There are many truths about human nature that have ugly consequences for religion. Human nature and religion form a self-reinforcing circle of irrationality. Many studies indicate that the tendency towards religiosity is an evolutionary trait.
There are several very well established reasons for this. First, we are biased towards finding patterns, even when there are no ‘real’ patterns to be found. False positives are much less detrimental to our health than false negatives. Consider an ancient human who thinks he sees a tiger in the grass. He will probably run as fast as he can from where he thinks the tiger is hiding. If there is a tiger, perhaps he will have a chance to make it to safety before he is caught. If there is no tiger, then the whole exercise has been for naught, but he is essentially none the worse for his fright and flight.
On the other hand, if there is a tiger, and the human doesn’t recognize the pattern of stripes in the grass, he will almost certainly die. So, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why humans are so prone to seeing patterns, even when they aren’t real.
Another part of human nature is the tendency to assume agency. That is, we are built to assume motive behind events. Again, the logic is perfectly clear. If a volley of small rocks comes hurtling above the treetops and lands near your encampment, it is to your advantage to believe somebody is attacking you. If there are rival humans hiding in the trees tossing rocks, you should grab your spear and get ready for combat. If, on the other hand, it is a freak occurrence, say, from a boulder falling off of a cliff and breaking into stone shrapnel, nothing has been lost by being prepared, just in case.
These two human traits go a long way towards explaining how religion might have formed. Our tendency to assume agency could easily lead us to believe that a drought was intentionally created to punish us for some transgression. If a meteor happened to cross the sky when the shaman told his story of the god who caused for the drought, the tendency to find patterns could easily kick in, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The full realization of the scientific method has gone a long way towards correcting many of our errant interpretations of the universe, but religion has been the most resistant to science precisely because it taps into our deepest feelings of self. Religion tries (and fails miserably) to answer questions of happiness, meaning, sexuality, and morality. These are quite literally the things that make us human. Recent advances in the study of human nature have given us knowledge to back up the claim that religion’s failures simply cannot be politely condoned.
In our studies, we have discovered that far from being unique in the world, humans really are like the other animals in virtually every way. If giving a rat a certain chemical causes certain changes in its behavior, giving a human a comparable chemical will cause comparable changes in the human. This much has been common knowledge for a long time, but what we’ve recently discovered is that we are not really the masters of our environment any more than other animals. In other words, our consciousness is just as inexorably altered by our environment as any other creature’s. It’s not some removed “soul.” It’s a dynamic part of the natural environment.
If you repeatedly beat a dog with a stick, but only while wearing a William Shatner mask, the dog will bear a lifelong hatred of William Shatner masks. If you repeatedly reward a puppy for sitting on command, it will sit on command for the rest of its life. If you take a child to church every Sunday for twenty years, and teach him that God is watching him and hates it when he masturbates, he will have guilty feelings about masturbation for his whole life.
That last sentence probably wrinkled a few eyebrows. Clearly, some theists become atheists, so people aren’t just like dogs, right? Yes and no, as it turns out. Because humans have more brain power than dogs, and because we are much better at abstract thought, it is possible for humans to reach conclusions which convince them that their “training” was misguided and that they should no longer act the way they were trained. However, we’ve also learned that some things defy logic no matter how much we want them to conform. A sobering example is women who experience sexual trauma as young girls. Ask any psychologist and you’ll learn that a group of a hundred sexually abused girls is just a few decades away from being a group of a hundred aging women who aren’t over being sexually abused girls. Some things really do scar us for life, and even though we may rationally realize that our scars are only doing us harm, the scars remain.
In our hypothetical group of a hundred sexually abused women, we would be absolutely shocked if nearly all of them didn’t want to have a normal sex life, or to be able to think of men as something other than dangerous, or to simply have an orgasm for the first time. If they have had psychological therapy, they are almost certainly aware that logically, there’s no reason for them to continue to have deep seated emotional problems since they are no longer in a position of vulnerability. Still, they will continue to have problems. Some things that are done cannot be undone.
Religious indoctrination is a lot like sexual abuse. In fact, I believe a case could be made that it is a form of sexual abuse in some cases. Many religious denominations teach young girls that their bodies are evil, and that they are literally responsible for all the evil in the world because of Eve’s temptation of Adam. Many girls are taught that masturbation is a sin. Young women are told that they are evil sluts if they have sex before marriage, but after marriage, they are expected to turn into willing and sexually healthy partners for their one and only life partner. If they happen to get divorced, many women believe that every sexual act for the rest of their lives will be a sin.
It’s not just young girls that suffer. How horrible must it be to have a healthy sexual appetite – for your own sex – and be taught that your thoughts and desires are abominations that make you one of the worst kinds of sexual deviants in the world? Can we reasonably expect homosexuals who were raised in fundamentalist religious households to ever have any hope of getting all of the cobwebs out of the attic? Will they ever be able to see themselves as normal and natural?
Are these teachings the equivalent of physical sexual abuse? I don’t know. I do know that teaching girls that sex is evil can and does cause lifelong problems for women, even after they abandon religion. I do know that many gays who were raised Christian still feel that they are doing something wrong. If the effects are the same, does that make the causes equivalent? I suggest that it probably does. We can certainly cut religious parents some slack when it comes to motive. They certainly don’t feel like they’re sexually abusing their children, but does this make the abuse any less real?
The point of this article is not to rail against religious sexual abuse of girls or gays. Nor is it to say that sexual dysfunction is the only negative consequence of religious indoctrination. The point is to illustrate that our scientific understanding of human nature, particularly our inability to emotionally overcome certain forms of abuse, ought to instill in us an overwhelming sense of moral initiative.
Science has given us everything we need to know. The tendency towards religion is inherent, stubborn, and evolutionary. It will not go away. Religious indoctrination is real and has lifelong consequences. Conditioning works on humans just like it works on dogs and rats. If it is wrong to beat a dog with a stick while wearing a William Shatner mask, it is also wrong to teach a girl that God hates her when she enjoys sex. There simply is no excuse for anything other than outrage when we look at the billions of children who are being taught things that are not only unscientific, but demonstrably harmful.
It’s a tough hill to climb. So long as religion claims the rights to make pronouncements about morality, sex, and happiness, it will strike resonant chords in many people. Science has taught us this much. So long as our children are indoctrinated, they will bear scars for life, regardless of whether they escape religion. So long as we allow ignorance to flourish, people will have no real alternative to religion.
In my book, this sounds like a moral imperative.