Religion is Irrelevant When You Think About it

religion_is_irrelevantThis is something I’ve talked about before, but in a discussion today, plus reading an excellent article, I realized that there’s really no point in talking about or criticizing religion anymore.  There’s no reason to attack Atheism+.  There’s no purpose in talking about politics.  In the end, the problems are all the same and the common kernel of irrationality is dogma.

Dogma is a general term for beliefs which are held, just because they exist, without evidence, without examination and without reason.  Mostly, I’d argue, they are held emotionally, they provide a means of stroking the ego and because people want that release of “happy chemicals” in our brains.  There are four of them, Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and Endorphin.  Each of them does a different job but they all share one thing in common, when they are released, they make us feel good.  They make us happy.  Many people, often unwittingly, get addicted to these “happy chemicals” and go out of their way to generate these happy feelings and can get into a chemical loop, repeating actions and beliefs which cause the brain to make us feel good.

Often, this backfires on us, the body becomes more resistant to the same old causes and this makes people unhappy.  Sometimes, it can even cause pseudo-withdrawal symptoms as people, desperate for that emotional high, can’t get it without acting in a more and more extreme manner.  The same is true of illicit drugs, it starts to take more of them to get the same reaction.

The brain isn’t fully formed at birth, it’s designed to make new connections as the individual learns.  At age two, there really isn’t a well formed neural network, the electrochemical pathways are still being formed.  By age 7, things have developed to such a degree that generally, we have a map of what the fully mature brain will be like.  It isn’t until the individual is between 18-20 that the pattern is set and very difficult to change. This is exactly why religion wants to get their hooks into a child as early as possible, to make those neural pathways conducive to “happy chemical reactions” with regard to religious ideas.

Dopamine floods the brain when you feel successful.  If you meet a goal, dopamine is released.  If you make strides toward something important, you get a shot of dopamine.  It’s not always a good thing though, it can reinforce some pretty bad habits as well.  An alcoholic who sees a bar or a bottle of whiskey will get that jolt of dopamine too.  The drug user who finds a new supplier is going to get a hit.

Serotonin gets released when you feel important.  It’s an evolutionary advantage because importance promotes survival.  Some people will overestimate their own importance in order to get that hit of Serotonin, they’ll become convinced that they are better than they actually are, that others think more of them than they actually do.

Oxytocin makes you feel great when you’re with someone you trust or in a situation that feels safe.  It does this because positive social interaction promotes survival.  Unfortunately, some people will convince themselves that they really trust people who they shouldn’t trust, and that people trust them that really do not, just to get that dose of happy.

Endorphins give you that brief blast of euphoria that masks physical pain.  If you get injured, you’ll get hit with endorphins that allow you to work through the pain.  Some people, however, in order to get that high, will purposely injure themselves, sometimes in religious rituals and describe the resulting euphoria as a religious experience.  It’s just brain chemistry.

Certainly, religion can cause these chemical highs and are likely responsible for the majority of religious experiences, where people describe feeling happy and content and in an altered state of consciousness. However, atheists sometimes do the exact same thing, there are some that become supremely convinced in their own superiority to the religious just to get a Serotonin jolt.  The more superior they feel, the more their brain releases “happy” chemicals.  Humanity is not naturally rational, we do not naturally think critically, our brains are really a mish-mash of evolutionary kludges.  While we have few natural predators, our brains are still programmed to search for them and the most absurd “dangers” can set us off.  Our brains are programmed to seek out patterns that may help us find food and shelter and avoid danger, this is called pareidolia and is the same thing that causes us to see patterns in the clouds, and that causes theists to see Jesus on toast.  These things are hard-wired into our brains because our brains developed and grew from very primitive to very advanced.  The idea that any supreme being created our brains from nothing is utterly absurd.  Any knowledge whatsoever of brain chemistry and composition disproves that entirely.

One thing that we need to recognize is that as we became smart apes, as we moved from a dumb animal to a smart one, we gained the ability to override our primitive instincts.  We can decide not to believe the things that our amygdala is telling us, we can understand that the shapes we see in the sky or the sounds we hear in the night aren’t danger, they are something else entirely.  That’s why we have to develop our rationality and critical thinking skills because so much of what we have in our heads that was once useful for our survival, now gives us bad information, or at least potentially bad information if we let it.  Just as we have to question what happens in the world around us, we have to be aware that the world inside of us, the picture that we get from our senses and modeled inside of our brains, may not give us a perfectly accurate representation.  We have to understand it, we have to allow for it and we have to adjust for it.  We cannot be a simple slave to our biology any longer, especially if we hope to get a truly accurate picture of our world and our place within it.

Granted, I’m not going to stop pointing out the insanity of religion, politics or other forms of irrationality because if I just talked about dogma, nobody would know what to make of it. I just think it’s important to realize that the craziness in the world really has a collective cause and we all need to recognize how it affects all of these positions. It is imperative that we, as critical thinking, rational and intellectual individuals, be aware of our potential shortcomings and over-ride our feelings if those feelings seem to be giving us an improper view of reality.  So many people just go with the flow.  That’s why they turn to religion.  That’s why they turn to conspiracy theories. That’s why they turn to unhealthy views about the world around them.  We need to teach people not only how to think rationally about the world, but how to ensure that they aren’t fooled by millions of years of evolution that just isn’t all that useful anymore.

It’s not just religion.  It’s brain chemistry.

7 thoughts on “Religion is Irrelevant When You Think About it

  1. "The idea that any supreme being created our brains from nothing is utterly absurd. Any knowledge whatsoever of brain chemistry and composition disproves that entirely."

    I agree that such a claim is absurd. But, to quibble a little and be more accurate, our knowledge does not "disprove it entirely." To claim this is to claim to have 100% certainty about how the brain evolved. Science knows nothing with this kind of certainty. Rather, our understanding of brain chemistry and evolution makes the hypothesis that God created the human brain very doubtful, certainly much, much less likely than the biological evolutionary explanation for the origin and evolution of the brain. Science makes no absolutist claims.

  2. "One thing that we need to recognize is that as we became smart apes,…"

    Please be more accurate. Humans were never smart apes. We did not progress toward becoming smart apes. Apes are a separate evolutionary line. At some point in the past we and apes shared a common ancestor which can be described as ape-like, but not as a smart or near-smart ape. This accuracy is important if we are to successfully combat the myth often repeated by Christians that if humans evolved from apes or monkeys, then why are apes or monkeys still around. As you should know, humans did not evolve from apes or monkeys.

      1. After doing some research I must agree that humans are a type of ape and that the part of my remarks that indicated I thought otherwise must be retracted.

        However, there was a point I was trying to make that I clearly failed to make, and I think that point still stands. The point? That humans did not evolve from apes. The animals that the non-scientist lay person typically thinks of when using the term ape is not a human ancestor. We and the other great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans), along with the lesser apes (bonobos and gibbons), all have a common ancestor. Humans did not evolve from any of these other members of the ape family. The ancestor of humans and each of these other apes was neither human nor that particular type of ape. It is as misleading to use phrasing such as that used by Cephus that implies or could be read to imply that humans evolved from apes as it is to say that we evolved from monkeys. This is why I suggested that Cephus needed to be more careful in his choice of phrasing. It was this misreading that one could take away from his statement that I was attempting to correct, though I did a rather miserable job of articulating the intended correction.(I certainly hope I have done a better job this time.)

      2. While I acknowledge that I was mistaken to say that humans are not apes, it is worth noting that there is something less than full agreement scientists that we ought to be called apes.

        It does appear that most, if not all, phylogeneticists and some evolutionary biologists agree that humans are apes. But some paleoanthropologists disagree. Here is one example: http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/phylogeny/taxo….

        I do not offer this example to argue that we should not call humans apes, but only to establish that there is some disagreement among scientists. I am more than happy to go with what the majority think, which appears to be that calling humans apes is correct based on presently accepted rules in phylogenetics.

        There was, however, a time when humans were not considered to be apes at all by biologists and those who study human evolution. But that has changed since the rise of cladistics and the move to monophyletic groupings rather than paraphyletic groupings.

      3. While we technically are great apes, let me end by repeating a quote of uncertain origin, but often, and apparently mistakenly, attributed to either the wife of the Bishop of Oxford, Bishop of Worchester, or Bishop of Birmingham back in the latter half of the 1800s. The quote is this person's response upon learning about Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

        "‘My dear, let us hope it is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known.’ (Note: There is a rather interesting essay concerning the origin of this quote at http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/02/09/darwinism

        I repeat this quote, in jest, to make the point that perhaps we should do what we can to avoid it becoming commonly known among christians that scientists think of us as apes so that we might prevent even more instances of christians using the tiresome phrase, "If humans descended from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?" <a href="http://(http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/How_come_there_are_still_monkeys%3F)” target=”_blank”>(http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/How_come_there_are_still_monkeys%3F).

        Most people don't make the distinction between monkeys and apes, so referring to our species as an ape is quite likely to lead to further confusion and misunderstanding among the general public, which is already quite when it comes to science in general and evolution in particular. This comment, by the way, would reveal the same misconception about evolution if you replaced "monkeys" with "apes." While we may be apes because humans are part of the hominidae family, we did not evolve from apes. And that, again, was the point I was making, though I did a poor job of it.

  3. I read the article on which this posting was partially based. Your standard of what constitutes excellence is very low indeed. There were numerous problems with the article to which you linked. If you want to know what they are then I suggest you go to the article and read the numerous replies I posted there.

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