We live in an era when religion is losing its hold on human behaviour for the first time since we crawled out of the jungles. There has never been a better period in human history to deconstruct religion.
What do all religions have in common?
It is naive to think of all religions being the same. The more we learn about each religion, the more we see how radically different each one is. It is no accident that the people who interpret each religion in the strongest terms are called radicals.
But every religion aims to help its followers live harmoniously in large communities. While we humans have always been social animals, anthropologists like Yuval Noah Harari and Jared Diamond have pointed out how we lived in tribes not larger than 150 people for the longest periods. Organized religion puts community living on steroids. When millions of people follow the same rules and believe the same stories, they turn trustworthy in each others eyes. Even in parts of the world where human civilization evolved independently, such as Mesopotamia, China and North America, religion was central to people’s lives.
So how does religion help foster communities? To nurture a community, we need a system of rewards and punishments. People who serve the community’s interests are rewarded, while those who work against it are punished. While each religion’s mythology might be different, their rules are aimed at primary two things – to serve the greater good of the community of the faithful, and to punish the unfaithful. This punishment was necessary to avoid pretenders and free-riders from benefiting from the community’s hard work. Of course, it helped to have an omnipresent and omniscient being to keep watch all the time.
And yet, the 20th century saw the start of an interesting phenomenon. For the first time in human history, large sections of the world have started discarding religion.
As we have seen, every religion is merely a system of rewards and punishments. Just like most other carrot-and-stick systems, it is prone to substitution. Nationalism, social security, health insurance and democratic governments can all serve certain functions that religion did. Large parts of the western world have already discarded religion. This is because religion is past its shelf life in these parts of the world.
For centuries now, religion has worn a halo that has prevented most of its followers from deconstructing its true purpose. Today, several parts of the world have social structures that serve as its substitutes. We are fortunate to live at a time when this shift is happening, that helps us see religion differently from our forefathers – for what religion is, free from its mysticism and its halo.
Inspiration: Creating God – An episode of the podcast ‘Hidden Brain’