UCTAA churchlight

Site Search via Google

Meditation 607
A combination of instincts leads to belief

by: Dan Shanefield

This continues a theme Dan Shanefield introduced in Meditation 596

To open a discussion on this article, please use the contact page to provide your comments.

Richard Dawkins and other authors have recently claimed, in their scholarly books, that religious belief is an "instinct," because all primitive tribes have religions (without exception). And more than half of highly civilized people also believe in various gods. However, it's not necessary that a separate instinct causes this almost-universal religious belief.

Then why, if religion is not a separate instinct, do so many people "believe," even though prayers are not directly answered, and many regularly-praying people have terrible luck (starvation, disease, floods, etc.)?

My explanation is that, instead of a religion instinct, there are 3 other instincts that fit together and cause this phenomenon. I claim they are truly "instincts" because lower animals have them also.

  1. We have instinctive dreams. My dog sometimes barked a little bit and moved his legs during dreams, so involuntary imagination is an instinct. In addition, humans also have voluntary imagination including complex thoughts (such as the ones in this little essay). Here's how they can fit together to form a religion:  after dreaming about a dead ancestor, it would be natural for a strong-leader type of human to announce it to the tribe, and get some personal benefit from a new religion that he then could then start. This included the idea that it was his ancestor's spirit who announced in last night's dream that a beneficial rain would come soon, ending the recent drought. The rain arrived this morning.("Just put some money in my basket, please, and we won't have any more droughts this month, at least until the next full moon.")
  2. We all tend toward believing cause-and-effect explanations. My dog knew very well that I was causing his food dish to get filled and then pushed toward him. And he knew that I caused his toy to roll toward him. So cause-and-effect cognition is an instinct, advantageous to survival, and we have it also.
  3. A "herd instinct" leads us to form tribes. Sheep and elephants follow the herd behavior (including a strong leader), and humans do also. There are evolutionary advantages to survival of a tribe, in famines, wars, etc. (Even I have felt the comfort of "belonging," although I'm generally not much of a conformist.)

Note that this essay does not claim the true existence or non-existence of God or gods, just the reasons for widespread belief. Incidentally, tribal membership sometimes gets separated from its old religion --- being Jewish is more of a tribal thing than a religion, among politically leftist people.

Dan Shanefield, Retired engineering professor http://homepage.mac.com/shanefield