At Suffolk Humanists’ May meeting, Michael Imison talked about the origins of religious belief.
Two books relevant to the subject were published this year. The first was by the American philosophical writer Daniel C Dennett, called Breaking the spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The spell Dennett wants to break is the widespread taboo on subjecting religion to scientific examination, which seems to arise from a fear that, without religion to impose morality, society would fall apart. On the contrary, Dennett argues, “now that we have created the technologies to cause global catastrophe our jeopardy is multiplied to the maximum. A toxic religious mania could end human civilisation overnight. We need to understand what makes religion work so we can protect ourselves.” He points out that the currently established religions are not that old in terms of the history of mankind and that new religions spring up every day, mostly only lasting a decade. He quotes three common explanations for the need for religion –
To comfort us in our suffering and allay our fear of death.
To explain things we can’t otherwise explain.
To encourage group co-operation in the face of trials and enemies.
Dennett finds these insufficient. He looks for explanation in the evolution of the human mind and quotes much current research which sees evolutionary advantages in minds bred to seek causal explanations for all phenomena and minds which readily subject themselves to powerful beliefs because they responded to faith healing, often the only sort available to primitive man. With modern scientific knowledge these characteristics are no longer valuable and religion is unnecessary, says Dennett.
The second book was Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Louis Wolpert, the British academic and broadcaster. He too sees religious belief offering genetic advantages to primitive man. But he goes further and quotes research that shows religious experiences being brought on by stimulation of certain parts of the brain, just they can be brought on by certain forms of epilepsy.
These are three thoughts of mine. Firstly, that a purely mechanistic universe calls into question free-will so that it is necessary for us to import a non-material element, a spirit or a soul, to prevent us simply being the slaves of cause and effect. Secondly, that all our early life-experience is of being protected and nurtured by superior beings so that it is natural we should continue to look for such beings when we become adults. And thirdly, clever but weakly members of primitive society could find themselves a role by offering to interpret the forces of nature and intervene with them. They had a vested interest in promoting religion and thus priesthoods were born.
A lively discussion followed in which, for example, it was pointed out that dreams were probably an important element in promoting belief in the supernatural. It was also argued that social causes were as important, if not more so, than genetic causes in the development of religion.