Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need: Part 12
by Ervin Taylor
This is Part 12 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 11: Possible Sources and Shaping Factors for Religion
Archaeologists find artifacts of religion that long predate writing. Our first written records include many stories about the actions of the gods including the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Vedas, and the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures). Religion has had an important place in every culture/civilization of which I am aware. The religious think that some or the Only God started their particular religion but skeptics look for a common cause for all in the human world. Of course every religion in recorded history was building on some prior religious foundation.
Some Reasons to Consider Natural Origins for Religion
Religion is both diverse and almost universal. The claim that one is true and all the others false requires great hubris. This asymmetry seems more absurd as one grows older and more experienced in a variety of groups and cultures. The claim however justifies the creation of a bonded “in-group” united by supernatural belief against an evil external world.
Religious diversity might be explained by one God who loved diversity or by many Gods who each created his preferred religion or lastly by the powerful human mind interacting with its complex environment. Religious thought and behavior might have given an evolutionary survival advantage to groups or individuals and therefore supported the development of a biological propensity for such belief.
Do We Have a Biological Tendency to Religious Belief?
It seems that most human minds have a natural or built-in tendency to believe in a kind, all knowing, supernatural power who cares for them. This is shown by the remarkable worldwide success of the religious acculturation of children. The vast majority of them stay in that religious tradition to which they were directed as children.
Our need to have a confident and God-like power looking out for us may also fuel major support for messianic politicians such as Julius Caesar, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chavez and sometimes US Presidents, as all promise some earthly Utopia.
Common Individual Experiences of the World
The Biologic and Psychologic Drives for Life and Immortality: Studies of young children suggest that we have an innate belief in some sort of personal continuity at death. Religions often teach that our real home is elsewhere after some preparatory existence here. They thus support our belief in a personal survival beyond death here and this makes them seem intuitively plausible.
The Tendency to Anthropomorphize and Rationalize: We easily anthropomorphize both the animate and inanimate world around us giving it names and motives. This is supported by a protective subconscious drive to detect agency in our surroundings. It may also support some form of animism (belief in spirit beings).
We are also rational animals, seeking to better understand our environment, and one direction this may take is to seek to find some single unifying principle behind every aspect of our world—perhaps a God.
Awe and Natural Piety: The vastness, beauty and complexity of the universe have lead many people to think there must be some awesome mind or consciousness which created it.
Cognitive Factors Shaping and Supporting Religion
The Ubiquity of Theory: We navigate our world using a large number of mental models of how its components will behave in particular situations. Finding something that doesn’t fit with our experiences may lead us to invent a new supernatural or magical model.
The Place and Power of Dissociative Experiences: An array of visions, dreams, trances, and glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”) may be found in the current and past religious world. These have inspired the founders of most religions and for some religions they are a regular experience of the believer. They are brought on by a large array of chemical and experiential exposures. Many people interpret them as powerful and memorable experiences of the divine.
The similarity of these experiences in a wide range of religious traditions and with a great variety of inducing factors suggests they are a property of human minds—not of divine interventions.
The Power of Imagination: The ability of the human imagination to create believable alternate realities is widely appreciated. We see it in the play of children, the daydreams of adults and the vast literature called fiction. The power of the human imagination thus seems quite adequate to give us all the details of a supernatural realm.
Neuroscience and Religion
Minds are continually scanning their environment for other intentional agents and for survival reasons tend to be overly sensitive to evidence. This supports interpretations of our environment in terms of intentional, even supernatural agents. We usually think employing ontological categories so that when we conceive a God we generally put Her in a grouping called “person” with all of the associated relational baggage that brings.
The Effects of Our Manner of Rearing
We are a species whose newborns are highly dependent with maturity coming only after a long period of slowly increasing independence. This long childhood need may condition us to be eager for a powerful protective ally the rest of our lives. Religion usually promises this.
The Plasticity of the Record both Oral and Written
The ancient texts that many religions appeal to are filled with stories that were initially orally transmitted myths and legends relating to prominent human figures. Such stories may appear within a generation or two of a person’s death. The problems of verification, the evolution of oral tradition with time, the evolution of written language over longer times (centuries) and the problems of translation all contribute to uncertainty in how to use ancient religious texts.
The Many and Possible Gods
“We men have made our gods in our own image.” Hesiod, Works and Days
The monotheisms tend to support a belief in a God of unlimited power and knowledge along with at least qualified good intentions toward humans. There are many other possibilities. Considerable philosophical effort has been unsuccessfully expended in proving His existence.
“The reality would seem to be that multiple human forces, both individual and communal, have worked over time to create these complex and nuanced traditions with their many strands, their functional overlap, their dependence on prior traditions, and their heroically defended differences.”