The Hardwired Religious Impulse

The infinite number of religions and their sub-sects are difficult to understand. Most believers claim to practice a Gospel of Love. They seek peace and believe in the Golden Rule of love your neighbour. Yet religion has a long history of causing division between neighbours, and it can turn violent.  

Two of the most wrathful religions have been Christianity and Islam. The Christian Gospel of Wrath is wonderful for insiders, who are chosen, forgiven, loved and guaranteed eternal bliss. The Christian God of Wrath is a sweet deal for those who can convince themselves that they have won the salvational lottery without even buying a ticket. Wrath is reserved for outsiders who refuse to worship their true God and embrace their true religion.

The most disturbing form of religion is the Gospel of Death. We have all seen the damage wreaked by suicide bombers and religious terrorists. We have also seen zealots murder homosexuals and assassinate abortionists. Atheists blame primitive religious beliefs for violent religion. Believers agree that bad and false religions are dangerous, but they are reluctant to see their own religions as bad or false.

Our brains seek to understand the mysteries of the universe with stories that cannot be proved scientifically, or that are utterly irreconcilable with the science.

It is tempting to see causation between wrathful religious rhetoric and violent zealots. A church that stridently preaches against abortion and homosexuality must surely incite some unstable believers to kill abortionists and homosexuals. Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic diatribes, which were revered by Nazis, must surely have contributed to Christians slaughtering millions of Jews in the Holocaust. Genocidal Conquistadors marched under Christian flags. Horrors committed by Christians fill entire books. But is religion truly the cause of evil? Does it poison everything, as Christopher Hitchens claimed?

If an airplane crashes and one person survives, believers who credit God with a miracle need to explain why their Almighty would save only one passenger when the entire aircraft could have been saved. Is God 0.1% merciful and loving, or 99.9 wrathful and judgemental? The same test of logic needs to be applied to religious violence.  If 0.1% of believers are violent, is their religion the most probable cause? If religion is the problem, then what causes 99.9% of believers to be non-violent?

It is easy to be angry at religion in the abstract but hard to dislike individual believers. The worst Disciples of Wrath I know are decent parents, friends and citizens, inclined to acts of kindness. Although maddeningly judgemental and intolerant of sin, they can pivot on a dime and love the sinner (particularly if it was one of their own.)   

Religion is a category too broad to contain any more meaning than gender, race or zodiac signs. What meaningful prediction can be made about all people sharing XX or XY chromosomes, or all persons with similar melatonin pigmentation, or all people born under the sign of Scorpio?    

All human beings, no matter what their gender, race, religion or horoscope, share visceral responses to food and sex. We know that people will fight for food and even kill to survive. Under grotesque circumstances they will turn cannibal and eat their friends. Is there something in the food that causes this violent and antisocial behaviour? Is food a dangerous substance that poisons everything? We know that people will use deception and force to obtain sex, and in extreme cases resort to rape and murder. Are the victims of lust to blame for the crimes they provoke? 

The sex drive is an independent force, as blind and indiscriminate as a raging flood, desperately seeking an outlet. The same is true of hunger. The craving arises first; the choice of food is almost incidental. Similarly, the best explanation for the universal, but seemingly arbitrary, attraction of religion is that we are hardwired with a religious impulse.  Our brains seek to understand the mysteries of the universe with stories that cannot be proved scientifically, or that are utterly irreconcilable with the science.

We cannot prove that the universe was created by a supernatural force. And even if we could, would that Creator be Yahweh, Zeus, Brahma, Jehovah, Gitche manitou or Allah? We cannot scientifically prove ghosts, premonitions, psychokinesis, reincarnation, heaven or hell. We cannot prove that a soul exists independent of a physical body but even Buddhists, who do not believe in gods, believe that immaterial souls are real.  

Why do we believe things we cannot prove? The most compelling explanation is that human beings are hardwired with a religious impulse.  The jury is deeply divided about whether the cause of this religious impulse is natural, and biologically evolved, or supernatural, and implanted by a Creator God.