Faith is a module in the Human Consciousness Program (HCP).
As I pointed out in my last post, human consciousness can be thought of as a piece of software. The analogy breaks down somewhat when you get into the details, but certainly this is the best way to describe the nature of human consciousness that I have found. I will uniformly refer to this piece of software as the HCP on this blog.
The HCP is a program that was written by the process of evolution. Thus, everything in the HCP is an adaptation which promotes the successful reproduction of the human race. Remember that evolution promotes reproduction (including the rearing of offspring which are in turn prepared and capable of reproducing as well), and nothing else. This is the basic underlying fact that drives all of the logic in the HCP. Modules in the HCP do not need to be rational, logical, ethical, or anything else positive. Modules can be illogical, irrational, and even negative in terms of human suffering, no problem, as long as the given module increases reproduction.
So, how do we get faith as a module in this software? Simple. Assume that there was a proto-humanoid primate in a paleolithic hunter-gatherer tribe somewhere in the world. We will call this individual Leo. (The gender is arbitrary: This person could have been either male or female.) Leo had an interesting genetic mutation: He was mildly delusional. This particular form of delusion caused Leo to be able to believe facts which were not true (at least not provably true in the traditional sense), and behave in a manner as if these facts were true. Also, when he asserts the truth of these facts to himself, despite the evidence of his senses, his brain rewards him with a form of pleasure: A sense of awe and wonder.
In our scenario, let’s assume that Leo is down by the riverbed one day, and he finds a rock. This is a very unusual rock: It is shaped like a torus (what we refer to as a doughnut). He is filled with awe: This rock has a place which is there, and yet isn’t. Leo finds it enchanting and wonderful. He believes he can hear a voice speaking to him from the rock. This voice tells him of how special, significant and wonderful he is. He is flooded with a profound feeling of peace and love. He decides that the rock is holy. He calls it The Holy Rock.
Leo takes the rock back to his village. He shows the rock to his village, and tries (in his proto-humanoid, pre-language) to communicate the idea of how special and significant The Holy Rock is. Most of his tribe finds him to be absolutely crazy, but a few of the females are fascinated by him. They find his ideas very interesting. As a result, they hang around with Leo, and allow him to mate with them. In the process, Leo has a large number of offspring, many of whom inherit his mutation.
He then shares with his children the ideas about The Holy Rock, and many of them believe as well. In the process of believing in The Holy Rock, these individuals become tightly bound with each other. They share common values and ideas. Further, they have a sense that the rest of the world is against them, and thus they need to be united with each other. This increases the level of empathy and cooperation within this group dramatically.
Empathy and cooperation are absolutely adaptive traits in humans which promote reproduction. Think about what happens when a pre-agricultural hunting party tries to take down a wooly mammoth. If one of the young men gets hit by a tusk while going in for a spear thrust, he had better hope than one of the other humans in that party will carry him back to the village and feed him while he gets back to health. Otherwise, that man is going to die. Thus, a strong bond of love between humans is required for optimal survival and reproduction. As a result of this, Leo’s group flourishes, and breeds competing groups out of existence.
Religion is simply the combination of culture with faith. Faith is now a built-in module which has the capacity to fire if necessary. Once the Faith Module has fired in an individual, that person will tend to express that faith in the context of their culture. This creates religion.
The Faith Module also directly encourages reproduction: It is patently obvious that very religious people have a higher birth rate in general than less religious humans. When I was in Christianity and was considering going into the ministry, I was repeatedly warned by my fellow Christians (especially those already in the ministry) that ministers face a daunting amount of sexual temptation. Apparently, intimate contact with a religious leader is a powerful aphrodisiac for human females. Religious leaders are very high status males, and thus attract lots of sexual attention from women. We see this readily in our own culture in all religions, especially Christianity, where many religious leaders get caught in sexual infidelity.
Faith has several other positive effects aside from increasing reproduction:
- Faith decreases mortality stress. A religious person is able to believe that they are immortal in some sense. Thus, they do not have to worry as much about death. Believe me, this is a significant source of anxiety, even in our own time. I should know: I am an older man with serious health problems. I would love to be able to believe that I will be ushered gloriously in the presence of Jesus when I die. Oh well.
- Faith decreases situational stress as well. A religious human group living in an area where there has been no rain in a long time are able to pray for rain. In the process of prayer, they submit the issue of rain to some divine source (the gods, God, or whatever). By doing so, they relieve themselves of some of the anxiety over a situation over which they have no direct control. Thus, faith creates the illusion of control (or at least influence) over circumstances over which a human does not have any direct control. In our own time, relationship stress is a good example. If a religious man has marital problems, by praying, he is able to turn over the problem of his marriage to some divine source. In the process, again, he releases his responsibility over the issue, and this reduces his anxiety over the situation. I have found personally that letting go of religious delusions has increased my own stress. I am now completely aware that I am both responsible and free: I have to manage my own life as best I can. This places the burden on me, not on God.
Unfortunately, religious faith also has some serious negative affects on our culture. Certainly it is spectacularly wasteful in terms of resources. In my own environment, I can barely go outside and throw a rock without hitting a Christian church of some type. Just the land use alone is a huge waste. And that’s in modern times when religion has declined in importance. In places like Cologne, Germany, the local cathedral has provided the dominant source of resource consumption for the entire area for centuries.
Further, religious folks, by virtue of believing facts which are not provably true, open themselves up to being manipulated and exploited. I have certainly fallen into this trap numerous times. The Hallelujah Diet is a great example. Although it shows up on the QuackWatch website, the Hallelujah Diet remains hugely popular among Christians, especially evangelicals, who stubbornly refuse to accept that this program is completely unscientific, and likely does more harm than good for most folks. My experience with the Hallelujah Diet is very instructive: When my wife became seriously ill, many of our Christian friends strongly recommended that she go on the HD program. Later, after we figured out that HD was a completely ineffective approach, I went back to these Christians and asked them about their personal experience with the HD. Without exception, they had also abandoned the HD, and concluded that it did not work for them. So, I asked, why did they recommend the HD so highly, especially given the combination of their own negative experience, plus all of the information about the HD which is available on the internet? I got a lot of shrugging of shoulders and shuffling of feet while staring at the ground on that one. Near as I can tell, for these religious folks, the Christian nature of HD trumped all other questions: Since George Malkmus is such a great Christian brother, and hears from God, and so forth, the HD must be good. It just didn’t work for me. Never mind that it is a well-known quack cure, as documented on the internet. Most Christians don’t even check for that when considering Christian programs like the HD. They simply implicitly trust other Christians, often despite all reason.
Other obvious examples of financial exploitation are readily available in our culture. Many televangelists live off of this stuff, and are able to raise large sums of money, most of which is simply wasted. Thus, in that sense, religion often becomes a legalized form of theft. I will not belabor the point further.
Perhaps the greatest negative effect of religion is the development of war. Recall in our example that the tribal group that Leo started believed that they were unique, and that the rest of the world was opposed to them. (Some resistance to religious ideas is inevitable from folks in whom the religion gene does not fire.) In Christianity, this takes the form of the persecution myth. This leads eventually to the formation of competing religious groups, such as Christianity vs. Islam.
Also, religious folks believe that the divine is on their side. This gives religion a powerful motivation and rationale for war. The promise of divine reward after death has been used as a manipulation for glorious death in battle (or as a suicide bomber) for all of human history. It is pretty likely that the first wars had a religious context, and as we see in human history, many (if not most) wars are over religion in some form.