Friday, May 20, 2011


What if Thag had looked out from his Stone-Age cave at the volcano erupting in the distance and thought, “Wow, that’s cool,” instead of, “Son of a gun, I’d better appease that sucker?”
Nature's fire and brimstone.
Neuroscientists tell us that belief in god is a default setting for humans. Why that is is an interesting question. Maybe it’s because there is a god who programmed us to believe in him or her or it. Or maybe we grow up looking for replacements for our parents. Perhaps having shared religious beliefs helped us form the cohesive, supportive groups that behavioral evolutionists say had the best chance of survival. The debate is ongoing, passionate and, at least as far as proving the existence or not of a deity is concerned, an intellectual dead end.

But thinking about why we believe in god got me wondering this: What if we didn’t? What if no one had ever believed in any god of any kind? What would our species be like? What would our morals be, if any? Would we have evolved in anarchic chaos, or are our customs for treating one another well what led to our survival, and our civilization?

Recent psychological experiments have revealed that many basic norms of behavior, what we call morals, live deep in our base brains, alongside sex drive and fight-or-flight. Actions triggered there happen before we think about them. The explanation for why we have reacted instinctively as we have is the result of the cognitive lobe’s subsequent musings. In other words, good behavior gave rise to morals, not the other way around.

In this line of thinking, Jesus and Mohamed merely picked up where our reptilian brains left off, articulating and encouraging our more altruistic instincts. Which raises this question: Have their religions, or any others, been worthy custodians of our moral beliefs?

A weakness all religions share is that their earthly leaders are men, not gods. Like CEOs of businesses or rulers of nations, religious leaders seek to expand the influence of their sect, to spread the word, as it were. Religious missions are a form of spiritual colonization.

Expanding market share takes money, and so, from Aztec priests demanding gold and virgins to appease the gods to modern church leaders, religions have sought sacrifices and tithes from the faithful. And more than occasionally, the weakness of men has resulted in corruption in dealing with all that wealth. One of the Medici Popes was even a pirate, literally, not metaphorically.

Expanding market share also requires…well, expansion. With no religion, we would still have fought over land and women, but not for the right to hasten the heathen's descent into hell. If the morals that bubbled up from our evolutionary development had served only mankind and no “higher” purpose, there would be one less reason to detest one another.

But have a little graft and a few crusades and inquisitions been worth it? Have our religions made us more likely to be good people? Put in the most basic terms, is fear of eternal damnation a more powerful motivator than fear of social ostracism?

Now that we are living longer than in the Middle Ages (when you might have met your maker any day), the notion of going to hell (or wherever damnation takes you) is comfortably abstract. Eternal damnation is like global warming: In our daily lives, most of us just aren’t that worried about it. It’s not going to happen to us, that’s those other guys. And anyway, it’s a long way off.

On the other hand, if Facebook is any indication, our level of caring what others think of us is on the rise. In a purely humanist moral system, the approval of others would be what would guide and constrain us.  Maybe if that were all we had, we would be better behaved, not worse. If our sense of our own goodness were measured by how others judged us, we could not put off the day of reckoning.

If every day, not just on some distant Judgment Day, we had to account to others for who we are, perhaps we would work harder to mute the clamor of striving for self to better hear the ancient voice of our altruism.

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful and well written piece. I don't believe I've ever seen "religion" make anyone a better person-- but often through our love for another person we strive to be better ourselves.

    Maud Carol