Culture predates religion. Of this, there can be little doubt. Whatever the origin of religion, it could only have been created after the necessary cultural elements were in place. Culture must have preceded religion, for religion is a culture-dependent construct. Knowing this, we can say with certainty that culture caused religion. However, any other discussion of religion and cause gets convoluted very quickly.
I recently weighed in on a forum thread concerning the genocide of the Native Americans by the Christian European colonizers. Many of the commenters felt that Christianity was a significant causal agent for the genocide, but I do not. I believe the Europeans’ primary motivation for conquest was land, resources, and by extension, power. Though we cannot go back and run history through, this time without Christianity as the dominant force in Europe, I think we can safely assume that the vastly technologically superior Europeans would have conquered the Americas regardless of their religious beliefs. (We should also note that regardless of their intention, their job would have likely been done for them anyway by pathogens.)
One of my regular readers has been frequently critical of the blame I heap on religion for a vast array of societal ills, and in light of this recent discussion, I wanted to explain in more detail how I believe religion and society coexist. I think many atheists misuse the word “cause,” and I’m sure many theists misunderstand what atheists mean when we say “religion causes this or that societal ill.”
To begin with, it’s probably not fair to say that religion causes very many things at all. Certainly prayer is an example of something that would simply not happen without religion, but beyond rituals and activities specifically directed at perceived deities, it’s very difficult for me to think of anything that would not exist at all if religion did not exist.
So right off the bat, let’s be clear: Religion does not cause societal ills.
What does it do, then? To answer this, we need to examine what religion does to the human mind. As I’ve explained many times, religion by its very definition is unscientific, and therefore inherently less likely than science to arrive at any truth whatsoever. (To what degree it is less likely is up for debate. I believe that religion is virtually never likely to arrive at scientific truth.) So right off the bat, we can say that belief in religion reduces the mind’s likelihood of believing in objectively true things. We can argue about how much untruth religion produces, but I believe that would be highly individual to the religion and the person in question, so we probably shouldn’t bother with it just yet.
A second thing religion clearly does is create a justification for otherwise unreasonable practices. I must stress that religion is probably not the only thing that does this, but that is beside the point. When the witch trials were in full swing, the equivalent of torture was justified publicly by citing passages from the Bible. Inquisitors put hot pokers under fingernails while singing hymns to God and encouraging the victim to endure the pain for the good of his eternal soul. Parents reprimand their children for sexual exploration because their church teaches them that sex is evil. The list can go on and on.
Here, we need to be very careful, though. We must ask the question: Did religion cause sexual repression, torture, and witch hunts? Strictly speaking, no. Human males have always been interested in subduing the outward sexuality of females. It’s part of male nature to want to jealously guard females from other males. Sexual repression is a predictable expression of this instinct. Humans also have the natural propensity to torture, and scapegoating is as old as culture. Religion did not cause people to have these urges.
What religion does do is exacerbate bad behavior as well as justify it. Humans will always do bad things to other humans. However, with the justification of God, they can do so with a clear conscience, and with exceptional vigor. We will always be sensitive and easily manipulated through our sexuality, but with religion (remember — by definition, less likely to be true than science) we can be convinced that otherwise normal and natural sexual feelings and practices are evil, and we can be controlled to a much greater degree.
Certainly culture creates religion, but once religion exists, it in turn shapes the culture. It’s a circle, not a line. Once religion has shaped culture, culture reinvents religion to reflect its new shape, and the cycle begins again. It is simplistic at best and naive at worst to say that either culture or religion is the ultimate cause of anything.
In the final analysis, this clarification of cause doesn’t change any of my accusations towards religion. Religious indoctrination is still child abuse, sexual repression is still harmful, and theocracy is still one of the worst forms of government imaginable. In the end, the question of cause is a minor philosophical quibble, but precision is better than vagueness in matters such as these, so we might as well make sure we’ve got things straight.