Sunday, 14 March 2010

Prophet and Loss

Rationalists, humanists, atheists, all, if so inclined, try and find a logical reason why religion exists at all in humanity – what function, evolutionary or otherwise, does it fulfil?

Straight away we have a problem. Religions may start from a germ (or seed, if you don’t want the negative connotation) of dealing with a particular issue, but they very quickly gather other ideas around them as nuclei in snowflakes, or grains of sand in pearls (wisdom optional).

There’s no point in a religion that only answers one question, so answers to other questions are added to the mythology in order to make the religion holistically believable. Some issues, of course, are not answered, but are satisfactorily deemed unanswerable (when I say ‘satisfactorily’ I just mean in line with the tone of the mythology style-book).

Religions then provide inclusivism – a sense of belonging – ironically leading to exclusivism, allowing a superior ‘us and them’ mentality to occur which actually strengthens the feeling of belonging.

There’s nothing like belonging to something if you can feel superior to those that don’t belong.

This plays on the deeply ingrained mammalian-brain instinct of xenophobic protectionism. That which is not us is bad, wrong, evil, dangerous, or at the very least to be treated with suspicion.

The key answer that religions try to provide, and often the one from which they spring, is comfort regarding the demise or the expiration. To provide a maker in order to head off to meet same. To give one peace in which to rest at the cessation of metabolic processes, the kicking of the bucket or the shuffling off this mortal coil. Ultimately, providing a choir invisible to join.

Of course such an ‘answer’ is two-fold – it allows one to feel comfort in the contemplation of one’s own death, and it seeks to make the loss of a loved one more bearable.

The strongest indication, I think, of how deeply ingrained religion is in many minds is how completely it takes over the processing of grief and loss, to the point where some even greet their end because of the plot of land and harem they’ve been promised in the afterlife. (What did those virgins do to deserve that end, though, one wonders.)

Even in non- extremist believers of whichever religion, if the day dawns where they can suddenly no longer reconcile the teachings of their religion with logic, common-sense, and widely accepted scientific theory the effect of such an epiphany is often a feeling of grief or loss not unlike what one might associate with the loss of a loved one. Of course this is in part due to the breadth and depth of the teachings of the religion, and just how much has to be re-learned, it is also the intentional self-exclusion from the group and the consequent loss of the sense of belonging.

For millennia, and even up to this day, death is a part of life in a very ‘front of mind’ kind of way. So humanistic fatalism is completely understandable - a palatable way of dealing with the concept of death and accepting the reality of death has been a genuine need for humanity.

Where previously, with available knowledge, religion fulfilled a genuine need, that is no longer the case. We live longer, can lead more fulfilling lives and have great deal of information (a long with a tragic amount of mis- or dis-information) at our fingertips.

Religion was an answer based on incomplete information, shrewd marketing and stirring storytelling. Today the available information is more complete, the target audience more jaded, and the distinction between fiction and non-fiction more readily discerned.

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