THE ORIGIN OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF
This is a general discussion on the roots of religious belief without focussing on any specific religion. Let me provide an advanced clarification in anticipation of possible angry retorts like "Faith is a personal matter, you don't have any right to criticize it" or "You have no right to hurt other's religious sentiment by questioning their belief" etc. In response to the first anticipated criticism let me state that, YES, certainly faith is a personal matter. No one has any right to PREVENT others from believing in a faith. But an objective examination of the possible CAUSES of faith and pointing out any irrational aspect of faith DOES NOT indicate intolerance for the faith itself or prevent anyone from believing in it in the same way that we consider a child's belief in fairies irrational but still we don' t condemn or criticize them for their belief or prevent them either. The second criticism requires a careful response. We can summarize the situation as (A is a believer in a faith "X" and B is a skeptic, but not intolerant of "X".)
A: I believe in "X". .
B: Belief in "X" is irrational because [...], and hence I don't believe
A: Any criticism of my belief amounts to hurting my sentiment. Besides
your not believing in "X" is as much a belief as my believing in "X".
B: If you call my "not believing in X" a faith ( lets call it faith "Y")
, then by the same logic your "belief in X" amounts to not believing in
"Y" and automatically implies irrationality of "Y" and hence is no
different from my not believing in "X" and hence I have equal rights to
be insulted for your implication of the irrationality of my faith "Y",
although I will not exercise my rights.
The above hypothetical dialog illustrates the spirit of my discussion. I have no intention of hurting or there can be no logical way for me to hurt anyone by my contrary opinions, views or reasoning. Besides what is meant by a belief being hurt anyway?. Let us dissect this frequent expression of angry response. Does faith being hurt mean the faith is weakened? If so then its a reflection of the weakness of the person placing the faith and if the criticism weakens his/her faith then it is an indirect vindication of the validity of the criticism. If faith is not weakened by criticism then the meaning of "faith being hurt" must be that the believer is mentally distressed that someone is not agreeing with his/her belief. In that case it indicates an intolerance of any dissenting views and a frustrated ego to know that others are not sharing in their favored belief. There can be no other meaning of " being hurt" in this context. Faith is internal in one's heart, no words or actions can affect or change it and as long as one is not persecuted for their faith, any critical discussion of a faith should be a non issue for a believer, instead it should provide the believer with an opportunity to test his/her strength in their belief in the face of a critical study of their faith by skeptics. Having established the preamble let me go on to my main discussion.
Often people who have absolute faith in a given religion justify their believing in that particular religion by saying that the world around us is so orderly and that the mystery of life and death, the amazing complexity of human body, mind etc are impossible for human to create/ understand, so there must be a grand designer, i.e GOD. They are confusing belief in religion with belief in GOD (the "creator" of this universe). Belief in a religion is much more than believing in GOD, it requires believing blindly in all that is preached in that religion, for example that the holy book of their religion is literally the word of GOD, that all the miraculous events mentioned in their holy books are true and that all that are instructed/taught in their holy books are absolute and should be followed and all the divine revelations of that religion be believed without question. All these require blind faith since these cannot be verified/justified by logic or rational thinking or objective evidence. The sense of awe and mystery that led them to postulate a grand designer, is erroneously extended into justifying a belief in these additional human constructs besides the universal human instincts of the perception of a grand designer. One important point (which is self-evident but seems hard to come to grip with) is that although an instinct of God and Life after death is a universal one and is not necessarily a result of indoctrination or belief in other humans, any belief in the revelations of a particular religion on the other hand really stems ultimately from a belief in other humans and indoctrination. Since few have direct oracular experience regarding divine revelations, most of those who have firm belief in them have placed a firm belief in what they have been told through preaching by fellow humans, reading books (Printed by humans) etc. If someone believes in the revelations due to a direct divine experience (Which no other person can verify) totally on their own and not having been told about them, then that would indeed be a sound basis for a firm belief. But even in that case if that person told others about his/her experience ( and it would be a truthful account, excluding of course hallucinatory experiences/ illusions etc) and others believed in him/her, then the belief of others will be a result of belief in a human, unlike the person who experienced the divine revelations directly. So from this it is quite clear that all the major religions are based ultimately on belief in humans (This chain of belief in humans ending ultimately in the prophets, also humans). This chain can be symbolized in the form below:
"A believes in B who says that he believes in C who says that he
believes in D who says that....... who SAID that he believed in Z who
said that God said that....(revelations)"
(For this instance imagine there are billions of people between A and Z and 1400/2000 years have passed between Z and A. ). The entire edifice of revealed religion and divinity is based on this chain of belief in humans.
Another important point to remember is that one can be led to believe in the existence of some Supreme Entity because of the very reason mentioned in the beginning i.e, the sense of awe and wonder at the beauty/complexity of the Universe and the consequent hypothesis that there must be some super being that is behind all this, but the same reason may not motivate one to believe in any one of the existing religion. Often those who don't believe in any existing religion are labeled as atheist/Godless whereas in reality they may be equally or more awed by the mystery of the universe and have their own concept of a Super Entity (Not necessarily an entity with the attributes defined by those religions). As mentioned before belief in a given religion is a result of blind faith. This blind faith is caused by being born in a particular religion where one is indoctrinated from birth about the authenticity of their religion and the rigid religious surrounding where one grows up and witnesses everyone around him/her following/ believing in the same religion and preaching other religions to be inferior/wrong, which instills a blind and biased faith which is ingrained in their mind firmly and becomes an absolute truth to them, losing not only any ability to critically examine its rational basis, but shuddering at the very thought of such a critical assessment as being taboo and a mortal sin. It illustrates the idea of memes, which are equivalent to viruses of beliefs and ideas that spread from one individual/group to another. If someone born in a certain religion is brought up in a totally neutral environment (As far as religion is concerned) but otherwise same way as others and is introduced to ALL religions when they are adult the odds are that he/she may choose ANY one of those religions (NOT necessarily the one he/she was born. Assuming also that this info of which religion he/she was born into is also kept unknown to him/her) or may not even choose any at all. So there is no absolute reason for believing in any given religion. Regarding the incidence of spontaneous conversion from one religion into other, that happens between all religions so there is nothing preferentially absolute about any given religion either. Individual incidences of conversion from Religion-X to Religion-Y or from no- religion to Religion-Z does not exclusively establish the rationality of any religion, because cross conversions occur between all religions in differing degrees..
There is a flaw in the way one arrives at the notion of divine creation by a conscious being in the image of a human albeit with superhuman attributes (i.e God) just out of a sense of awe at the level of complexity of life (Human in particular). We are seeing an end product of an evolution that went on for over 4 billion years before arriving at the form what we see today. If a human being sprang up from scratch to its advanced form in one swoop, it would indeed be a miracle. But starting from a single celled organism 4 billion years ago and progressively becoming more and more complex/organized, incrementally adding more and more features through the process of natural selection and mutation(A trial error so to speak), taken over an incredible length of time of 4 billion years, if one pause to think of this process, it may not seem that incredible or miraculous after all. It is true that how from a complex organic molecule, the first cell with a complete characteristics of reproduction, protein synthesis and genetic transmission developed is still, a mystery. But a mystery is not a miracle. One may have noticed that when one watches a baby grow up day by day the transformation from a baby to grown up doesn't strike him/ her at all and happens in a natural way vs one who saw the baby once and then came back after a long gap to see the baby grow up to an adult is struck by the transformation. If one had the longevity of a billion years and watched the simple primitive organic molecule evolve bit by bit to complex molecules, then to cells to complex cells, then to primitive life forms and eventually to human and other species over this length of time this would also appear quite natural. One simply has to appreciate the power of evolution in the process of self organization and complexity over an extended period of time. We are all familiar with this self organization process in daily life on a much compressed scale when we see the finished product which amaze our eyes to see it being made from raw ingredients barely resembling it in beauty and symmetry. It can be an artificial product like a jewelry, or a natural one like the ice crystals formed out of raindrops etc showing amazing symmetry and beauty. It is the Law of Physics that is the grand designer of everything including Life. It is the Laws of Physics that manifests itself in biogenesis and evolution at the cell level. We don't know how or where did The Laws of Physics itself come from. Postulating an uncreated and ever-existing GOD who created the Laws of Physics is not any more profound than the simpler and more likely postulate of an uncreated and ever- existing Laws of Physics that gave rise to the entire universe with life through the materialization of the laws.
Let us now list and examine some other possible root causes for belief
in religion and God by most people (Common to all religions):
A. Reasons rooted in wishful thinking and personal needs
B. Reasons rooted in illogical conclusions drawn from events in life
C. Reasons rooted in Social Needs
D. Reasons rooted in the evolutionary history and neurophysiology of Humans.
Although D is the most fundamental level of explanation of the origin of religious belief, it is instructive to also view it in the higher levels as in A-C, which themselves are rooted in D. Let me expand on each cases above.
A. Reasons rooted in wishful thinking and personal needs:
1) Fear of death and loss of loved ones. The wish for a life after death. Humans find it extremely hard to accept that death means a permanent destruction of their body and mind and loss of their loved ones. There is a yearning innate to humans as an instinct for a permanent life and/or to join their deceased loved ones. This yearning to live for ever beyond this world reflects a deep rooted love for one' s self, in other words a kind of narcissism. The fact is that it is the collective survival of the human race that is meaningful. Each individual is just a link in the infinite chain of the continuity of human species. Each death of an individual is replaced by the birth of another life. One should look at their individual life as playing a meaningful role in maintaining this continuity. Each generation inherits the fruits of the advances and knowledge of its predecessor and passes it on in a value added way to its successor and human race as a whole is forever progressing further and further, and eventually may spread beyond the planet earth to the outer reaches of the universe. As scientist Daniel Hillis says "Its haughty of us to think we're the end product of evolution. All of us are part of producing whatever is coming next". (" Third culture - Brockman", page-385). Here's another moving quote by the famous Carl Sagan in his death bed: (As appeared in the March 1997 issue of Parade magazine): "I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides."
2) Problems/Crisis in life and a sense of helplessness when no solution is found, or a sense of frustration/outrage at the injustice and unfairness that exists. A belief in God who will take care of all the problems and will mete out justice in due time provides a sense of hope and comfort and a driving force to continue on with life amidst this helplessness/frustration. Also the hope that all unfulfilled dreams and material aspirations that were not met in this world may be fulfilled in the life hereafter in heaven. After all, heaven is described as the place where all one's desires and lusts (virgins, ambrosia, jewelry, delicious foods etc) will be met and provided.
3) The need to fill the inner spiritual vacuum and an inherent spiritual need of human to understand the meaning of this world and life. This is behind a Hindu meditating, doing yoga, a Muslim offering prayer or a Christian reciting a hymn etc. This inner spiritual vacuum arises out of a sense of helplessness and being overwhelmed by the vicissitude of life where it seems like one has no ultimate control of anything about their own life, nothing happens as one wishes and one goes through ups and downs that seem to be hard to explain and thus one develops a sense that there exists a force that acts mysteriously and their lives are guided/ controlled by this mysterious force and then they resort to some form of worship, meditation as a symbolic means of uniting with that force or gaining enlightenment about it. But the point here is that belief in religion /God and ritual worshipping is not the ONLY or the BEST way of filling this inner spiritual vacuum. A very appropriate way of filling this is through the pursuit of and eventual acquisition of knowledge and truth about nature. Carl Sagan couldn't have said it better. KNOWING that there exist billions of galaxies, each galaxies containing billions of stars, and billions of stars containing planets and sun and earth being only one out of those billions star-planet duo is in itself a spiritually fulfilling experience. (In his ABC Nightline interview few months before his death) . Knowing how species evolve from one another and how life develops from a minute sperm to a full grown life form, how the complex molecules self organize into a living DNA structure, all these knowledge gets one closer to an understanding of the deep mysteries of nature. After all, these meditations/prayer of a ritually religious persons are intended to attain enlightenment, isn't it? If nature is the creation of some supreme deity then the mystery of nature (Reading the "mind" of God as Stephen Hawking puts it) by harnessing the full power of the wonderful gift of nature that human possesses: Intellect. Since in ancient days human didn't develop the mental faculty of pursuing knowledge and truth through reasoning/ observation/scientific methodology, meditation/ prayer was the only means of resorting to this urge to experience and be close to nature, and this has continued in a vestigial way up to this day specially by those who don't have the perseverance and are not intellectually prepared to pursue the route of seeking knowledge through scientific study or have a total blind faith in a given religion.
B. Reasons rooted in illogical conclusions drawn from events in Life:
4). Recovering from a serious illness or problem. Seems to be too unlikely without a divine intervention. Human instinct is not to accept randomness and chance factor in nature, but instead to find meaning in everything, a meaning that helps to give one an illusion that he/she is not just any product of nature, but something special that is being watched over. And hence the need to invent a personal God.
5). Sudden acquisition of wealth and happiness when subconsciously realizing that he/ she didn't really deserve it. Rather than treat it as a pure chance/luck there is an inherent desire to thank Someone/ Something for this fortune for being "Chosen" by that Someone/Something for such special favour and hoping that by expressing gratitude to that Someone/Something, He/It will protect him/her from losing this sudden unexpectedly gotten material happiness. It is an interesting irony that one person's good fortune convinces him/ her about the existence of God whereas millions of humans routinely face misfortunes which should have provided more forceful reasons to the contrary. After all, the existence of God cannot be justified by one person's fortune.
C. Reasons rooted in Social Needs:
6). A desire to have a sense of belonging. It is a human instinct to be part of a bigger whole out of a sense of insecurity and a need of a social safety net This is also rooted in our animal ancestry where packing instinct is observed. Religion offers that sense of belonging and community feeling through church/mosque/temple etc where people congregate and share fellow feeling and through religious based social/ cultural festivals/activities. This reason explains adherence to religion as a custom, not God as a belief.
All of the above really point to a belief caused by a "need" , not a belief that results from a genuine and dispassionate endeavor for seeking the truth. Also there is a myth about "explaining" all the inconsistencies/contradictions that exist in a religion (in its scripture,revelations,tenets) when it is pointed out by critical thinkers to a blind believer of a religion. One who has formed a belief blindly, can in no way objectively and critically form an "explanation". Their explanation will necessarily be an effort to justify and explain ( to their convenience) what they already have placed blind faith in unconditionally. Any explanation, which is only for consumption by the members of that same faith and does not convince any one else hardly qualifies as a rational explanation but merely serves as a placebo to the members to assuage their doubts and as a form of artificial affirmation. Even those believers who are often bothered at first by some inconsistencies surrender to some perceived "scholars" in religion to do the explaining for them so they can rest assured with no doubts in mind. They will not try to critically examine the merit of those explanations as they are merely seeking a POST HOC affirmation of their a priori absolute faith and are just content with the fact that someone with a much higher "scholastic" mind (scholasticism limited to divinity that is) is doing the explanation which they are desperately in need of for the affirmation of something they have staked their belief in, and would rather not face upto any serious inconsistencies of their faith and retract from it as the resulting disenchantment would be devastating to their emotional psyche . Oftentimes believers in blind faith respond to critics of their blind belief (atheists/agnostics/ freethinkers) saying their critics are biased themselves and their disbelief in the blind faith is itself due to their bias against the believers. One has to be very careful here. Atheists/ skeptics/agnostics exist BECAUSE OF blind believers and NOT the other way around. It is the constant claims and persuasive attempt to force the belief on others that created the skeptics/atheists etc as a counter reaction. Believers of blind faith do so out of a need and has great stake in the preservation and propagation of the perceived truth of his/her belief and hence would defend any criticism of it without caring to judge the merit of the criticism. On the other hand a disbeliever of a blind faith has nothing to gain just by not believing and criticizing any claims of truth of the blind faith holders. His/her non-belief is a result of the analytical thinking preventing him/her from accepting a belief irrationally just because they are being told so. Far from gaining anything from the non-belief they rather take on potential risk of back lash by the blind believers as well as depriving themselves from the pleasant feelings generated by the blind belief. Anything that has a rational basis will never be rejected/criticized by a rational person. On the other hand a rational person can sometimes have a blind faith (until conclusively proven wrong by evidence and logic) and will honestly admit that the blind belief is due to a wishful desire and since it has not been proven wrong by evidence or logic might as well believe in it (But not trying to propagate it through imposition on others). So the bottom line is that a rational person who decides not to believe in a blind faith can never do so out of any bias. Check the link at htp://www.skeptic.com/990126.html for an interesting debate on belief in GOD and the link http://www.world-of-dawkins.com/religion.htm for an interesting view of a scientist on the belief in religion. For another interesting review of a talk by an Indian doctor on God vs. human brain check http://www.godless.org/sci/ramachandran.html
D. Last but not the least, Reasons rooted in the evolutionary history and
neurophysiology of Human:
This is the view of the origin of religious belief at the most fundamental level. A revolutionary understanding of cognitive science pioneered by Noam Chomsky and other linguists and cognitive scientists was that the instinct of language is ingrained universally in human brain that enables a child to learn a language instinctively without being taught. The fact that religious (or more appropriately mystical) feelings are also quite universal and appears independently in different cultures and is a universal phenomena. That points to a possible similar neurophysiological root of religious belief. There seems to be an inbuilt mechanism in nature to evolve a defensive system in the face of new challenges for survival and propagation. It is plausible that belief in religion came about due to an evolutionary process necessitated by the appearance of consciousness in human species. Due to this consciousness human were able/forced to wonder if there is life after death, developed the yearning for not to die and the yearning to not let their dear ones die. These desires and yearnings are not the usual necessary ingredients of the two key elements of evolution, viz, random mutation and natural selection for survival, but are an unexpected feature of human species. Due to this new element of consciousness human species needed a new factor in the survival of the species process besides mutation and natural selection. Belief in religion and faith is this new element. Without a belief in life after death, or in GOD's existence suddenly the driving force of life for humans with limited intellect would seem to disappear and there would be total chaos and anarchy and eventual destruction of human species. Since lower animals don't have the consciousness to even worry about death or life after death they go about leading their normal life cycle (eating, living, propagating etc) whereas for human this awareness creates a need for a driving force (meaning of life) to continue the normal life cycle without major disruptions. So the belief in religion was an inevitable outcome of the emergence of consciousness in full form ( intelligence) in the human species. It is also the speculation of sociobiologists that faith/religion provide a valuable tool of survival in the cultural evolution. It creates a strong cohesive force among the members of a given faith and increase their collective odds of achieving longevity as a group. There is also another survival aspect of religious belief, which is: The most successful religion (measured by number and/or growth rate) is not necessarily the one which is true or best in an objective sense but which is the most successful in maintaining cohesion among its followers and gives them advantage over the other religions. It is possible that this successful religion may commit wrongful acts on the other less successful religion/ faith. My above views would find support in the writings of early philosophers as well as recent anthropolgists/biologists. John Fiske, the American philosopher said in his 1899 book "Through nature to GOD" : Would it not be strange if suddenly, after humans crossed the magic threshold to speech and self- awareness, the appearance of religion in all primitive cultures would have had no survival value? (From p-381, The Whys of a Philosophical scrivener - Martin Gardner). Anthropologist Lionel Tiger says "Religion probably has a genetic basis. To guard against the paralysis of deep depression. When facing the inevitability of death, natural selection responded to this problem by wiring into our brain a moderate propensity to embrace sunny scenarios even when they are not supported by the facts" (p-381, Gardner). Another anthropologist Pascal Boyer makes a similar point in his book: "The Naturalness of Religious Ideas. For an excellent on line article on the Biological roots of religious belief check the site http://www.SecularHumanism.org/library/fi/hunt_19_3.html In the recent book: "The God Part of the Brain", Philosopher of Science Matthew Alper proposes that beliefs in God, the afterlife, mind-over- matter and superstitions have a physiological origin and may be encoded into human DNA, evolved as a defense mechanism to help people cope with the anxiety that comes from being aware of our own mortality. This explanation of religious faith is not new. The new thing is that Alper has made the most convincing and irrefutable case so far of this view which is based on the results of the latest research on neurology and sociobiology coupled with Darwinian metaphysics. It has got rave reviews from sociobiologists and philosophers. Readers are finding it hard to refute it. One reader got too carried away in his review (under Barnes and Nobles website) and wrote : "The Birth of a New Science: Neuroreligion. All 6 billion plus inhabitants of Earth should be in possession of this book. Matthew Alper's tome should be placed next to the sacred writings section in the libraries, bookstores and dwellings throughout the world. Matthew Alper is the new Galileo. (Watch your back Matthew!).." For an online glimpse of the premise of Alper's work see http://www.godpart.com/premise.html Modern neurological research also points to a purely neurophysiological cause of all religious mystical experiences. Here's an article http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/9/3/498 that typifies the modern view from neurological research. For an insightful tour of human mind and the biology of religion refer to the book " Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience" by Neurophysiologist and psychiatrist Eugene D' Aquilli , and last but not the least the monumental tome with 844 pages: "Zen and the Brain" written by Dr. James Austen, a Neurophysiologits from the Academia who has also practiced Zen meditation himself. All point to a neurophysiological basis of all mystical and religious experiences. Finally, there is also an inner instinct to have a father figure in life providing an imagined guidance and inspiration and a sense of need to be subordinate to such an entity and be protected by and accountable to (As symbolically expressed in genuflection during prayer, prostration etc). In real life this manifests itself in the need to have big brother, a father or a leader. This part of human instinct is also derived from our animal ancestors. Even animals display this submissive posture to the superiors (Dogs to humans, subordinate animals to the leader of their pack etc). The primitive human worshipped imaginary powerful beings identified with thunder, fire, mountain etc (Anything that projects power higher than human). with increased understanding about nature and more control over it human needed some other powerful entities to replace those. Since nothing on earth seems to be too powerful and beyond human control so human had to invent some imaginary super being to be subordinate and accountable to and protected by.
Let me end with a relevant quote from Einstein: "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own-a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his own body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism." (Made in 1932, appeared in the book, The Quotable Einstein, page-150)
[Mukto-mona] [Articles] [Recent Debate] [Special Event ] [Moderators] [Forum]