Sunday, January 13, 2008

The phenomenon of religion

Although I promised that I will not spend too much time on arguing why religion is wrong and there is no God, nevertheless it will very be helpful to know why there are so many religions crossing different cultures. The intention of this writhing is to benefit the atheists, not to convince any religious people.

If we look at all the different societies and cultures, almost all the cultures have some kind of supernatural religious thoughts and religion practices. Thus, from an atheist point of view, the “supernatural religions” is a wide spread natural phenomenon. There must be a reason behind this phenomenon. Is that because there is a God like some of the religions claim? Not really, because different cultures believes in different things, and they cannot reconcile among themselves. Some societies believe in a single God, and most societies believe in multi deities, and other societies don’t believe in God, but just other worlds and incarnation life cycles. Obviously all these beliefs cannot be all correct, because they are against each other. It is also difficulty to think there is a unique deity behind all these different religions because they are so different. But there are some commonalities among all the different cultures and religions thoughts. The first is the belief that there is a other world besides the world we see, and hear and touch. In another world, besides the material world we observed from our sense, there is an independent world of soul. All the deities, God, and life spirit live in that world of soul, and soul can exist separately from our material body and material world. Since we never directly observed this world of soul, everything about it is derived and imagined. Very often, we project the character of this material world into that soul world. Thus, there are human like creatures in that world, like gods in Greek mythology, God in Jedo-Christian theology, the thousands of gods in Hinduism, and the heavenly emperor in Ancient Chinese culture. In Chinese culture, they heavenly world and our material world are even mixed together, wage war on each other. Thus, those deities love and hate, behave jealously and are often resentful. They are more like persons grow up in this earth, eating wheat and rice, rather than crystal ball or gaseous creatures. So, this is a second common feature of all the religions: all the deities resemble ourselves, rather than completely alien creature.

Before we explain where do the above two common features come from, let’s first make some comment about them, especially the second feature. Think about it, if there is a other world, purely spiritual world, like the gas drifting in the air (at least that is the picture we get from the modern movies!), then why the creatures living in that world will be like us, the earthly material creatures. They should be very different. Removed from the earthly worries, their mentalities should be very different from us. If things are like what the Jedo-Christian religion believed, that the God is all mighty, infinitely powerful, and infinitely perfect God, then why does he need to be angry so often. Is an always happy and loving God more perfect than an angry God? Angry is not a happy feeling, it hurts yourself. Why does the infinitely perfect God like to hurt himself so often? Logically, there are a lot of holes. A more logical explanation is that all these deities are created by man, they are the projected imagine of ourselves. Looks like our ancestors were not so creative (well, they haven’t watched the modern movies yet!). They have to borrow the characters from everyday life, and put that in their imaginary deities. Now, why bother to create a hidden soul world, if that is so illusive, and we don’t have any direct observation of it. There must be a strong need, and also a strong “evidence” for its existence, that prompted all the cultures derived in the same conclusion. Looks like it is an inevitable result of our human thought, at least in our early human history. Let’s explain why.

Let’s start from a sociology postulation. Let’s call it postulation 1 (rule number 1): a stable and mature society needs to provide an explanation to things happen around them, and believe their explanation (or their overall approach of explanation) can cover everything.

Rule number 1 exists because otherwise this society will be unsettled, and it will not feel mature, and it will not be stable. Without such an official explanation, there will be no authority, hence no stability and society. The official explanation should be selfconsistent, no internal conflict, no loopholes, which means (at least in principle) is should be able to explain everything we know. Achieving such an explanation is always a mile stone in human civilization. It gives us confidence, and the confidence boosts our civilization, and stabilizes our society.

Now, think about 4 to 10 thousand years ago, when the ideas of the soul world were developed. At that time, the knowledge base of our human being is probably equivalent of a modern 8 year old kid. Yes, possibly our brain at that time was already similar than the brain we have now. So, they could be as smart as we are now. But the knowledge base is very limited. There were no accumulation of knowledge, no scientific approach to accelerate our understanding of this world. Given that limited knowledge, if we are forced to give an explanation of the world, what kind of explanation can we come up? Soul, god, demon, deities, these are the best explanation, and pretty good explanation. Why there is a big thunder? Because god is angry. Why I am lucky in hunting? Because god is happy today. Under this theory (or the general approach), everything can be explained by god, or the other world. The theory is powerful because no one can disprove it (the other world is hidden, so you cannot see it). Although it doesn’t have much predictive power, but it has the power of calming down our anxiety, the anxiety of unknown. It makes us feel like we know everything. It boosts our self confidence. In those early days, our rational thoughts and arguments followed a different kind of paradigm compared to today. Today, in order to establish a theory, or an explanation of something, we are asked to compare with experimental observations, and check the predicted sceneries of the theory. In those early days, the requirement was much more relaxed. No prediction was required (who can predict what the god will do next anyway), and all you need to provide is a good story, being self-consistent, and perhaps plausible. The story of soul and gods satisfies these requirements beautifully. Thus, they became the authentic theory of the day. Until the classical Greek time (2500 years ago), Greek people still believed everything has a soul. So a heavy stone falls faster than a light feather because the stone’s heart yearning the ground more than the feather’s heart. What a good explanation, what else explanation do you need? We can see it is easy to provide this kind of explanation to almost everything happen on the earth. That is the power of this theory. There was no natural (without soul of the stone) explanation for the world. People probably never thought about seeking for natural explanations. That was simply impossible in their mind, so why bother. Only the development of science thousand years later (after Renaossance) had boosted our confidence once again. This time, we found that (to our surprise), we can indeed find some natural explanations to many things (from the movement of the planet, to the fall of stone). Now, with the further development of science, the “some natural explanation to many things” have been bloomed into “all natural explanations to everything”, including ourselves, our own brain and our own thought. Such natural explanations are at least possible in principle (which is a view held by the majority of scientists). This is another paradigm of thought, which call for another authentic theory, and another regime in human history. This time the God and soul are no longer needed, they must go.

Well, the world of soul (and consequently the gods) were introduced to explain things thousands of years ago, and that is the best explanation they can provide given their limited knowledge base. But such a big claim must have some other basis, perhaps in some general agreement with their everyday life experience. What kind of experiences make they think the existence of the soul world is plausible? Here, I provide two points: one is the dream, another is our pattern recognition capability. These two things will be enough to make them (even me, if my knowledge base is as limited as they were) believe the soul world exists. Yes, very likely, there could be other “evidences” for them too.

First the dream. Dream is a remarkable phenomenon. Modern medical science has told us a lot about dream. It is a reflex activity in our brain where part of our brain circuitry has been shut down. Apparently, part of our brain still work very hard during our sleep, to repair the damage of our neural cell during the day, and to transfer short time memory into long time memory. The partial stimulation of our memory during our sleep has a dramatic effect, especially if we are waked up during our fast-eye-movement period. Our short time memory still registers those stimulations, thus we remember our dream. 10 thousand years ago, our ancestors didn’t know all these modern medical theory. For most of them, they don’t even know where do they think (is it in the brain or in the heart), or perhaps many people doesn’t even believe themselves “think”. What is “think”? They were not thinking, they just observe, observe the outside world. Things are just revealed to them. So, given such knowledge base and understanding, dream must be a dramatic thing. For them, it is natural to believe what they see during the day is the material world revealed to them, while what they see during the sleep (in the dream) is the soul world revealed to them. Sure, someone else can tell him he was definitely sleeping, but he definitely saw something in his dream, what they saw must be the other world, the world of soul! That is why in many tribes, in their spiritual ceremonies, they use drugs (e.g., mushrooms) to induce illusions, because they believe such dream like illusion is the tunnel to the other world. That is the evidence. Indeed, very solid evidence and hard evidence. Such evidence can certainly seed the idea of soul and the hidden other world.

Second, the pattern recognition. The first intellectual tool the evolution provided to us is not rational logic derivations and thought, instead it is our capability of pattern recognition. This pattern recognition is a result of massively parallel process of our brain cells, it is also the basis of our intuition. As a more ancient intelligence, it not only exists in our human, but probably also exist in most brains of the animals. Actually that is probably why the animals also need a brain, not to be used to solve a math problem, or to have a rational argument with each other, but to be used for pattern recognitions for their survival. Pattern recognition helps them to recognize something, and to remember that thing. Next time, if similar things happen, he will be stimulated, and proper action will be taken. Pattern recognition search for patterns in an otherwise complicated and almost random data set. This is critical to our survival while living in a complicated world (nature is both dangerous and chaotic). It is particularly useful for us to avoid danger. But such over active function sometime can misfire, causing false alarm. Usually that is not a big deal. You run away from a shadow which might look like a predator (like we often do when we were kids), no big harm. That is better than missing the sight of a tiger. Our over active pattern recognition misfire can also be demonstrated by reading of the cloud, into all different animals. However, such misfired pattern recognition can re-enforce some of our misconceptions once they are conceived. Basically, in a complicated environment, supporting evidence is easy to find with a biased mind. Our pattern recognition capability provides us with that biased mind driven by our eagerness to find the evidence. For example, the work of deity is often described by some amazing coincidence, they can even be called miracle, deem to be unlikely by natural explanation. However, most of such coincidence is just coincidence, not really so unusual. For example, if you just thought about a friend, then the phone ringed, and your friend has called you. You might think there must be some supernatural connection here between you and your friend, some kind of telepathy mind reading. Such thinking certainly will boost your believe in the mysterious other world (the soul world). But actually, this is just the work of your pattern recognition capability, which makes you remember such seemly rare event. But thousands of thought passing your brain each day (ever thought probably pass it less than one second). For most of them, nothing happen (e.g., for your day dreaming or yearning of someone, most of time, the person never call you). But your pattern recognition capability let you to forget about those thoughts quickly (without a trace), but remember only the things that happen (unusually). By capture the unusual things, the brain can search out some pattern and order in the otherwise disordered world. They, these events are indeed unusual, rare events. But based on the massive base events (e.g., the thoughts passing through your brain), they bound to happen. Statistically, there is nothing magic about it. But most people take that as small miracle, and hence develop a tendency to believe in miracle and supernatural things, thus a tendency to believe in soul and the other world (all these believes are mutually connected, and support each other). Superstitions (believing in magic instead of natural logic) are often built on the daily results of such false pattern recognitions. For a superstitious person, magic is fill his life, the existence of magic (and hence mysterious soul and other world) is self-evidence, because he experience it almost everyday. But in reality, what he experienced is the false alarm of our pattern recognition capability.

In summary, religion is developed as a way to explain things surrounding us. It is a very good explanation in the rational paradigm of the ancient time. The belief of the hidden soul world is also “supported” by the dream (and other ways of illusions) and the false alarms of our pattern recognition capability (which makes us tend to believe in magic). As a result of all these, religion became an almost universal phenomenon in all the cultures. But time has changed, our knowledge base has increased dramatically. Nowadays, the scientific natural explanation to things happen surrounding us is the norm, not the explanation based on soul and deity. Our rational paradigm has also changed. We are no longer satisfied by fairy tale stories, instead we demand evidence and prediction power for each theory. This calls for a corresponding change in our spiritual world. A change to replace religion with a new value/moral system, a system based on natural explanation, based on the value system of ourselves, that is the secular humanism value system.

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