At about the 40th minute in Waking Up with Sam Harris:#43 — What Do Jihadists Really Want? Sam Harris explains his understanding of the nature and origin of religion. The same fundamental error is made by New Atheists more generally according to my understanding of the writings of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Harris explains what lies at the root of the evil of Islam and terrorism and any other religion that has wreaked terror and stupidity on the world:
Whenever human obsession gets channelled in these ways we see the same ancient framework upon which many religions were built. In our ignorance and fear and craving for order we created the gods and ignorance and fear and craving keep them with us.
I am surprised that one with strong interests in religion and neurology should fail to indicate awareness of serious research into the nature and origins of religious thought and instead continue to recycle the old myth that belief in gods came about because of fear and a desire to explain the world in an age without the scientific method.
Ignorance: did a desire for explanations to replace ignorance lead us to create gods? Is it ignorant explanations that keep gods with us?
Anthropological studies have demonstrated that this notion is false. Only certain types of explanations for certain types of questions are sought, and the explanations that are derived this way are on the one hand increasingly baroque (many myths on top of one another to explain related points) and on the other hand they inspire no desire for an explanation at all. To believe, for example, that thunder is explained as the voices of ancestors requires a host of many other beliefs to make sense (e.g. how do their voices sound so loud if they are so far away, etc) but there is no desire to explain these “problems”.
A classic illustration was provided by E. E. Evans-Pritchard with the Zande people of the Sudan. They knew very well that white-ants caused the collapse of a hut but that did not answer the question as to why the hut fell at the particular time it did with a certain person inside. Only witchcraft could explain that. And how to explain witchcraft? No curiosity arises there. That question never arises. So it’s certain types of concepts that we are talking about, and scientific explanations are not so much rejected as they are irrelevant.
There is much, much more to this topic that needs several posts of its own. I would expect a scientist interested in religious belief to be devouring all he can by his peers researching this very question.
Fear: did a desire for dispelling fear through comfort and reassurance lead us to create gods? Is it the same need for comfort and reassurance that keeps them with us?
This is another myth. Many religions certainly do not dispel fear of death or other misfortunes. Anthropologists even raise the possibility that it is religious rituals that create the fears they are meant to allay. So in a society that performs many, many rituals to guard against witchcraft, the fear of witchcraft is strong, while in other societies there is no such fear — and no rituals either. This brings us to questions of psychology to explain ritualistic behaviour.
Again, to simply say that religion gives us fantasies to take away our fears is in reality extremely problematic. If that were really true then it is hard to imagine the human species surviving long enough at all to evolve towards our current state of progress.
Again, I am not pretending to answer this myth fully at all. Several posts would be required.
Craving for order: did a desire for social order lead us to create gods? Is it the same craving for order that keep gods with us?
Here we enter the realm of what is best described as a series of ad hoc rationalizations rather than real cause and effect. It can be shown that morality is not per se a product of religion, and that there are many moral values attributed to religion that people in fact hold regardless of religion.
And so forth. I’ve mentioned the books before and they are certainly not the last word but they are great introductions:
- Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.
- Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books.
If you know of others just as good or better as introductions do leave a comment
I take that remark by Sam Harris at around the 40th minute of his talk as the premise from which he builds the rest of his case. It is a false premise and his edifice cannot stand. read more