Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Nature of Religion

Why does religion exist? Why do so many people with perfectly functioning logical facilities join religions that make no sense? Why is a large religion considered legitimate, and a small one, even one of similar quality, considered a cult?

I will attempt to answer these questions and more in the following blog post.

Firstly, why does religion exist? It's sort of easy to assume that religion is a flawed search for truth, but wouldn't that make science a religion (science clearly being imperfect)? Clearly this reasoning is invalid; as science doesn't resemble religion in the least. There are not wars fought over the definition of the speed of light, while several have been fought over whether Jesus was a prophet or a demigod. Thus, another explanation is desired. The best explanation I've come up with is that religion is in fact a particular manifestation of the monkey troop. Religions exist not as a search for truth, but as a search for belonging, for safety in numbers, and for the support of the monkey troop. Humans being the apex monkey, this is not altogether surprising. In fact, this explanation provides answers to many old questions: Why are small systems of spiritual belief considered cults, and derided as absurd, or even highly dangerous, while large systems of belief, which may be equally absurd, are considered religions, and respected as perfectly valid? Well, it's for the same reason that Somalia is laughed at, but the United States is respected and honored: size, and cohesion. Note that age alone does not typically correlate with how a spiritual belief system is treated: many ancient religions, like Zoroastrianism, are treated similarly to cults, while new, up-and-coming ones, like Wicca or Mormonism, are treated as legitimate religions. Now, these are typically exceptions, but only because age and number of members and cohesion typically correlate. Zoroastrianism is small, but old. Mormonism is large, but new. Scientology is small and new. Christianity is large and old. Judaism is old, and has never quite reached anything resembling a plurality, and thus it's the old standby religion if you need one to pick on.

If religions are fundamentally considered to be attractive because of their strength in numbers value, then the reasons people join them make much more sense. People join religions under the pretense of seeking truth, but in reality, and what they may not know is that they really joined to belong. This is not an intangible thing. I willingly was baptized Episcopalian when I was 13, and for two weeks I felt awesome. I, like nearly everyone, mistook this for "finding God", when, in reality, my brain was releasing endorphins because I'd just joined a really strong monkey troop.

It's this same quality that makes people who talk religion seriously sound like total assholes to those of us who find no need for it: It's pretentious. It's pretentious, by definition. Religion pretends to be a way to enlightenment, to the highest pursuit of man, but what it actually is is the indulgence of one of the most basal aspects of primatehood: Finding and joining the strongest monkey troop you can.

Having said all that, religion isn't bad. There are a few ways in this world to get those precious endorphins, and among them is belonging to a large powerful monkey troop. Some of us need this, some of us have sufficient alternative catalysts of endorphins. This might be why hippies, who do lots of drugs and have lots of sex, typically do not form big religions, but rather, drum circles.