A line of argument that one can pursue against the existence of “god” is that there are other explanations that are both simpler and more consistent with everything else we know about the universe. That is, we aim to find a better explanation for things than “god.” In this post, I will present the sketch of one such argument. The details are not particularly robust as I have not yet had the time to research things fully. However, the gist of the argument should be clear, and I welcome corrections of fact.
Humans are social animals. This characteristic evolved over millions of years from what I generally call the herd instinct. Animals group in particular ways – a pride of lions, a herd of moose, a colony of penguins, a community of humans – all serving a single basic function. There is strength in numbers, and animals that herd enjoy greater safety and security than animals that do not. Greater safety and security means that animals will suffer less stress and will be able to divert that energy into making more healthy offspring. Over time, herding animals will overwhelm non-hearding animals, which brings us to the state we have today. Non-herding animals have evolved ways of surviving, of course, but they exist in niches where herding animals don’t or can’t live. Humans descended from herding animals, and at it’s foundation, our societies are all just really complex herds of critters that know which fork to use for salad. How this connects to god will become evident shortly.
Religion predates the Christian god by at least 8,000 years – it even predates the Christian creation myth by some 2,000 years. Back then, long before Jesus was more than a twinkle in god’s eye, mythology and religion were intimately connected. Indeed, mythology came first. It seems that mythology started things off; then religion started; then religion took over from mythology.
Mythology sought to explain nature in the absence of better alternatives. It turned the unknown into the known, and thus made us feel safer. We are driven to prefer safety and security because of the instinct of self-preservation, without which life would likely not exist, and which evolved quite quickly from simple chemical reactions, and has been part of life’s genetic makeup ever since. It isn’t known how mythology started – one possibility is via noticing patterns of stars that look like people or animals. If those really were organisms outlined out there in the sky, they would certainly be huge and powerful. Another could be as stories intended to facilitate learning of certain cycles – like the seasons.
It’s rather natural that mythology developed into an explanation of human behaviour as well, because it could “explain” conflicts that were unsettling to one’s safety and security, societal indiscretions amongst cave dwellers and pre-agrarian hunters. If there were mystical figures that controlled the elements, and if sometimes human behaviour was just as, if not more, bizarre than what was seen in nature, then why shouldn’t there be supernatural forces acting on humans? The people who developed mythology and religion – over 10,000 years ago – didn’t have the methods and tools needed to study the universe or themselves. So they did the best they could with what they had. And there’s nothing wrong with that. One could no more blame them for that kind of thinking than one could blame a six-year-old child for believing the earth is flat.
Here’s where the herd instinct comes in. It made our progenitors want to protect the herd (their tribe, nation, whatever) because the herd protected them, increasing their safety and security, decreasing stress, and reinforcing the reproduction of more organisms that carried those “social genes.” In combination with developing psychological capacities for empathy and transference, the herd instinct drove people to try to codify behaviours that would promote safety and security, and they would have used their mythology as the foundation for it.
That codification – which informed people how to behave – became religion.
The difference between mythology and religion is that mythology was descriptive – it tried to describe how things were – whereas religion was prescriptive – it tried to describe how things should be. The difference arises from the perceived mismatches between what instinct told us and what we saw happening around us. While mythology proposed explanations for perceived behaviours, religion sought to dictate ways that people could improve that feeling of safety and security by defining how to behave “well,” where anything that provided that sense of security and safety was considered a means to “wellness.” And mythology provided the background to explain it all.
Our ancestors were driven to explain their herd behaviour so that they could increase the feelings of safety and security that lessened stress and allowed them to flourish. The explanations they found were mythologies and religions. If everyone “played nicely,” then everyone felt safer and more secure. Religion codified this as moral behaviour. Furthermore, one “bad” person could wreck things for a whole community, which increased levels of stress by lowering the safety and security of the herd. Besides the direct physical consequences of a “bad” act, there was the innate, instinct-driven stress. Those behaviours became those that were morally “bad.”
Mythology and religion were, however, never very good at predicting things. They were theories, after a fashion, but we recognize them today as poorly constructed theories. Thus, the rise of so many mythologies and religions. Each one was a different attempt to improve on its predecessors and alternatives.
It is also reasonable to think that this same explanation also accounts for the general movement from polytheism to monotheism. In a polytheistic system, it is possible for factions devoted to one god to become antagonistic to factions devoted to some other god. This antagonism would permeate the polytheistic society. In monotheistic systems, antagonistic factions are less likely because there is only one god. Without that antagonism, one might expect a certain greater degree of safety and security (or conversely, less stress) in monotheistic societies. Naturally (since evolution is natural), the monotheistic societies would flourish better or faster than the polytheistic ones.
As religion grew in popularity, it gained power as the arbiter of morality, because it “felt right” – that is, knowing how to act morally (and that the immoral would be severely punished in the afterlife if not on earth) increased the safety and security of the individuals and lowered their stress; they could trust the other members of their herd because of the common morality provided by religion. Furthermore, their trust toward others who did not share their morality/religion increased for the same reasons. However, religious leaders, being imperfect humans, started to take advantage of the power afforded them. This led to a vicious circle: when priests did something bad, their church had to cover it up for fear of upsetting the safety and security of the community. To cover up those bad things, the churches needed to maintain a certain secrecy. That secrecy provide a mechanism to hide even other questionable acts, and would act as an attractor to individuals with machiavellian tendencies. We thus have the stage set for the kind of corruption that has cropped up over and over throughout the history of all religions, which is generally no more and no less than the corruption we see in the secular world.
Now, this is one possible explanation of how god and religion came to be. It is likely imperfect, as I mentioned above, but in broad strokes has relatively few questionable bits. This explanation is much better than supposing a largely unknowable supreme entity, omniscient and omnipotent (whatever that means) in extent, that works by a set of rules that cannot be defined by common knowledge. It is a “better” explanation on three fundamental fronts:
It’s consistent with the rest of our knowledge. We can come up with a variety of explanations for god and religion giving our current and growing knowledge of history, biology, cognition, psychology, anthropology, physics – in other words, science. We do not need to posit extra bits, entities, powers, states of existence, etc. And the explanations we develop are entirely consistent with all the other knowledge, including the very obvious knowledge we have about the human-scale reality we perceive every day.
It’s simpler. Occam’s Razor remains a powerful heuristic to guide thinking. Having to assume god (and therefore religion) results in a more complex belief system that is not more expressive and, most importantly, not more predictive than one based on scientific and rational thinking.
It’s predictive. Because it’s consistent with everything else we know, we can use it to predict behaviours in certain circumstances. For example, one would expect that any action by a religion which acts to increase the perceived safety and security of its adherents will likely propagate throughout the community of its adherents. If that action also decreases the leads to a decrease of perceived safety and security of non-adherents will likely lead to more confrontation and alienation between the two communities.
This is by no means the only such model that can be constructed. Many others have been; even more will be. They will all be better than those based on god and religion, because the god/religion models cannot compete on the three metrics I listed above.
In summary, religion is the source of god – not the other way round – and god and religion are poor models of reality, and should be set aside.