Thursday, April 28, 2005

How Religion was Invented, and Why I'm Still a Christian

For a very long time, human beings have believed that words have power. Ancient Egyptian priests put curses on Pharaoh's tomb. The Ancient Chinese Emperor Chi Shi Huang Ti thought that he would live forever if he said a secret phrase every morning, and drank a special potion. (Which was composed of mercury and probably made him go mad.) The Druids in Europe believed that they could effect the rising of the sun by saying prayers, and Native Americans believed that they could make it rain with songs. If you think about it, almost every religion holds a central belief in the power of words.

Hindus believe in the power of the word "Om." They believe it is a word that drives the human spirit and mind into a presence with Brahman. To quote the Mandukya Upanishad, "Om is the one eternal syllable of which all that exists is but the development. The past, the present, and the future are all included in this one sound, and all that exists beyond the three forms of time is also implied in it"

The Dalai Lama, head of the Buddhist faith, led a seminar on the medicinal power of the Mantra where attendants were told that reciting the Mantra "brings inconceivable merit. ... If you recite the mantra every day, the buddhas and bodhisattvas will always pay attention to you, and they will guide you. All your negative karmas will be pacified and you will never be born in the three lower realms.... and all your wishes are fulfilled."

Bruce Wilkinson tells us in the opening lines of the wildly popular book The Prayer of Jabez that he can "teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers...I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God..." And Christians everywhere reading this book belive that if they pray for money, God will give it to them.

It is firmly believed across the globe that words have power. The question is why. We do not witness the tangible power of words in our everyday lives. Never have I said "levitate" to a pencil, and watched it rise from the desk. (Though, I admit, I've tried.) I have never rebuked the wind with my voice, and I have never made a cup of hot coffee by telling it to come to me. Though I wish things could be this easy, I have not witnessed the tangible power of words in my life, nor do I know of anyone who has. So the question is, where did this belief come from? Why would people all across the world, all across the span of human history all agree that words have power?

I think the answer lies in our own experiences. Words do have power, but not the tangible type of power that we seem to want them to have.

[Before you go crazy: I'm not saying that God does not answer prayers, that is something else. I am saying that the words I pray are not powerful, but God is powerful and if he wills to answer prayers, He has the power to do so. Enough said.]

So on to my point. (I guess you could call this my thesis statement)

We experience the emotive power of words. When we mix this experience with our inherent "humocentrism" and the power of confirmation bias, we ascribe a tangible power to words that does not exist. We then use that ascribed power to develop a system of rituals out of which religions are born.

Notice the effect that reading these words have on you. You quite literally feel something when you read these words:





Notice how you feel when you read those words. They have power over you. When you read the word "pain" you feel it. When you read the word "molestation" you grow angry. When someone strings words together and uses them against you, there is no shield to guard you against the attack. You cannot build stronger muscles in order to not feel something when someone says "Fuck you." or some other abusive remark. We feel the power of those words. Words can be weapons, and no matter how we feel about the kindergarten "sticks and stones" line of defense, it simply isn't true. Words can and do hurt us. That is why we use them.

At the same time, words can heal us. Think of how you feel when you hear these words:



It's okay

There, there

These words comfort us and make us feel better. Words do have tangible power, but only over us as individuals. We feel the power that words have over us. What does that have to do with the birth of religion? On to the second point.

Human beings all share what I call a "Humocentric" worldview. It is something that we all share, no matter how intentional we are about realizing that it is false. Human beings view themselves as the most important things in the universe. Basically, we think that if something is familiar to us, it is probably familiar to the rest of creation. For example, how many scientists are trying to discern the language used by dolphins? It is more than likely that dolphins do not have a language at all, but we assume that they should. Humans are smart, and they use language, it's probable then that if dolphins are smart, they should have language. Our children's stories claim that animals can speak, and most children probably think that animals are able to speak, but chose not to around humans. It is not until we teach them certain scientific principles that they finally give up on the idea that animals are able to speak. (Though somehwere, I think we all hold the hope that our dogs and cats do, in fact, talk to each other.) When I put a hook through a worm, I assume that the worm feels pain as I do because his skin gets hard and he tries to wriggle off. Scientists claim that the worm's nervous system is unable to recognize pain, but I do not believe science. I ascribe the experience of pain to worms, because it is familiar to me. We, as humans, anthropomorphize nearly everything we come across.

This humocentric anthropomorphization combines with the emotive power of words to develop religious rituals.

For example, pretend I waved a stick in the air and the wind picked up a bit. I might think that the wind picked up because I waved the stick. Now, we know that this is not the case, but we try it again. Nothing happened, the wind blew just as it always has. But, confirmation bias tells us that the breeze did, in fact, pick up a bit. We repeat the experiment, and our confirmation bias is intensified by a true psychosomatic response wherein we actually feel the wind pick up when we wave a stick. We believe that waving a stick makes the wind blow. The next step is going outside on a windless day to see if we can generate wind by waving the stick.

We go outside and wave the stick, and the wind does not pick up. We might then wonder what went wrong. We try to do the exact same thing, and still get no results. Maybe the circle was too small. So we wave a smaller circle. If that works the first time, and fails the next time, we might think the speed was off. Gradually the ritual will become more and more intricate to the point where it is nearly impossible to do the thing that we prescribe for the generation of a gust of wind. By the time we are finished, we have found that if you point a slightly bent two foot long hickory stick that's no thicker than your thumb toward the West and move it ever so slowly in a perfect circle whose radius is no larger than your abdomen and no smaller than your thigh, it will make the wind blow. This sort of thing, I think, is the mode by which ritual comes into being.

I believe the same thing happened with words. One day, during a drought, someone was singing, and it started to rain. They ran home, told everyone what happened, and the people incorrectly ascribed the rain to the song. When they tried to sing the song at the next drought it did not work, so they thought "We must have to sing the song in the same place facing the same direction with the same colors etc..." gradually a simple act is woven into the culture and the religion that is building and confirmation bias tells us that the rituals are powerful. If we witness even the smallest measure of success, we ascribe that phenomenon to the act that we have performed.

The humocentric worldview that we cannot escape combines with confirmation bias to convince us that we have the ability to affect the world through a series of intricate rituals. As those rituals are practiced, they are inherently woven into an occultic mysterious language, and gradually chants and incantations develop around the rituals. As the rituals and spells increase, a system develops around them and a religion is slowly born. Every time someone attempts to prove or disprove the religion, it succeeds in the minds of the believers because they are operating the experiments with a mind driven to accept the religion's claims. Confirmation bias solidifies the faith.

We, in effect, make ourselves into gods. Now, I am not saying that religion is bad, or that God has been invented. Even with all this talk about how religions are born, I still believe in God. In fact, I am a Presbyterian and believe the Heidleburgh Catechism is true. What I do not believe however, is that the rituals I perform at church are done because they are powerful in and of themselves. I do not believe that I can make God do my bidding if I say the right thing facing the correct direction after washing my hands and dipping my feet in snake oil. When I start doing that, I'll stop being Christian and start being religious. Now, that's not to say that religious activities have no merit. There are certain psychosomatic benefits to fasting, praying, taking communion. I even believe that God honors our taking of the sacrements. But the thing to remember is that the power of these things lies in God, and not in our ability to perform the religious duties. Anything else is Gnosticism.

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