Thursday, January 31, 2008

Following the Herd off a Bridge

Having previously discussed religion as a product of both the human need for comfort, and our ignorance regarding the natural world, one additional religious catalyst must be mentioned. This catalyst can be considered a direct result of our social structure and behavior. Before attempting to understand and explain our behavior, it's important to step back from our own human perspective, and try to view our species as an investigative biologist from another planet.

"By looking at the comparative fossil history that lead to the eventual emergence of the homo sapiens species, one can note certain defining species' traits. They are foremost, a social creature, and as such, have a complex social hierarchy, with some individuals in superior positions, and most at various expanding levels of reductive social influence. As part of their social evolution, they have evolved the useful trait of language to communicate and increase group cohesion. In addition, their reasoning abilities, and tool usage allows them to greatly effect and directly influence the environment around them. As their culture has evolved, they have progressed towards greater senses of group identification. Initially, they were nomadic, traveling in small packs (clans), but as their social organization and cultural evolution progressed, they developed a greater sense of pack identity, and eventually, very large groups of this species retained a shared cultural belief. The great extent of this belief was related to the awe and reverie of the supernatural. Out of these longings for something that would provide them comfort and an understanding of the world they lived in, many grasped at illogical beliefs and traditions. As a social animal, their instincts to identify a person of authority and grant them permission to impact their lives became greatly important for self-identity and comfort. It appealed to their social instincts, and provided them with security in a world and a universe that they saw and felt to be cold, apathetic, and lonely. A few individuals, through countless generations, developed the necessary tools to properly investigate the world around them. Eventually, the tools known as science, and the scientific method ripened in this species to a point where it was accessible to a vast majority of the population. Yet, many greatly resisted this expanded understanding, and reverted to a very limited world-view. They allowed irrational beliefs, instinct, and their own fears to guide their lives. The large majority however, quietly resisted, allowing the tools of science to infiltrate their lives, but continuing their unreasonable beliefs against a mountain of data and evidence in the contrary."

As can be discerned from the last paragraph, this is an hypothetical observation that extra-terrestrial life forms may provide to their own exobiologists. None of what was said is untrue; just the perspective, or point of view is different. However, looking from the outside in, to the human species, one can't see our biological story much different. There is of course, much more descriptive detail than explained, and a paragraph can't do our species justice, but it's just a cursory summary so that our social nature can truly be discerned.

We truly are prone to social hierarchies, and we do provide a great deal of authority to people who we view as vitally important towards preserving our social structure. It's as though we're providing our resources to those individuals we deem as protectors against a hostile planet. Unfortunately, most of these so called authoritative protectors are mostly useless. Why, for example, do we provide so much authority to diluted, uneducated, irrational, and wasteful individuals such as the Pope, priests, ministers, mullahs, rabis, imams, gurus, monks, nuns, spiritual healers, and other such wasteful members of society? These individuals have dedicated their lives towards the study of empty, outdated, and useless processes of the imagination. We can laugh at individuals who devote their whole lives towards reading and studying about wood nymphs and their influential behaviors. We don't give them authority towards influencing anyone however, because group consensus tells us that those individuals are in the extreme minority and few believe that specific garbage. The one or two billion individuals who believe in some other irrational beliefs shouldn't however, expect to be treated any differently.

One must understand that although consensus is an important part of the scientific process, it does not necessarily translate to other areas of human reason. Just because consensus tells nearly three billion people in the world that there is a single entity in the universe called god (of course, the actual mechanism differs among almost every single individual), doesn't necessarily make it reality. Consensus does not equal reality, but is vitally important towards our social nature in allowing group identity and cohesion. It is within our instincts to allow certain individuals to lead us, and consensus results when many individuals agree upon the method of authority. Some individuals in a position of Authority actually deserve the respect and admiration. University professors, outside of theology and useless garbage like that, deserve the authority and consensus bestowed upon them. They have spent their lives devoted to a process that can help explain our world, whether it's language, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, economics, etc. Even culturally important studies like art, music, and yes, the study (but not the practice), of religion are all important in furthering our understanding of our world, ourselves, and our capacity towards growth and the future. One can argue that even subjects like poetry, that although don't specifically confer a selective advantage to cultures, are important because they help define cultural traits, and subtle nuances of our language. Not only that, but poetry allows for self reflection in a sense and understanding of the world that doesn't require one to reject the physical nature of everything around us. There are many such similar abstract studies that although seem useless, are vastly important to our understanding of our nature and culture. Religion is useful in that capacity as well, but it should be handled as poetry. People who disagree with each other on irrational grounds shouldn't be waging wars. It's as though those who find Haikus aesthetically pleasing war with those who find Shakespearian sonnets revolting. The reason no war occurs between the two is that perhaps some can find both revolting, or both pleasing, and even should there be a division of the two, no authority is given to someone who can wage war on behalf of a sonnet or haiku. Few have heard of the "poet wars", because none have resulted from such abstract notions.

It must then be understood that Faith that is popular means nothing other than enough people have been influenced to believe the same irrational thing through indoctrination, credulity, force, or other such means. Religion itself is shaped along the way to comform to the largest masses that can possibly be influenced without fully diluting some supposed sacred message or path. Why are we so willing to give credit to those who head these brain influencing and rewiring belief systems? As already explained, due partly to our sense of culture, and our social nature (with our need for authority and consensus fulfilled equally).

Unlike religion, consensus in the field of science is very important because one discovery often builds on another. All new scientific discoveries happen because there's a large foundation of data behind it. Without evidence, and gathered data, scientific discoveries would be useless. It is our observation of the universe, the experimentations to verify the theories based on the observation, and the gathering of data that helps to build positive consensus. The question then is how do we know the difference between positive consensus, and the negative kind that allows us to fall of the proverbial bridge? To avoid negative pitfalls, we must first be aware of our social nature. As a social animal, it is ultimately fear that guides us and forces us into a group environment. Once we identify our instincts, we can control them in a positive way by releasing these carnal fears. Comfort and security are both very valuable things in a society, but deciding to provide authority and cultural cohesion to the religious and misguided is completely incorrect. We should strive to analyze the world with the best possible tools that we have (science), and look at human society, our actions, and our instincts objectively. For those that fear science, there are many other fields that one can encounter rather then wasting time believing in what's likely to be wrong. One can look to the fields of philosophy if they wish to muse on metaphysics and possibilities. They can broaden their horizons in ethics, and the arts, psychology, even journalism. Those that fight for religion tooth and nail are doomed to live a life of ignorance. Our goals as a society should be to further our cultural progress and whatever disagreements we should have should focus on ethics and morality (both already explained in previous posts as outside the realm of religion). When we use religion as a crutch, and an explanation for our ethical and moral behavior, we are severely shortchanging our potential for progress. To avoid the chasm beneath the bridge then, one must educate themselves into appropriate forms of consensus and to seek comfort in the company of rational thoughts and actions. Our future as a human species depends on our understanding of the world, and how to modify it with the least amount of impact. These principles cannot be found in any religion or belief system, but with the tools that countless generations have tirelessly spent to develop and modify for our understanding and usage. We must not turn our back on progress just because it may disagree with the infantile belief system of the majority.

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