Day 063 - The use of religion

Submitted by Sam on 22 July, 2011 - 16:26

We have seen that a value system cannot be genetically encoded, and must be learned. Dennett has postulated that certain religious memes may have derived some of their potency by providing a ready-to-go value system which can help people make major decisions of life, saving them time, energy and angst. In the absence of any systematic way of answering the most difficult decisions, any means of relieving the burden will be seen as very attractive. Sometimes we flip a coin when we can't find a compelling reason to choose one option above another, simultaneously taking the agency of the choice away from us and 'limiting' the consequences of the decision. Devices like coin-flipping are external mechanisms for helping us make small decisions, and devices descended from ritualized practices like divination are ceremonial variants to help us make big decisions.

Divination, one of the precursors to 'domesticated' religion, might have arisen as a manifestation of man's growing difficulties with self-control, providing a way to deal with increasingly larger and increasingly complicated human groups. By reducing the responsibilities involved in decision making, cultural constructs like divination also reduce the possibility of acrimony for bad decisions, creating an external agent which can be held responsible but which will never answer back.

This method of decision making would have aided people in making timely decisions, even if the decisions themselves were not optimal. This can have significant advantages in consolidating resolve and enforcing resolute action. Dennett concludes that divination and its derivatives (like astrology and some aspects of organized religion) could gain currency by affording biological advantages even though the resultant decisions were not based on a source of reliable information, much as a placebo can result in a patient's medical improvement despite containing only medically inert substances. Dennett has also seen that the integrity and thus the utility of such a psychological asset (he refers to it as a 'crutch' for the soul) would be threatened by sceptics, which in turn would motivate a degree of hostility towards non-practitioners.

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