What is religion?

September 5, 2013 at 9:35 pm 5 comments

Here are a few excerpts from a discussion thread on the email blog Humanist Digest.

Mike was also in the conversation as was Paat who said,  “…the term, religion; it does indeed, for Americans in particular, denote supernatural.”

I responded to the others in this line of quesitoning:  

“Gary & Jack,

RE:  What is religion?


As a forty year philosophy major I know the temptation to define religion

from that viewpoint, but it incorporates too little science in the opinion.

Sociologists have been taking a serious crack at for a hundred years now.

Many have hunkered down and affirmed their favorite definition from that



Dennett broke the spell on placing religion above scientific study and

though he is a philosopher, it is of science.  Though he does not agree, no

explanation of why we have religion seemed remotely equal to the reality of

it until I came to see it as an evolutionary adaptation*.  Nothing short of

that explains its universality across human cultures or the radical depth of

its reach to humanity’s core.


(Overly summarized) Religion is that species specific behavior [most] people

exhibit in response to the innate urge to express their religiosity

[religiousness, spirituality].  This behavior is rewarded in a number of

ways, but the genetic support largely comes from the release of the

neurochemicals of pleasure: dopamine, serotonin, and others.


The point being, for those who place their humanism and respond to it in the

same way members of a religion do, it may be their religion.  For others, it

may be a secular placeholder, for others, an intellectual pursuit.


*See THE FAITH INSTINCT by Nicholas Wade for a neutral treatment; See:  Religion is God’s Way

of Showing Us it’s a lot earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought for a

nonbeliever’s perspective  [browser search: Amazon Douglas Falknor].







 Mike made an oberservation  that I commented on:  “I think Michael brings up a good point and the tip of the iceberg when he says, “[people] will still see religion as being about faith based belief in the supernatural.”


I’ll more than admit that it isn’t the evolutionary source of religion that’s the problem.  It’s the incongruity between that source and what the religious THINK is the source of their religion. 


I think there are so many attempts at defining religion, and so many that fall short, because of the nature of the “impulse.”  If the religious imperative, written in our genes, says nothing more specific than “satisfy the religious urge,” and those genes, given normal variability to start with, undergo replication a few billion times, consider all the errors, mutations, and added variability that normally occurs across isolated populations. 


Consider further, the internal rewards for that “religious drive” and how the neurochemical, psychological, and social rewards must be differently programmed, even nuanced in our genes and epigenes, across evolutionary time and global distances.


Consider, too, the cultural differences that have modified the expression of “spiritual desire” [not trying to confuse the issue, but to show how different this religiosity can be] across all cultures.  Given enough time, culture too, can seep (feedback) into our heritable characteristics.


Consider all the iterations of religious expression from animism to Catholicism, from Confucianism to voodoo.  Isn’t it this same predisposition for religiousness that has driven tribal members to the point of trance through continual rhythmic drumming and nonstop dance rituals?  Or the Buddhist practitioner to seek enlightenment?


Now put a definition to this based solely on the person’s activities and desires to relate to what he considers the divine.  Without some consideration of all the above and more, there’s going to be little common agreement.  Instead of the different experiences of the “eight blind men and the elephant” we will be like the eight blind men and the thousand-headed hydra.        



Entry filed under: freethought.

Let’s swap links “Why can’t we all just get along?”?

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marvin Edwards  |  September 13, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    A newborn child, cold and hungry, cries out to the universe for food and warmth. He is gathered up in his mother’s arms, and is comforted, and fed.

    We don’t remember this experience, but it is one we’ve all shared. I believe it leaves us with a sense that we might implore a greater being to come to our aid in time of trouble, and that it is likely the seed of the idea of ‘God’.

    On a cold day, I walked out of the apartment ready to shiver. Stepping out of the shadow and into the sunlight, I felt a warmth and comfort, as if I were loved by the Sun. And I understood how easy it was for our ancestors to view the Sun as a god.

    In early history people worshipped multiple gods, prayed to them for favors and offered them gifts so that the rains would water their crops, and the river would not flood their homes. By coincidence, this sometimes appeared to work. Psychologists have since discovered that behavior that was intermittently rewarded was more difficult to extinguish than behavior that was consistently rewarded. And so superstition flourished.

    But then something new was added. Monotheism took the strong position that there was only one God.

    And not only was this the God to pray to and worship, but this God also expected you to follow rules. If you followed the commandments, you would prosper, if not in this life, then in the next.

    I remember the preachers from my youth, Oral Roberts and Norman Vincent Peale, teaching that God is a Good God, and that following Him brings both blessings and expectations. I remember the prayer at dinner, “God is Great, God is Good …”.

    God became a way to make being good and doing good both valuable and sacred. And that is why the idea is still useful today, even by those of us who use the term in a literary rather than a literal sense.

  • 2. Douglas Falknor  |  September 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Your writing (and sometimes mine) is what I think of as “spiritual practice” for nonbelievers. Maybe it’s how the writing of it is approached, just a state of mind, or maybe it’s the state of my mind, but I draw a sense of nurturing fulfillment from it. Don’t others?

    It’s too bad that the “being good and doing good” came to be attached to gods. I’m afraid it was a step in the evolution of religions that was inevitable. A religion that could incorporate all the “loose ends of life” was just too seductive and, in turn, made the religion all the stronger.

    I suppose it took a god and a dedicated social organization, in earlier years, to focus people’s attention on the immaterial such as values. On the believers’ side of the divide, they still think so. They see that as the necessary source of the good.

    For us all, it’s how we relate to others over this divide that will determine our lives relative to belief. Now we are starting to see human thought and belief not as one pole or the other but as all points on a compass. And this takes a form that is more humanistic–and less fundamental–as time passes.

    Humanity progresses. As they once made their light the source of our darkness, let’s lead them to see that a spectrum of diversity can join to produce one bright white light.

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I write for agnostics, freethinkers, atheists and humanists. In my nonfiction, the purpose is the celebration of our noble human spirit. The general pursuit may be Evolutionary Theology, though believers seem to populate that field (so maybe it's evolutionary Humanism). By looking at who we are and where we came from, we can derive much meaning, and perhaps more importantly, understanding, as well as some sense of where we could go.

Religion is God’s Way of Showing Us it’s Earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought

This title is an upcoming book at the publisher's now. I'd like feedback on this title. It's meant to make people think and feel something. And to hint at things for both believers and non- on multiple levels. The book is of a wider scope, though, one which is ultimately a way to grasp more meaning for ourselves. Believers are always telling us our lives don't have meaning without a god. We often counter that it's more meaningful to be looking for our own meaning than to be arbitrarily ascribed it by an imaginary supernatural being. Ultimately, and this is what I think is unique about this book, you'll see how we can be just as spiritual in our own way. Since we've inhertited a capacity for religion (some more than others) as an evolutionary adaptation, believers and non- are both potentially spritual in the same way--but it is an earthly, secular spirituality in which we all can share.

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