George Locke

Humans are a successful species for a number of reasons. Among them is our ability to discern patterns and predict behavior. At the most basic level, this is helpful in gathering food and avoiding predators, as well as finding shelter, and any number of tasks.

The earth abounds in unseen causes. How do plants grow? How does a woman produce a baby? How do parasites grow out of nothing? How do people get sick? Not to mention why any of this happens.

The utility of the idea of unseen causes is self-evident, and our brains are hard-wired to find them. This is surely why people started thinking of spirits and things. When you’re sick it’s definitely for a reason, but before modern medicine the only explanations could only be conjecture: your ancestors are angry, or you touched a menstruating woman, or some other such nonsense.

These superstitions became complex, and there arose experts who would be able to tell you if you needed to sacrifice a lamb or bathe in the sacred river so that you could be rid of your goiters. These priests held power over the tribe. If the priest told you that you had sinned, then you could be censured, expelled, even killed. The priests devised ways to expand and hold on to their power. It’s certainly possible that their was no malice of forethought in this, maybe even likely given that these priests surely believed that they were conduits of real knowledge. Maybe they just wanted to be absolutely sure that no one would anger the evil spider queen and unleash a plague of locusts, so they made sure that all the women would cover their bodies completely, head to toe.

In any event, religion took hold, became codified, and worked its way into government. It’s hardly surprising that it’s still around.

Humans are still built to detect unseen causes for things. Many mysteries remain. Religion is surely one of the most powerful forces on the planet, and it’s really hard to displace something that huge. Many today can’t imagine a basis for ethics, right action, without it, which to me is remarkable. People have the idea that their lives are meaningless without religion, so it’s not hard to imagine why it’s still with us.

So, the reason why religion is widespread is that it began as a product of our hyperactive brains, became an instrument of power and control, and now it’s entrenched.

Sorry for the lack of references here. This is largely surmise. I’m not an archaeologist, neuroscientist, or a sociologist, just a really really smart guy :)

Posted: May 22nd 2008

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Because by its very nature it compels people to spread it as widely as they can.

There are a few basic rules shared by all religions, which take priority over any of the practical rules for living.

1. Stay in the religion. (The Koran demands death for apostates. The 1st Commandment ends with, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”)

2. Bring others into the religion. (Evangelical denominations of Christianity in particular place an extreme emphasis on conversions, hence all the doorknocking. Scientology’s system of recruitment works something like a pyramid scheme, where those who complete a certain amount of auditing can become auditors and charge commissions.)

3. Give your time, money and effort to the religion. (The tithe, alms for monks, mandatory services every week, missionary assignments, prayers on your own time, etc.)

Those are the essential rules that sustain a religion. Once they’re in place, then it can start telling you to do things like avoid tofu on a Thursday.

It’s this way across all religions simply because it works. Anyone brought up by religious parents is a captive audience to a mountain of preaching, and may not even think they have a choice but to accept it. The penalties for leaving a religion are severe, both in this life and any others. Supported by donations of money and time, religions can mount huge campaigns to net new followers.

This generally continues unabated until one religion’s boundary hits another. Only a religion is a proven force for stopping another religion in its tracks, with rare exceptions like the Enlightenment and possibly “New Atheism” (most definitely not a religion).

That’s why religion is widespread. If it wasn’t, and expansion attempts failed, it would die out.

Posted: May 22nd 2008

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