them “themselves”. A person with strong religious convictions convinces themselves that they are walking a path designed for them by their deity, a teleological obstacle course created as a test to see whether they are worthy of salvation by their deity. Every action, every thought is either “deigned by him” or “created to test”, at least when these people stop to think about it.

However, people with “true religious convictions” are much rarer than we assume, and what we see instead is not a world filled with deeply religious people, but one where religion is a part of their psychological make-up, much like the arm is part of the body. Religion does not rule these people’s lives, but sits quietly in the background and is only drawn out in times of stress, like a coping tool for difficult decisions and situations. Sometimes this can help, insofar that the person praying feels better for doing so. Sometimes it can hurt, because the religious doctrines held so close to their hearts can be used as a way to judge others, or deny others of their rights.

Without completely unpacking religions, there is one very important thing to remember when looking at the role of religions in society. This boils down to the “origin” story that they all share, why it is used and how that can affect the societies we live in. The Abrahamic religions depend upon the idea that humanity was; a) created by god; b) “man” was created first, and women only as an afterthought; c) that the first people defied the will of god and therefore cursed the rest of humanity for eternity; and d) that we are therefore created weak and undeserving, created “deeply broken”, and have to spend the entirety of our lives trying to prove to this god that we are worthy of his forgiveness. Everything after this moment in the Old Testament is embellishment for the real game, that you are unworthy. This is the crux of the religious conundrum, and cannot be overlooked as a source for the power of these religions.

But why does mythical story make such a difference in people’s lives?

If we step back into the real world, past the mythology of the failed experiment by god, past the enforced need for redemption as espoused by these religions, and into a time before anyone had even uttered the word “god”, we see humanity rising above the other animals on earth for a few simple, but fortunate, reasons. Firstly is our social nature; We have evolved into eusocial animals who depend upon each other for the survival of the group, as opposed to solitary animals who only fend for themselves. Secondly, our adaptability; Humans have the ability to adapt to living and surviving in almost all of the earth’s environs, albeit some are more comfortable than others. Thirdly, is our intelligence; We are not alone on this planet in terms of being intelligent, but combined with the two points above, our intelligence allows us to create new and complex social structures, and tools to help us to flourish. This combination has allowed for humanity to spread all over the globe, and helped us to adapt the land to our needs.

Of these three evolutionary traits in humanity, the one thing that binds us and makes us so powerful is the social aspect of our nature. We need others around to help us survive. We depend upon others to make our ventures successful. We thrive on interacting with other members of our own species in a way that no other animal on earth can. We are interdependent upon one another, and owe our immense success as a species to the fact that we are able to cooperate in a reasonably peaceful manner. (I say “reasonably” because of course human history is littered with conflict, but I’ll get to that further on). To aid us in our social nature we have developed complex languages that allow us to communicate our wants and needs to others within the group. We also created informal education in the form of storytelling, both as a way to teach others from the mistakes of a shared past so as to not have to experience the failures individually and to inform others on how best to do things such as hunting and gathering. And, as a social species, we also developed an innate fear of outsider groups, those that would either steal from the group’s genetic lineage, or steal territory and food sources upon which a group would survive. This was by no means a quick process, and arose over tens of thousands of years, but it all lends to the formation of the “group” as a key survival strategy. The strength in the human group is beneficial to us all, but it can also be a weakness for we suffer if we deny, or are denied, this aspect of ourselves. A human on the outside of a social group is useless, feels useless, and offers no advantage to the group as a whole.

Of course, given all language was verbal, and we know the phenomenon known as “Chinese whispers” (or the more culturally sensitive name “telephone”), verbal storytelling invariably gets mixed up, the messages become scrambled and embellished. Add this to Michael Shermer’s idea of “Agenticity“, ideas about “who” caused things to happen get tied up in the mishmash of old stories. The core idea, the useful part of the story (eg. how to find yams, what plant is poisonous, which animals to avoid) remain in the story, but these embellishments become the vehicle through which our lessons and ideas are carried. Stories are more compelling and interesting to people than a list of instructions, and are also easier to remember, in that they are linear, so in order for “B” to happen, we must first have an “A” situation. Stories, when told over generations, become sacred, then venerated. Add a “who” to the yam-gathering story as a way to explain how the yams got there, and we have invented an “other” being, beyond our understanding, and immortal.

Part of our social nature shows itself when looking at “ingroups” versus “outgroups”. The “ingroup” is the group that any one individual belongs to. This could be a tribe, a village, a city, a country, a religion, a football team, or even a pecking-group in a school setting. The tendency is to favour the “ingroup” over the “outgroup” regardless of what either have to offer. We even go so far as to think of the “outgroup” as of lesser intelligence, of lesser moral standing, and even of lesser worth when compared to our “ingroup”. Having perfectly natural and advantageous origins, in the tribe or troupe, it has become a way for people to discriminate between one another, and to therefore become xenophobic towards the outliers. When people are grouped together under the banner of a belief system, we see the biggest of rifts emerge. One belief system is seen by the other as inferior, and its adherents to be less than human, and vise versa. This bias usually flies below the radar, for we so often justify the bias by backing our preconceptions about the “others”, and then seek by our own confirmation bias to lessen the worth of the members of the “outgroup”. This happens between religions, between nations, between people of certain races or cultures, even so far as to people of the opposite sex. The outsider is everything we distrust in people.

The path from early ape to Homo sapiens is a much longer and more complex path than that I’ve outlined above. Many aspects of the evolution of modern societies has been overlooked for the sake of brevity. But what I have attempted to show here is that religion is just one of many ways we discriminate between people, and hold biases against them. While it can bridge gaps between nations in times of war, and can cause war within nations, it is not, as many would have you believe, the biggest problem out there to tackle. It is insidious and tenacious, true, but the way it is utilised has less to do with religion and beliefs themselves than to do with our basic human nature, a nature of division and discrimination, which was once used to preserve us. Because this was such an important thing in early cultures, we find it very difficult to dispense of these prejudices, in a time where our rights and privileges of individuals are a focus regardless of the “ingroup” you find yourself in.

As social creatures, we dislike being alone, and we feel better if we know others exist somewhere, even if we just imagine these others. We could imagine our aunt at home hoping for us to have a safe return, or we could imagine our children wanting for their father. We can wish and hope that our loved-ones are safe, all within our brains. Or, we can imagine that there is a presence watching over us, the one that put the yams there, the one that sustains us. We can talk to this creature in our minds, and see patterns emerge in the world as a result. We see them as signs, and ascribe them to the “other being”. Interestingly also, within our heads we have a constant and seemingly real conversation taking place all the time. From our dreams, where we create scenarios completely and realistically within our minds, to our everyday tasks, where we are compelled to react to the world around us in a series of tasks, we talk to ourselves in a very real voice inside our own minds. Usually we recognise this voice as our own, but sometimes, especially in times of stress or anxiety, the voice seems to come from another being altogether. In cases of extreme schizophrenia, where’s the brains seems to have “short ciruited” in a way, there can be many voices all talking at once. These voices, whether benign, benevolent, or innocuous, seem as real as the ones received by your auditory nerves, and we often react to them as if they come from another corporeal being. So when people pray, sometimes they get an answer that seems to come from outside their own head.

The power in religions stems from our evolved societies, and inserts itself into our cultures. It also serves as an explanation for the oddities within our minds, such as voices and choices we make based on “a gut feeling”. Religion also makes a promise of salvation, for life is a long a painful journey, and people like to feel they deserve a reward at the end of any trial. It could also be said that religions serve as a vehicle for togetherness, a binding force which brings together people who would otherwise be strangers. The “in-out” dichotomy creates brotherhood in people who have little else in common, and on the flip-side, helps drive the hatred in people. Religion takes advantage of this, and strengthens the resolve of the people within a given group. This fact is used by rulers, from chieftains to presidents, to give us an excuse to hate the other, and thereby give us a reason to protect the group, and even kill for it.  The Abrahamic god(s) have no doubt sprung into being over millennia from just such a process, and in the last 3000 or so years, have become structured and fortified beliefs, because in origin they helped our groups survive.

The path from early ape to Homo sapiens is a much longer and more complex path than that I’ve outlined above. Many aspects of the evolution of modern societies has been overlooked for the sake of brevity. But what I have attempted to show here is that religion is just one of many ways we discriminate between people, and hold biases against them. While it can bridge gaps between nations in times of war, and can cause war within nations, it is not, as many would have you believe, the biggest problem out there to tackle. It is insidious and tenacious, true, but the way it is utilised has less to do with religion and beliefs themselves than to do with our basic human nature, a nature of division and discrimination, which was once used to preserve us. Because this was such an important thing in early cultures, we find it very difficult to dispense of these prejudices, in a time where our rights and privileges of individuals are a focus regardless of the “ingroup” you find yourself in.

The understanding of how religion places itself within our cultures and ourselves is a great way to see more clearly why it is so persistent and tenacious. The question of whether a god exists or not aside, as it is a question that can only have two possible answers, is moot, and the answer to which doesn’t change our situation here on earth. Rather than trying to argue with people about whether god exists or not, whether Allah or YAHWEH is the true god, whether Jesus rose from the dead or Mohammed flew up to heaven on a winged horse, I find it much more interesting and enlightening to study the “whats”, “hows” and “whys” of religion. If we can understand truly what the bases for these beliefs are, we stand a chance at reasoning them away. And interestingly, it is clear that it’s not the divisions in our society labeled as “religions” or “cultures” that divide us, but what we have in common that causes social unrest; Our human history.

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1 comments
tongotongo_au
tongotongo_au

A very agreeable conclusion. If mankind hadn't "found" religion it would still find other criteria to define their in-groups and out-groups. Twitter makes all this very transparent. (Even the atheist fraction on twitter regularly appears and is perceived as a social group that in the way it acts is not so different from any religious groups' behaviours and attitudes.)

Observing many of the moot discussions on twitter about religion, evolution, faith, science etc. I always missed the ability of either sides to recognise and understand the human aspects of these discussions, the lack of applying some understanding of psychology, sociology or of the basic mechanics and dynamics of communication. Apart from the odd convert or two here and there, all this rather seems to widen the gap.



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