Friday, October 19, 2007

Comfort in a warm religious blanket

Considering the extensive role that religion and spirituality have played in the lives of many, synthesizing a single explanation for those trends in the human species is a difficult, if not futile, prospect at best. However, keeping in mind that no single explanation can be effective in illuminating our understanding of why humans evolved, whether culturally or biologically, with some sense of the supernatural, we must nevertheless attempt to find a few basic root principles. Many of these principles have been expanded upon in great detail from authors such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jarod Diamond. The works of an evolutionary biologist, an evolutionary philosopher and a geographer with a linguistic background have greatly aided in our understanding of the biological, psychological, and environmental factors at play in allowing human beings to dominate most ecological niches and progress to our present form today. The concepts they discuss are just the beginning of a paradigm shift towards evolutionary explanations for physical, behavioral, and psychological traits. The belief in the supernatural therefore, has to take into account our evolutionary past. It should be understood that natural selection is not a wasteful process, and anything that is counter towards a species survival is culled before it can become well established. The belief in the supernatural can be a proximal product of some other evolutionary process, or a discrete product that aided our survival. At the moment, the range of opinion varies greatly, but each view is proposed in an attempt to explain the reasons for the expansive existence of religion and spirituality. Some behavioral and psychological traits among human beings are cultural in origin, while others are biological. Generally, the traits that the majority of human beings across different cultures share must have some basis in our evolutionary past. Laughter for example is a cross-cultural trait, and has been shown to have an evolutionary basis. Since spirituality and religion regardless of actual beliefs is a shared trait across the globe, an evolutionary biologist will look with interest into what processes evolved to help perpetuate it.

Of the various evolutionary traits that may provide the proximal outcome for religious belief, comfort and authority may be the most salient. As Richard Dawkins discusses in the God Delusion, authority is ingrained in us since childhood because it aids in our survival. Human children are born so helpless, that only through direct exposure in a culture, will they develop to their evolutionary potential. The initial learning required to effectively navigate through life, and therefore propagate to the optimal potential, requires at least two decades in human beings. We are social creatures, and with so much danger in the world, we're born with built in authority seekers. We need to learn from the experience of those older then us, especially parents, during our formative years. Perhaps this receptive ability towards authority when we're young blinds us to continue following authority when we're older. Certain traits don't necessarily shut off just because of an age difference. Although important for survival in our youth, this trait has lead us astray when we seek to follow those with authority who may actually not have our best interest in mind. For example, a parent might tell a child not to poke a sleeping bear with a stick, and if the child does not listen, then natural selection will effectively cull this trait from the gene pool. As the same child becomes an adult, perhaps the village chief will tell this individual that the only way the rains will return is if he pokes a bear with a stick. Now, this act is not in the best interest of the individual, but because of the authority seeking ability ingrained in us, most will do as told.

Another evolutionary trait that must be discussed is our need for comfort. This may not seem as discrete a trait as that of authority seeking, but it has a very large part to play with our persistent religious beliefs in the face of so much contrary evidence. As a species, feeling security is tantamount to survival. If there are large land predators around, then the security of a tree will aid in the survival of the individual. Similarly, as humans evolved from an arboreal species to a terrestrial species, we relied more and more on creative solutions to seek comfort. Various examples include enclosed dwellings, such as caves, or ones that we create ourselves, such as houses. Since we're able to control fire, this gives us an added feeling of comfort and security. As most mammals, it is ingrained in us to seek the shelter and comfort of our parents. Just as one cannot turn off the need for authority as an adult, one cannot just turn off the need for comfort either. Religion to some extent provides this safe cozy blanket that shields us from the harsh world around. It gives authority to the supernatural, and we justifiably feel safe from the cold reality of the world. Whether believers feel obliged to seek comfort in a singular authority like God (as in monotheists like Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, etc), or a varied scope like the Hindus (among other polytheists), they share the need for some comforting authority. Even among animists (non organized religion, or folk religion), like the folk religion of most early hunter-gatherers, they often sought comfort with the belief that their dead ancestors had control over their lives.

With comfort and authority in mind, it becomes partly obvious why people across different cultures reach to the supernatural when faced with so much contrary logic. Science cannot provide the same warm comforts, at least psychologically, that religion can. When one bases their belief in the physical world that we live in, it's somewhat disconcerting to realize that there isn't an omniscient and omnipotent authority figure looking after one's best interest. Conversely, without such an authority figure, it frees us to seek guidance in the realm of science and the laws of the universe. The meaning of life can change from "God wanted me on Earth" to "How do I understand the physical processes of this amazing and vast universe that I live in?" When one is freed from the bonds of religion and authority, the freedom that's available is refreshing. There may be a part that misses that warm comforting blanket, the reassuring being(s) looking out for one's best interest, but even then, it doesn't make the existence of a higher power more likely. Just because there is a need in people to feel comfort and security even in their adult years, it still doesn't necessitate the supernatural. For example, if a billion people on the planet think and need to believe that God created the Earth as the center of the universe for it's sheer importance, it doesn't change the fact that this belief is wrong. We know that the Earth is just the third planet, from a negligible star, in an ordinary corner of an ordinary galaxy and no matter how much one would like to believe otherwise, science through its empirical methods and scientific reasoning has shown us the truth.

One must therefore strive to seek comfort and security in the physical world as we know it. Some may argue that it's arrogant to think we evolved through natural selection and random chance mutations. Instead, these people think that we must submit ourselves to the will of some entity that is largely a creation of our amazing imaginations and our need for comfort and authority. Others will have spent years of their life in a religious institution that has never been able to properly investigate the universe around us. Without a deep understanding of the physical, biological, and chemical processes that makes our existence possible, how can one understand life? This is the ultimate reason why those of us who have embraced science to the fullest have no regrets or empty voids that must be filled through some supernatural means. Comfort is nice, blankets are warm, but without shedding the blanket and investigating our environment, we are no different than creatures which we consider inferior to our intellect.

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