Some inconclusive thoughts on religion

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The following is a piece by an occasional correspondent at rationalbrain, who appears under various guises in comments on previous articles (pizza and neutralturn to name but two). In this article, (clearly honed over a glass of red at La Porchetta in Kew), he questions the role of religion in society, and ponders whether atheists really serve any useful function.

A long time ago it seemed reasonable to see religion as a human response to the need to understand a complex and often frightening world, but a response necessarily made in ignorance. Mass education would surely result in people discarding religion as a serious explanation of anything within a generation or two. Through the nineteen seventies and eighties this process seemed well underway in the West (Tennessee excepted). Not so: the condition was simply in remission and now has come roaring back. How come? because religious belief is part of human intelligence.

It seems that humans became quite suddenly significantly more intelligent 100,000 or more years ago. No mutation can spread through the human species unless it confers a reproductive advantage on its carrier. Of course; but there is a subtlety in this simple observation. The spread of genetic mutation takes place at the individual level but human individuals can survive only as a successful member of a successful group. So to succeed, an intelligence mutation must advantage not only itsindividual carrier but also any group composed of such individuals. A critical part of the strength of a group in competition with other groups is its cohesion and the preparedness of at least some of its members to risk their individual well being in the interest of the group. This behaviour at the individual level is irrational. So a group of strictly rational smarty pants, each individual looking to his own advantage, is likely to be done over by a bunch of dumb bogans from the other side the hill. Add the influence of the rape and pillage gene, in our genome then as now, and it’s bye bye smartypants gene.

But something we call intelligence is with us. It cannot be simply a capability for logical thought expressed at the individual level, for such a mutation would not survive. It must be some contorted intelligence which serves the needs of both the individual and the group but resides in the individual. In some ways this resembles the intelligence of a sardine which doesn’t want to be eaten by a shark but none the less rejects autonomy and, under attack, blindly obeys the laws of the shoal, which turns out to be in the best interest of sardines in general. Clever sardines who liked the ideaof autonomy probably saw the others as religious simpletons, but these seem to have died out.

Religious belief is probably innate in man and, for as far into the future as we survive as a species, the majority of humans will hold some sort of religious belief. No number of evangelical tracts from the likes of Dawkins or Hitchens will change things. Whatever the intended readership forthis class of book might be, the actual readership is composed largely of a lot of atheists, a few committed believers and book reviewers . The effect on the masses who hear only second hand reports of them goes no deeper than to reinforce a vague feeling that atheists are not very nice people. In Western society, theists are not in general people who have not heard the case for atheism. They are people who reject it.

As well as accepting the inevitability of endemic religious belief , we might perhaps go further and consider the possibility that it is actually or potentially good for us. The irrational preparedness of some individuals to sacrifice themselves for the group is one example of the principle that a group is strengthened by an appropriate distribution of diversity within its membership. A world made upof people like me would never get anything done, but the fact that I am here means that my forebears have competed successfully for 100,000 years or more: so presumably there must be somepoint in people like me; and by the same argument, for everybody else. Would a world entirely composed of atheists be a good thing? Or is atheism just a characteristic indicative of an underlying personality type, a type useful to society in some ways, useless in others?



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