Nice, Nice, Very Nice

I have been thinking about the idea that religious people are somehow nicer or more compassionate than non-religious people. This seems to be a prevailing concept in our culture, especially among Christians. But is it true?

This website, which is by a Christian, points out that according to a large variety of measurements of morality, ethics, compassion, etc., Christians fare no better than non-Christians.

In my own life, I have experienced the “not-niceness” of Christian religion. Being a fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian kind of made me an asshole. There were several things about this mindset that did not sit well with my personality at all:

  • As a Christian I was taught that the world was divided into two groups of people: Folks like me who have been saved by the blood of Jesus, and are therefore going to heaven, and other folks who are lost, and are therefore going to Hell.
  • I was also taught that there is one Revealed Truth of the heart of God: The Holy Bible. Other so-called religious books were works of the devil.
  • Even where the Christian teachings were moral, I always complied with a reluctant heart, out of obligation and fear. Thus, I was not very loving and giving, oddly

Now that I am in what I call a “post-Christian” state, I seem to be nicer. At least that is what the folks around me (notably my wife) tell me. One thing I have noticed, especially with respect to my wife, is that my attitude about her dramatically shifted after I let go of the sin thing. Prior to that point, I loved my wife dearly, and wanted to be married to her. But there was something galling about the religious obligation. It was almost like I was doing something that I should do, according to the religious traditions, and that took some of the joy out of doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to be with my wife, and I want her to be with me. But now I basically woo her continuously. I don’t assume that she will stay with me out of religious obligation. It’s a moment-by-moment thing. I actually want her to choose to be with me, continuously. The only way to achieve that is to truly love her, out of my heart, not out of duty. Thus, letting go of the idea of religious duty gave me something more in that very important relationship.

The first two points, though, caused me to have great hubris. When I was a Christian, I was utterly convinced of my own righteousness, and the correctness of my position. I had no doubt at all about that! And that made me completely obnoxious to many people, especially non-Christians. I looked down upon these poor lost souls. I prayed for them, but only in a hope that they would become like me. It never occurred to me that I might have something to learn from them.

Since I let go of religion, I have been having a lot more interesting relationships with random perfect strangers. I seem to be able to relate better. Since I am now equally convinced that I know absolutely nothing, I am more teachable.

Not saying I have arrived here, but I seem to be on the right track.

Lie to Me

You know the show Lie to Me? The main character (played beautifully by Tim Roth) is Dr. Cal Lightman, a famous scientist who has created a foolproof way to tell if someone is lying.

Now, imagine with me, please, that Dr. Lightman is standing in front of you, and he is holding a gun. Also, that gun is pointed at the person who is the most precious to you. If that is yourself, then that gun it pointed at you. Otherwise, it is pointed at your wife, daughter, mother, etc. Got it?

OK, Dr. Lightman speaks. He says: “I will ask you a question, and you must answer me honestly. I mean truly honestly. Remember that I will know if you lie. And if you lie, even just a little, I will pull this trigger.”

And here’s the question:

Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?

Ouch! A classic hobson’s choice: If you say yes (I have written previously that the virgin birth is highly unlikely, although certainly not impossible), then you are probably lying. Even most Christians have a dark corner of their soul where they doubt the virgin birth a bit. And so, the person you love the most is going to die.

On the other hand, if you state truthfully that you doubt the virgin birth, even a teensie bit, you stand a chance of losing your salvation. Salvation is by faith after all, according to many, many verses in the NT. For example, Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew 10:37 – 39

If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.

Suffice it to say, that the standard held up in the Fox’s Book of Martyrs is pretty high: You have to be willing to die for your faith. Thus, the standard of faith is absolute, unwavering, unquestioning belief, even in the face if imminent death to yourself or your loved ones.

After all, the folks who were persecuted by Nero in Fox’s Book of Martyrs were willing to die rather than simply place a pinch of incense at the foot of a pagan idol. The pagans did not even demand that the Christians cease to worship Jesus. No, their beef was that the Christians insisted that their pagan gods were not gods at all, but rather demons and such.

At the time I first read Fox’s Book of Martyrs, I found these folks admirable. Now I simply find them stupid. Don’t get me wrong: I do not endorse or approve of the tactics of the Romans in the persecution of Christianity during the early centuries of our current era. (Neither do I endorse or approve of the actions of the Catholic Church during the period following Constantine.) But the pagans did have a good point, if a poor way of demonstrating it: Christianity is a pretty exclusive club. You are either in or you are out. And near as I can tell, the difference between in and out is in what you believe. Specifically, what you believe in terms of hard, specific historical facts like the virgin birth.

I did it myself when I was a Christian. I insisted to everyone I knew that the choice they faced was the Dr. Lightman choice. Jesus is the way, and the only way, to God. If you would be saved, you must surrender everything. You must buy it all, hook, line and sinker. You must be willing to die, or even to see your most beloved one die, rather than deny your faith. Otherwise, you are not a Christian at all. You are simply an imposter: A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A tear, waiting to be rooted up on the day of judgement and burned in the fire.

If that’s true (and I will admit that I sincerely hope not), I am royally screwed at this point.

Yeah, no kidding. I will burn in Hell. No doubt about it. If the Christian gospel is true, then I am damned.

Bummer.

The reason I say this is because I have looked at the hard, specific, historical facts that I am required to believe in order to be a Christian. In fact, I have made it one of my life’s tasks to understand the evidence (or lack thereof) for the truth of these facts. I have spent hundreds of hours of study in doing so. Certainly, there is no one that I have met who has studied this stuff as hard as I have, and few who have done nearly as much.

My conclusion? There is no way to know for sure. But the virgin birth is highly doubtful in my mind. Thus, I would be forced to answer Dr. Lightman truthfully: I do not believe that the virgin birth is necessarily true.

Now here is my final question, and the point of this blog: Because I have made a serious study of the culture, history, and language of the ancient world, so that I could better understand all of this, and because I have earnestly, and with all my heart, sought to understand this, and because I have concluded that I do not believe in the absolute truth of the things that religion claims, shall I then be damned by God?

I mean, what about the poor, dumb bastard who drifts through life with a vague idea of what is going on, but never bothers to question what he is told from the pulpit. Shall he go to heaven because of his laziness, while I burn in Hell because of my diligence?

Shall I believe six impossible things before breakfast, as Lewis Carroll said in Alice in Wonderland? Is that the price of heaven?

I mean come on! Is that fair? You tell me.

AND??????

One of my dear old friends submitted a comment to my blog post I Am Not A Sinner which ended with:

AND???

In other words, what happened next? Good question. That’s the purpose of this blog post, to talk about the aftermath of my spiritual tsunami. I described the event itself in my earlier blog post (also annoyingly entitled I am not a Sinner, go figure).

Anyway, as I described earlier, I eventually came to the conclusion that the entire concept of religion is rather preposterous. The idea that the Creator of the universe with all of its wonder has an intimate relationship with me, in which He (She? It?) monitors my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. I mean, really.

After all, every spiritual experience I have ever had has been completely subjective. Can I really trust my own experience? I knew all too well how thoroughly I am capable of deceiving myself. I therefore decided to chuck the entire question of God as a meaningless, silly question with ultimately no answer at all.

Fundamentally, I finally understood that I am alone in the universe. That life actually has no purpose, meaning or significance. That I am, as the old song says, merely Dust in the Wind.

Now, that sounds depressing. Let me tell you: For me it was incredibly liberating.

An interesting side effect: I became much more humble. I know what you are thinking: There you go bragging about being humble.

No, not really.

You see, I now understand how truly broken I am. And how fundamentally I really know nothing. Nothing at all.

That’s the thing about doubt: Once I understood, I mean really understood at a gut level, that I really don’t know anything for sure, then my faith collapsed, and I became humbled.

Interestingly, faith made me kind of an asshole. I heard a piece on NPR once about a woman who wrote a novel in which the main character was someone she described as:

A white, wealthy, middle aged, conservative, Christian man who thinks he’s good but he’s not.

And why was he not good:

Because he had empathy for people like him, but no one else. People of his gender, race, religion, culture, social status, sexual orientation and political views. God forbid that he would ever talk to or treat a homosexual, feminist, Democrat, or such like a human being.

That was me. For me, faith was a form of hubris: I was completely and totally convinced that I was right, that there was an ultimate truth, and that I could know it. That I had the line on the truth, straight from the mouth of God.

That hubris has collapsed. In the process, I began to do things very differently.

Like a couple of weeks ago, when I was in San Francisco, I found myself sitting down on a park bench with homeless guys, and hanging with them for a while. I had some incredibly sweet conversations with really decent men, who were simply homeless. I have been homeless too. My momentary success, and apparent financial wealth, have simply served as a barrier between me and the homeless. Once I remembered how much we struggled when we were living in Texas during the 80s, I knew: I am not different from them. I am the same. Only our circumstances are different.

The barriers fell away. I became open to people I have never even considered talking to. Like a young, black, homosexual hairdresser from Vallejo who I met on the Muni. We became fast friends, exchanged emails and are still communicating. Before my tsunami, there is no way that I would ever become friends with someone that different from me. No problem now.

And of course there is my most important relationship: My marriage. At first, my wife resisted my spiritual journey. She wanted me to remain a Christian! However, I persisted. Now she constantly tells me that I am, by far, more loving, kind, gentle, compassionate, and sensitive than I have ever been. She would not go back to the old Jeff, that’s for sure!

The key, at least for me, was understanding that there actually is no purpose. That life has no ultimate meaning. That the quest for understanding and significance is another form of delusion. That all we have is this present moment, the very breath that I am taking as I write this.

This moment. Now. There is nothing else.

So, how shall I then live? Optimize the moment. Which for me is simple: Be as loving, empathetic, sensitive, and such as humanly possible. Allow my feelings to express themselves. If I am sad, allow the sadness to wash over me. Understand that it is simply a feeling. Like the weather, it will pass. And then there will be another feeling in that moment. And so on and so forth in a constant progression of moments.

Will I survive in some way when I die? I have no idea. The issue does not bother me though. I suspect that the software just stops running. That won’t be so bad. I certainly won’t be there to care about it.

Ultimately, in a few thousand years at most, I will be utterly forgotten. And then a few billion years after that, the Earth will be destroyed (by the Sun if nothing gets it first). If our species has not escaped from this rock by then, every single thing that every human being has ever known will be lost forever. And that includes me.

Shall I then by any action of mine affect the lifespan of the universe? Shall I somehow change the fate of all mankind? Doubtful.

I can then be free. I am free of religious delusions. I understand now at last who I am and what this life is all about. And that pleases me.

More later.

Virgin Birth

I am fully aware that authoring this post makes me a heretic, as that term is defined by many Christians. Whatever.

In order to be a Christian, I had to believe, as a matter of faith, that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. You see, if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, then he couldn’t be God. That would mean that he could not die on the cross for our sins, come back from the dead, and so forth.

Thus, the Evangelical Christian religion hinges entirely on this one question:

Was Jesus Christ born of a virgin?

For any practicing Christian, the answer to that question must be a resounding: Yes! Otherwise, if there is doubt, then the entire belief system collapses. That was certainly the case with me.

So, the question becomes:

What evidence do I have that Jesus was born of a virgin?

In my mind that evidence is wanting.  I have seriously studied the scriptures, as you can tell if you read this blog. For me to doubt the virgin birth does not take very much at all. I only really need to doubt one thing: The conversation between Mary and the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:26-38 (NIV), which reads:

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Now, it is pretty obvious that there are some serious problems here. First of all, the only witness to this entire conversation was Mary. Second, the account was only written down around 70 years after the actual events at the earliest. Thus, Mary, Joseph, and everyone else involved in the events were all dead. The (supposed) added credibility of having Elizabeth (Mary’s relative, possibly an aunt) witness to the divine incarnation is evaporated once I understand that Elizabeth (who was older than Mary) was dead and gone before all of this got written down.

My father told me what he considered his “great heresy”. It went basically like this:

There was a nice Jewish girl named Mary. She was desperately and hopelessly in love with this young Jewish man. They lived in a small town called Nazareth in an ancient time. Because they both lived within a rigid, terrifying cruel religious culture, they knew their relationship was doomed: Mary had been given by her father in an arranged marriage to an older man named Joseph. Mary and the young man both knew if they consummated their love, that they could be stoned. If Mary became pregnant that would be the ultimate catastrophe. Yet the temptation proved to be too great for them. In an awkward compromise, the young man only penetrated Mary very gently and very shallowly, to avoid breaking the hymen. Nonetheless, he transmitted his seed, and Mary conceived.

When Mary became pregnant, they were both terrified. They came up with an insane plan: Mary would insist that she was a virgin! Thus, the conception must be divine! Knowing that her only other choice was either death or a life of terrible hardship, Mary agreed.

The plan worked beyond her wildest imagination! The priest examined Mary and declared her a virgin. Everyone acknowledged the miracle.  Joseph even agreed to support Mary and her son without having relations with her. Mary took the secret with her to her grave. Not even her own son knew the truth.

There is a rule of logic know as Occam’s Razor. This rule states that, when faced with two explanations for an event, choose the one which is simpler, and requires the fewest assumptions. In order to believe Mary’s account, we must assume:

  • God, the creator of the universe, the pre-existent, single cause of everything, craves an intimate and personal relationship with me, and is capable of monitoring my every action, including my own thoughts.
  • God has a very strong opinion about the way in which I should live my life, and has codified those preferences in the old testament law contained in the bible.
  • God will punish the slightest infraction of that law with an eternity in a place of torment.
  • Although I had no active participation in the event, I am nonetheless damned to eternal torment due to the original sin by my ancestors, Adam and Eve.
  • God decided in order to satisfy his own wrath to horribly torture and kill his own son (also divine).
  • If I believe all of that with no doubt, I will no longer be damned. Instead, I will go to a wonderful place when I die.

Six assumptions in other words. In order to believe my father’s account, I only need to believe this:

  • A teenage girl who was angry about an arranged marriage had sex with a random guy and lied about it.

Not sure about you, but I’m going with the simpler explanation.

More later.

Memes vs. Modules

I have been studying a bit on the area of brain science, much of which explores the idea that human consciousness is best understood as a piece of software. A good example is Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett lays out a theory that religion is a meme, basically a self-replicating idea which propagates in human culture in a manner similar to a gene. Dennett thinks that human consciousness can best be thought of as a collection of memes. This idea was first proposed (at least so far as I know) by Richard Dawkins’s seminal work The Selfish Gene.

I find that I do not agree entirely with Dennett’s analysis, though. Based upon my own experience, I still believe that the cultural phenomenon we refer to as religion has a genetic basis. I call this basis the Faith Module. I refer to the units of design within human consciousness as modules, and some of these modules (the Instinctive Modules) have a genetic basis. One of these, I believe, is the Faith Module.

In my own personal experience, my Faith Module fired, big time, when I was 28 years old. Prior to this point in my life, I had dabbled a bit in religion, largely as a result of influence from my wife at the time. But I regarded religion as a social club. I did not take any of the ideas of religion any more seriously than I took  the science fiction books which I loved to read at the time.

Until my mid-twenties, I had a serious case of what psychology calls infantile omnipotence. This is the idea that I am invincible. Then a series of traumas hit me. The first trauma was my daughter who was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 4 (although she had been an undiagnosed autistic for two years). This was followed by the death of my sister who committed suicide at the age of 28 (when I was 26).

And then very quickly, I lost my job by getting fired for being stupid, and had to move to a city where I knew no one in order to find work. As a result of all of this, I was simultaneously emotionally devastated and socially isolated. Also, my entire sense of invincibility had collapsed, and I was at an all time low in terms of self confidence and self esteem. At that time, an older man approached me and showed an interest in my life.

I was desperate. The deal was simple: Believe, truly believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, died on the cross for my sins, and rose from the dead and is at the right hand of God the Father. Then accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. At that point, I will be saved, and Jesus will take over my life. Although I will be aware, my life will now belong to Jesus.

And the unspoken part of the deal: By accepting these historical facts on Faith (i.e., complete, uncritical, uncompromising adherence to the truth of these tenets, with never ever even admitting to a shred of doubt), I would have access to the love and support of my new friend, plus his entire social group. I would obtain all kinds of emotional and physical support as part of the deal.

No problem. I had nothing to lose. I took the deal. Big time. And I did this without reservation. That is, I completely believed these propositions. As I result, I became seriously buzzed by religion, and this buzz lasted for years.

When I say buzzed, I mean high. You know, euphoria, pleasure, whatever you want to call it. Anyone who says that Faith does not make you high has never experienced Faith, in my opinion. In any event, the Faith Module flooded my brain with all kinds of positive emotional sensations continuously until my delusions began to collapse. But it took a good 4 or 5 years for that to begin, during which period I had a very good time, believe me. I did make some terrible decisions during that period, though.

I found the experience of Faith very similar to my experience with believing in Santa Claus. In many respects, I think that Santa Claus can be thought of as a religion with training wheels. Certainly, believing the fiction about Santa Claus comes with very real benefits. And all I had to do was convince my parents that I had been good this year. Not that hard, assuming fairly loving parents.

Have you ever noticed how parents speak to their children when teaching them about Santa Claus, fairy tales, or similar things? There is a special voice I call the Faith Voice. I certainly did this with my own children. This voice for me is a little breathier. It has more variation in tone than normal, kind of sing-songy. And my Faith Voice is always accompanied with a loving smile that’s difficult to resist.

My children bought into a bit of my Faith Voice, but ultimately the Faith Module only really fired in one of them: My daughter. Both of my sons never really had the Faith experience, at least not up to this point in their lives. But they’re young. Who knows what the future holds?

So Faith is a module which enables me to believe something that my senses may disagree with. Certainly, during my normal daily life, I did not see a lot of folks who looked like Santa Claus and did the things he supposedly did. Thus, the story of Santa Claus can be thought of as astronomically improbable. I certainly reached that conclusion very early, much earlier than I let on to my parents. But remember those benefits? Believing in Santa Claus (or pretending to believe) is a really good deal.

But Faith is qualitatively different than believing in Santa Claus as well. In the case of Faith, if it truly fires (and I readily admit that many, many so-called Christians have never truly had a Faith experience), then my entire identity and survival becomes bound up with the idea of Faith. I would truly and sincerely die for my Faith, willingly and without reservation. If I am willing to sacrifice my life and potential to reproduce for something, then there must be a very, very good reason for this.

And I think I understand the reason fairly well. Again, evolution only favors reproduction. And we have established that Faith dramatically enhances one’s chances for reproduction. Enough said on that score.

On the meme vs. modules debate, I think the difference matters. (Again, technically the distinction is that a meme is merely an idea, whereas a module may have a genetic basis.) The difference matters because of the outcome in terms of how I approach life and society. One of the areas where I think Richard Dawkins is completely full of crap is the idea that we should make teaching children about God illegal. Aside from being fascist and ugly, it wouldn’t work: Assuming that Faith has a genetic basis, then trying to stop Faith from spreading would be stupid, evil, wrong-headed, crazy, etc. By assuming that religion is merely an idea, Dawkins goes down a very ugly and negative path.

Having said that, the Faith Module can be trained. As I have experienced in my own life, it is possible to unlearn the lessons of religion. A few years ago, I took the things that I believed on Faith and placed them on a mental shelf. I had figured out that being religious wasn’t working for me. I needed to do something else. So I evaluated and deconstructed the things I believed on Faith. Once I began to examine these beliefs, I found the evidence for them wanting. Eventually, I came to the state I am in now: I could no longer believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, etc., than I could fly to the moon of gossamer wings. Physically impossible.

More later.

The Non-Cultural Truth: The First Draft

I have been searching for a while for what I call the Non-Cultural Truth: The truth about the way that things really are, stripped of all human culture and bias. This has been a tough quest, believe me. However, I am willing now to at least propose the following as a first draft:

  • The principle of doubt: I embrace doubt. Like Socrates, I accept that I know nothing. Doubt is good: Doubt keeps me humble. If I live in a state of doubt, I will not stubbornly and dogmatically assert the truth of unproven propositions. Faith is the opposite of doubt, and faith thus blinds me to the truth.
  • The principle of proof: The burden lies with religion, politics, or any other movement within human culture, to prove the truth of facts which they assert to be true as a matter of faith. Thus, I cannot accept on faith any factual proposition for which the evidence is dubious at best. The virgin birth of Jesus is a good example: I have no direct evidence of the manner in which Jesus was conceived. I have the accounts in the gospels, nothing more. These accounts assert that Jesus was born of a virgin: That is true. I can accept the truth of the fact that these accounts exist. That says nothing about the truth of the accounts themselves. I must judge these claims separately, and in most cases, the evidence for the absolute truth of these propositions is dubious at best. Thus, for me to accept that Jesus was born of a virgin (especially to assert this passionately as a matter of faith) without any direct evidence on the matter is simply another way in which I delude myself.
  • The principle of freedom: Sin is the idea that God is legalistic. Sin claims that God has some form of legal code with which I am expected to comply, or else face divine wrath. This is also a religious factual proposition for which the evidence is sorely lacking. It is impossible for me to know if God exists at all, so how shall I know that he has a divine code that I am obligated to follow? And what the content of that code is? I must reject this idea completely. Thus, I am not a sinner. I have not displeased God in any way. There is no divinely-prescribed law which I am bound to obey. I am empowered to live my own life in whatever manner pleases me. I am both responsible and free.
  • The principle of the present: Given that, how shall I then live? Since I have no assurance of divine reward after death, what happens to me when I die? I have no idea. I accept that the only thing I have is this present moment, this breath. I do not even know if I will make it through my next breath. That is my state. Given my mortality, it falls to me to make the best of this present moment, because that is all I have.
  • The principle of love: The only thing left to me is relationships. This is my purpose in being: To engage in relationships with my fellow creatures, to enhance their lives, and allow them to enhance mine, if they so choose. Thus, I seek to enlarge my empathy to include all of mankind, and to be at peace with my fellow men and women. I will strive to love everyone as well and as truly as I can.

More later.

Holy Rock

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.

More later.