Suppose that through some series of quirks and kludgey combinations of features, evolution left the human organism with a set of cognitive flaws that some religious ideas exploit. Suppose that evolution left us with predispositions towards spiritual/supernatural explanations for phenomena where the natural cause isn’t immediately obvious. Imagine that it gave us a powerful set of tools for problem solving in many practical circumstances—gathering food, evading threats, finding and building shelter. But the limited scope of those tools makes it very hard for us to ponder very large systems of causes and effects, or think in terms of processes that endure for millions of years. Maybe that feeling that lots of people get when they try to imagine events receding back into history forever is a by-product of this aspect of the way our minds developed. It just seems so wrong, so counter-intuitive to so many people that there could be no first cause. It just doesn’t feel right that the world could be just physical matter with no higher being.
We have other neurological glitches that could give us some insight here. Claustrophobia affects a significant portion of the population. It could be part of the outcome of our evolution. Lots of people have an obsessive/compulsive disorder—no matter how many times they wash their hands, it still doesn’t feel like they are clean. Or they keep checking and rechecking all the locks on all the doors before they can leave the house. Something keeps nagging at the backs of their minds, no matter how carefully they try to reason through it.
So let’s entertain the hypothetical that part of the legacy that evolution left us with is a strong disposition towards religiousness. It feels like there’s a presence there listening to our innermost thoughts. It seems like some greater power is watching over us. No matter what the empirical evidence is right in front of us, we just can’t shake the feeling that there’s got to be a God up there.
One would expect, in general, that if an evolutionary process produces social creatures with sophisticated cognitive and communication skills, then a culture will spring up around them. And as that culture varies over time and different ideas, institutions, and concepts are explored, the aspects of culture that fit well with the creatures’ cognitive abilities and impairments will stick. Some ideas or patterns of information will get traction in the minds of those beings and spread through time and space. (Bans on birth control, evangelism, and pressure for large families are great ways for a set of religious ideas like Catholicism or Mormonism to rapidly spread across a population. For a very sharp blog entry about religious memes see:
http://www.daylightatheism.org/2006/10/infectious-memes.html ) We might expect that something like religion would develop. No matter how we are cognitively configured, with enough time and enough variations on theme, human social institutions will probably stumble upon some ideas, themes, or patterns of information that will exploit whatever flaws or weaknesses there are in the human mind. It would not be surprising to find a secondary evolution of culture that produces institutions and ideas that have a powerful and deep hold on the hearts and minds of the creatures. Gambling seems to work kind of like this. The Gambler’s Fallacy is such a powerful and seductive idea that lots of people just can’t be talked out of it.
Now if religious ideas functioned like a mind virus, and you were fortunate enough to be in an era of history where we had begun to figure out what’s really going on with belief in God, how would you want to react? How would you want to spend your 74.5 years of life in the evolutionary saga? What relationship would you want to have to this set of parasitic ideas? Would you be happy to subjugate yourself to them as billions of other humans have done? Would you be content to let so many people around you continued to be hijacked? Even if this set of ideas were symbiotic in many ways and provided some emotional, psychological, or social benefits while being propagated to each new generation of humans, would you want to sustain them in your head, or would you want them out now that you know their origin?
Now we’re really turning the believer’s classic picture of the world on its head. We’re trying to propagate the atheism meme so its spreads through the population to supplant the religious ones. They say that you’re corrupted by sin when doubts about God creep in and threaten to destroy your faith. The priests, rabbis, preachers, and evangelical believers want you to surround yourself with believers, to only read their religious texts, and to purge all non-religious thoughts and activities from your life. That’s all necessary to optimize the growing conditions for the parasite in the Petri dish of your mind. If it’s dark, ignorant, intolerant, and fearful in there, it’ll take over and infect your children, your neighbors, and your politicians (shit, it’s too late already!) But it’s not really your corrupt nature and sin that’s keeping you from unity with God, it’s seductive religious ideas that have been selected through cultural evolution for maximal effectiveness, or rather, maximal infectiousness. The religious ideas would co-opt your ability to employ your powers of reason, they encourage you to doubt your own abilities. They have wound their way so deeply into the minds of its hosts, they can no longer even imagine life without believing. Imagine that those billions of years of evolution produced this human organism with so much potential to do so many remarkable things, but the vulnerability of their minds to religious infections derailed them and took over the whole race. The real sin would be to recognize what’s going on and to not say anything. The best thing you could do for humanity would be to try to reason them back to intellectual liberation.