It’s Sunday, and today’s sermon will consider the origins of religion.
There are all kinds of theories about religiosity. Some scientists believe humans are “hard-wired” for religion, although there is considerably controversy over that theory.
Anther is that belief in a deity arose from the need to explain otherwise inexplicable phenomena –the “God of the gaps” thesis. Why did lightning strike that guy’s hut? He must have angered the Gods…The problem with the God of the Gaps theory is that science and empirical inquiry keep narrowing the gaps. (Bill O’Reilly famously defended the existence of God by the fact that “the tides come in and the tides go out, and no one knows why.” As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, however, we actually do know why, and God isn’t involved.)
Whatever the genesis of religion, social scientists have pointed to the benefits of religious affiliation, most of which can be explained by membership in a supportive community.
Because supportive communities come in all shapes and sizes, and don’t necessarily revolve around worship, one social scientist suggests that membership in a religious group is a lot like being a football fan.
Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse has concluded that belief in the supernatural is window dressing on what really matters—elaborate rituals that foster group cohesion, creating personal bonds that people are willing to die for. (He doesn’t suggest that football fans go quite that far.)
The cooperation required in large settled communities is different from what you need in a small group based on face-to-face ties between people. When you’re facing high-risk encounters with other groups or dangerous animals, what you want in a small group is people so strongly bonded that they really stick together. The rituals that seem best-designed to do that are emotionally intense but not performed all that frequently. But when the group is too large for you to know everyone personally, you need to bind people together through group categories, like an ethnic group or a religious organization. The high frequency rituals in larger religions make you lose sight of your personal self….
All really large-scale religions have rituals that people perform daily or at least once a week. We think this is one of the key differences between simply identifying with a group and being fused with a group. When you’re fused with a group, a person’s social identity really taps into personal identity as well. And identity fusion has a number of behavioral outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, fused individuals demonstrate a significant willingness to sacrifice themselves for their groups….
Unfortunately, sacrificing oneself for one’s group has often meant demonizing–or even murdering–those who belong to other groups, who worship other Gods–or none.
Religion has been, at best, a mixed blessing.