The God Mechanism: A Discussion on Organized Religion's Role in Societal Devlopment

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Organized religion, in its various identities, has bestowed mankind with a set of ethical standards by which to live, and the structure of organized religions has allowed for those paradigms to be passed through generations. Even though religion defies scientific sense, over the years it has become a very large part of human interaction, often influencing the outcome of historical events. Mankind has naturally accepted such supernatural explanations, and over the short history of man, organized religion has had a definite impact on humanity, shaping the modern face of society. In this essay, one will find scientific evidence supporting religion as a beneficial neccessity for society. This work contains sources.

Submitted: April 21, 2012

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Submitted: April 21, 2012

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The God Mechanism: A Discussion on Organized Religion’s Role in Societal Development

 

 

James D. Lee

DeVry University, Phoenix

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

The God Mechanism:

A Discussion on Organized Religion’s Role in Societal Development

Religion and civilization have evolved together through history.  According to archeologist Sheila Coulson, there is evidence of advanced religious practices taking place nearly 70,000 years ago (Vogt, 2007).  This ancient relationship between man and the supernatural predates known written history. As small groups grew into large tribes, it is religion that provided a basis for the development of governments.  Organized religion, in its various identities, has bestowed mankind with a set of ethical standards by which to live, and the structure of organized religions has allowed for those paradigms to be passed through generations.  Religion is a common trait amongst groups with strong inter-community bonds, and although such behavior is inherent in man it is perpetuated by religion.  Even though religion defies scientific sense, over the years it has become a very large part of human interaction, often influencing the outcome of historical events.  Mankind has naturally accepted such supernatural explanations, and over the short history of man, organized religion has had a definite impact on humanity, shaping the modern face of society.  Organized religion has allowed for the species preserving qualities of morality and ethical standards to be perpetuated through generations, thereby enriching the fabric of society.

Religion, as defined by the 2011 edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is an institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Organized religion is simply a collection of a people’s common thoughts, ideologies, and goals manifested within a supernatural doctrine and carried on through the followers within the organization. It is a method for employing a commonality amongst people.  It can span races, ages, and even continents.  Religion has no reason to be contained by boarders, for religion needs not carry a flag, but instead, like a spectacular web, it connects people across the globe. Though the specifics of each institution of religion may vary greatly in its practices, many contain common core concepts.  Whether through promises of a glorified afterlife, forgiveness, a better harvest, or merely a personal relationship, organized religion offers to change the lives of its followers.  Organized religion, when properly administered, can offer purpose, order, and morality to those who lack any or all of these qualities.

Christianity is a modern form of religion that is centered on the idea of a deity who gave the life of his son in order to cleanse humanity of its ancient sins.  Within Christianity one finds his personal salvation through a relationship with the son of the deity.  Many Christians believe that their religion is the only true path to salvation, though many more religions exist.  Take for example, the eastern philosophy of Hinduism.  In Hinduism a person seeks a single all one god who can be represented through many different identities, and as well reached via many different paths.  Both Christianity and Hinduism are considered to be rooted in times of antiquity, but there are also many religious institutions whose roots can be traced to more modern times, for example, Mormonism and Scientology.  Each of these religions are unique in many ways, but share a deep similarity in that they all offer some semblance of order within a community.

According to Joanna Collicutt, Professor of Psychology at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford, modern psychologists are finding that the concept of religion and the belief in supernatural deities have connections to psychological aspects of the human brain.  A branch of psychology referred to as positive psychology deals with the aspects of behavior that contribute to personal and community flourishing and has a very close connection with the psychology of religion as “both are concerned with personal growth and meaning” (Collicutt, 2011, p.251).  It can be drawn from this connection that the psychologies concerning personal maturity and evolution within an individual and the community are manifested in religious organizations.  The psychological evolution of humanity has developed a mechanism that allows for the inherent altruistic nature of the psyche to grow into social groups that allow for the nurturing necessary for communities to flourish.

Without organized religion man may not have been in a position to harbor a concept of morality for his community.  If people are left to their own, without the support of a fellowship upholding altruistic ideals, their morality may succumb to greed, egocentrism, disunity, and malice.It is within religion that man finds consequence beyond the simple cause and effect of life, and these consequences allow for social integration.  It is not a coincidence that early religions often placed kings as the highest contact between mortal men and the supernatural.  When a person has more to consider than a short life on Earth and actions have a higher consequence, one may find himself more obliged to follow the laws of the land, the laws put in place by the divine, by the more powerful.  Through this process, over centuries, organized religion has molded mankind.

Though, religion in and of itself did not create morality, nor did ethics arise from the decree of some god. Instead, religion is a product of evolution.  It is a species preserving quality that continues to allow for large groups of people to cohabitate.  Such supernatural concepts were developed over time to maintain the species.  Religion was not developed on a whim or by accident, or even by man.  Religion was developed by evolutionary processes as a survival strategy for humanity (Johnson, 2009, p.864-876). Evolution favors the more adept species, and organized religion provides humanity with an environment in which beneficial psychological traits and behaviors can be taught, fostered, and repeated.  According to James Dow, Professor of Anthropology at Oakland University, “The genes that make one believe god exists when put together with genes that say that god commands goodness toward one another promotes group cooperation that can be beneficial.” He goes on to illustrate that, “If the social order [religion] raises overall fitness of the group, then whatever genes promote that social order will find greater reproduction” (Dow, 2010, p.48). Organized religion provides an environment that cultivates beneficial order for the group. It promotes a greater fitness of the group, and therefore has evolved throughout history. The specifics of each religious theology may have changed over time, but by fostering ideals that provide fellowship, growth, and happiness for its followers, religion has survived the centuries as it brought benefit to mankind.

Early man lived in the absence of science and without government. As the ancestors of modern society began to gather into large groups, the number of people contained in these groups far surpassed the smaller nomadic tribes that previously roamed the globe. During this time period, civilizations developed rituals in accordance with adopted theologies centuries before the modern concepts of Christ, or the polytheistic philosophies of eastern religions. Matt Rossano, a professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University, and researcher of the origins of religion, speculates, “Supernaturalizing social pressure may have been one of the strategies for uniquely human levels of cooperation to emerge” (2007, p.8). During the upper Paleolithic Era (Rossano, 2007, p.8), when punishment was no longer enough, in order to subdue the human tendency toward harming one another, religion was created. As can be seen in modern society, humanity seems compelled toward destroying itself. Religion was created in order to provide a supernatural eye that watches when men are alone, and a set of consequences and rewards that supersede this short time upon the Earth.

Throughout history one can see the need for higher order amongst men.  Men with similar interests congregate together.  These groups can achieve more together than any individual could have alone.  It is within these groups of common goals that religion was born. Religion provides the commonality necessary for groups of like minded individuals to thrive within their own traditions and practices.  Without the various employments and faces of organized religion, man may not have been able to perpetuate the morality necessary for his community.

According to Micah Cantley, a follower and pastor of the Christian faith, the aim of religion is to provide foundation in the community. Cantley maintains that organized religion has brought strength and solidarity to the family unit, and that the moral rigidity inherent in most religions causes the passing of character traits through generations (2006, p.3). The thoughts of Cantley are reinforced by information provided by Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist and writer of Bowling Alone, a commentary on the social and civic collapse of America. Putnam has been studying political science since the early 1960s and has had a chance to observe the changes in society over the last half century. According to Putnam, “The evidence shows that religious people, defined by regular attendance at a place of worship, actually do make better neighbors”… This concept of religious affiliation benefiting the general population is illustrated by a survey carried out across the US in 2004 – 2006, which showed that frequent church goers were more likely to volunteer, donate money to charity, give money to a homeless person, donate blood, offer a person a seat, help a neighbor with housework, or allow another driver to cut in front of them. (Sacks, 2011, p.21).  

The ideals that are found in religious texts and taught within religious organizations are carried from the place of worship into daily social interactions by the many believers.  Therefore it can be correlated that the amount of people who regularly practice religion has a proportional impact on society.  In 2002, 77% of Americans considered themselves to be religious, roughly 10% less than in 1990 (Paul, 2002).  It can be seen that this statistic coincides with a rise in social unrest.  As Americans dissociate themselves from the ideals and structure of religion it becomes easier for the individual to question the standards.  This constant questioning of authority can lead to a break down in social interaction.

Some may argue that religion is a blight upon humanity’s face.  After all, religion has plagued mankind with segregation, war, and unrest for centuries upon centuries.  Wars have been fought, children murdered, and people exploited, all the in the name of religion and the promise of salvation.  It seems that for an institution dedicated to diminishing evil, its main product is just that, evil. The blind followers of religion are often led by mere men who claim to represent some god.  The notable philosopher and atheist, Baron D'Holbach, in his work Christianity Unveiled, quotes the greatly intuitive philosopher, Aristotle, who said, “Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious […] they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side” (2008, p.308-309).  As Aristotle and D’Holbach recognized, religion is easily used by leaders as a mechanism for control. Those who believe their leaders to be godly are less inclined to act against the cruelty and injustices imposed upon them.  These divine leaders act out their own devilish plans and sanctify them as decrees from a higher power.  It is by these men that religion is allowed to stain the underbelly of society through mass genocide, war, and violations of basic human rights.  

In addition to the power given to religious authorities, religion also seems to accept evil as a natural by-product of the universe instead of an addressable aspect of society.  The supernatural ideas of religion allow for evil to exist outside of an individual’s direct control, inviting the idea that evil is inescapable.  As reasoned by Terry Eagleton, former Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, and author of several theological articles, “If Satan is what you are up against, rather than adverse social conditions, evil would seem to be unbeatable” (2010, p.28-31).  The idea of an almighty evil gives the illusion that evil is not in one’s actions, but something that controls one’s actions. Religion can offer as much violence, intolerance and destruction as it does ethics, morality, and salvation, but it dismisses evil as unavoidable.  One might even say that religion creates a society of people waiting for a savior, instead of a society of heroes saving the day.

Unfortunately, it is not religion that is to be blamed for such evils and injustices.  The reality is that ethical behavior is a device of man. Such evils as war, exploitation, and murder are created by man and religion becomes the scapegoat.  Every man woman and child knows how to be accepting, tolerant, and nice, just as much as one knows how to be mean, rude, apathetic, uncaring, and unjust. These are qualities of humanity not decided by some supernatural being, but by the basic sense of right and wrong.  It is the perpetuation of ethics and morality offered by religion that are its saving grace, for religion was developed by men, and therefore the morality of religion essential to civilization is inherent in man as is its evil. 

Although religion is not responsible for man’s evil, it can be seen that it has quite an impact on the way one deals with the by-products of evils in the world.  In a study conducted by The National Bureau of Economic Research, the researchers conclude, “we find strong evidence that youth with religiously active parents are less affected later in life by childhood disadvantage” (Dehejia, et al, 2007). This evidence shows that a religious family surviving in the midst of hard times will be more likely to produce well behaved and socially active offspring, thereby demonstrating the strong foundation that religion offers. As well, a lack in religious affiliation can be shown to have adverse affects on civic participation, as shown in a Belgian survey on civic participation in 2003, “Belgium has witnessed a weakening of religious affiliations during the past decades... This process of secularization, therefore, could be a possible cause for a decline in [civic] participation levels” (Hooghe, 2003, p.46). Religious affiliation and participation, across the globe, has a strong and measurable positive impact on society

As humanity evolved into a species that lived in such large groups, the need for kind behavior and altruistic ideals manifested deep within the psyche of mankind and developed into the physical concept of religion. Religion quickly became a necessary function for society as it is species preserving, beneficial, and provides a powerful foundation for growth and community. Religion is intended to perpetuate certain behaviors and character traits that are beneficial to the group.  It can be seen that a divergence from religion and spirituality harbors communities that are disjointed and divided, while communities that embrace religious beliefs tend to be close-knitted and produce individuals that are generally better contributors to society.  When people begin to remove themselves from such a mechanism as religion the result is a society that forgets to live by the important species preserving moral codes.  

Though many religions place a supernatural face upon their institution, the end goal of religion is far from supernatural.  Across the nations, organized religion provides humanity with a rich variety of paths to attain personal growth, learn lessons that benefit the individual and the community, and provide the human psyche with the necessary contemplation and application of altruism.  Without religion man may have destroyed himself centuries ago.  Religion is the social remedy for a world filled with the viruses of greed, pride, envy, and prejudice.  As reasoned by Richard Johnson in The Heythrop Journal, a bi-monthly review of philosophy and theology, “There is no society without religion because without religion society cannot exist” (2009, p.221).  Organized religion is the mechanism by which altruistic ideals and the proper actions of morality are perpetuated through the centuries, thereby allowing not only society, but the entire species to flourish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Cantley, M. (2006). Religion and society. Christian Literature & Living, 5(2), 3. Retrieved September 08, 2011 from EBSCOhost

Collicutt, J. (2011). Psychology, religion and spirituality. Psychologist, 24(4), 250-251. Retrieved September 27, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

D'holbach, P. (2008). Christianity unveiled by baron d’holbach - A controversy in documents. 308-309. Surrey, England: Hodgson Press

Dehejia, R., Deleire, T., Luttmer, E., Mitchell, J. (2007). The role of religious and social organizations in the lives of disadvantaged youth [Abstract]. National Bureau of Economics Research, 13369. Retrieved September 23, 2011 from

http://nber.org/papers/w13369

Dow, J. (2010). The evolutionary origins of religious behavior. Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental & Neuro Sciences, 3(2), 48-49. Retrieved September 27, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Eagleton, T. (2010). Of men and monsters. New Statesman, 139(4995/4996), 28-31. Retrieved  September 17, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Hooghe, M. (2003). Why should we be bowling alone? Results from a belgian survey on civic participation. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary & Nonprofit Organizations, 14(1), 41. Retrieved September 27, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Johnson, R. (2009). Gods and monsters: religion as a survival strategy. Heythrop Journal, 50(5), 864-876. Retrieved September 04, 2011 from EBSCOhost

Merriam, Webster (2011). Merriam-webster dictionary.  Retrieved September 05, 2011 from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion

Paul, P. (2002). One nation, under god?. American Demographics, 24(1), 16. Retrieved September 27, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Rossano, M.J. (2007). Supernaturalizing social life: Religion and the evolution of human cooperation. Human Nature, 18, 272-294.  Retrieved September 09, 2011 from http://www2.selu.edu/Academics/Faculty/mrossano/recentpubs/Supernaturalizing.pdf

Sacks, J. (2011). If you're searching for the big society, here's where you may find it. New Statesman, 140(5057), 21. Retrieved September 11, 2011from EBSCOhost.

Vogt Y., Belardinelli, A. (2007). World’s oldest religion discovered in Botswana. Afrol News.com. Retrieved September 20, 2011 from http://www.afrol.com/articles/23093


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