Religion Is Not an Institution; It Is a Process

I have written a fair amount about religion: belief systems that organize and motivate behavior are vitally important to understand, and none are above the basic evolutionary, natural history evaluation appropriate to the behavior of any organism. Much of what I’ve written, if read from a natural history perspective, clearly argues that the institutional religions of today’s world are extreme distortions of an essential human “religious” process. There is already an understanding that so-called folk religions are “superstition” based and so I want to speak most directly about the major religions to which humans are presently attached.

Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and variants of these and others are all story based systems with one original bio-consciousness function and, after a time, a variety of political, social and economic functions attached as power migrated from community structure to political and economic institutions. They are all incredible violations of the Reality within which our species must live: they are not true in any way.

But it essential to understand that they are not supposed to be true, we are only supposed to believe that they are true. Psychologists call this crazy-making, and that is how religion functions: simple compelling, yet inherently untrue, stories that organize behaviors. The stories are not intended to be veridical reality; they have always only been intended (adaptively) to guide the massively powerful and largely directionless capacities of the genus Homo. The only way for the directing effect to work is for the people to think the stories supremely important. The Consciousness System of Order supplies the tools: imagination and belief guided by environmental necessity.

But we have outgrown this simple formulation; in fact, we have been outgrowing it for at least 10 thousand years. For most of our time on earth, nearly 200,000 years, our close environmental attachments gave our behavior and biophysical reality a veridical relationship, religion was like the string tied to a finger to remind us to do the right thing. The environment had the power, behavior had its function in the environment and religion organized and motivated the behaviors across communities and generations.

Today our behavior is the power and it is still guided by stories and beliefs, but now it has become deadly dangerous that our stories do not have a veridical relationship to the Realities that control the world. Once the form was: belief in the story led to behaviors that were adapted to a sustaining environmental relationship, and the details of the story really didn’t matter in reality so long as the action was functional (though believing in them is what made them work!). Today the form is: belief in the story is the measure of social acceptability; the actions generated are considered correct only so long as the story is supported and this is where it ends; there is no systemic feedback design with the biophysical Reality of the environment; in fact, it is often specifically rejected. The result is that the aforementioned institutional religions are madness; real insanity. Buddhism is the least mad of the list, but its many practitioners make it about as insane as the others.

It is the insanity of these religions that their critics are responding to, and have conflated with religion as a process. It would be correct to say that we must rid ourselves of religion’s insane content, but we cannot rid ourselves of religion since it is the structuring of belief systems in the community and society. When the environment was the mediating source for the designs of belief, the details of our stories were of little significance, but when disconnected, details take on unwarranted importance; societal madness is the outcome.

Virgin births, returning from the dead, miracles of all sorts, 800 year old people, reincarnation, grandfatherly despots living as spirits, infallibility of the written (and multiply translated) word, absolute necessity of following a certain code, convoluted sophistries of trinities into unities and back again, devils and demons, reverence for a piece of cloth, and literally thousands of other details of belief and story that are measures of worthiness and action – all of these disconnected from the biological and ecological realities that sustain the living condition and the living space. There are actually people who would see the whole world burned to a crisp if they believed their God told them it was the right thing; it is difficult to imagine anything more insane than that.

And so, to the extent that it is the insanity of religions that we eliminate, I am on board. But we humans must continue to believe and act from summary generalizations based on very little direct and personal knowledge. Also contained in all of the insane religions are real accumulated human wisdoms, stories of how community order and stability are maintained; stories of how we are to treat other humans, other living things and the earth in general. And perhaps more importantly, there are the basic stories of why we should or must follow these prescriptions. If the insanity of religions is removed, the sanities of belief and organizing designs have to be replaced.

There are billions of people who are so thoroughly trained in the societal madness of insane religions that reaching some critical mass of human numbers with belief systems based on a veridical relationship with Reality seems unattainable. But we must try with the clear understanding that most of humanity will go to their graves or cremations with the beliefs that they hold at this moment, with the understanding that that is how religion was evolved and adapted to work.

Whatever we do, it must not be only attempts to create competing insanities. Religion began as the way to act, but not believe, with accuracy in the natural world; it has now become one of the most distorting influences. The deepest understandings of science are now the only source for how to act with accuracy in the world, but we must correctly understand the functioning of religion and not make the mistake of dismissing the process of religion, another of our realities, as we try to free ourselves from our accumulated insanities.

There are no Gods. The physical events of the universe occur as a consequence of the laws of the Physical System of Order; the living process functions through the machinations of the Living System of Order and the information nexus of DNA/protein; humans operate in those spaces and with the Consciousness System of Order, a new information system that creates new probabilities for what can manifest in physical objects, living things and behaviors. Somehow a critical mass of humanity must come to grips with these Realities. Adaptable belief systems must grow from them using the religious process so that much of the rest of humanity can effectively engage the real world that our species faces.

Religions seem to promise a meaning for life; it is often said that a sense of purpose can only derive from Christian (Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, etc,) faith. But any gathering of humans in activities of common purpose is purpose. Institutional religions allow, actively perpetuate, the illusion that the religion is supplying purpose and meaning when it is only the gathering of people devoted to an apparently common action.

A search for truth can look to the work of modern scientists and philosophers just as well as it can look to the writings of Bronze Age mystics – should be done in both. The unchallengeable belief can be in the primacy of scientific, historical and philosophical method rather than prescriptions of “fact” and the “mysterious ways” of an anthropomorphic creator.

Belief has always been an adaptive behavior. Religion’s requirement that belief be turned into absolute faith has been largely a political act to support political and economic power in the face of obvious evidence, evidence that without such “faith” would lead to adaptive change. The belief in hard and fast facts has always been dangerous in a changing world. Belief in a process that guides adaptive change in the most reality based directions possible seems a better choice.

We will always create religions from our belief systems. For most of our tenure on the earth the religious process functioned adaptively; it is only for the last brief few thousands of years that it has gone of track. We are now up against the terrible and dangerous consequences of our general failure to adapt successfully to our great powers, one of which is the power of religious process to guide behavior. It is going to take a general change of belief to avoid the most drastic forms of those consequences.

One need only imagine the response to this essay in the fundamentalist Baptist churches of my southern youth, much less in a Wahabi Mosque, to realize our chances. Finding just one receptive person might be less the issue than getting out in one piece.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.