Letter to Peter

Chapter 4: Religion

What is Religion?

I asked earlier if Souleymane’s belief about his grandfather’s charmed jar could be termed as religion, rather than science. Some people use the word religion to mean "superstition", or any belief that fails some test to qualify as scientific (such as "falsifiability"). Such people would see Souleymane’s belief as a superstition ("superstitious mumbo-jumbo"). They might view people who believe breaking a mirror brings seven years bad luck, in the same way. Some might put my religious belief into the same category.

The reason I think Souleymane’s belief was bad science, rather than religion is that, at least for the large part, his beliefs sat exactly where we position medicine (and a bit of physics, too, if you explored them). The beliefs were entirely structured as if scientifically testable, and were about doing specific things, to get concrete results (cure or kill). Sometimes, for example, in the use of potions and poisons, the actions associated with his beliefs clearly had effects that we would interpret in terms of medicine, too. Assuming we could prove our medicine was superior, his belief was bad science not religion. This is not based on a definition or litmus test (I offer none; and accept that the line is blurred) but is a judgement. When religion makes scientific predictions, it is best considered and judged as good or bad science.

Innocuous though this statement may seem, we are close to the edge of a big hole and must tread carefully. I have said that anything which looks like a science, which makes predictions primarily in a scientific domain, is itself a (good or bad) scientific theory, not a religion. The hole we are skirting is something called "God of the Gaps".

As we move backwards into history, what was considered religion and science merge into the same thing. There was a big element of "cavemen not understanding the weather" in exactly the same wrapping as religious belief. From the first fundamentalist who claimed the Earth must be square (because Christ said take the gospel to all the corners of it), through Gallileo’s treatment at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition to Darwin’s "Origin of the Species", the boundary has been shifting. No one can deny that religion has lost ground in what it seeks to explain. Over the same period, plenty of other boundaries have shifted too. (Such as between medicine and individual responsibility. Did you know your grandfather was the expert witness in the case that established the limits of criminal responsibility for a diabetic with low blood sugar?) We have started to understand and make distinctions between differing perspectives. The "God of the Gaps" principle is considering anything, for which we do not have a scientific explanation, as being a deliberate act of God, which looks like a one way ticket to nowhere.

In fact, I do not think the claim that "when religion makes scientific predictions it is best considered and judged as good or bad science" is really a "God of the Gaps" claim. What I have said is that there is a domain that, I think, is intrinsically science, however much it may be wrapped up in religion. I also think there are domains where science is inferior to a human or religious perspective as a description and has little to offer. I should not really re-define "religion" since the word already exists and includes a lot of bad science attributed to religion down the ages. I cannot re-define "Christianity" either, for the same reason, I do not own the word; pity! For the sake of argument, therefore, let me define what I think religion ought to mean!

Religion ought to be (roughly) looking at the basic question "is there a context in which our lives make sense?" This question is loaded with "human level" concepts, like understanding, consciousness and behaviour. Whether there is a further distinction within this category between religion versus law or politics is not as simple a question as it sounds. People get excited about the distinction because it turns into a territorial issue between people who think they are religious and people who think they are not. Also, there is a problem because for reasons to be discussed later this Chapter religions do not tend to be very tolerant of democratic disagreement. However, despite a desire to separate them I struggle to do so satisfactorily. Understanding and consciousness are irreducible concepts; science can tell us things about how they work, but not why they work. There are parts of what people call "science" that get into the area that ought to be for religion (some things under the headings of psychology and philosophy do). Rarely are these parts ones that are rigorously exposed to falsifiability. "Is there a context in which our lives make sense?" is the question that opens the door to "understanding" ourselves and our relationship to the world. The question might be the glue that sticks on a whole portfolio of additional beliefs unto the scientific ones that we already have. Alternatively, as I have said, it may be the glue that sticks illusion and confusion onto our worldview, to the point that other people cannot recognise what we believe as being rational or even sane.

Religion ought to be descriptive. It should build a narrative within which to understand our lives. A lot of the narrative is a description of the past, but needs to be understood as a narrative description. It is possible that religion (as it ought to be) interacts with the physical world, described by science (for example, healing people physically, as opposed to spiritually). I do not think this is more difficult to understand than that your conscious mind can make your legs move or that believing you will get better improves your chances hugely (the Placebo effect). I do not see the need for belief in a breakdown in physical laws to allow this to happen. However, when religions start looking like sciences, they should be judged on a scientific basis. Because the things which religion should describe are abstract, there may be even more room for a number of images to be consistent than in science.

How do we judge religious truth? We have already seen that in science we could mistake a flexible story (like Souleymane’s) for a scientific description, why not in religion too? Any old story we could make up would be religion. As with science, we cannot advance demanding that each remark we make has to be falsifiable. However, we should demand enough points of contact with the real human world around us to ensure we are getting explanatory power about people. We should also approach the subject in a way that allows us to jump ship dramatically, if a better picture appears. A lot of truth is found by looking for things that seem to make sense and appear right.

Could a religious description be in any sense true? Yes, it may well be, in the sense of our definition of truth in Chapter 2. We are "looking through a glass darkly" and only have a limited insight to what the reality is. Before we try to look at a religious perspective, however, we need to very careful indeed about something else...

The evolution of belief systems

I have said that other people are like you. However, there is a sense in which other people are not like you. If you meet people who have grown up in different environments and cultures, you realise that they may have very different outlooks to your own. This may be true, even with people who have grown up down the road, in another family, and more so when dealing with people from further away. This runs right the way from little behavioural details (should you look someone in the eyes when you talk to them, or disturb someone who is sitting silently?) to deep-seated belief on what we believe we are. When you probe people's beliefs, you may become increasingly convinced of how "plasticine" our views are, and how easily people seem to be moulded into having any particular outlook; although there are always a few individuals who are quite the opposite.

So, where do all of the "outlooks" come from? How can we understand not only why the person down the road votes for a different political party, but why he thinks you are rude if you hold something in your mouth when you are short of hands? Babies build up a world perspective on their parent’s knee, large elements of which will be their parents’ perspective. Can we understand how these perspectives change through the generations?

You can understand aspects of the design of plants and animals from looking at how they evolved, as you will know from biology . Animal designs are evolved through the competition of genes to get onto the genome, with those which gave the most well adapted prototypes having more chance of surviving, and of reproducing, than others. This gives one way of understanding how we came about. A similar approach can give interesting insights into people’s perspectives. We can also understand things about people’s beliefs, considering beliefs as if each "belief" (or system of beliefs) was a gene, in competition with other beliefs.

A group of people is something that can be "interpreted" on lots of different levels. I would not mean to imply that they were not individually people, when I choose also to interpret them also as a vehicle through which beliefs propagate down the ages. To make an analogy, "host" animals for a parasite, whilst still being organisms in their own right, can still be viewed as the vehicle for the propagation of parasites. Simply, I note that we can get insight into collective behaviour, through looking at beliefs as things which survive, die or self-propagate, just like other organisms.

The process of evolution of beliefs is not a "pure" process; it is intertwined with the competition and survival both of people and hierarchies of community. The conceptually easiest case is competing villages in some primitive bush, where rules are necessary and culture and ritual exist to reinforce the rules. People are selected for their propensity to adopt cultures, and cultures adapt to improve the chances of the community survival. In the next Chapter, we discuss the tension between the individual’s interest versus those of the community.

Now the game opens up when we stop looking at the survival of isolated communities and start looking at the survival of beliefs and cultures within competing hierarchies of communities. The edge of the belief is no longer the same as the edge of the village. The lack of direct connection between the survival of the person and the belief (the host and the parasite) means that the belief system can develop independently, and find its own ways to survive and reproduce. What would tend to become of a religious belief system that encouraged dissent? It would tend to break up and disappear. The belief that one is "free to believe or not" would not "reproduce".

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument (although I think it was true) that there was once a religious community who thought that sexual relations even within marriage were sinful. Suppose they also believed that they were not required to convince other people of their beliefs. Would we meet them? No, because the original members would have died out years ago, being replaced by neither marriage nor evangelism.

There are, of course, complicated interlocking belief systems in the world. There are also whole hierarchies of interlocking communities to interact through. The same sort of "ideology evolution" appears on larger scales, in competition between countries, or systems of government (e.g., the eventual fall of the Soviet bloc was the failure of a system of government to compete successfully). Suppose, for the fun of it, we try to design a belief system that would thrive within a complicated multi-community world.

First, everyone who adheres to the beliefs must be very motivated to recruit others to the belief system. For example: "you will only ensure your salvation from saving others", "contraception is a sin and children must be brought up in the faith", "your friends will be in eternal suffering if you do not convert them", etc. This normally implies exclusive claims on truth and exclusive claims on "the road to salvation".

Secondly, we would put in a structure of authority that carefully selected people, absolutely locked into our desired mindset. We would make sure that they were the opinion setters, and had some backing, within the belief system, for being the vehicle of truth. We would identify intellectual conformity with the highest values of the system ("wisdom" or "virtue"), perhaps even requiring subjugation of independent thought ("humility"), as a pre-requisite for "eldership". Perhaps we would make the "wise" and "virtuous" custodians of "Truth", and imply other people were "blinded" by their own sinful youth. We might equate intelligence (which threatens the beliefs) to sinful pride. The War of the End of the Worlds is an interesting illustration of how, in contrast, a very holy and sincere man might cause massive bloodshed and suffering, from his blindness .

Thirdly, regardless of what evidence or argument is presented, there must be some consistent interpretation of it within the religious system ("God made fossils to test our faith" etc.). James Barr wittily but unkindly explores this third aspect ("unfalsifiability") in a Christian context .

Fourthly there must be some mechanism to prevent people doubting or changing the belief system, gradually or suddenly. For example; "doubt is sinful or a sign of sin", "questioning is proud and evil", "leaving is eternal damnation" or subtler social pressures of rejection or guilt over causing sadness to others. Look, for example, at how members of a religious group discuss people who leave. I digress to include a poem on this mechanism. I wrote this poem fifteen years ago, to express my discomfort in talking to someone who smiled warmly, and put a hand on my shoulder, but was saddened by what I wished to say. In extreme forms with cults, this is known as "love-bombing".


Thine eyes; loving eyes
Caring, calming, keeping eyes.
Weary, wary, wise old eyes,
Wounded, waning, wanting eyes,
-Speaking silence, sighing eyes,
         ... minding
                    ... blinded eyes:
Manipulation in disguise
To reinforce honest lies.

Mine eyes; not so wise,
Quirky, careless, cruel eyes,
Click eyes, suss eyes, cut to size;
See too much to keep both eyes;
I see you and each one cries;
                      -- blazing eyes!

Can't be thine, though often tried,
Cannot let lie honest lies.


Of course, just because beliefs are convenient to the perpetuation of their religion, it does not mean they are untrue. However, it must be admitted that it is interesting that, in trying to design a sociologically self-propagating belief system, we should hit pretty close to the basics of most fundamentalist religions and cults around today. Although these observations do not imply the entirety of "religious experience" is rooted in psychology or sociology, they do raise the question.

There are two additional observations I would like to make:

The first is that I think that, in such belief systems today, the nature of truth is often misunderstood. I think that the reason is, partly, that pinning down the truth in words is a mechanism of preventing a belief system from deviating away from its present form. If we accept that there is an underlying reality beyond the words, we are well on our way to being allowed to discuss the words, and therefore the concepts.

The second observation is concerning the nature of humankind. An easy way to undermine challenges based on human logic or common sense, is to adopt a low view of people ("blinded by sin and evil"). Such a perspective, remarkably, seems to allow small groups of people to believe unquestioningly that they alone have access to the "real truth" despite contrary opinion of virtually everyone else.

What does all this mean then? It does not mean religions are false, nor even that the true religion (or true religions?) might not require one to have some similar beliefs (we will see this later). It may be that there is a religious group, which is the only true "vehicle" for handing down truth, from generation to generation. However, as sure as anything, there will be groups who believe that this is what they are.

Why Religion is dangerous

In the absence of a cosmic gardener we are bound to find pests evolving along side (and very mixed up in) religions and indeed other belief sets. As with diseases, they evolve until they become tuned into highly effective predators. A quick look around the world immediately confirms our expectation; we should not try to judge case by case but sometimes it is "in your face obvious" that the problem is there. They are no surprise, and I do not think any religion can be immune from them.

We are free to look around and decide what we will believe. We can understand and manage the pressures that are on us to believe particular things, and not be worried about whether there must be a God for us to have a meaning. Do not be too relaxed about the menace of people who have belief systems with the four properties listed above, however. Real, worthy people are mentally wiped out by cults. The problem is that once you have all the above, the third property stops all the checks of common sense. The book "Licensed Insanities" makes the basic assertion that these kinds of belief structures can allow people to act in ways which we would normally consider clearly mad. If you believe in the end of the world, you are not afraid to start it. Everyone looks at the news, sometimes, and wonders "how could people do that?" For this reason, no reasonably minded person can ignore group behaviour, belief systems and religions. We must understand them to avoid the sort of destruction which periodically surfaces in the news, or if we cannot avoid the destruction we can avoid ourselves being guilty of causing it.

When we say that belief structures are creatures, we know of course that there are differences between these creatures and physical animals. The systems do not have such clear edges, they are presumably not conscious, they do not have the same possibilities for being dead and alive... but they are de-humanising and can be destructive of people.

"De-humanising"? I have said I am all for parallel levels of interpreting people. However, in my view, once someone is better understood in aspects of their behaviour as part of such a beast, they cease to be better understood as people and their humanity is under-mined. No one who has been bitten by such a beast will doubt its realness. It is very culturally untrendy to say such negative things about some of the minority groups that might fall within such a description. The world is a small place, and I reckon preserving full cultural diversity, of the wrong kind, is about as appealing as re-introducing the grey wolf to its ancient hunting grounds in the Thames basin. Religion has an appalling track-record of evils to answer for, and the worst things hiding under the sheep’s clothing should be killed.

From a Christian perspective, the principal Biblical conflict portrayed is not so much between good and evil, as between superstructure and the real religious kernel. One glimpse is the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees are an extreme case of evolved religion that has lost sight of its own heart, but appears ultra-conforming to rules intended to produce a completely different outcome. Another is between "the Kingdom of Israel" and "the Kingdom of God" , both in the Old Testament where the former tries to hijack the latter and in the New Testament in terms of different expectations of Messiah. There are other glimpses between the priests of the temple and the prophets of the wilderness (read Jeremiah), and between the Christ and anti-Christ in the book of Revelation. It is sad that some people never see more than the superstructure. It is strange that we do not discuss these conflicts more frequently, as I believe they are of the essence of religion. Incidentally, perhaps the second most important conflict in the Bible is a strongly analogous one; between our "old natures" and our "new natures". I call it parallel since we can no more completely rid religion (which has to have an associated belief system) from the maladies which afflict belief systems when they evolve, than we can completely rid ourselves (who have to have a body) of things that result from our own and society’s evolution.

Time for another poem of mine, written when I was thinking through my faith after falling out with a Christian organisation. I have never met anyone who liked this poem as much as I did at the time, but then, I did not write it for anyone else. Everyone who has ever read this poem disagrees with me that it scans well (or at all), but they are all wrong, it does, except for the word up in the tenth verse..


Oak Tree has a spirit, you can tell,
you know it when she sways
Soft flowers of clean leaves in the spring,
Somewhere over the crusty smell
and dappled dust green ring.

She smiles so warm, so broad when sunshine
glows yellow green leaf space.
Cold, in rainstorm, the spirit's cold too,
Just the same, and with a different face
same patience carries through ...

But when I dearly want to meet Her
I can't find where in Tree She lives,
however much I seek Her;
Or beat, clasp and cry "Please", "Hear me",
can never kiss Her face.

She's there! I feel Her, see some of Her,
she doesn't hide you know
She's much too big, too spaced to hold
For me to hug Her, take Her, keep Her,
she'd have to be re-roled.

Her love strikes terror: arms that raze walls
so thick, but iron lean.
I snap Her fingers; just hurts my peace
She, unchanged, forgives; I, obscene,
feel vision start to cease.

Who can tell what price to join my Oak
Queen of Kings -- and who to pay?
Then, as I wondered through the Oak,
I met tree-men who knew "the Way"
...they said; each time they spoke.

I joined with them and learnt and taught
"Basic Acornology"
From where she came, and where we went,
And the life and death the spirit brought
as every leaf is sent.

And I thanked them for they "taught me well",
much that I learnt was true
And with them I tried to "teach the blind"
To know how much "your God loves you";
all carefully defined.

And we talked of root and twig and wood
told them to trust and know
We held the hope some day we should
Swap all their spiritless gods for Her
--if only they'd let go.

And we strived to serve our God up to men,
Telling them "love the Oak"
Running ladders so that they could climb
And rejoicing that, in us, they'd hope;
if only there was time.

I woke ... and wept to find my Tree
snared, in scaffolding,
With vulgar queues who'd come to see
Believing lies and holding, holding,
then rejecting my Oak.

For the silence breathes "The Spirit's not tame,
She will not wear the Law",
Still we had built with trust and pain
Somewhere so we could be sure
to sing the Oak we loved.

"Wasted friends, please see the ugliness
and that She's left your throne."
Then without any hope, I awoke,
Left the tree-men's truths, which were their own
to love the one true Oak.

And the only hope is the hope in Oak
and you must taste the wind -
She's there, I feel Her, see some of Her,
She's much too big, too spaced -
BEHOLD! Look! She has been re-roled


We could not have been come about without evolution and all of the baggage that goes with it, but we can finally find ourselves in abandoning our "natural" selves. Equally, religion could not have come about without evolving belief systems, but in the poem we the truth was found in abandoning them. Of course in reality, we can completely abandon neither.

The threat to global security?

Today it is unusual to find communities with a single culture developed in isolation, and problems arise when different cultures meet. Where I was in Africa, there used to be well-developed village cultural rules on sexual relations and behaviour. These rules had fallen apart when the young left to go to universities or to work in cities, as they came in contact with other cultural values. The result, where I was, was 4% population growth (of often uncared-for children), and 30% HIV positive rate, amongst the young sexually active population. When people are thrown together away from their old cultural values, a new culture will have to develop, just like a "Creole" when people are thrown together without a common language (reference ). However, if the new cultures develop by evolution of community rules, evolution works by failed prototypes. New cultures (post revolution, often) are typically nasty creatures that compete with lots of bloodshed in the early stages.

We need to remember that in nature, non-fatal parasites stay non-fatal, in part because the fatal mutations die out with the hosts they kill. As the world becomes increasingly a single interdependent community, the prospect of humanity being the host, which is killed by a rogue system of belief, is increasingly worrying. Once the world has a single overarching belief system above all the others, the failure of its belief system could be the end of humanity. If the whole world has a single belief that global warming is not a problem, for example, we may be in deep trouble if everyone is wrong.

Equally if we really think we can hear the withdrawing tide of the "Sea of Faith" we should take care to find a replacement. I say "find" a replacement since we must not forget the other level of truth: that we are conscious, deciding individuals. We can understand the belief systems that proliferate and master them.

Letter to Peter next chapter

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