Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dreaming and feeling as a child

Religion is a result of human evolution, and the fact that it has survived the age of enlightenment and scientific reasoning tells us that powerful selection pressures must be at work. I want to find out more, thinking aloud while blogging, and I invite you to follow me. In a previous post I have dealt with the evolution of quackery, and I have come across the idea that quackery and religion share these common traits:

  1. not evidence-based,
  2. relying on "key experiences" rather than statistics and science,
  3. gurus and followers,
  4. becoming more attractive in difficult conditions,
  5. immunity of adherers to scientific reasoning.
By the way, religion is a subject in a number of medical publications, for instance dealing with the question of coping and palliative medicine, therefore it also must be a topic of Med Journal Watch.

The raw material of evolution

Evolution always needs raw material and a status quo from where it can start. For instance, the wings of birds did not evolve out of nothing. They have developed from the forward limbs of quadrupeds. In the case of religion, the raw material has to be found in the brain (religion is a mode of thinking and reasoning) and in the social behaviour (religion is a matter of relationship).

One very impressive mechanism in the brain is dreaming. According to a plausible hypothesis, its function is the transfer of content from short-term to long-term memory. Some phases of this process take place in a semi-conscious state where we have the impression of living in a strange second world or second live. Adults, and children even more, are able to recall what they have experienced in their dreams. Thus, the existence of a “second reality" is a direct and very emotional experience of all human beings. This may be the raw material of all attempts to understand the hidden aspects of our world.

The religions of this world are very different but they share one aspect: A child-like relationship of the adepts or believers towards the deity that is seen as sort of a super-parent. In the beginning of mankind, the powers of nature such as the sun, thunder, storms, rain, the soil, important plants or animals have been worshipped as deities. Later, concepts derived from the family have been developed, "great mother" (magna mater) and "great father in heaven". When we look at all the different rituals in human religions, we always see behaviours of obedience, of submission, of punishment, of forgiving, just as it happens in everyday life between children and parents. Parents are mighty and have the power (at least they are supposed to), and children are dependent and cannot survive without the parents. This is pretty much the same situation as human beings in front of the mighty powers of nature.

The selection process

It is not very surprising that humans try to apply strategies that have been successful in similar situations. For instance, offering a present to appease an angry parent or why not an angry deity in a life-threatening thunderstorm? Religions would not have evolved without a powerful selection pressure fed by situations where humans feel "out of control" and exposed to mighty powers. But here things become complicated. I have to organize my ideas concerning this issue before it is time for a follow-up. Stay tuned.

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