“Mummy, where do babies come from?”
Many mothers and fathers when we were growing up would look their children in the eye and tell them babies were bought in supermarkets. It was an elegant response to a troubling question. To answer it correctly you would have to bring up biology which is already too complex a topic for a three-year-old to understand. Even worse than explaining what a womb and fallopian tubes are, you would have to bring in sex. Many parents preferred the white lie.
Which raises the question: is religion a white lie?
“Where did we come from?”
“A being from the skies took mud and moulded it into a man. And from the rib of the man this being moulded a woman.”
It sounds farfetched. But billions believe it. How strange that for over a millennium and many centuries in the Western world, only heretics doubted the existence of God. In our traditional African communities, there was not any man or woman who disbelieved the existence of the community’s God—or at least I am yet to hear about pre-colonial African atheists.
It is only in the present age that atheism has begun to go mainstream, no longer a dirty secret hidden in the hearts of men. Yet there are those who say that atheism is not an end in itself. That atheism is a middle stage. A tool to enable unlearning of the “lies of religion”. A resting place for seekers of truth. And indeed I have over the years seen many who started as critics of religion turn into atheists and eventually into dabblers in mysticism, astrology, and other modes of alternative spirituality. Man, it seems, no matter what he says, has a deep and abiding desire to believe in something transcendental.
Where does this desire come from? Does religion have a biological component? Researchers believe there must be a biological basis for the evolution of religion in human societies.
Teaming up with the US’s National Institute of Health, a researcher from Auburn University, Alabama, undertook a study of brain networks and how they shape religious beliefs. It was observed that brain interactions in a religious person’s brain are different from those of a non-religious person. The researchers noted that there was high theory of mind activity in the minds of religious people.
Theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have their own thoughts and feelings which are different from your own thoughts and feelings. Every child reaches a point where they realize they are a unique individual, that no one else has the same thoughts and feelings as himself. You realize that everyone in your family and those outside of it have their own thoughts and feelings. Is this realization exciting or terrifying?
If everyone has their own thoughts, that produces uncertainty. We walk through life in a state of uncertainty about what is going on in other people’s minds. This uncertainty makes us sociable. We want to get friendly with them so as to remove the uncertainty. If we can have a conversation with them, we think we will understand them. No wonder we hate to do serious business with people we don’t know—we insist on a sit down. We are reluctant to hire people we don’t know, so we insist on interviews.
In fact, it might be argued that our entire social system exists to fill up the knowledge gap that exists between one human and the other: the uncertainty of not knowing what he or she is thinking. If we could read each other’s minds, we would not need to develop speech. We would not develop communication tools. We would not create songs to express our feelings and thoughts. We would not build schools to educate children as they would read our minds from birth. We would never have to interact.
Therefore, society emerged as a way to lessen that feeling of uncertainty, to put us at ease with each other. If we are at ease, we can work together as a unit. Without the communication tools and techniques that we have developed over the millennia, we would be too distrustful of each other to function as a society.
All this is a result of theory of mind, which is the cognitive component of empathy. Researchers found that religious beliefs light up the areas of the brain involved with imagination, memory, and theory of mind.
But if theory of mind is the cognitive component of empathy, and religious beliefs are linked to theory of mind, then why have religious people been guilty of cruelty? Some of the most unempathetic people also happen to be the most religious.
The theory I am proposing is that the development of theory of mind led to the state of uncertainty about what other humans are thinking or plotting. This fear caused early humans to evolve complex communication methods to assure each other of brotherhood and friendship. This led to the development of rituals and sacrifices to bind them together. And as these groups became communities, there was need for the community to work together as one unit.
Two people can communicate one-to-one and work together. A group of five or ten can communicate in person and come to an understanding. But how do you coordinate a group of fifty or a hundred people? How do you maintain order in such a group to ensure members don’t harm other members? How do you ensure there are minimal disputes?
You will give laws like those of Hammurabi or the ten commandments of Moses. But why should the group members obey these laws? Why should the entire community obey the laws formulated by one or two men? Rebellion against the laws would be natural, because there is no way ten men can generate laws to be obeyed by a hundred men and women. It was only natural that the community would have to develop a personality.
In other words, God is the voice of society. God is the society personified. All the aspirations, beliefs, and morality of the community coalesces into one distinct personality which cannot be questioned. A member of the group can disobey the commandments given by one man, but he cannot disobey the commandments given by the community itself. Anyone who disobeyed the laws of the community was banished from the community. No one wanted to be out there in the wild, alone, without the social and physical protection provided by being a member of a community. Alone, you were food for predators. And having become dependent on the social life of your community, you were liable to go mad with grief and loneliness. So the voice of the community became the voice of God. And as generations came and went, the personality of God evolved and became more sophisticated. Rituals and prayers and songs and other modes of worship were introduced. Prophets emerged who would be the bearers of God’s word. The prophets became the conscience of the community.
The cruelty of religious people can be explained as part of the tribalism that necessitated the emergence of God. Tribalism produces a common identity and a singular ideology. When we are all committed members of the tribe, we all think alike. This removes the uncertainty produced by the existence of theory of mind. Because we are always confident that other members of our tribe think the way we do. Heretics, therefore, are those who dare to think differently and their punishment must be cruel to deter them and others like them. By daring to think differently, they bring back the uncertainty we as a tribe or a society have worked so hard to expunge. And this is why everyone who is not a member of our tribe or religion is a threat. This explains war and tribalism, and it also explains why religion has caused wars since time immemorial. We want to spread our religion because it increases the number of people who think like us, which then ensures they are no longer a threat to us. In other words, it is all because of fear.
The world is wide and full of people we don’t know. And all these people have their own thoughts and plans we have no way of divining. Therefore everyone is a threat to us, unless we can make them convert to our ideology. Because that would then make them part of our tribe, seeing the world as we do, which would enable us to be friendly and communicate with each other and not fear each other. God and religion, therefore, are a way for us to introduce order into a chaotic world. Where there is order, there is meaning. Which explains why religion goes hand in hand with poetry, philosophy, and explanations of phenomena.
When we wondered where we came from, religion gave us an answer. When we were worried about droughts, religion gave us rainmakers and rain sacrifices. When we worried about the future, religion gave us astrology. When we worried about fertility, we came up with fertility gods and rituals.
For many millennia, all the answers were found through religion. The priests, medicine men, diviners, prophets, and magi were the most important people in the kingdom after the king. In Babylon, the wise man Daniel was the second-most powerful man after King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel’s immense wisdom was attributed to his God.
And that must be why religion is dying since the rise of science. All the things that religion used to explain are now being explained by science. It was only natural that God would start to die as science became more important to society. As we established, God is the voice of society. Our society no longer turns to God to create meaning out of the chaos of existence. When we want to understand phenomena, we turn to science, not God. When we are afraid, we turn to technology and social sciences like psychology, not to God.
For that reason, what Friedrich Nietzsche wrote has come to pass: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Nietzsche with his hyperbole was still trying to seek meaning in God when he says we must be worthy of the murder of God. But the stark reality today is that we didn’t even have to kill him violently. Science did the dirty work for us. Science rose and God died.
Still, I wonder: is God dead? Has society truly stopped relying on God for meaning? This might be true in the West, where churches have turned into tourist attractions, but in Africa, we are still very much a God-believing world. However, this is not to our credit. It simply means we haven’t yet taken up science and technology as a source of answers and comfort for our society. But my generation has already begun embracing atheism in large numbers. More and more people are raising significant questions about religion.
Yet in spite of the rise of science and technology, even in the West, there is a spiritual hunger that has seen people turn towards astrology, mysticism, and other forms of alternative spirituality. It turns out that there are answers science has not answered, assurances that technology has not given.
Will religion and spirituality one day be wiped out of the face of the earth? I think to some extent uncertainty will always be a factor in our lives. Which means we will always need something transcendental to help put our hearts at rest.
Because religion or spirituality gives a face to our problems, which eliminates the terrifying randomness of existence and makes our problems seem solvable or temporary. Religion and spirituality give us a deity to whom we can address our frustrations. It is our way of creating meaning out of chaos. So long as there is God, there is no need to despair. The universe has a plan for us, we believe. Because we are Scorpios or Virgos or Saggitarius. We trust that the Venus retrograde will help us harness the energies to fix our love lives and so forth.
In the end that’s all there is to it: we are scared and confused and we need reassurance that things will be better. That’s why our ancestors needed deities and it’s why we are still attracted to spirituality.
In fact, it might be possible that our push towards artificial intelligence could be our path towards the creation of a new, all-powerful God. For instance, isn’t the Google algorithm a god that knows everything there is to know? Isn’t the Facebook algorithm a god that knows so much about millions of people around the world? One day we will create a machine that harnesses all this knowledge and it will be so smart that it will know the past, the present, and the future.
Theory of mind is where all this started. It made us attribute thoughts, feelings, and personality to inanimate things. This is how we came to worship holy mountains, trees, forests, animals, and the earth itself.
And our push towards artificial intelligence must be seen as our theory of mind pushing us to imbue computer code with thoughts, emotions, and personality. The only difference is that this time we are not doing it metaphorically. We have developed the technological know-how and tools that we need to actually imbue computer code with thoughts, emotions, personality, and eventually a will of its own. We may have killed the old Gods, but we are hard at work creating our next Gods. Meanwhile, in this middle period, we are extremely lost and lacking direction. We are all searching frantically for something to believe. And in many cases, what we find does not completely satisfy us. No wonder we are addicted to our phones—technology is already our new God!
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