Thursday, September 3, 2020

Why Has Religion Come To Dominate The Planet?

 The issue of why it's essentially impossible for an atheist in the U.S. to become a presidential candidate is tied to the nation's  hyper religiosity.    As I noted in my book, Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook,  a 2006 Univ. of Minnesota study ('Atheists Identified as America's Most Distrusted Minority')by Penny Edgell and associates found: "atheists now occupy the lowest rung of social respect for minorities in American society, lower than communists and Muslims."   Adding:

"A significant number of respondents associated atheism with an array of moral misbehavior ....and seemed to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good."

This in turn  relates to how the religious meme itself has come to dominate nation after nation.  Why then has religious behavior occurred throughout time, in societies at nearly every stage of development and in every region of the world?  Even given religions are seldom concerned with the "common good" and more about how they can gain converts,  advance their own agendas and even leverage political power, e.g.

I suspect there are two possible answers to this question which may or may not be mutually exclusive with one another:

1) Religion is a basic manifestation of a mind virus or meme which has flourished in human brains

2) Religion is a behavior favored by natural selection, and so has come to dominate the human cultural landscape because it confers some survival benefit or advantage.

Let's consider (1) to start. This is based on the meme concept (with the meme acting as an ideational mind virus) first articulated by biochemist Jacque Monod in his Chance and Necessity. On page 155 Monod writes:

"The human group upon which a given idea confers greater cohesiveness, greater ambition and greate self-confidence thereby receives from it an added power to expand which will ensure the promotion of the idea itself. Its promotion value' bears no relation to the amount of objective truth the idea may contain."

He goes on to note (ibid.):

"The might of the powerful armament provided by a religious ideology for a society does not lie in its structure, but in the fact this structure is accepted, that it gains command".

One may inquire here what religious ideology has been most successful worldwide over the past twenty years. Careful inspection will disclose that it's none other than Christian Evangelism or Fundamentalism. It has not only gained ground over Roman Catholicism in places like Central and South America, but in Africa as well. Its ideational benefits are huge, given its simplicity, and its recipe for (eternal) reward: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior" is intoxicating.

Indeed the only religious ideology that rivals it in converts is Islam, with its promise of eternal rest and succor provided one wages war against the "infidels" (which, coincidentally, include the Christian Fundamentalists)

Not surprisingly then, the most powerful and insidious memes (ideas-beliefs) are those dedicated to the spread of religious beliefs. If we seek to ask why one set is more successful than a rival set, then we need to look at what Monod, for example, calls their "infectious power". This power can be set forth in terms of three main attributes:

1) Performance value: What change does the meme or meme complex bring about in behaviors for the person who adopts it? (For Christian Fundamentlists, the most major change is that they are intent on spreading their "message" to others, pagans, unbelievers, in the conviction that must "save their souls". They believe that Christ enjoined them to do this and not to do so is to ignore his edict to "go forth")

2) Propagation value: How far and wide is the meme spread, and what means are employed to achieve this? (E.g. Islam in the past has invoked beheadings locally, and more generally "holy wars" or Jihads to force belief onto uncooperative populations. Christian Fundamentalists make more use of the threat of "Hell" to any indigenous groups that are reluctant to accept their "personal Savior")

3) Infectious value: How easy is it to infect other brains? What attribute of the meme facilitates the infection?

In the last case, say for the faith meme in general, part of its structure inheres in automatically warding off too close rational scrutiny. Thus, reason and rationality are either: a) demonized (as byproducts of "Satan") or, b) marginalized as inferior to faith.

Example: from a 1990 CNN program featuring Skeptic Paul Kurtz, the topic "Does Satan Exist?"

Phone caller (to Kurtz): "Of course you will say that Satan doesn't exist! But that's exactly what Satan wants! He doesn't want anyone to believe in him!"

And we see here, the Satan belief component of the meme is perfectly designed to limit and minimize any damage from Kurtz's skepticism. After all, if one doesn't believe in Satan, he has to be under the spell of causing disbelief!

No one can say that these religious mind viruses don't possess a certain innate beauty!

While the theory of mass infection of human brains is very compelling, and indeed was revisited in the book, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, by Aaron Lynch, it leaves open why a small subset of humans (atheists, other nonbelievers) aren't affected...or should I say, infected?

I suspect the likely reason is that their (mostly) scientific training provides an inoculation against the effort to infect their those trying to meet their convert quota. Because we have studied hard science for so many years we can easily recognize humbug when we see it. So, it washes off our ideational backs like a flu bug might for someone whose had the H1N1 vaccine.

Now, what about the second notion? This has recently been made popular in a number of venues, not least have been the claims for a "God gene" or - less dogmatically -that religious belief confers health and other benefits, against which I'd not necessarily complain. I just have problems accepting that religion necessarily "evolved" because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. (I do think that ethics likely evolved and developed along lines favored by natural selection).

More plausible is that religious belief evolved along with blind optimist tendencies - as well as the ability to "see things that aren't there" (see the excellent book, Faces in the Clouds).   This ability is presumed to exist in one single brain complex, probably centered in the temporal lobes. We know, for example - as Monod points out in his book (p. 50, by reference to functional coherence in associated molecular cybernetic systems) that it is often very important that humans remain "dumb and happy" in the evolutionary scheme of the brain.

 The survival basis here is to reduce existential anxiety and probably a host of physical indicators (e.g. blood pressure) as well. But this is not to say anything real is doing it. Rather it is the believer's own beliefs manifesting as a kind of intangible opiate or narcotic. Not surprisingly, reckless uninformed optimism (as when people leap into the stock market because others are, believing they will succeed) and religious faith clearly emerge as symptoms of the same general brain defect that abhors reality.

This dynamic is widespread because this brain wiring defect is also widespread. A small percentage of humans (atheists ) lack it, but then they often lack the benefits as well. I wouldn't be surprised- given this, if atheists are found to have more depression, higher blood pressure, more general bad health indicators (poor lipid profiles, high c-reactive protein, etc). They might naturally show these because they suffer no delusions, and are fully cognizant of being orphans in a purposeless cosmos. To compensate for this painful existential awareness they might self-medicate in ways that the medical cognoscenti might not approve.  

An alternate theory has that a specific neuro-complex literally enables God as well as other proposed supernatural entities to abide in the brain.  This neural complex goes by the name of "orientation association area" or OAA, as defined by Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili in their book, 'Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief''.

Neurological measurements, i.e. from PET and SPECT scans, consistently showed electrical discharges spiraling down from the right attention area (right OAA) to the limbic system and hypothalamus “triggering the arousal section of the structure”. The authors’ test results and measurements revealed the activation of both the left and right association regions as their subjects focused on a religious artifact or object, say an image of Jesus. As assorted cortical thresholds were crossed, a maximal stimulation (given by spikes in the SPECT scans) produced a neural “flood” that generated feedback to the attention association area.

To make a long story short, the visual attention area of the OAA began to deprive the right orientation area (responsible for balance)  of all neural input not originating with the contemplation of the religious or devotional object. In order to compensate, and thereby preserve the neuro-spatial matrix (in which the self could still exist) the right orientation area had to default to the attention area focusing on the object.

In the words of the authors,  the religious object “is perceived by the mind as the whole depth and breadth of reality.”   This is a profound insight, and fully explains why it is essentially impossible to wean believers away from their objects of worship or devotion based on logic and reason alone. What has happened, in other words, is the subject’s whole existence and identity has become bound up with the focus of his brain’s OAA-  or more specifically – the right attention area’s focus which channels nearly all neural inputs to that region.  

Given this dynamic, the brain governed by the OAA will be singly directed to craft its own version of rationality to support its supernatural ideations.  This implies we simply cannot trust the rational expressions  of believers to be faithful accounts of reality.  

This is one reason the atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer - in Language, Truth and Logic-  insisted  on empirical support for any claims made.   As he writes (p. 158):

"The fact people have religious experiences is interesting from the psychological point of view, but it does not in any way imply there is such a thing as religious knowledge.   The theist - like the moralist- may believe his experiences are cognitive experiences, but unless he can formulate his knowledge in propositions that are empirically verifiable, we may be sure he is deceiving himself."

Why aren't atheists' brains subject to OAA stimulation and domination?  A number of hypotheses have been advanced including that we have lack the "God gene" which makes the OAA effective.  Another proposal is that we are too trained already in critical thinking (and logic)  to be mesmerized by the OAA's  subversive appeals.   The converse is that most humans are unable - for whatever reason- to resist such brain influence, hence explaining the dominance of religious memes across the planet.

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