Hopefully this post won’t be as painful as the last three. I have just finished reading the latest Jared Diamond book, “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?” Apparently one of the things we can learn is that all societies invented some kind of religion. However, just because everyone else is doing it does not necessarily make it right.
Diamond advances a number of reasons for the apparent ubiquity of religion. Firstly, we want to know why things happen the way they do. We want reasons and answers and, when we can’t find any, we make them up by inventing mysterious forces to explain the workings of the world. The more science removes the cloak of mystery the less religion is needed to explain the universe. These days we rarely see Apollo and his chariot zipping the sun across the sky each day.
Secondly, religion is used to defuse anxiety and provide comfort when things go wrong. If we think our dead loved ones are going to live on in some magical place like heaven we tend to feel a bit better about it all. When our plane hits that turbulence and we start praying to avoid dying in a fiery crash we feel a bit more in control of the situation and believe we still have influence over the outcome. Unfortunately praying is a little bit like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it does not actually get you anywhere.
Thirdly, religion is used to generate a code of behaviour to which followers are expected to adhere. This has the double advantage that it allows leaders to demonise external groups that do not follow the code and justify wars against them. Those heathens over there eat pigs, kill cows, etc. Therefore, they cannot be the chosen ones and we are doing God’s will by putting them all to death and taking their land and resources. To make doubly certain that we do not accidentally smite members of our own team religions come up with all manner of rituals, such as cutting off the end of the penis, that confirm our membership of the club.
Diamond states that religion is a peculiarly human trait. No animals have religion. He does not, however, come up with any evidence to support his assertion. While it is true that no other species appears to erect edifices to imaginary friends or engage in bizarre rituals for no obvious purpose, our animal friends may have come up with their own unique ways of worshipping things that don’t exist. Dolphins are, after all, anatomically ill equipped to build cathedrals.
Diamond thinks that animal intelligence has not evolved to the point where it needs supernatural comfort or answers to the universe’s unanswerable questions, and so has not been able to develop religion. But could not the opposite have happened? Could animal intelligence have developed to the point where animals are happy to admit that some things cannot be explained and that when you die you rot or are eaten in order to continue the circle of life? Is it possible that they accept that life has no higher meaning and we are just alive for the here and now, and are perfectly comfortable with that fact? Are they secure enough in this life that they need no imaginary support or comfort?
Dr. F. Bunny