Monthly Archives: August 2017

To understand history one must understand the religious mind

Robert Henderson

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.” ( Kurt Vonnegut  Cat’s Cradle )

Trying to understand history  without understanding the religious  mind  is like teaching  someone the vocabulary of a language without explaining how the grammar works.  Nor is  the religious mind simply concerned with what are generally  called religions. Such minds  can be  and often are  attracted by secular  ideologies  such as Marxism, Fascism  or political correctness.  These are substitutes for what are normally called religions. Beneath  such formalised ideas  there is the natural human preference for the culture and people in which an individual has been raised.  Social animals need habits and humans being the social animal par excellence require very sophisticated ones.


The idea of memes comes from the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. A meme is the mental equivalent of a gene. They  contain ideas.  Dawkins  introduced  the word  to the world in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.   The meme,  like a gene,   is self-replicating and can undergo mutation. It affects  behaviour creates cultural.

There was nothing entirely novel about such an idea,  it having been discussed in Darwin’s time.  For example,   T. H. Huxley  believed that ‘The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in the physical world. A theory is a species of thinking, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power of resisting extinction by its rivals.’ (Huxley, T. H. “The coming of age of ‘The origin of species” (1880) Science. 1, 15-17.) But Dawkins gave the idea a new clarity and set it against the background of genetics.

Memes can form entire ideologies such as religions or  political theories like  Marxism or  they may be a stand-alone  social rule such as wear black to a funeral or don’t eat with your mouth open. Memes like genes can be beneficial, harmful or neutral in their effects.

It might be though that judging  a meme as objectively  good or bad is impossible,  but it is possible if the judgement is based upon  the evolved nature of a particular society.  For example, if a society is a warrior society, individuals with a penchant for violence can, other things being equal,  be valuable.  Conversely, a society in which non-violent behaviour is the norm the violent mentality will be a handicap to the individual who has it and a danger to the efficient functioning of the society.

The  problem of consciousness

We are in a prison of  self-consciousness amplified by high intelligence and  above all  language.  Both these things set humans apart from any other organism. These qualities  naturally lead to attempts to explain what humans   perceive to be reality, a reality which will often seem threatening, especially if the person is living in a society which has no science to explain natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, thunder and lightning,   plagues and  floods.

Imagine the existential context of a hunter gatherer band. It is not that its members are innately stupid or ignorant. Indeed, they will have a considerable repertoire of useful  and essential skills from understanding how to trap and kill animals,  where to gather berries and nuts, how to make tools and other artefacts. But their  world will be a constant source of wonder and bewilderment. They will have not have  any  idea of why  rivers flood, volcanoes roar as they belch lava  or the sun appears to die every day  and gradually burns  less brightly  as the year progresses before returning with regained vigour.  To these phenomena will be added the dangers and fears which result from  living amongst dangerous animals and in competition with other groups of humans who do not belong to their band or tribe.  Magic is  the only means these people  have of making sense of what they  experience and most importantly it is  an ostensible means of controlling reality.

Magic can take a wide variety of forms.  It will not necessarily involve a god because the belief may come simply from a belief that if X is done Y will follow.     Drawing  a scene of a successful hunt on  a cave wall supposedly  makes a successful hunt more probable; the casting of a spell supposedly  makes a woman fertile;   the drinking of a potion is said to cure   a  sick child; the sacrificing an animal or human  to the gods  is done to  ensure  a good harvest or victory over another tribe.

Of course the desired outcome of the magic will often not materialise, but  it will sometimes  by pure coincidence. Moreover, it is not always by mere chance. The Shaman of the band will probably have a knowledge of  plants which may indeed have a positive effect as a result of by  trial  and error over many generations –  indeed some animals self-medicate – and there is also the powerful placebo effect which when linked to ritual is likely to be heightened.  The performing of ritual will in itself will have a reassuring effect.

But even if failure to produce the desired result  of magic  occurs it will not automatically be taken as evidence of the futility of the magic but  more likely be  attributed to  the god’s disfavour or merely  to  the magic not being strong enough or the time unpropitious .

Magic  may be as the author of the Golden Bough James Frazer defined it,  “a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art”, but it is still a psychological comfort, not least because as with true science it provides rituals to follow as well as the belief that they are shaping reality.


Magic in the form of superstition  is very common even  in  advanced modern societies. More often than not  it has nothing to  do with formal  religion. Sportsmen in particular  are notoriously superstitious:  insisting on dressing in a certain sequence, using a favourite bat or racquet, taking the field in a team sport in a particular order and so on, but few humans are entirely untouched by it.

Looked at rationally such behaviour seems absurd to those who live in societies in which rational scientific  explanations can be given for most things and even where such an explanation cannot be given people will believe  that one exists but has yet to be discovered.  Yet  the grip of scientific rationality is only skin deep.  No matter how rational humans  think themselves the majority,  and probably the large majority , will still  use  such psychological tricks to  deal with the stress of  self-consciousness .

What this tells us  is that even  though  there is no  rational basis for believing such rituals will have the effect desired,  they  can undoubtedly provide an individual with psychological comfort and a sense that in some way the individual has exercised some sort of control over situations which do not lend themselves to any rational solution.

The step after magic and superstition

If magic  is what might be termed the innate human response to self-consciousness the next step is the creation of  formal religion This  will have holy texts and develop a sociology to encompass larger populations than the band or  tribe.  The population will have moved from a nomadic to a settled way of life.

Some like Hinduism will have multiple gods, others  such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism will have a single god. Buddhism,  at least in its purest form,  has no god.  But belief in the supernatural  is something all formal religions require including  Buddhism , because that faith even in its purest seemingly most rational form  requires the believer to accept the reality of   rebirth with the eventual end of nirvana.

Nor is magic dead within formal religions. Even  a sophisticated religion such as Catholicism  has some decidedly primitive aspects, for example, the doctrine of  transubstantiation  requires  a belief that the bread and wine given in the   Eucharist are   literally transformed into the blood and flesh of Christ.  Nor will all practices not compatible with a particular religion be ended by the religion’s putative dominance. The widespread belief in and persecution of people accused of being witches in   Europe in the early modern period is a classic example of this.

Religion as an organising principle

Larger settled populations  require more sophisticated social structures.   Religion has an innate  organising quality which aids the formation of such social structures.  This has routinely meant its has been used to justify  monarchical  power  either by the monarch wielding the religious authority themselves or by having a religious caste which either  justified the right of the monarch to rule  or which exercised  the monarchical authority itself.

The belief that the worship of God in a certain way was integral to the good order and fortune of a country and its people is strong in most religions. A failure to follow the “right” form of religion could mean disaster for a people.  Any misfortune could be ascribed to a failure of faith or of observance.  The Black Death was put down to precisely that while the destruction of the Spanish Armada to England in 1588, in which the weather played a significant  part,  was  attributed by  the Spanish to some lack in their society and as a sign of God’s favour by the English.

The potency of religion

It is important to understand that religious belief is not something simply imposed on people or just  a habit acquired through their upbringing.   The sufferings of those who have refused to deny their faith are truly extraordinary. The Inquisition did not simply condemn people out of hand. Those who had taken up a variety of Christianity other than Catholicism were frequently  excused from punishment if they recanted.  Faced with death by burning at the stake many chose that death rather than recanting. Some, like Archbishop Cranmer, recanted than went back on their recantation and  were  burnt. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs all too graphically bears witness to the sufferings borne over the centuries.

Religion and the  secular mind

To understand the religious mind is also to understand the mind of those  gripped by a secular  ideology,  for the  psychological and sociological outcomes are the same as those experienced by the religious. That is particularly true of totalitarian ideologies such as Marxism or political correctness which offer the promise of an eventual  future  state in which  the ideology is fully realised.

Marxists believe that the movement of the dialectic through history will inevitably lead to the state of  Communism.   That belief is psychologically the equivalent of going to Heaven for the Christian or  Paradise for the Muslim or Nirvana  for the Buddhist.  Something similar happens when the politically correct  encounter  human behaviour   which brutally contradicts  their view of the world. They  do not draw the obvious conclusion, namely, that   political correctness is a incompatible with  our  evolved  nature. Instead, they say it shows that that  more  time must be spent  in educating the politically incorrect  to believe  that the  mores of political correctness are the only way to behave and believe.

One of the most peculiar secular ideologies,  which has been around since the early 19th Century,   is the quasi-religious devotion to laissez faire economics which for its true believers, the neo-liberals,  means holding  rigidly to the idea that free markets and free trade  are a sure-fire means to greatly increase  general prosperity and  that it is rationally  the only  economic system to follow.  This might seem a very dry subject  to engage people emotionally. Yet  its believers  tend to become extremely agitated if a contrary view is put to them and more often than not refuse to offer any contrary argument or facts when faced with an opponent of  their  creed.    In short they display all the signs of the religious believer.

Why does it attract followers?  For the same reason any ideology is adopted. It offers itself as an algorithm to order the world.  It is sometimes hailed as a general libertarian good by its proponents  which could engage the emotions,  but few people who claim to be libertarians actually live their lives by the creed.  A much more plausible explanation,   at least for the true believers,  , is that these are people who find the idea of a neat mechanical ideology  which tells them just stand back and don’t interfere with the market   intellectually satisfying. In addition, like all ideologies, sacred or profane, laissez faire allows its followers to believe that action is being taken to control the world. Ironically,   intellectually and emotionally  it offers just what Marxism does, an  eventually utopia which comes about automatically when economic life takes on a certain shape.

The fact that humans are so susceptible to the lure of  ideologies and habit  must mean that this behavioural trait serves some vital  evolutionary purpose because otherwise it  would not  have persisted.  The purpose is to unite and order a society.

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