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Chapter Four: Why people believe

Section 1: The origins of religion

Religion was essential in early human development but we have long outgrown the need for faith.

Where does religion come from? It is probably as old as humanity and was essential in our transition from simple primates dominated by short-term instinct into self-conscious, questioning human beings capable of forming sophisticated societies.  

Religion - defined as belief in the supernatural - fulfilled four important functions in early human existence: it explained the physical world, established a moral code, fostered a sense of community and explained consciousness. It almost certainly developed in tandem with the uniquely human talents of complex language and abstract thought.

Abstract thought allows us to imagine things and events which occur outside our experience - a hundred miles away, in the past or the future, or which may never happen. Complex language (expressing past, future or imaginary events) allows us to share our thoughts with other human beings. Together, they enable us to to predict events, to make plans and to co-operate with each other.

4.1a Religion as science

Language and thought also gave people some control over their environment. Tools came into use, seeds were planted, shelters were built, clothes kept bodies warm. But early humans continued to be frustrated by an inexplicable world. We were both curious and ignorant. What caused the rain to fall? What if the sun did not rise? Would there be enough animals to hunt or and would the newly-planted seeds grow? And where did we come from?

With growing powers of deduction but limited information, it would seem logical to primitive humans that the environment was controlled by beings like themselves but with much greater powers.

The explanation varied from community to community, but the principles were the

The deep roots of belief

Despite reason and evidence indicating that God does not and cannot exist, billions of people across the world continue to worship him in one of his many forms.

Belief in God draws its strength from a wide range of sources and provides a sense of security and wellbeing for many. Transforming that belief into an understanding and respect for rationality takes time and much effort.

4.1: The origins of religion
Where did faith come from?

4.2: In the genes?
Are we programmed to believe?

4.3: Community and identity
Defining ourselves through faith

4.4: Peer pressure
Faith as fashion

4.5: Death and despair
There must be a better world

4.6: A sense of justice
Evildoers must be punished

4.7: God and meaning
Religion gives us a purpose

4.8: The power and the glory
They reflect on us too

4.9: Against the tide
Converts and natural-born rebels

4.10: Nature calling
A glimpse of God?

4.11: Pick 'n' mix
What are your reasons?

4.12: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter 5
Faith in action

People create God in their own image. What happens when they not only believe in God but put their faith into action?

The results are predictable: good people do good things in the name of religion and bad people do bad things. They act in God's name but God is irrelevant.

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same. One god pulled the sun across the sky in his chariot; another caused the wind to blow; a third ruled the sea and so on. Usually, but not always, two or three more-powerful, but more distant gods were credited with creating both humanity and the universe.

For millennia, these analyses of the world made sense because they fitted the available facts. Religion explained the world - for our ancestors, religion was science. If crops failed or people died unexpectedly or prayers were granted or denied, the gods were responsible - for gods, like men and women, were unpredictable beings.

But as thousands of years passed, philosophers, who were the precursors of modern scientists, began to see that the world obeys the fixed rules of nature, not the whims of specialist gods. In many communities the old gods disappeared, to be replaced by a single, all-powerful God for whom thunderstorms and burning bushes were nothing more than party tricks with which he occasionally astonished his followers.

4.1b Religion as morality

The second function of religion was to underpin morality.

As our capacity for thought developed, so did our sense of ego. Each of us saw ourselves as distinct from the other humans around us. The idea of property began to develop: this is my food, my shelter, my clothing, my sexual partner.

William Blake: Good and Evil
Ego and property bring conflict - I will kill you to defend what is mine or to take what I want from you. And uncontrolled egos make everyone vulnerable. I want what is yours and may kill you to get it - and you want what is mine and are equally willing to kill. I need protection from your greed as you need protection from mine. We can strike a bargain - I will refrain from taking your property if you refrain from taking mine - and that bargain becomes stronger if it is supervised and maintained by others around us.

Over time, therefore, communities developed moral codes – rules about life and property and sexual activity - that helped us to control our behaviour. Details varied from community to community, particularly where sexual partners were concerned, but the basics were the same: do not kill, steal from or commit sexual misconduct within the community.

An individual is weak and can break their own moral code. A community is stronger and can impose its morality, but individuals can find ways of flouting the community code. Besides, community leaders weaken and die and their moral code can change. The strongest moral code comes from the gods or god, for it is they who see everything and live forever, who have power over life and death and who demand the greatest respect.

This identification of religion with morality has lasted for thousands of years and become so entwined that most people cannot distinguish between them and many believers assume that without faith there is nothing to prevent us behaving immorally. But, as we will see in Chapter Six, a rough moral code that arose out of primitive ignorance is no longer valid. Jewish / Christian / Muslim morality is based on superstition, not human welfare; instead of protecting all members of society, it creates inequality and tension, privileging men over women, believers over non-believers, heterosexuals over homosexuals, ignorance over knowledge and bigotry over mutual respect.

4.1c Religion as community

Religion’s third crucial role among primitive humanity was to unify communities. Faith in a common god or set of gods and adherence to the rituals of worship were essential in encouraging first villages and then larger and larger populations to live and work together and to defend themselves from an often hostile world.

This function of religion was appropriate to a primitive world where people lived all their lives in homogenous communities. However, by the time of the early Islamic expansion 1,400 years ago and the crusades (pictured) which followed, religion became increasingly violent.

In the twenty-first century, religion does not unite, but
pic to be confirmed
divides communities, threatening the well-being of us all. Despite the propaganda of fundamentalists in every nation that blames every religion except their own, extremists in every faith are guilty of violence, from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Jews and even, on occasion, pacifist Buddhists. The causes of war are many and complicated, but religion remains high on the list - when faith disappears so too will many of the conflicts that plague us.

The relationship between religion, community and personal identity
is explored further in Section 3.

4.1d Religion and consciousness

One of the earliest human mysteries - and one that have not yet fully resolved - is consciousness. Our minds appear distinct from our bodies; in sleep our minds may be active while are bodies are motionless; in death our bodies appear alive while our minds have disappeared. If our consciousness is separate from our physical self, where does it come from? where does it go?

Religion provided an answer. Our consciousness is a soul created by God (Jewish / Christian / Muslim version) or an eternal part of the cosmos (Hindu / Buddhist version). Conveniently tied into the idea of an immortal soul is the religious perception of morality - do as God tells you and you will be rewarded or punished for all eternity.

Believers will deny it, but it seems increasingly likely that our consciousness is granted by biochemistry, not God. When our brain cells die, so too does our mind. It happens too soon for most of us and, if science-fiction proves fact, it may be that our descendants' consciousness will live forever in some mechanical or other form. That, however, may be as more curse than blessing.

4.1e We have outgrown religion

It is true that religion was essential in early human development. Without it, the human race might never have evolved to the world it has created today.

But we have long outgrown the need for faith. Belief in a god no longer explains either our origins or our consciousness; religious commandments make a mockery of morality, and we have only to look at the Middle East to see how easily the association of religion and community creates hatred and violence.

Unfortunately, although we have long outgrown it, religion refuses to fade away. Nourished by ignorance, arrogance and greed, religion today lies to us about our origins, makes outcasts of innocents and licenses bigotry, violence and hate. It is time to abandon religion and, if we must pray, let us pray for a world without God.

Chapter Four: Section 2 In the genes?

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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