Evolution of Myth and Religion Tree Evolution of Myth and Religion Tree

Religion, an Overview63 min read

Evolution Ministry Religion

Table of Contents

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


I am going to post some really general information on religions from a more academic perspective. Keep in mind, it has been quite a few years (a little more than a decade) since I have really studied religion and related topics, so I will try to keep this pretty general. I will also pull ideas from my previous posts on the topic of religion too, as well as some of my other related unpublished works.

I am writing this first, because I have wanted to write this post for a very, very, very long time, and second, as a precursor to my post talking about Alien Conspiracies? (Oct 2018). Why would I talk about religion as a precursor to a post about Alien Conspiracies? Well, I guess you will have to see how I tie it all together when you read that post! =) =P

I. The Origins of Superstition, Religion, and Human Morality

A. Superstitions and Religions as Evolutionary Adaptations

1. Evolutionary Adaptation

Superstitions, religions, and myths developed as an evolutionary adaptation after Humanity evolved from more of a ‘reptilian’ brain (reactive) species to a ‘moral animal‘ brain (proactive) species with increased:

  • brain size and capacity
  • intelligence
  • creativity, curiosity, and ability to innovate.

More specifically, because of those intellectual increases, superstitions, religions, and myths developed as a coping strategy to help Humanity, especially in our earliest evolutionary moments, to compensate for the increased awareness of our:

  • self-awareness
  • ignorance
  • agency
  • mortality.

Superstitions and religions, as human constructs, take our collective and individual ignorances and fears, and personifying and labeling them through imaginary anthropomorphic entities such as:

  • supernatural (witches, dryads, faerie, leprechauns, vampires, ghouls, ghosts, werewolves)
  • divine (Yahweh, God, Allah, Osiris, Dionysus, Loki, Great Sky Spirit, The Green Man, Ahura Mazda, Astarte, Shiva)

…and doing so as a coping method which allows us to:

  • rationalize or explain things we did not understand
  • alleviate pains and fears due to our ignorances and general suffering

2. Coping Strategy

For millennia (even today), partaking of one can be a powerful coping strategy that has been used to attempt to:

  • help make ourselves feel like we can make better sense of things, especially bad things that happen to us or our communities
  • or to be able to lay blame for our misfortune, bad luck, and despair on something with a concrete label

…instead of just saying “I don’t know.” or “That’s just life.” and being OK with that. It is easier to cope with problems and fears when we believe that something that has an identifiable label (spirits, gods, karma, witches, pixies) is responsible, than it is to cope with something that does not, such as when we say “We just do not know why or how.”.

Consider the following examples:

Example 1 – Sickness: A person who is very sick and goes from healer to healer who cannot tell them concretely: what is wrong nor provide any real help, nor tell them what the name is for their disease or how to fix it, but yet they are still suffering.

It is easier to hear “You have offended The Spirit of the Great Willow!” and to work towards fixing that, than to hear “We do not know and there is nothing we can do.“, and to just continue to wallow in pain and depression with nothing to do about it.

Example 2- Accidental Death: A woman’s young child dies after falling from a tree, and the mother, wailing in anguish, wants to know “Why, why has this happened to her baby!!”.

It is easier to hear “It was the work that witch who lives at the end of the village!” and to work towards fixing that, rather than to be told that “Accidents just happen. It is tragic, but there is nothing we can do.“.

Example 3 – Contagious Diseases: This phenomenon is especially powerful when a populace is similarly afflicted such as through earthquakes, floods. contagious diseases, poverty, and war. Not knowing what is wrong or why such bad things happen and why for an extended period of time can be very depressing and can have significant adverse biopsychosocial impacts.

Consider the following example:

A contagious disease rampages through a settlement killing 1/3 of the population (Bubonic plague anyone?) and people have no idea why or how, and they despair in the losses of their family and friends.

It is easier to hear “We are being punished because we have offended the gods!” and to work towards fixing that, than to hear again that “We do not know and there is nothing we can do.“.

3. Healing or Coping Through False Attribution

Once we have a label for that which plagues us such as divine wrath or you have angered the spirits of the forest or the pixies (whether rightly or wrongly attributed) then people can start to feel better and even come together in solace for being similarly afflicted, and even attempt to solve the problem (appease the Willow Spirit or to burn the witch or to increase sacrifices to the gods or to leave out food and gifts for the pixies), which increases in-group loyalty and cohesion instead of suffering further from panic, violence, or riots from not knowing what is wrong or why. Such false attribution may help to collectively alleviate those external stressors upon an individual or community as well as the associated negative biopsychosocial effects.

Superstitions and Religions, especially the more ancient formations, try to fill the role of providing labels for that which ails us and to make us feel better about our ignorance by providing a level of ‘healing (or coping) through attribution‘ (whether correctly or incorrectly attributed) as illustrated in the above examples. Healing (or coping) through false attribution can be useful for societal cohesion due to the extreme level of ignorance, anxiety, and fears, especially among of the oldest human civilizations.

4. The Perimeter of Humanity’s Ignorance

The Notorious NdT (Neil deGrasse Tyson) gave an amazing presentation at Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival in 2006 whose title is “The Perimeter of Ignorance“. This presentation was powerful and enlightening. He goes over example after example of what happens with the most brilliant people throughout history (such as Ptolemy and Isaac Newton) reach the limits of their ability to explain something – they say it must be due to magic or the hand of the divine. Strangely, fifty to a hundred years or more passes and then we are able to explain it, therefore is NOT the divine or magic, and so the cycle continues. This cycle shows that whatever it was that we could not explain was NEVER a supernatural or divine entity (or magic), but the just a temporal encounter with the Perimeter of Humanity’s Ignorance.

This phenomenon is also referred to as the God of the Gaps – where Humanity fills in the holes of our ignorance with God(s) or magic as the obvious explanation – as if like saying ‘It was God!’ was a universal existential putty to fill in the holes of our ignorance, to magically explain the things we cannot currently explain. The next question to ask those who would invoke such a fallacious answer would be “Which god?” since Humanity has have so many to choose from (over 5,000): Yahweh, God, The Green Man, The Goddess, Osiris, Zeus, Thor, Ahura Mazda, Shiva, Astarte, Inanna, Bhaal, etc.

B. Human Morality as an Evolutionary Adaptation

1. Humanity’s Social Evolution and Dominance

Let us first take a look at human social evolution and our rise to dominate this planet to begin this conversation. Humanity (homo sapiens) have existed for approximately 400,000 years or more (depending on which research you look at). And, during that time, especially prior to the last 10,000 years or so at the very beginning of the Neolithic Revolution, Humanity has not only survived our hominin kin (homo neanderthalensis, homo erectus, homo denisovans, etc…), but have out competed them all due to a few reasons. One is our technological advantage through developing bows about 80,000 years ago, prior to our great migration out of Africa 60,000-70,000 years ago. But, perhaps the most important one which we will concentrate on here, would be our social psychology as it has evolved through our species living the majority of our existence within nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes.

In order to survive and thrive within difficult living environments, most of which was within long and dry glacial periods, Humanity had to evolve a social psychology that allowed their tribe to work together and to maintain peace or they would perish to predators, starvation, or intratribal and intertribal violence. As a result, Humanity evolved a social psychology (morality) which was based on egalitarianism, cooperation, and sharing which kept the peace and allowed the people within their tribe (and with other tribes) to cooperate to not just survive harsh environmental conditions and out compete our hominin brethren, but to thrive and eventually dominate the planet.

Here are two contemporary examples of such techniques used to help keep peace within some indigenous tribes today: Ubuntu and Reverse Dominance Hierarchies, both of which are used to keep the peace by pulling everyone to the middle.

  • Ubuntu is used when someone has done something wrong. The whole tribe will surround this person and say all of the good things about them and good things that this person has done in order for them to get them to remember and reclaim their better self, and to know that their tribe sees them and appreciates them. This helps to pull this temporarily misbehaving person back up to the middle to their better and cooperative self.
  • Reverse Dominance Hierarchy is where someone has been quite successful at something such as killing a large deer. The tribal members will then say to them that they are not that successful or that others have done so too, etc… so that they do not grow an ego, pulling them back down to the middle with the rest of the tribe.

2. Where Do Our Moral Values Come From Then?

Now, let’s talk about where humanity has obtained our core morality from. Let’s take into account the following 3 points:

  1. Modern religions are only several thousand years old (2,000 – 5,000+ years) while, as we established above, Humanity (homo sapiens) has existed for approximately 400,000 years or more.
  2. The core universal human morality is the same throughout the world – kindness, cooperation, sharing, and egalitarianism.
  3. All religions teach these universal values such as through “The Golden Rule” which is found in every single society, culture, and religion throughout human civilization and our history.

As we have established above, our values have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of modern religion and, therefore, religion cannot be the progenitor of human morality. Not only that, but if such values transcend culture, religion, and geography and are found everywhere throughout Humanity, then it must be an evolutionary adaptation. It is really that simple. 

Why don’t modern religions embrace the fact that human morality is a fundamental evolutionary adaptation that transcends all religions, and is a trait that is visceral to Humanity, i.e. humans tend to be kind and cooperative (all things being equal)? Why do they keep pushing the line that “Our religion is best and has the absolute truth while all of the other religions do not!” or that “Humans are innately broken or sinful.”? What do they have to gain from this if they truly believe in a peaceful and united Humanity? If religions seriously wanted to create a peaceful and united Humanity, then they would truly embrace and show reverence for evolutionary origins of our values which would truly unite us all, because it transcends all boundaries such as race, tribe, gender, nation, religion, ethnicity, etc. 

The mind-blowing book The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being covers the biopsychosocial affects of economic inequality has this wonderful passage on Humanity’s evolutionary development of pro-social values which would presage modern religions:

It is often thought that values such as honesty, generosity and kindness were almost invented by, and remain dependent on, religion. But although religious convictions and teachings may help to sustain standards of kindness and generosity (despite sometimes also creating problems of intolerance), we can now see that prosocial characteristics were instilled in us during human prehistory by the evolutionary power of social selection in egalitarian societies. As anthropological accounts of recent hunter-gatherer societies suggest, the tendency to value unselfishness, generosity and kindness dates back into the distant mists of time. Although religious belief can add emphasis to these instincts, prosocial values are etched more deeply into our evolved psychology and are much older than any religious ideology that has arisen in the last few thousand years.

The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being (Pickett and Wilkinson, 2019)

3. What is the Core Value System to All Religions?

If you really look at global religions and compare them you will find that all religions are humanistic at their core, but steeped in the social, historical, political, mythological, and theological trappings of their formation. If we strip all of that excess stuff away, which is really only interesting from an academic, historical, theological, or philosophical standpoint, then what we will find is a stripped down form of Humanism – how to ethically treat each other and the environment.

What is exactly is Humanism? Here are some definitions for you:

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism and empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition. (Wikipedia)
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good. (American Humanist)
Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality. (International Humanist and Ethical Union)
Humanism is a broad category of ethical, metaphysical, epistemological and political philosophies in which human interests, values and dignity predominate. It has an ultimate faith in humankind, believes that human beings possess the power or potentiality of solving their own problems, through reliance primarily upon reason and scientific method applied with courage and vision. (Philosophy Basics)

In essence, Humanism looks to and has faith in Humanity, science, knowledge, ethics, and its institutions (true attribution) for the answers to ALL of life’s problems. It does not recognize nor seek magical, supernatural, or divine answers (false attribution).

As pointed out above, when Humanity has exclaimed it was the gods or the supernatural, that doing so was merely a tacit admission of our ignorance paired with a powerful desire for a more satisfying label to assuage our peace of mind until the real answers are found… by science. Being able to be OK with saying that we do not know or do not understand without having to invoke the Gods of the Gap will bring Humanity closer together for superstition, religion, and ignorance will no longer divide us. Humanity and our interdependent and interconnected place within the universe (and not ignorance and fear) will be religion’s central focus. This will allow Humanity, as a collective whole, to really look at the solutions to the world’s problems, to help us all to progress together, sharing in our collective efforts and brilliance, lifting us ALL up and not just the a chosen few, or just your limited definition of tribe.

Those religions that have Humanism as the core of their philosophical and theological core are the religions that will really help humanity forward and will be part of the solution. If only they were as organized, driven, and as politically active in the public sphere as conservative religions were. You can check my post The Tao of Entropy and Syntropy within Human Social Systems as to why this is the universal case.

What you will find as you take into consideration conservative religion’s social dominance is that pretty much NO conservative religions are humanistic at their core because their fear based beliefs and dogmas are more are important to them and is the primary focus of their work regardless of the cost to Humanity and the Natural World. For them to become part of the global solution by embracing a humanistic theology would require them to no longer be conservative because they would need to question and completely reject what they have been taught, to learn about the world at large, and to knowingly and willingly chose a Humanistic belief system which would demand that they love and show compassion for those that they currently revile and hate. It would require, in no small terms, a global theological revolution.

When Humanity and the Natural World becomes our primary philosophical, ethical, and religious concern then the dehumanization of our fellow humans will be a crime of the highest order, a literal Crime Against Humanity. If you will remember, the many horrors committed in the history of the world (racism, sexism, slavery, genocide, brutality, war, exploitation) are a result of this dehumanization. For this reason alone, having Humanity to shift towards humanistic beliefs is an imperative to save us from the extinction due to our many divisions. Until all religions world-wide embrace the humanistic cores to their theology they will continue to be a plague upon Humanity and the Natural World.

4. Religion’s Usurpation of Morality

I have a much larger piece of writing that will talk about how it ALL has gone wrong (not just religion), so I will just touch on this topic to give you something to think about. 

Now, do religions preach these seemingly universal values? Yes, they typically do. Do most like to claim that they are the ultimate arbiter of morality because their supernatural entities in the sky or beneath the earth (or wherever) empower them to claim as such? Sure they do. Religion has harmfully usurped the truth of our collective, universal, and evolutionary forged morality as a method of controlling their flocks to keep them chained to their sect, to keep the money rolling through fear, tribalism, and competition. This is not solely an intrinsic fault of religion itself, since religions and other social systems will merely reflect the dominant social, economic, and political values of their time (in this case the values of scarcity, competition, separation, and sociopathy; in other words the values of monetary systems and capitalism) which is a whole different conversation, but it is an important concept to understand.

Humanity’s core social psychology was powerfully forged within a nomadic hunter-gatherer world based on egalitarianism, cooperation, and sharing within relative resource abundance, which is devastatingly at odds with adapting to a modern settled way of life based on classism, competition, and exploitation within a world of significantly resource scarcity and violence. This reality forms the virulent tempest within which Humanity has come to relate to each other and the natural world resulting in the horrors of poverty, war, cruelty, suffering, and the total environmental devastation that we see today.  

II. Historical Evolution of Superstition and Religion


As you go forward through time from Humanity’s meager beginnings, our collective superstitions have evolved into religions which have then evolved and proportionally expanded in scope based on:

  • expanding tribal population and scope
  • increasing understanding of the world
  • expanding fears and awareness of our ignorances
  • to meet societal, social, and cultural needs

See the main image at the top of this post for the Evolutionary Tree of Myth and Religion.

Historically, religions have formed, evolved, or sprouted into being through the three following very general historical types:

  • Small Population Formations – concentrating mostly on the highly localized natural world (earliest religions created – most of human history – older than about 10,000 – 12,000+ years)
  • Large Population Formations – tending towards polytheism (religions created in the middle of human history – last 8,000+ years or so)
  • Cosmopolitan Formations (post-Abrahamic Faiths) – concentrating on moral of philosophical values (newest religions or ethical philosophies created – last 200 years or so)

Indigenous religions (the oldest religions) all tend to be a form of spiritism or animism (Small Population Formations). Western and European religions (middle of recorded human history) tend to be polytheistic at their base (Large Population Formations), with the rise of monolatry as is found in the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormon). The more contemporary (a)religious formations such as Unitarian Universalism, Humanism, Secularism, Atheism developed as Cosmopolitan Formations. Buddhism is rather unique historical religious development which formed during the Large Population Formation period, but has significant traits of of Cosmopolitan Formation.

A. Small Population Formations

When the Earth had its smallest human populations, during early hunter-gatherer societies and early tribalistic periods, religious formations start out being hyperlocalized – the spirit of a specific animal or that strange rock formation or that really large tree over there. Then, as their populations traveled or grew, and their understanding of the world increased, so did the scope of their localized spirits which shifted to spirits of a geographical site (forest, river, lake, rock formation, etc) or of the whole wolf pack. This formation covers most indigenous and nature based religions as well as most pre-agrarian religious practices.

spiritism (local)spirit of the rock of the tree, of the stream
spiritism (geographical)spirits of the lake, forest, hills, mountains

B. Large Population Formations

For religions created during later tribalistic periods there is a shift from geographical spirits to tribal gods (Canaanites), and then to a much larger cultural/national pantheons of gods (Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Hindu).

polytheism (tribal)gods unique to each tribe, or smaller group people which covers a small geographic area
polytheism (national)gods unique to each nation, culture, or peoples which covers a large geographical area
monolatry/monotheismA more recent and anomalous historical development – the belief that the one god, in spite of and over, all others

With expanding population centers later being defined by nation states and there being a significant increase in knowledge of the world through the advent of such disciplines as: history, ethics, arts, astronomy, physics, math, philosophy, etc:

  1. the scope of their gods expanded to be national instead of localized and tribal
  2. they essentially separated them from direct ties to the localized natural world to live in the skies (or other essentially unreachable place) so their divine entities are more generalized and available to a larger populace
  3. these new gods’ influence expanded to cover broad portfolios such as: war, love, fertility, plants, luck, etc instead of more localized features such as a tree or rock which might have similar very localized influence

C. Cosmopolitan Formations

With the largest populations present that Earth has ever seen and at the current height of Human knowledge, the more modern religious formations tend to concentrate on:

  • the philosophical and ethical foundations of religions, life, existence
  • less on the natural world in specific or whether there is or is not the divine
  • concentrating on ecological and humanitarian preservation and where humanity stands in the scheme of things – tending towards a sort of a global eco-humanistic (a)religious view.
pantheismall is part of the divine – many paths, one truth
humanismhumanity is responsible for its own damnation or salvation
atheism/secularismthere is no real divine or supernatural, just existence

Here is a neat comic strip which illustrates this overall historical evolution of religions through the ages:

History of Religion
History of Religion

D. Historical Pattern of Religious Evolution

As you look at what I have written above especially in light of NdT‘s presentation, you will see a pattern here: the growth and evolution of religious formation evolves along with the:

  • growth of our population centers
  • growth of human knowledge (and inversely to our worldly ignorances)

At the height of our ignorance our religions focused on the immediate natural world which was not understood (disease, seasons, weather, life, death, personal accidents such as a broken leg). As our knowledge of the world grew then we traded in spirits for gods. Then we traded in gods for philosophies and eco-consciousnesses.

At the height of our ignorance we attributed almost everything to the spirits and supernatural immediately surrounding us, but eventually those walls of ignorance and false attribution are torn down due to experience, knowledge, truth, and science once we understood it. Once we understood how or why something happens then people no longer falsely attribute those occurrences to the supernatural or the divine, and then its explanation falls under the purview of science and fact. When that happens, then we are able to do something about it and science and innovation takes off to fully understand and then to solve that problem. At that moment, everything that is beyond our understanding and explanation is then again attributed to the supernatural or the divine. The cycle continues as we are forever encountering the perimeter of Humanity’s ignorance.

E. The “Mythologies” of Tomorrow?

If we pull back a little farther, there is something more we can learn from this historical cycle of humanity creating superstitions and religions over time to cope with our ignorances, our fears, and our suffering. The superstitions and “religions” that are used within any contemporary period fall of out of favor and are eventually cast aside to be replaced with something else (We are talking over hundreds of years or thousands of years.). All of the “religions” of today will eventually end up being studied as “mythologies” in the ephemeral World of Tomorrow.

Just as the Greeks and then the Romans thought their polytheistic religion was the ultimate truth, only to be replaced by Judaism and Christianity. Both of the former are now studied as yesterday’s mythologies. Eventually Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and all of the other religions of today will all be relegated to the dustbins of history and replaced by something else, which in turn will be replaced by something else, and so the cycle will continue until Humanity’s inevitable extinction. This is the relentless march of human history, and of our evolution and change. It not a matter of IF it will happen. It is a matter of when it will happen.

III. Issues with Conservative Religion, Superstition, and Mythology


This section is going to be rather large so strap yourself in for we have a lot of background and leg work to setup the conversation. This will also contribute to our conversation on the evolution of religion and personal choice in religion, as well as the conversation for the last section of this post.

A. Psychological Factors in Religious Belief


Below I am going to talk about a few things to get you thinking, I will cover a few technical topics in psychology which I will relate together at the end to make a few points. I will cover the following topics:

  1. Schrodinger’s Cat and Schrodinger’s Smilodon
  2. False Positives and False Negatives
  3. Pascal’s Wager
  4. Morale Psychology and Other Psychological Factors

I know! I know! Why is all of this sciencey stuff in a talk about religion. Dagnabbit, boy! Keep you science away from my religion! Just hang with me here, because I am actually going somewhere with this.=) I will pull all 4 of these together into one idea at the end.

1. Schrodinger’s Smilodon


Let’s talk about Schrodinger’s Smilodon! But first, in order to understand that, we need to talk about Schrodinger’s Cat! There was a scientist named Erwin Schrodinger that postulated a thought experiment that we call Schrodinger’s Cat which was useful for thinking about quantum superpositioning. This thought experiment basically states that if we have this box with a cat in it which also has a radioactive isotope and a poison in it, that we do not know if the cat is alive or dead until we open the box to check. In this case, before opening the box, the cat’s ‘state’ is both dead and alive (unknown) until we know for sure by opening the box.

For the examples below we will use something we will call Schrodinger’s Smilodon which is a smilodon – a large predatory prehistoric cat (@Wikipedia, @New Dinosaurs) – that is both there and not there (unknown state) potentially hunting in the bushes until the hunters check to know for sure, which would end up either good for the hunters (not there) or bad for the hunters (is there and hungry). =O

Got it so far? Schrodinger’s Smilodon – a smilodon with an unknown state (both there/not there) until the hunters know for sure.

2. False Positives and False Negatives

In psychology there is something referred to as a false negative and a false positive which shall relate directly to our Schrodinger’s Smilodon in the situations below where we will follow some prehistoric hunters who are hunting in a forest and hear a sound which gets them thinking it might be a smilodon hunting in the forest. This moment gives us our Schrodinger’s Smilodon because they do not know for sure if it is there.

a. False Negatives

A false negative means: a person falsely assumes something is NOT correct when it is, in fact, true which can be dangerous.

As an example: Our prehistoric hunters hear a sound in the bushes over there and they think it might be a hungry smilodon hunting them. This gives us Schrodinger’s Smilodon, because in that moment the smilodon is both there and not there (an unknown state)…  because the hunters do not know for sure.

In this case, the hunters do NOT assume that the sound they just heard was a hunting smilodon, when in fact it really was, which ends up with the hunters being smilodon lunch. =( That is a false negative. False negative = smilodon lunch.

b, False Positives

A false positive means: a person falsely assumes something is true when it is, in fact, NOT true which can also be dangerous, but generally less so, when applied in this context.

As an example: Our intrepid prehistoric hunters hear a sound in the bushes over there and they think it might be a smilodon hunting them in the forest. This gives us Schrodinger’s Smilodon, because, in that moment, the smilodon is both there and not there (an unknown state)… because the hunters do not know for sure.

In this case, the hunters DO assume that the sound they just heard was a hunting smilodon, so they end up taking defensive precautions allowing them to escape unharmed regardless of whether or not there was a smilodon there (there wasn’t). In either case, the hunters are safe because they assumed there was danger and then acted accordingly to protect themselves allowing them to live to hunt another day. False Positive = He who assumes there is a hunting smilodon in the bush lives to hunt another day!

c. Psychological Implications

As an evolutionary adaptation, assuming something is potentially dangerous (false positive), being risk averse (scaring more easily) as a defensive posture is safer than assuming something is not dangerous. Those early humans who developed this adaptation (a heightened sense of danger) allowed them to be safer and to survive longer because they preferred to assume that something was dangerous and taking the appropriate action to protect themselves resulting in the evolution of a more sensitive and easily triggered fight-or-flight response.

3. Pascal’s Wager

In this day and age, when we apply false positives to people’s choice or belief in religion this sets us up for something called Pascal’s Wager which says something like: It is safer to assume that God(s) exists and to be fearful and obedient (and potentially rewarded) than it is to not believe and not obedient (and hence potentially punished).

Pascal's Wager Result Matrix
Pascal’s Wager Result Matrix

See how that all came together? No? OK, so here is the line of logic:

  1. Those people who, when faced with a choice to believe that something is a threat or not, (Schrodinger’s Smilodon)
  2. … and have evolved have a higher sense of risk aversion, are more fearful, or more easily give in to fear will assume something is dangerous (false positive),
  3. … and therefore would develop the tendency to give in to religion or potentially even have the desire for religion for fear of divine reprisal (Pascal’s Wager).

Here is a simpler way to say it: Those who have an evolutionarily heightened sense of fear will tend to be religious.

4. Moral Psychology and Other Psychological Factors

Now, on to the last part of this section. In the previous sections I laid the groundwork to show you that those who are risk averse or fearful will tend to be religious. I am going to apply a few other areas of psychology here to take this a step further. Specifically, I am going to work with conservative psychology as seen through the lens of moral psychology and a few other relevant studies. I cover a quite a bit of the base concepts of moral psychology in my post titled Morality vs Religion (Apr 2015) which is where I will pull almost all of this section from. Please take the time to read that post to really prepare yourself for this section, because I will not explain these in detail here. I will quickly cover the parts that are pertinent which will focus on conservative psychology and religious belief.

So, on to moral psychology. From moral psychology, as talked about in my above post, conservatives score high on these three (of the 5) moral psychological factors:

  • In-Group Loyalty (Tribalism) – hold their tribe and members as more trustworthy and safe – others who are different and not a member of their tribe are probably not
  • Authority/Respect – respect and prefer their authority structures to a fault
  • Purity/Sanctity – believe in the infallibility of their authority and their own beliefs

From other contemporary studies they also tend to have the following psychological traits:

  • negativity bias – prefer negative things and see threats everywhere (false positives)
  • intolerance of ambiguity – prefer things to be clear-cut, black and white, easy to understand or accept; do not like cognitive dissonance

If we combine Pascal’s Wager with conservative’s intolerance for ambiguity as well as the moral psychological factors from above, you will find a person that will find significant comfort in religion, especially conservative religion, because it will:

  • be an authority which claims righteousness and infallibility (purity, authority),
  • tell them unequivocally what is right and wrong (authority, purity, intolerance of ambiguity),
  • brand minority (and other groups) a threat (negativity bias, loyalty, purity, intolerance of ambiguity)

… which pings all of their psychological factors and keeps them angry, fearful, motivated, blindly faithful, and… voting, especially during midterm elections. =O

As a part of this, they do not like to have to think or consider the implications of their beliefs or actions because that would bring about the horrors of cognitive dissonance and ambiguity as well as the potential that they may be wrong, which would challenge and violate their perception of purity and authority of the themselves, their authority (church), and tribe. Therefore, if they do not think about it, and blindly commit themselves to their beliefs and cause, regardless of the consequences, then they will not have the think about it nor face external consequences because of the purity of their authority which tells them right from wrong, who the enemies are, and which also promises righteousness and eternal reward.

B. Conservative Religion as a Force for Corruption and Regression in the World


If we take into account the staggering implications of the previous section, you will see that fear is a powerful motivator due to not understanding the world, negativity bias, and a dislike for ambiguity within conservatives which keeps many in religion. Some stay even though they do not really believe, not that they would allow themselves to even ask that question, but are going through the motions because they are afraid of going to Hell, being cursed, or angering the spirits (Pascal’s Wager); and others because they love the surety and perceived purity of the of their church (authority) and henceforth themselves and their self-selected church which supports their self-selected beliefs. All doing so regardless of whether or not these divine or supernatural things actually exist or not. That is not something they would ever question, for they were told by their church that it was undeniably true and that they, or their family, or their people would be punished for not believing, or that they would burn for eternity. We also need to take into account social, cultural, and political reinforcement and enforcement of such beliefs which greatly adds to their perpetuation.

1. Divine Beliefs Conveniently Coincides with Personal Beliefs

Men tend to have the beliefs that suit their passions. Cruel men believe in a cruel God, and use their belief to excuse their cruelty. Only kindly men believe in a kindly God, and they would be kindly in any case.

Bertrand Russel (London Calling, 1947)

Religion can even be an even more powerful tool for evil in the world when a person can pick and choose the religion and denomination that conveniently supports their world views and desires. Christianity has over 5,000 mainstream denominations world-wide and throughout history ranging from the theological humanism found in Unitarian Universalism to the far right and hate-filled fringe such as the Westborough Baptists.

If you fear and hate racial and sexual minorities then there are denominations and religions for that. If you love the environment then there are denominations and religions for that too. Perhaps, the religion we chose to belong to reflects who we are as person. If a person chooses a hate-filled religion then that is who they are as a person and they just want justification and absolution for their desires and beliefs. If a person chooses a religion that supports humanity and the environment and is filled with compassion then, perhaps that is who they are as a person.

Keep in mind, I will not get into cultural, social, and religious indoctrination as well as the pernicious effects of monetary systems, but that is also something to keep in mind and makes this topic not as clear cut nor simple as I am making it out here for the purposes of this discussion.

Reza Aslan’s video talks about this: God doesn’t hate people.

2. Religion as a Tool for Removing Accountability

Because a person can find a religion to justify any sort of vile or beneficent world view, religion and the supernatural then also becomes the really easy method to justify evil actions, to absolve one of guilt, or to keep from having to take responsibility for one’s actions. A person can patently wash away their crimes by saying that the Devil or a witch made them do it, or that their god wanted them to do it, or that their god forgave them even for such heinous actions: as slavery, genocide, human sacrifice, murder, or raping children; and there is no way to disprove them or to negate their assertion short of the fictitious divine or supernatural figure showing up for tea to state otherwise – and we know that is NOT going to happen. Also, even if that did happen, this would still NOT make their heinous acts acceptable anyhow. This is something that is very predominant even in today’s supposedly enlightened world.

As much as some would like to look upon Christianity as something pure and exceptional, it has been used to justify slavery, genocide, war, murder, child-rape, and all sorts of other hate filled and horrific acts throughout its short existence in human history. I am not going to pick on only Christianity here, but most other religions, especially those that developed as Large Population Formations are guilty of this too.

You can see this with these more modern examples:

  • Donald Trump’s absolution of several divorces and infidelity by fundamentalist churches and his abhorrent attitudes towards refugees;
  • Mormons exiling their gay children to the streets;
  • Mormons and other religious sects marrying and raping children.
  • The Vatican covering up raging pedophilia within their ranks and summarily absolving them of guilt;
  • Religious parents beating and torturing their kids while using their religious text to validate that their cruelty is according to the divine laws;
  • Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians;
  • African Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which is found in both their Christian, Jewish, and Islamic sects;
  • ISIS beheading children for listening to music.
  • Islamic stoning of women who are found without the escort of a relative, or people being beheaded for apostasy.

The list is bountiful even in today’s world where religion conveniently absolves those who are responsible for horrific acts from any guilt and even providing them a false sense of righteousness for their vile actions. Not only are they providing absolution for their crimes against Humanity, but such belief systems also demand that they do some of these horrific things, as well as provide a twisted rationale and a powerful reward for it too. The video below with Greta Christina goes over many of these horrors.

3. Dogma Over People and the Environment

To start this section off, I am going to paraphrase a quote by Voltaire here to hopefully put this into perspective:

Those who can convince your to Separate yourself from others, to forsake your own humanity, to believe that your dogma or beliefs are more important than Humanity can convince you to commit atrocities.

James O’Neill
If your religion makes you hate someone then you need a new religion.
If your religion makes you hate someone then you need a new religion.

With the above sections on psychology and looking at their results we can find that, especially within conservative religious circles, their dogma and beliefs are what are important no matter who is hurt in the process, for if they were to consider the real ramifications of their actions or to try taking responsibility for them then it would violate their moral psychological values and bring on dissonance and ambiguity which they cannot have, as well as result in challenging the purity of their authoritarian structures, their beliefs, as well as challenge their desire to NOT be eternally punished. To keep this from happening many blindly and zealously devote themselves to their religion which:

  • they hand-picked to support their hatreds and views
  • hands them views and enemies which conveniently aligns with their personal views
  • conveniently absolves them from guilt for the dehumanizing beliefs and actions against their fellow humans
  • even rewards them socially and eternally for their beliefs and actions

With a righteous hand they smite the unrighteous in their god’s name and, in doing so, they may be reviled by the nonbeliever, but they shall be granted heavenly and eternal rewards. Does this idea sound familiar? This is a very powerful motivation in not only in the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) but most other religions around the world too in one form or another. This process is very problematic and, if Humanity is going to truly progress and bring peace to the world, then we must find a way around it or to stop it from poisoning our world and people.

4. Conservative Religion as a Powerful Force for Dehumanization of Our Fellow Human Beings

It is easy to sway and manipulate an ignorant, fearful, and blindly following populace because they do not know any better and cannot hope for better because the religious classes control exactly what the masses can hope for and what they must do in order to be saved (or to have the divine light to shine upon them so their luck can change). This is a powerful force for the dehumanization of their fellow man. What horrors has humanity inflicted upon each other in the name of salvation because some words were written or spoken as an inspired form of social control or terrorism. Horrors such as:

  • slavery
  • poverty
  • war
  • witch trials
  • human sacrifice
  • genocide of indigenous populations
  • genocide of ethnic or religious minorities
  • police brutality
  • attacks on homosexual and transgendered peoples as well as other sexual minorities
  • female genital mutilation, circumcision

Here is this amazing video of Greta Christina titled Why are you Atheists so Angry from Skepticon 4 in 2011 which goes over the many reasons that atheists are so angry at religion, some of which I have stated above. In the link I have the video and have added a captioned transcript in case you would rather read it. However, perhaps the most powerful thing she states and which really resonates with me is: “Many Atheists are NOT angry because what has been done to themselves, but for what has happened to others. “. Watch it and check out what she is talking about and listen to her rather large list. This is a powerful video:

5. Conservative Religion Inhibits Innovation and Problem Solving

Because of the surety that conservative religion brings – as in: “All you need is the our set of scriptures because all answers are in there!?”, it has an affect of inhibiting innovation, critical thinking, and problem solving by saying they have the answer and it should not be questioned, and to question it is sacrilegious – even though religion does not have a real answer that actually solves anything.

“Don’t think! Pray and make offers to appease the divine. God will make everything work out. It is God’s will. The gods works in mysterious ways.” This mentality results with, as Neil deGrasse Tyson so aptly put it, revelation replacing investigation.

Consider these two powerful historical examples:

The Rise of Christianity Within the Ancient Roman Empire: Here is an agonizing set of historical examples for you to ponder. After the keys to the then polytheistic Roman Empire were handed over to the Roman Orthodox Catholic Church by Emperor Theodosius I:

  • Christianity slaughtered many Pagans and Christians (non-Roman Orthodox Christians) as well as burned their many heretical scrolls and books of knowledge. Not only did we lose much the the knowledge of the other Christian sects such as the Gnostics who were branded heretical by the literalist Roman Orthodox Church, but also…
  • The Library of Alexandria, much like Baghdad from below – was the greatest center of learning in its time, fell into disrepair and eventually burned down losing a great treasure trove of knowledge, history, science, and philosophy. Tragic!
  • The Temple of Serapis, the Library of Alexandria’s sister temple, which also held much of the knowledge of the known world, was attacked by Roman Orthodox Christian zealots during Christianity’s rise which resulted in the slaughter of the the priests and acolytes that were there, as well as the slaughter of influential female Pagan philosopher Hypatia, and then they burned down the temple and its large collection of the world’s knowledge. The amazing movie Agora from 2009 goes over this.

The Rise of Conservatism in Islam: Another painful example of this phenomenon is present towards the end of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s video from above. Start at about the 26 minute and 30 seconds mark where he talks about the amazing scientific advancements within Islam where Baghdad, which is in present day Iraq, was the intellectual center of the world prior to the rise and corruption of conservativism within Islam.

See what happened to scientific discovery and discourse following its conservative evolution. Islam had a 300 year period of amazing scientific and philosophical advancements and then, with the rise of the control of conservatism within Islam, that 300 year period with an explosion of knowledge and science came to a screeching halt, and it has never recovered from that. This is a powerful and sad example.

How much art, philosophy, history, and science have we lost from these two tragic examples of revelation replacing investigation? There are many, many more examples replete throughout history.

There are even too many numerous smaller examples to count throughout history. Even in more recent times and our supposedly scientifically advanced times we have people who are:

  • Creationists fighting to get rid of evolution in schools and replace it with creationism.
  • Climate Change Denialists denying and fighting against human caused climate change.
  • Your Earth Creationists believing the earth is only 6,000 years old.
  • Flat Earthers believing that the Earth is still flat.

6. Religion as a Form of Social Control

Throughout almost all of human history, church and state were essentially one entity, especially during early human history (i.e. shaman and tribe) and through the middle of recorded human history. It is even present now in the modern world (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, and Rome). The ubiquity of religions’ tentacles which has infected every single facet of politics and society has established itself as a form of ultra-powerful and cross-class form of social and political control so that those in power (the 1%) can maintain their power by influencing the flow and bias of information and, more importantly, what the populace is willing to believe and do through the use fear for themselves, their families, their collective religious identities, and their nation which provides the genesis for the many vile ‘ism which infects our world: tribalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, and other divisive horrors.

By ensuring that the religious classes were the gatekeepers to knowledge, morality, power, and divine judgement they enshrined themselves as a privileged and rich ruling class while others suffered in ignorance and poverty (Check out the Prosperity Gospel). They even fought, cast down, and even murdered the innocent that dared to challenge their power and self-proclaimed sanctity to ensure that the masses were kept ignorant and poor. This also allowed to them to use their sermons and religious and political influence to maintain their power through the control and bias of information flow since they (along with the rich) were the only real educated populations, as well as self-declaring themselves as having been the chosen and privileged speakers for the divine whose wrath the people feared and whose favor they desperately desired for themselves and their families who were suffering.

Keeping people poor, fearful, and ignorant is required in order to perpetuate the religious and ruling class’ control, power, influence, and luxury because once the people understand the world broadly and no longer live in fear or despair, then the hold that religion has on the populace greatly diminishes. I talk about part of this phenomenon at the very beginning of this post: Systemic Suppression with America’s Two Party SystemThis vicious cycle sort of follows Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs - 8 Levels
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – 8 Levels

As long as their lower order needs (deficiency needs) are NOT met then religion will be prevalent and powerful because the people are ignorant, fearful, hungry, suffering, and without power or influence which is predominant in the countries of the Global South and among the exploited and poverty stricken people around the world, so using religion as a powerful coping strategy becomes useful and prevalent.

Once their lower order needs are met and people are able to truly pursue higher order needs, then religious influence and power wanes which is a powerful trend you are seeing within Europe especially within the Nordic countries (whose populace is the happiest and best educated in the world, and has the lowest level of poverty in the world) where non-believers are the fastest growing (a)religious demographic.

There is a reason why many people become more progressive and non-religious after they go to college. Students in college learn much more about the world and are exposed to many more ideas and people from around the country and from around the world which makes the world seem smaller and less scary. It harder to dehumanize and fear a people you have met or to fear something you understand. This is really why conservatives strike so hard against education. It gets rid of your ignorance and fears so that you are harder to control. Without ignorance, suffering, and fear religions have very little to hold on to in order to maintain control over people. Here are some modern anti-intellectual religious signs to help give you an idea that this mentality is alive and well within conservative religious circles.

With every advancement in science, medicine, and all other disciplines, pulling back one more fold in the veil of Humanity’s vast ignorance, religion loses one more sliver of power and control over the masses and nations. However, conservative religions will not go quietly into the deep abyss of ignorance and fear from whence they spawned. They will go kicking and screaming to try to prevent societal advancement to try to ensure that we all suffer from ignorance, fear, and division so as to be able maintain the control and power that it once had, but more importantly, to keep an iron-clad grasp on the illusion of the perceived truth of their belief system – dogma no matter the cost, which is conveniently similar to capitalism’s motto – profit no matter cost.

Let us look to a modified quote from Yoda from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace which places this cycle in more clear focus. I added the ignorance part which is the true progenitor for this process in his quote:

Ignorance is the path to the dark side:

  1. ignorance leads to fear
  2. fear leads to anger
  3. anger leads to hatred
  4. hatred leads to suffering

It is this process that education looks to help short-circuit by attempting to eliminate ignorance, which greatly reduces the number of people who may fall prey to the predatory and dehumanizing practices of conservative religions and hence world-wide suffering.

7. Absolution of Immoral Acts by an Imaginary Friend

Never trust a person who can clear theri conscience of any immoral act by asking forgiveness from their imaginary friend.
Never trust a person who can clear their conscience of any immoral act by asking forgiveness from their imaginary friend.

There is this interesting meme that summarizes how all of the above comes together:

Never trust a person who can clear their conscience of any immoral act by asking forgiveness from their imaginary friend.

After exploring the subject of morality and religion directly and writing my post Morality vs Religion (Apr 2015), I found the arrogance and hubris of the social requirement of religious belief in order to be a good and moral person patently offensive and morally repugnant, especially in light of the examples laid forth in the previous section.

IV. Religion Within the Humanity of Tomorrow

A. Economic Systems and Religion

My post here may seem like a damning indictment of conservative religions, and you would be right, but this document is much, much more than that. As a powerful and convenient cross-over, this post is also meant as a damning indictment of Capitalism and economic systems. 

Capitalism (as an Entropic system) requires the sociopathic commodification of everything, even human lives in order to create a perpetual stream of profit, no matter the cost to Humanity or the Natural World. Everything and everyone has a price tag for exploitation by those with the money or power to do so.

This completely gives rise to the many horrors which are required in order for Capitalism to flourish:

  • monstrous levels of wealth concentration in so few hands
  • ignorance, fear, the many isms (such as racism sexism, classism),
  • austerity, poverty, and rugged individualism
  • slave labor, child slave labor, unsafe working conditions, little sick time or health care
  • war, slavery, genocide

…all for the powerless peasant class while also inflicting destruction upon the Natural World such as:

  • clear cutting of forests, polluting of the air, rivers, oceans, and the soil
  • over hunting and fishing of the oceans and the land
  • animal cruelty, factory farms, broad wildlife extinctions

…all in order to to maximize short-term profit to ensure that the affluent get richer not only through this exploitation, but also through the government’s socialism for the rich. If you want to know the hows and whys then check out my powerful post: The Cancer of Capitalism and Its Antidote and I will give you an overview there so you can see the cause-effect relationship.

We could even say “Because of the complete lack of moral foundation and conscience that Capitalism requires in order for it to flourish this allows and even requires the existence of religions in order to help Humanity cope with plethora of Capitalism’s predations and horrors. If humanity is truly going evolve beyond and be free from religion and its horrors, then we must first free ourselves from Capitalism and economic systems.

B. A World Beyond Religion?

Religions will always exist and to think we can get rid of them is folly. You cannot outlaw ignorance or fear nor feelings of hopelessness, despair, wonder, or existential curiosity or dread. Religions, as I have shown, at their very base, are about acknowledging and giving name to our ignorances and fears. Unless humanity somehow reaches the point where we know all of the things, then religions shall be with us in one form or another because even if we as a collective species did know all of the things, individuals will not know all of things. I would hate to see the day when Humanity collectively, in its infinite hubris, states that we know everything that there is to know, for that will truly be the eve of the end of human existence.

With that being said, we can work towards a world which does not really need nor desire superstitions or religions, and where those who believe in a religion would be merely a social curiosity. Living beyond religion would be very empowering because each of us would then realize that we should and were able to do something to solve our problems. Not only would we want to help lift each other up, to protect the environment, and to help to solve ALL of our world’s problems because we could, but it would be an ethical imperative to do so. Perhaps a world so advanced where ignorance, fear, hopelessness, despair and suffering essentially no longer exists.

C. Some Steps Towards a World Beyond Religion

We can make Earth a paradise for all of Humanity if we can just shake off the the oppressive and violent shackles of competition, capitalism, economic systems, monetary systems, and its required divisiveness and the dehumanization of our fellow humans. Can we really do this? Yes we can. Humanity can do much, much better.

We have the knowledge.
We have the resources.
We have the technology. 

But, we do not have the will as Humanity has so definitively shown year after year of Humanity’s dark and blood drenched history.

So, how do we get there to a world beyond religion and therefore beyond ignorance, fear, poverty, war, and suffering? I give a general overview in a page on my policy site Evolving Beyond War, Poverty, and Suffering @ Interstellar New Deal.

First, as mentioned above, it will require an ethical and philosophical change – a shift to a human and environmental centered ideology not only in all global religions, but in all global cultures and societies. I have written my policy page: The 8 Philosophical Pillars for Peace in Humanity which lists those basic pillars which are as follows:

  1. Interdependence
  2. Humanity
  3. Natural World
  4. Sustainability
  5. Equity
  6. Justice and Compassion
  7. Education
  8. Science and Technology

Please take the time to read that page which explains each of the Philosophical Pillars and why they are important. These need to form the central foundations of our religions and our global educational systems because they break down all of those walls that divide us and will promote a powerful and interdependent unity with each and every human on Earth as well as with the natural world. These are the foundations of a humanistic based new world.

Some of the next steps, which embody those values, are Universal Basic Services (UBS) which means universal access to:

  • education
  • health care
  • housing
  • food
  • transportation
  • internet

…all of which form the foundations of equity, banishes ignorance, helps to pull people out of poverty, and empowers them to be all they desire to be.

My policy site, Interstellar New Deal, goes over many of those many other policies to help get us there, and that list is really, really big especially in America which is really, really messed up due to the horrors of unrestrained and predatory capitalism.

A great example of countries that are closest to these ideals are the countries with the best standard of living which are in Europe, specifically the Nordic countries. In those countries religion is slowly dying while the fastest growing denomination is non-belief. When a populace:

  • is highly educated because it has free education
  • is healthy because it has free health care
  • is basically free of poverty (~3%)

… and therefore does not have to live in fear, then religion loses its ground and its power; and people no longer need false answers to assuage their fears and to provide hope.

V. Some Interesting Quotes

I am going to leave you with some quotes:

A. Joseph Campbell

The brilliant Joseph Campbell who specialized in mythology and comparative religion:

Mythology may, in a real sense, be defined as other people’s religion. And religion may, in a sense, be understood as popular misunderstanding of mythology.”

Joseph Campbell

Every religion, every mythology is true in this sense: It is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.

Joseph Campbell

Every myth is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.

Joseph Campbell

What gods are there, what gods have there ever been, that were not from man’s imagination?

Joseph Campbell

All religions are true but none are literal.

Joseph Campbell

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.

Joseph Campbell

Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.

Joseph Campbell

B. H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is a famous author of horror fiction with his Cthulu mythos.

If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences.

H.P Lovecraft

Read More

Liked it? Take a second to support James O'Neill on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
James O'Neill

1 thought on “Religion, an Overview

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.