I began Chapter 7 of my new book Life of Earth by saying that there is no such thing as religion. It is not an instinctual thing within the human mind. Instead, religion is a set of ideas (memes) that have parasitized some instinctual capacities of the human mind. The feelings and patterns of thought upon which religion include (according to my bulleted list on page 166) sexual ecstasy, loss of awareness of having a defined body, altruism, the need for an authority figure, awareness of death, and agency. These feelings and patterns of thought are instinctive, but religion itself is not. The memes include the idea of a God or gods, of an afterlife, of a heaven, etc. In this, I had become convinced by the viewpoint of Richard Dawkins.
Wouldn’t you know it, the very week that my book came out, I changed my mind. Religion is in fact a thing and it is instinctual.
The evidence for this includes the fact that, whenever you find religion, you nearly always find all of its components. Of course, Buddhism does not contain all of them. But, maybe Buddhism isn’t really a religion. This is what Sam Harris seems to think.
But the main thing that changed my mind was an experience that I had in a supermarket. I encountered a man whom I have known for years, and who has disputed with me for years about politics and religion. He is usually zealous, and I am quiet, in these disputes, but I at least imagined that there was an underlying respect. But this time he crossed the line. He drew a crowd by yelling at me about (as it turned out) his rejection of global warming. Before I could say much of anything, he drew out his main weapon: religion. He made it clear that he could not be wrong, because Jesus was on his side. Conservative Christianity was his sword, and he used it as such—as a discrete entity, not just as a loose collection of memes and feelings.
And then I was amazed as I observed myself do the same thing. I was swept away by zeal and made a religious argument against him. I said that Jesus was not his little finger puppet to use to win arguments. This was my weapon. Science is a set of memes, but when I had to reach for a weapon, I used religion. It was an instinctual, primal, and visceral reaction on my part. At the moment, it seemed to me as much of a single, coherent instinct as hatred, love, hunger, or thirst. Religion seemed to me to be a discrete entity, almost discrete enough to hold in your hand and use.
I am quite certain my thinking on this subject is not finished. And there is no reason that it should ever be. Next week I might go back to agreeing with Sir Richard. And maybe I can benefit from some of your insights. Feel free to share them in the comment box.