We have to come to grips with this religion thing. Trying to understand humans without understanding, really understanding, religion is like trying to understand modern electronics without understanding transistors. Religion cannot be removed from our species any more than variable resistors, diodes and transistors could be removed from computers. But — and this is a huge but — these functional units (both transistors and religious behaviors) have to be used properly to make a working system. Humans have not been a properly working system for sometime now.
Perceptive people have been aware, beginning 3 or 5 thousand years ago, that something was wrong with, to continue the metaphor, our wiring. We could be made to work faster and faster, but not necessarily better and better; and so, given the delicate relationship between our biology, consciousness and the environment, faster and faster, slowly at first and then faster, replaced true ‘better and better’ as an idea.
In the beginning it was religious behavior that integrated human communities into the environment. Communities required a way to communicate and maintain consistent environmental action; it doesn’t take very deep consideration to realize that custom, driven by belief through powerful stories, derived from and ‘evaluated’ by an adaptive process, did that job. Of course, what I’ve left out of this brief description is the insanity.
We, that is our progenitors, were supposed to believe in ghosts and tree spirits, projections of human intention onto the biophysical world. That’s what made the adaptations work. Just like the “mindless” DNA containing the information about what forms and functions worked well continued to exist, so the behaviors that worked well were supported by stories. An important difference being that a story is a one-time thing unless attached to a grand communal multi-generational story; i.e., a religion. These larger stories were not supposed to be rational reasoned description of reality; the millions of events in the webs of causation were not knowable, but still had to be adapted to. Just like bacteria doesn’t ‘know’ about the chemical environment of an organ; it adapts to it.
We ‘believed’ and, therefore, we and our communities acted with efficiency in the ecosystem. There was no other way. This explains a lot about the form of what we call primitive, tribal religions. And yet, these highly functional adaptive designs are considered wicked, blasphemous and devil worship by modern religions. The impression from a distance is that there has been an adaptive competition for influence and power and that the ‘primitive’ religions lost out as the ‘modern’ religions adapted more quickly to population growth, technological change, and the consequent concentrations of economic and political power.
As the human expansion proceeded, not only into physical space but into ideational space, so religion expanded into those spaces as well following the same model as source and motivator of behavioral continuity and order. But the tenets of religion were no more based in reality than previously: they were stories and theological sophistries functioning to control human behavior, but now for the benefit of the social order, not as environmental adaptation. As the stories became even less functional in the environment space, they began to tell of nature itself as evil.
This means that the religious belief systems are both an essential part of the design of human Consciousness Order and are supporting humanities devastating mal-adaptation with biophysical reality.
What would replace the generalities that guide behavior if present religious generalities are eliminated? Only one human institution and intellectual system has the necessary elements of epistemology, reality based inquiry goals and international supporting structure.
Scientific principles of variable certainty based in balanced and evaluated evidence require a huge investment of time, effort and intellectual capacity for primary creation – everyone cannot do it. Therefore various systems would have to institutionalize: trust in the intellectual products of others, a motivating and maintaining (but adaptable) design functioning in generalities, a supporting structure that offered or required regular practice with guiding principles and a bureaucracy that was the central clearing house for both the maintaining and the adapting of the institution. In other words, a systematic structure that looks very much like religion – and it could be counted on: people would supply the need for belief and ‘tribal’ principles of belonging and exclusion.
We see this clearly in the ad hoc “religions” that spring up especially in times of stress. One of the things that should be clear from such ad hoc religions, but is not, is the structure of established religions – they are essentially the same, perform the same functions and have no greater claim to “reality.” And so our dilemma. Religions as a form of human action are necessary, but in the present world the relative states of Madness characteristic of religion have come to seriously endanger us.
Ultimately religion is just another human behavior, but its very nature depends on us believing that it comes from beyond the confined space of human capacity. Religion’s power to support and amplify human efficacy depends on our believing that its source is beyond our power and efficacy: at its very base it perverts Reality by creating “realities” that are real only so long as they are believed in. This was an efficient and effective adaptive design when it was underwritten by the 4 billion year old Reality of the living earth. But, like madmen intimately adapted to the asylum, we are struggling with the freedoms that have come from escaping the immediate controls of the natural world.
To paraphrase an old canard: “We can’t live with religion and we can’t live without it.” But we seem to have worked out ways of surviving the original source of the quote! Humans will turn belief systems into religions as surely as they will organize into communities. We have the capacity to, and given our power to effect change in the world, the responsibility to make our beliefs comport with biophysical Reality. The place to begin is with the process and information of science, but this would be only a beginning. Just as the epistemology of science grew in breadth and depth, so more general belief systems that have Reality as a goal will change, expand and reform as our considerable capacities are applied to them. Some form of this must happen. We cannot go on as we are.