People of faith may rail and deny — but credible evidence points to one simple fact. All babies are born without religion. No brain is programmed, at birth, to follow any faith. It is a truism; “all religion is learned”. Even the most devout will eventually accept that the faith given to every child depends almost exclusively on which country, community or family they are born into.
A logical conclusion must then follow. A little girl who is “taught” to be catholic — if she practices her given faith — will reject a belief in Islam. She will also deny the “absolute truth” claimed by Jews, Hindus, Protestants, Scientologists and Mormons — and every other belief system that is so firmly held by more than 4000 religions, sects and cults around the world today.
That child (as a grown woman) has only to apply the same level of ‘critical thinking’ to her own religion — that she used to discount all other faiths — before she too becomes a non-believer. The 4000-plus religions cannot all be right in claiming their “own true God” — so none of them can claim superiority.
So, where did these primitive superstitions come from and why do they persist today?
The evidence, from evolutionary science, shows that humans evolved from a common ancestor (with other primates) around 6 millions years back in time. Our own species (Homo sapiens) evolved some 150 thousand years ago, and the evolutionary process gave us many “survival” traits.
Many evolutionary biologists (later named) conclude that all religions — as they have evolved over the past several thousand years — are simply “by-products” of our earliest “survival mechanisms”. This “by-product” argument is put most strongly by Richard Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion”.
The thread is worth following, and becomes clear. His example is a moth that flies into a naked flame. The reason is simple — moths navigate at night by the moon or stars. Regrettably for moths, artificial light (and naked flames) can cause confusion, so we periodically see one circling into a flame. This is what Dawkins describes as “a misfiring by-product of its natural navigation system.”
He points then to religious behaviour throughout history — the amount of time, effort and passion given to ritual and doctrine, that motivates people to kill and die for these beliefs. It is another “misfiring by-product”, a psychological tendency which was at one time a useful “survival” factor.
Dawkins says, “We survived by the accumulated experience of previous generations and that experience needs to be passed on to children.” The entire environment for early humans was a death trap, so we developed ways to survive. There is a Darwinian “selective advantage” to children’s brains — they are geared to believe implicitly what their parents tell them, and to obey tribal elders without question. But, like the moth, things can go wrong.
The “misfiring by-product” of our early survival trait is evident in numerous phenomena. The Charge of the Light Brigade is a classic — 600 horsemen blindly following their instinct to obey orders and ride into the “valley of death”, very much like the moth circling into the open flame.
This is the flip side of the “natural section” trait, where trusting obedience becomes slavish gullibility. The inevitable “by-product” of obeying authority without question is to lead children into believing implicitly in stories of a supernatural being, and accepting, on faith, the ritual and doctrine of a particular religion. It colours her attitudes about people who are “different” — by race, by other religions, or by sexual orientation. It will profoundly influence her belief about the origins of humankind, the Earth itself, and the entire cosmos.
If she was trained to believe that all this was the work of a particular “God”, then she is likely to hold that as a lifelong and unshakable belief. When she has children of her own, exactly the same belief systems will be taught to them. But the point to keep in mind is this. Simply by accident of birth — an entirely different set of beliefs could have been given to that first child.
There are others who attribute religion being a “by-product” of normal psychological dispositions; promoted by independent specialists such as Robert Hinde (Why Gods Persist), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained) and Scott Atran (In Gods We Trust). The forensic psychiatrist J Anderson Thomson makes interesting comparisons in brain chemistry among the religious, in his book “Why We Believe in God(s)”. And there are others who explain why religion persists in the 21st century, in the face of overwhelming evidence that undermines the very basis of Abrahamic religions.
As science advances, so the myths of religion recede. Eventually, perhaps, the “misfiring survival trait” will no longer function. In the mean time, with an overwhelming bank of scientific evidence now available, one has only to reach out and read, to reach a profound conclusion — that there is no credible evidence of a god, gods, or the supernatural.
Atheism SA Inc. active atheist assoc., Adelaide South Australia, for atheists, agnostics and non-believers.