It seems to me that religion started out as a simple system of government, so the leaders could keep order in a community that outgrew familial bonds. This probably would have happened about the time we developed agriculture, or made some discovery that allowed large populations to concentrate into a small area. With larger populations comes a need for some shared system of values to tie them together, because in such a community everyone is dependent on everyone else.
The people most likely to take charge would be those who were best at creating a compelling narrative and manipulating emotions, so naturally tall tales were spread of superhuman feats in order to elevate the status of the leaders. Over time people started to believe the legends, but if the heroes were dead then who would lead them? When a beloved leader died, it wouldn’t be uncommon for multiple people to claim his place, which could trigger devastating division in the community.
Enter the gods. They could explain so much that we didn’t understand, like where the sun went at night and what caused the wind. And by virtue of being imaginary, they could transcend the mortal life and provide a long-lasting authority figure for the nation’s descendants. Tall tales stuck around, of course, merely attributing the great feats of men to the assistance of gods. Or in some cases, like ancient Egypt and Christianity, the men were the gods.
Over thousands of years we took these ideas of gods to every part of the planet and evolved them into thousands of different religions. Sometimes there was just one god, sometimes there were many. Some people didn’t buy into all that nonsense and massive empires came and went without any gods at all.
Meanwhile, humans were always doing their signature “kill everyone else” thing, so the burgeoning nations made full use of whatever mythology they had to get everyone on the same page: “God says if we kill all of them, we can have all their cool stuff!” Unfortunately, due to our passion for violence, religion became a very useful tool and formed the basis of government for most nations, since those without a unifying set of values would be more likely to scatter over time or be conquered by more organized enemies.
But then, a funny thing happened. An idea caught on, the crazy idea that we should actually pursue real understanding of the world around us by observing it. The Greeks and Chinese and others like them discovered that rational thought and empirical study worked better than anything else, and gradually new ideas and technologies started to spread as more and more people discovered how useful it was to make decisions based on reality.
And here we are now, with numerous nations that are predominantly secular and also pretty much dominate the top of the charts in terms of health, happiness, peacefulness, and prosperity. That’s the irony of religion…like violence, it helped us survive. But now, like violence, it is clear that we have outgrown it and must leave it behind if we want to continue surviving. Globalization has changed everything; our future lies in different methods, ones that have proven for thousands of years now that they work better than any religion.
I mean science, of course. Rational thought. Observation, verification, testing, questioning. It all comes down to paying attention to the reality that’s right in front of your face. Simply basing choices on reality has proven to be much more successful for everything we do than religion has ever been. For me, it was one of the main reasons I deconverted. As I wrote recently, “I found that all of the experiences attributed to god by myself and the people around me were no more accurate than using my capacity for logical thought. In fact, I found my own cognitive abilities to be significantly more reliable for decision-making and predicting future outcomes than anything the religion had to offer.”
Our success with the scientific method, however, is precisely the reason we cannot continue with religion and violence. Technology is evolving faster than we are–within the space of a single human lifetime, we went from the first powered flight to walking on the moon. One side effect of all this success is a booming population, with sudden and extreme changes in our way of living. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet for my conservative friends, but globalization already happened with flight, computers, and the internet. Large businesses have been taking advantage of it for decades.
Nationalism is dangerous now because we have constructed a global economy, and for the good of everyone involved our former disputes over territory and religion and whatever else cannot take priority over the continued survival of our species. We have the ability now to essentially sterilize the earth’s surface. It’s time to grow up and leave religion and violence to history.
Unless you really want to go extinct. I guess that’s up to you, since all “oughts” are conditional on the desired outcome.
Image: Big Fish Ink