Ask a stupid question countdown... ten posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

10. If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

The implication is that the more people believe something, the more likely it is to be true. While this may occasionally be right, you've already thought of about half a dozen examples from human history of things that everybody knew to be true that turned out to be wrong. So I'll take it as self-evident for the moment that it's not that difficult for tremendous numbers of people to be wrong about something.

If I had to guess, and I am by no means a properly trained anthropologist or evolutionary psychologist, I would say that organized religion emerged, not because it offers any kind of survival advantage in and of itself, but rather because of the accidental overlap of other things which evolved for very understandable reasons. Those three things are:

a. respect for authority

A child that listens to its parents when they say "don't go playing near that high cliff or near that group of tigers" is more likely to survive than a child that says "screw you dad, I'm going to play where I want." So we can imagine a built in tendency to respect authority. This means that if someone in a position of authority adopted an idea which was incorrect (think of any of the eight zillion silly commandments in the Old Testament) then it will have a tendency to survive despite the fact that it's either a harmful or useless idea.

b. an inability to distinguish correlation from causation

Everyone who walks into a statistics class needs to have it drilled in their head that correlation is not causation. Just because two things happen together, doesn't mean that one causes the other. You notice it hasn't rained in a while. You pray, and then the next day it rains. You assume that one caused the other even though we know that the weather just runs on its own sometimes raining, sometimes not and the thoughts that run through your head don't affect it at all. Being confused about correlation/causation is the natural state for the human mind.

c. the importance of not thinking too much

That may seems strange today, where quality of life is so high and we value thinking so much. There are many people who, when you think about it, are literally paid to sit around and thinking about things (and occasionally writing those thoughts down). Back when food and resources were scarce there wasn't a lot of time for simple thinking. The desire to sit down for long periods of time and figure out why the sun always seemed to rise and set at regular intervals or why it rained or why water never flowed uphill could very well be a threat to your survival. After all, it's rather easy to eat something that's just sitting there gazing at its own navel. So the ability to stop thinking, to take an answer and say "I suppose that's good enough for now" would have been beneficial. You can observe it today when you see the pressure people feel to jump to conclusions - to get an answer quickly - regardless of whether or not it's correct.

I believe that explains why a religion would originate, although there are probably several more forces at work than what I have outlined here. Now of course why do they survive when they're (at least in hindsight) no good for us?

Religion may be useless, but laws are certainly not. A society that gets together and figures out that it should discourage people from lying, stealing, killing, raping and listening to Justin Bieber is better off than one that doesn't. And it's probably also beneficial to centralize decision making, to chose some people to make certain decisions on behalf of the group because trying to reach universal consensus would just take too long. And so it's useful to codify those laws; write them down and make them official. Unfortunately, if you have some important people of the kind described above, they along with the useful laws, they might accidentally codify some of the nonsense along with it. This is why you see books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy which are a mix of useful rules, complete nonsense and pure evil*. The stupid stuff got recorded alongside the useful stuff and we're stuck with it.

Religion probably took what was a perfectly sensible attempt at early human government and co-opted it with a bunch of superstition.

Stay tuned for question nine tomorrow.


*I'll deal with morality in some more detail when I get to those questions.