The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Friday, October 1, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Religion is Technology

While religion claims to speak to the eternal, religion itself is demonstrably ephemeral. All religions have a beginning, and nearly all of them have already reached an end. Indeed the vast majority of theistic belief systems that have been practiced throughout human history have faded into the mists of time, forgotten by all but the scholars and historians charged with chronicling the tapestry of human history.  The confident pronouncements and eternal truths spouted by countless priests lost and forgotten.  When was the last time human beings worshipped Ceres, or Demeter, or Baal, or Asherah, or Zeus, or Zoroaster, or Ra, or Annubis, or any of the other countless discarded deities that litter the philosophical landscape? Why are these immortals dead? What cataclysm could cause theism, which by its very nature, seeks to describe, understand and commune with the eternal, to prove so temporary?

Theists have argued for centuries, that human beings, are by their very nature, programmed to seek God, that nature herself, has imprinted on all, the idea of God. This belief essentially stems from the fact that for the duration of modern history, human societies have been suffused with religion and religious practices. From this historical fact, theists infer that humans have always had religion, and that they therefore must be programmed to seek it out. This historical fact, however, fails to encompass even a fraction of human history.

Modern humans meaning human beings with comparable physiology and comparable brain development to you and I were living their lives at least as early as 195,000 years ago. These early humans were capable of building fire, making tools and shelters, speech, emotion, music, they were in almost every way, the equivalent of you and I. Yet these early humans did not possess religion as we would understand it. One of the primary markers in the evolution of religion is the ceremonial burial of the dead, yet even this practice, one shared by elephants who ritualistically pass around the bones of deceased elephants they come across, can only be traced to as early as 100,000 years ago. One has to wait an additional 88,000 years before the first traces of any kind of organized religion begins to emerge in human history.

Only after the emergence of agricultural technology and the revolutionary transition from nomadic hunter gatherers to settled tribes and states do organized religions begin to emerge.  Even these centrally organized religions had to wait until the advent of writing approximately 3500 years ago before a coherent and relatively consistent doctrine of belief could be constructed. Far from being an eternal part of human history, organized religion is an incredibly recent historical development. Indeed, the Abrahamaic Religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, can respectively trace their earliest roots to 3000, 2000 and 1300 years ago. Given the fact that modern humans have existed for at least 195,000 years, monotheism has existed for less than 2 percent of the span of human history. While polytheism has existed for far longer, organized systems of polytheistic belief can trace their roots back no further than the advent of city states enabled by the agricultural revolution, meaning that even polytheism spans no more than 8 percent of human history. Put another way, humans have spent over 92% of their entire history as a species without organized religion of any kind. Far from being an essential and inextricable part of human existence, religion is of incredibly recent and incredibly modern vintage.

Indeed, theism is best understood not as a true statement regarding the supernatural, but a technological innovation. Theism generally, and organized religion specifically, are best classified as expressions of human technological development. When asked to describe technology, most people will point to the devices that we encounter in our daily lives, cellular phones, televisions, cars, airplanes, microscopes, lasers, satellites, spacecraft, robots – those artificial constructs humans have crafted to make our lives easier or to perform specific tasks. Technology, however, encompasses far more than simply devices.

Indeed, Religion is best understood not as a statement of fundamental truth, but as a methodological technology for understanding the natural world, establishing normative social conventions and social relationships.  Just as the Dewey Decimal System is a methodological technology for classifying books based on specific criteria, Religion is a methodological technological technology for understanding physical, astronomical, geological phenomena as well as social phenomena.  Indeed, as a technological innovation, Religion is one of the most important and revolutionary technologies humans have ever invented.  It enabled humans to formulate answers and attempt to gain some measure of control over physical phenomena and forces that heretofore were wholly beyond the realm of human understanding.

Ancient humans looked up at the sky and had no understanding of what they were seeing.  They saw points of light like fires sparkling in the night sky.  They saw the glowing orb of the moon hovering seemingly just out of reach every night.  They experienced storms, earthquakes, volcanism, famine, disease, plagues, mental illness and had no means of understanding.  Ancient humans had no method for understanding the incredibly tumultultous and dangerous world around them, no means of explaining why.  The earliest religions, and all that came after, were essentially technologies invented to resolve this dilemma.  The earliest religions provided explanations for natural phenomena.  The moon was a spirit or a goddess who was chased by the sun.  The sun was a God who looked favorably on humanity.  Storms were expression of a deity's wrath.  Famine and disease were a curse on the supposedly wicked.  In this way, the unexplainable could at least be reckoned with as something other than cruel randomness.  More importantly, by intercession through a shaman, priest, priestess, oracle, witch doctor, ancient humans could at least hope to gain some measure of control over the unimaginably vast natural forces arrayed against them.

As human societies developed, as they grew more complex, larger, more stratified, Religious technology progressed, providing more definitive 'answers' to the biggest questions in life, providing justification for existing power structures and social relationships, providing a source of societal norms, and providing a common cultural understanding that enabled those who would likely be enemies with common ground on which to form a larger society.  Theists often accuse Atheists of being overtly hostile to Religion, of believing that Religion serves no purpose.  This could not be further from the truth.  Religion has served an incredibly important role in our social and historical development.  Indeed, without the advent of religious technology, human society as we know it would likely have been wholly unable to develop.

Religion provided epistemological and philosophical guidance and understanding in a world that was powerful, terrifying, and utterly baffling.  By providing a common cultural understanding and common societal norms, religious technology enabled human beings to move beyond small familial bands to form larger communities.  Religion has been invaluable in moving human beings out of tribal existence.

Religious technology, however, has reached a point of obsolescence.  This is not because people of faith are stupid.  This is not because religious technology is evil.  It merely reflects the fact that religious technology no longer provides meaningful answers to most of the questions in the modern world.  Religious technology is no longer required to answer phenomenological questions about the Universe.  The movements of the heavens are FAR better explained by astronomy than by Religion.  The movements of the seas, far better explained by oceanography.  The weather is far better explained by meteorology.  Famine and disease are far better explained by microbiology.  The origins and evolution of life far better explained by biology.  Demonic possession is far better explained by psychology.  Indeed, nearly every single subject addressed by religious technology is demonstrably better addressed by the scientific method, producing evidence, and a replicability, predictive capacity completely unrivaled by that of any religious technology.

Religion is, for all intents and purposes, obsolete.  It is unnecessary.  It is unnecessary to explain the existence or evolution of the Universe.  Unnecessary to explain or describe our world, or the life upon it.  Unnecessary to explain the phenomena we encounter every day.  Religion is obsolete in the same way that an 8-Track Player or a Fax machine is obsolete.  It is not that Religion is evil or useless, just that there are far better methodological technologies available for human use and consumption.

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