“Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.” -Hippocrates
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” -Mark Twain
Why don’t we believe in Venus or Thor anymore? What happened to Apollo and Artemis? They didn’t just “disappear.” So, what happened?
What happened is humanity progressed.
Religion comes from a period of human history where no one had the smallest clue on what was going on. We didn’t understand the world. It was unknown, unpredictable and dark. Nature was a mystery. So, to understand the world, we created gods.
Phenomena That We Didn’t Understand
We didn’t understand why the Sun rose and set, so the ancient Greeks created Helios and Apollo. On the other hand, ancient Egyptians created Nut, also a sun god. We invented the God of rain, such as Tlaloc, to explain the rain cycle. We prayed to Aphrodite, Baal and Venus so our wives would get pregnant. Why? Because we didn’t understand why the sun rose, why it rained and why our wives got pregnant.
We didn’t understand why The Milky Way had a white tint. So we believed it was the milk from the Greek goddess Hera —hence its name “Milky Way”. We didn’t understand male nocturnal seminal emissions. So, Persians believed it was evoked by a succubi. We didn’t understand why rainbows occurred. So, Vikings thought rainbows were gods’ bridge to earth.
Furthermore, earthquakes were thought to be the kicking of the god Ru as an unborn baby inside Mother Earth’s womb by the Maoris. In contrast, Siberian tribes thought earthquakes were caused by the itching of the god Tull’s dogs who pulled the sled upon which Earth rested.
The voice in our head before 1000 B.C. was thought to be the voice of a god —says psychologist Julian Jaynes. Child fever was believed to be because an enemy paid a witch doctor to cast a spell on the child or because the parent couldn’t afford to sacrifice a goat when she was born. Or even because a green caterpillar crossed our path and we forgot to spit out the evil spirit.
Until the 18th century, mental illness used to be ascribed to supernatural causes. Insomnia was considered a punishment inflicted by demons.
In short, ills and unfortunate things were either because of bad luck or because we didn’t understand how the world worked.
Teleology —the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes— predisposes us to religion.
What’s amazing about most creation myths is that they begin by assuming the existence of a living creature before the universe itself was created.
Hindus believed, amongst other creation myths, that Lord Vishnu woke up on top of a giant coiled-up snake that rested on top of an ocean of nothingness and out of his navel grew a lotus where Brahman sat. Brahman was Vishnu’s servant. So, Vishnu commanded Brahman to create the world.
In other origin myths, such as tribal ones, they only mention the creation of that one particular tribe, not others.
Science To The Rescue
In short, gods were created to meet our inescapable demand for comfort and knowledge. Because of science, we understand why the run rises, why it rains, where babies come from, why earthquakes roar and why the Milky Way is milky, we no longer pray to the ancient gods.
It’s not God that creates lighting and thunder, rain storms and hurricanes. It’s the warmth from sunlight that drives storms and generates lightning and thunder. As Christopher Hitchens said:
What happens to the faith healer and the shaman when any poor citizen can see the full effect of drugs and surgeries, administered without ceremonies or mystifications? Roughly the same thing as happens to the rainmaker when the climatologist turns up, or to the divine…when school teachers get hold of elementary telescopes…We no longer have any need for a god to explain what is no longer mysterious.
Sam Harris agreed. He said, “Religion once offered answers to many questions that have now been ceded to the care of science.”
So, Why Are Religions Still Around?
Because science hasn’t solved everything.
Religions change throughout the ages to reflect the problems of the current age. During the Stone Age, no one worried about abortions or homosexuals. It wasn’t important. What was important was when it would rain, when the sun would rise and how our wives got pregnant. Thus, we created Indra, Helios, and Hera, respectively. As Hitchens said, “There would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable.”
Now that humans evolved, the rain, the Sun and babies no longer baffle us. Humanity now needs a God to tell us if abortions and homosexuality are moral, how the universe was made and what happens after death. We need religion to tell us: who we are, why we’re here and what’s the meaning of my life? So, we created Jesus, Allah, Krishna and Yahweh, exactly as our ancestors did. This is why Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and not Olmec, Ashurism or Tengriism are our contemporary religions today.
At more primitive stages of humanity, we didn’t have to deal with these new questions.
So, Religion Reflects Our Human Wishes & Our Fears?
Exactly. As Thomas Hobbes said, “Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion.” Lucretius agreed. He said, “Religion, is a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.”
We adhere to our contemporary religions because we’re terrified of the unknown. The most terrifying of these unknown is death. In fact, death is ranked as humanity’s second biggest fear.1 So what did we do? We created heaven so that we’d never have to die. This is why 72% of U.S. adults believe in heaven and only 58% believe in hell. Heaven is the theme park that solves our fear of death.2 As Sigmund Freud said, “[Religion] was too clearly derived from our own desire to escape from or survive death.”
As can be seen, it’s not rational arguments that causes belief in god, but emotional arguments. Instead of acknowledging our ignorance, we’ve chosen to believe that there’s a god. This is the “god of the gaps” argument. The “god of the gaps” means that we’ve assigned a god responsible for what we don’t yet understand. In other words, the word god has been used to conceal our ignorance. Wisdom, however, lies in understanding our limitations. As Paul Dietrich said,
He [the pious] applies this term [God] when the spring of the natural, the source of known causes, ceases to be visible: as soon as he loses the thread of these causes, or as soon as his mind can no longer follow the chain, he solves the difficulty, terminates his research, by ascribing it to his gods….When, therefore, he ascribes to his gods the production of some phenomenon…does he, in fact, do anything more than the substitute for the darkness of his own mind…with reverential awe?
In other words, when one claims that anything odd must be supernatural, he isn’t just saying he doesn’t currently understand it but that it can never be understood.
I respect religion because it was our first attempt to the truth, but it’s also our worst.
The more the universe follows laws, the less room god had to exercise his sovereignty.
Historians have recognized a progression from primitive tribal animisms (such as the American Natives’ religion) to polytheism (such as the Greeks), to monotheisms (such as Judaism). Hundreds of small gods explaining every human concern were replaced by one powerful god. There’s a pattern here. The number of gods are declining!
Ancient Egypt (3,100 B.C) had over 2000 Gods. Ancient Greece (800 B.C) had 321. The Romans (753 B.C) had 231. And now, 2017 we have one per each religion. This trend will continue and one day there will be none.
Just as how the Mayan Gods died with the Mayan population and how the Natives’ animism died with the Aboriginals, so will the gods of our contemporary religions.
In fact, if all humans go extinct and every human artifact is destroyed, Jesus, Allah, Yahweh and Krishna would seem like they never existed. However, if a totally new thinking species arises, we’ll get new gods and new religions. God dies with the brain.
I’ll go more into depth in the next articles.
To your success,