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Post No.: 0551secular


Furrywisepuppy says:


The belief in an afterlife can provide one with existential security and a sense of immortality, which is comforting. But afterlives can serve a double-duty – you could go to heaven… but you could alternatively go to hell! (Woof! Which is the sound you’d make if you touched the infernal fire of the underworld! Note to self – be careful about setting the sat nav to the Netherworld instead of the Netherlands. It’s not like where Disney World is miles better than Disneyland. Definitely avoid the Devil’s stinky nether regions too!)


This demonstrates an example of how multiple factors culturally shape religions. The struggle to cognitively conceive of nothingness makes conceptualising whatever death will actually be like abstract and difficult. (It’ll most likely feel just like all that time before you were born?) And coupled with an intuitive sense of mind-body dualism, it makes the idea of life after death very intuitive itself.


Also, once this happens, different ideas of afterlives can spread because they satisfy existential desires for denying a spiritual death. And because certain versions of morally-dependent afterlives also offer social benefits in this life by serving as a moral deterrent i.e. ‘don’t do evil in this life or you’ll go to hell in the afterlife’ – these versions will become culturally selected more.


So the cognitive predispositions of the human mind offer up the raw materials that allow a religion to form, and then the process of cultural evolution wraps them up into functional or beneficial adaptations. It’s like people have a natural tendency towards language but still require culture to shape the specific language(s) they will learn. Religious beliefs weren’t necessarily adaptive in and of themselves but were a by-product of cognitive tendencies that were adaptive in and of themselves – but then these religious beliefs, via the process of cultural evolution, became adaptive hence afforded value in their own right.


Religions are built up from a combination of instincts or elements that genetically and culturally evolved for different reasons and at different times, and the successful instincts or elements got their power from being coherently connected to each other (for coherency increases believability), and so religions ended up becoming these packages that are greater than the mere sum of their individual beliefs, superstitions, rituals and so forth. So there are functionalist reasons for all aspects of religion, even if those functions are not the ones they’re claimed or believed to be. For example, a religion may claim that a certain group-performed ritual is to get people to become more connected to their god(s), but the real adaptive function is to get those people to become more connected to each other as a tight-knit group who’ll remain loyal together in the face of inter-group competition. (Indeed it’s less to do with their god(s) because different groups who essentially worship the same God can still fight against each other in bloody and unending ways. Even the subtlest differences in faith are raised as reasons to divide – such is the high level of fear of their god(s) if they don’t believe in something exactly right, according to what their own group believes is ‘exactly right’.)


Most of us seem to naturally have a baseline level of decency and morality – particularly towards our kin. We even commonly commit acts of kindness towards strangers. But to get large groups of people to live in consistent harmony and to achieve higher levels of morality, we typically need a threat of punishment, or a moral deterrent.


Yet religion is not necessary – there are other ways to foster and enforce cooperative behaviours and a stable, cohesive society, such as via a trusted set of secular institutions that let the rule of law be the deterrent rather than the fear of a god or gods and a hellish next life or eternal afterlife.


Reminders of these secular institutions leads to the same pro-social behaviours as reminders of supernatural deities – CCTVs or video surveillance, and other forms of overt and covert surveillance, and other measures, work to keep a society safe and in harmony, or subdued and violated, depending on your perspective (like regarding the power of gods).


There are many other mechanisms that can encourage moral behaviour, monogamy and so forth – such as secular law enforcement, marriage laws, contract laws and so on. Some of the most harmonious, economically-developed and functional countries in the world today happen to be some of the least religious (perhaps because they’re more inclusive of people who are not of the same religion or group, hence fostering the peace, as well as cultivating a richer melting pot of diverse economic talent?)


Priming people with centralised secular institutions, authorities like the police, contracts or justice, produces the same results as priming people with god concepts. Therefore we can build large, functional societies without religion – by using secular institutions (instead).


However – maybe the successful secular cultures we see in the world today would not and could not have evolved into existence without first being religious? Secularism was strongly arguably built upon religion. These countries were able to grow to a certain level because of religion, and then once they graduated to a size and with the conditions where secular institutions could work, they no longer needed those religious institutions, hence places with high rates of atheism can still be extremely cooperative.


Atheists just respond to different deterrents. Across nations, the strength of the rule of secular law is one of the strongest predictors of a lesser importance in religion. But still, all secular laws today can probably trace their evolutionary roots from religious commandments or tenets – for example, the legality of trading during holy days, bearing false witness and perjury, as well as of course not stealing or murdering people. Punitive supernatural gods have played a causal role in driving the evolution of political complexity. These laws may have evolved since until it feels like those religious roots have completely disappeared, such as relaxing trading restrictions during holy days, but religions have influenced what became secular laws. (It’s probably sort of like modern scientists don’t take the majority of Sigmund Freud’s theories of human psychology seriously anymore, yet many of his ideas have been influential on our modern culture because his ideas dominated for about a century. It’s a similar case with Carl Jung. Or it’s like mammals such as humans can appear so far removed from fish but it doesn’t mean that fish weren’t critical to the evolution of humans.)


Well what’s for certain is that religious commandments or tenets preceded secular laws in all nations. Look at the history of whom and what shaped the US Constitution and you’ll see a lot of religiously devout or otherwise philosophical figures rather than scientists. (Wealthy, white and male figures in particular too.) Some religions don’t allow the consumption of meat, or at least the consumption of certain animals; and although the reasons may range from health to environmental and not just ethical – more and more atheists are deciding not to consume meat or certain types of meat too. It’s also just about impossible to say whether religion has made a better or worse world because we cannot run a counterfactual world where religion did not feature in the path towards civilising large human societies.


Another way of looking at it is that religions in their various manifestations have existed for a very long time because they must have been logically fit for survival in the competition of cultural evolution – anything that became popular was popular because it was fit enough in the face of selection pressures in the relevant times and environments they were popular. This also points out that if something is popular today, such as that religion is still popular in many parts of the world today, its fitness for today is not in question – it’s perhaps just the reasons why or how, and maybe the question of whether it’ll still be popular or fit in the future? (We asked whether religiosity was in decline in Post No.: 0322.)


It’s not to say that a popular thing could not be improved upon (just like the human body and evolving stronger backs to alleviate extremely common back problems within the species would be nice). But ‘survival of the fittest’, in either a genetic and/or cultural context, logically means that if you’re currently surviving or still believed in or followed then you are currently in the set of the fittest. Those who or that aren’t fit are the dead, the impossible or are the ideas that never even got off the starting blocks in the first place even if they were possible. So anyone or anything that is alive or exists today is as fit enough to be alive or in existence today in its environment as anyone or anything else that’s also living or existing there (in terms of any dimension, whether intelligence, physical strength, cultural fit, utility), otherwise they or it logically wouldn’t have been, or still be, alive or in existence there.


So religions evolved because they were culturally fit, and they’re still followed and practised by many people today hence they must still have their functions for many people today; or at least they’re not sufficiently disadvantaging enough to kill off everyone who follows them. Albeit as alluded to above – this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are perfect or cannot be improved upon. And that’s perhaps where and why secular laws and secular institutions have come in. A great advantage of secular laws is that they are allowed to change through democratic processes to meet the demands of an ever-changing world, whereas religious tenets must be adhered to, well, religiously. It’s not like religions don’t evolve – if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have so many denominations of the same religions – but they’re not technically allowed to. One way they can evolve is through changing the interpretations of religious texts, but the scope for change in this way is still severely limited compared to changing the codifications of those texts.


Woof. Do you think that secular institutions can ever completely replace the allure or need for religious institutions when it comes to compelling people to behave morally in societies? Secular institutions can punish people in this life, and the threats of punishment don’t depend upon being believed. (Prison definitely exists! However, if the faith in their god(s) to mete out appropriate punishment in the afterlife for sinning in this life is insufficient, religious believers might carry out punishments in this life too, such as stoning adulterers.) But is there something that religious commandments or tenets can do that secular laws could never do as effectively and/or with less cost? Will secular and religious institutions continue to co-exist in a complementary fashion for many societies? Please share what you think by using the Twitter comment button below.


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