Religion/Superstition – where does it come from

*Religious/Superstitious folks: Please understand – this article is not an attack on you (as you will imagine it to be) – it an exposé to understand you and help you understand yourself.

My last article - Confronting Religion in Education - showed why the word ‘religion’ is freely interchangeable with ‘superstition’ – and why the word ‘superstition’ should in fact be used in preference to the word ‘religion’ in order that we raise consciousness of the absurdity in giving superstition so much credit, respect and influence – especially around children.

But, especially for the already-superstitious, it perhaps seems to be a harsh stance to denigrate the mindset without first explaining and understanding it; and, equally important; showing that it can be explained and understood.

In the absence of an explanation, the superstitious would and could be forgiven for thinking that their superstition alone is self-evident proof that superstition is a reasonable position, perhaps evidence that a supernatural realm exists; supernatural realms about which to be superstitious.  It is a circular argument, yes – but I guarantee it will be asserted; hence, I head it off here.

So – let’s dig in; if a supernatural realm does not exist, where on earth (pun intended) does superstition come from?

Fact: For hundreds of thousands of generations (not years, but generations) humans were prey animals living on Africa's plains.
Yes - for 10,000 years (with 5 generations per century, 500 generations per 10,000 years), for 500 generations, we've increasingly managed to not be prey animals; but for 10-million years before that (that's 1,000 times more time - for 500,000 generations) we were prey, we were food to predators.

Fact: A pray animal that is not suspicious of every little rustle in the bush or sound in the night, winds up as "lunch" and not as an "ancestor".

Fact: This is natural-selection at work - suspicion is, necessarily, built into and streams through which our very DNA has flowed to us.

Fact: Superstition (imagining what is unseen) is the brain’s projection of suspicion onto the advanced mind.

In addition to these facts; as sentient, self-aware, animals, humans evolved an inquisitive predisposition to ask: "Where do we come from", "What drives complexity and life", etc.

And... We injected these questions into imagined plotting-&-planning super-beings possessed of benevolent or malevolent intent;

> We begged in the darkness of a cave that the thunder outside would abate.

> We pleaded with the river we had to ford, that it allow us safe passage.

> We beseeched the volcano to attack our enemy on our behalf.

(As an aside; individual rivers, volcanoes and other localized features first personified and imbued with human characteristics, quickly gave way to not just a pagan god for each river, but a river god for all rivers, a volcano god for all volcanoes, etc.  And then, the notion that there was a hierarchy of gods controlling the forces of nature gave way to a single top-dog-god; monotheism emerged from paganism)

Superstition was born and evolved, and, with it, ritual and ceremony.

Of course – it is not just us ‘higher’ animals that cling to ritual – no.  The humble pigeons display the same correlation-misfiring of imagined cause-and-effect conclusions as shown in skinner box experiments.  Our human equivalent to pigeons bopping in expectation of a feed pay-day, are rain dances, and, of course, prayers.

So it is that we have a natural default to be curious and superstitious – to ‘recognize’ patterns (many non-existent in reality) – and the two play off of one another until they spin many a philosophical conclusion (3,000 gods and counting, 30,000 versions of just one of those gods… and counting) – none of which has the slightest connection to reality.

But… if you are personally heavily afflicted with superstition, and you’ll know it when you feel the gall rising within as you read this, don’t feel unduly ashamed:  These are merely the early days in our age of reason, and we are not very far from ancestors who did not have proper answers to the questions of origins and complexity, so that superstition still governs the majority, and you are merely among them.

We, in this age, are the leading edge of humanity who can replace superstition with knowledge and understanding.

It just happens that many among us either have not been exposed to the answers, or are too fearful or lazy to consider them.  I emphasize again; we are not at an "end" point in our human development, we are just starting on the path toward better education and less superstition.

So... Theism is built into those who don't get or accept an education in origins, and theism tends to be evaporated in those who do.

Theists – thank you for reading this far; you have the gist; the main lesson is over, now you are excused to go argue and comment madly below.


For the studious and level-headed, a higher level of discovery now continues:

Are notions of god(s) and religion possibly neurological disorders?

I was having a discussion per the above, and one of the theists in that debate posted this link:  Losing Religion? Symptom of Parkinson's Disease, hoping to suggest that the article somehow explained that atheism is the neurological disorder (since it appears to come as parcel of Parkinson’s Disease).

In response, I pointed out that a summary of the article is as follows:

"People with Parkinson’s Disease have a tendency to lose their interest in religion… reporting significantly lower levels of interest in religion. Brain scans show that this lack of interest coincides with changes in the prefrontal cortex."

And, from this, we can indeed deduce that when one has a specific brain affliction (within the architecture of the skull), it can kill off that part of the brain that concerns itself with god.

My theistic adversary insisted then that “atheism is a neurological disorder”

But, she did not realize that her link proves quite the opposite: She omitted to appreciate that the main path to atheism has nothing to do with destruction of brain material.

In rational people, the path to “informed atheism” is based simply on having gained a firm understanding of those unknowns that typically lead (in the absence of knowledge) to assuming a supernatural or god figure exists in the first place:

1) Origins and state of the Universe and life

2) Origins and state of morals

3) Predictions into the future

But, conversely, per the link to the Parkinson’s article, the fact that part of the brain can die or be interfered with and, as a consequence, interest in religion is lost, well, that tells us conclusively that god 'lives' in that region of the brain that has died.

And, this is very consistent with evolutionary psychology in that religion and notions of a god are a misfiring of the natural suspicion by a prey animal as described above.

To recap: We took fear of being preyed upon, and superimposed it onto fear of deep dark water, raging rivers, thunder, the dark, etc; and then embroidered these cultural clutter.

The case was pretty much closed in that argument – but… it did continue, and I think you’ll find it interesting:

In the evasive tradition of theism, my rival countered that; “There is still that NEED to belong and questions physicalism (sic) doesn't address. We have to be different as individuals and expect dualism.”

Of course – I agree – I, too, belong and long to belong: I belong to my family, to my community, to my race, to my country, to all primates and the tree of life - I belong to my ancestors, as their genes make me tick and I inherited their memes.

I don't need to belong to something that has never been seen and is demonstrably killed off by a neurological condition.

Clearly the faculty that houses the superstitious (suspicious for a prey animal) part of the brain is suggested by the neural damage (as per the link to Parkinsons above).  But, there is an interesting correlation observable in animals: Toxoplasma Parasites that use the power of sexual attraction to trick rats into becoming cat food: Normally rats will flee when the encounter the smell of cat urine.  However, rats infected with Toxoplasma parasite show an uncharacteristic interest in cat urine, boldly sniffing, following it, and hanging around it; which is not the smartest evolutionary move for the rat – but precisely what the parasite needs in order to get into the gut of another cat and continue its life cycle.

Interestingly, as an aside, I heard about this on an episode of The Naked Scientists broadcast, where it described how people who have cats often become infected by the parasite, and tend toward elevated risk taking behavior.

The Toxoplasma attacks the Amygdala of the brain, which is associated with various emotional states. Once in the brain, the parasite forms cysts around itself, in which it essentially lies dormant; interfering with normal fear and brain function, and awaiting consumption by a predator (cat).

I introduced this final thought about toxoplasma as an interesting aside, but in order to illustrate further how we see the emotions of faith and belief tied into elaborate and intricate interaction with brain architecture, evolutionary psychology, and the ongoing predominance of superstition even in modern society.

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