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Tag: religion

Was the human brain selected to develop religion?

by Akshat Rathi

Being able to explain simple concepts is hard work. Changing people’s belief systems is even more difficult. Clear explanations are rare and when I find one like the one below, I am compelled to share it. From Richard Dawkins’ 2004 interview:

Was the human brain selected to develop religion?

I don’t know, but my guess is no. The way I would answer that question is to say that the human brain was selected to develop something which manifests itself as religion under some circumstances. If I take an analogy of… well, one that I’m particularly fond of is the tendency of moths to fly into candle flames, and it’s tempting to label that suicidal behaviour in moths, and ask what on earth is the Darwinian advantage of suicidal behaviour in moths. If you put it like that, clearly there isn’t any.

But if you say instead ‘What is the Darwinian survival value of having the kind of brain which under some circumstances leads moths to fly into candle flames?’, then you’re getting somewhere, because then you can say ‘Well in the world where moths evolved, there weren’t any candle flames. The only lights you would see if you were a night-flying moth would be things like the moon and the stars, and they are at optical infinity, which means that their rays are coming parallel. And if you have a rule of thumb in your brain that says ‘Steer a steady angle of say 30 degrees to the rays of the moon,’ that’s a very useful thing to do, because that keeps you going in a dead straight line. That rule of thumb is then misapplied to candles, which are not at optical infinity, where the rays are radiating outwards. And if you follow the same rule of thumb, of keeping an angle of 30 degrees to the candle’s rays, then you’ll simply spiral into the candle and burn yourself.

So we have rephrased the question. We’ve said it was the wrong question to say ‘Why do moths fly into candle flames?’. The right question is ‘Why do they have the kind of brain which in the wild state made them do something which, in the human-dominated state where there are candles, makes them fly into candle flames?’. Now in the case of religion, I think there was something built into the human brain by natural selection which was once useful and which now manifests itself under civilised conditions as religion, but which used not to be religion when it first arose, and when it was useful.


Religion may become extinct but not soon

by Akshat Rathi


Did the questions get answered?

I am an atheist but I am not a big follower of the new atheist movement which may be described as CNN quotes it:

What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises

I was trying to understand what is it about new atheism that I don’t like. There are a few reasons that I have come to understand. It is probably because I don’t like confronting people’s deep beliefs and making them uncomfortable. It may also be because it took me quite some time to truly understand my religious views and I think it is not possible to be able to change someone’s beliefs by just giving them rational arguments. Even if you do it at a fairly regular basis.

An article on less wrong, a forum devoted to refining the art of human rationality, says:

The correct procedure for dealing with such a person isn’t to show them yet another reason why God doesn’t exist. They’ll just reject it along with all the others. The correct procedure is to convince them, on a gut level, that morality is possible even in a godless universe. When disbelief in God is no longer so terrifying, people won’t fight it quite so hard and may even deconvert themselves.

During the time when I actively confronted my own religious views, I realised that one of the reasons why a belief in the super natural exists in the world might be because people need a theory to explain the things that they cannot explain – to answer the hard questions of life. Why are we here? What will happen after we die? What is time? and the likes.

There are other reasons of course. Religion naturally brings people in to a social setting where your thoughts are somewhat aligned with the thoughts of those around you. It gives you a sense of security and enables you to bring out other facets of humanity because you don’t feel threatened all the time. It helps you to connect with people and trust them, which of course is essential for any human endeavour.

Religious beliefs go far deeper than I thought they did. The mental battle that I had to go through to understand what I truly believe in (even though I had always been an agnostic) was quite painful. Like drug addiction (and even love for that matter), there may be centres in the brain which need to be fundamentally altered to be able to truly get over a certain belief system.

And after having given all this a fair amount of thought, at this point, I can’t help but conclude one thing. If at this very minute I give irrefutable evidence that there is no God and everyone on the planet loses their faith (permanently) then the world will be thrown in to utter chaos.

So although I do believe that there might come a time when religion may become a thing of the past. It is going to be a gradual process.


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