Religion in its diverse forms is authority. This authority operates over one’s self and its surroundings. Though, religion cannot be traced to one origin, the diverse existence of religions in the world suggests that different religions, as languages, developed simultaneously. This is a key concept in understanding its current influence. But first, religion’s main value and importance is in its ability to work as a generalized system of authority and judgement, throughout time and within different contexts. This, first, give religion an immortal power that continues beyond its founding generations. Moreover, religion’s ability to decontextualize from one environment and to contextualize to all environments (as many believe) gives religion the ability to set social norms, maintain it, and alter it. However, religion most of the time is not the origin of any social norm, but rather its guardian. One reason for this is that religion mainly works maintains the social coherence of the group. In return, the group is needed to survive, making the survival of humans dependent on the existence of such norms, and guarding these norms. To understand how this survival works we have to go back to two main evolutionary shifts that made homo sapiens the dominant species.
The first shift is when homo sapiens established communities or groups to resist any external threats. However, many animals have done that and they are not the dominant species. That’s because the second element that enabled homo sapiens to be dominant is consciousness. Now, one theory that explains the development of consciousness is called the Attention Scheme Theory (AST) which suggests that consciousness developed to solve one fundamental issue that faced our nervous system; the overload of information that the nervous system was unable to process. This means that consciousness worked first as a filtering system for any external stimulus, with a hierarchy on processing these stimulus. If we are to accept this theory as fact (it’s the closest, but still might be wrong), then our conscious is here to solve our processing capabilities. However, with the development of our communities and their economic systems to what became known as civilization, survival is now defined in different terms. With the external factors becoming less endangering, and internal factors of the group becoming the main threat. Hierarchy in the society became more obvious with the resources being scarce which made inequality necessary, and the group with more resources became on top while the group that lacked resources stayed in the bottom. Hierarchy mainly comes from one simpler behavior that we all practice which is comparison. Someone is only higher than you are if they have more or better. Now, power became the mean to dominate and be on top of the hierarchy rather than fight the external threat, and we have to understand that each conflict is a conflict over a resource, both tangible and intangible ones. However, power was only temporary, and it only lasts as long as you are the strongest, hence, a more sustainable method of maintaining power had to be established; social norms. Social norms are an informal understanding among different parties on a specific idea or behavior. But the issue was how to introduce a social norm, and how to maintain it. Coming from the other, the supposedly equal other, any rule is to be revoked and fought over, but any rule coming from a superior other, stronger other, an omnipotent other is the optimal guideline, and the optimal mean of sustaining power.
The introduction of religions simultaneously among different communities isolated from each other suggests that a need for a higher entity to rule, guard, and protect. With the division over resources becoming bigger as human societies advanced, more inequality became apparent. Inequality in essence is comparison, you are not equal to… if you do not have the properties they have. With the establishment of hierarchy, by default, came inequality. There was no treatment to the inequality, and still there isn’t, but there was a remedy for its symptoms. One symptom is disobedience, but at some point, individual disobedience became useless. So how to treat collective disobedience became the urgent matter. And in this case, it helped to have a rule by an omnipotent entity to forbid such disobedience. However, for the rule of the omnipotent entity to become accepted, another symptom had to be treated, how to make someone content with the inequality, how do you satisfy the need for equality without establishing equality? This omnipotent entity was also omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Now that entity is all powerful, all knowing, and all good and loving, specially for the weak and vulnerable. Now, you are faced with two options, on the one hand, fight for your equality against the strong other, if you are stronger you win and become on top of the hierarchy, if you are weaker you die. On the other hand, trust the higher entity and it shall give reward you for your patience. This now became the new survival struggle, and considering that survival is our most basic and strongest instinct, while only a few will survive in the case of former option, the latter became the option the majority took. To explain this option, and the existence of this option has become further explained over generations with the development of religion that surrounded the creation of the rule of the higher entity that was once presented as a solution became the dominant matter. Obviously, this increased in complexity over the centuries.
Obviously, this is not to say that the higher entity exists or not as this is a different topic. This is to say that the spread of different beliefs in different and diverse higher entities has its benefits. Moreover, these beliefs tend to to be similar in across different regions. The higher entity is fair, just, and merciful. It normally targets the local groups in the area, demands their loyalty and promises the certainty. In addition, it demands patience and a negligence of the burden of proof, towards a focus on beliefs. Finally, it promises rewards to those who believe under all conditions. Moreover, it demands a proof of this belief, normally a realistic implementation or a practice that is tangible. The previous serves the personal concerns of an individual living in a society where the action of one cannot change anything. By default, a society minimizes the individual impact, and can even make it useless. The collective mindset is hard to manifest, and the manifestation is temporary, leaving the individual with a sense of helplessness and a loss of control. Furthermore, homeostasis is not only a condition for physical health, but also psychological one. To maintain physical homeostasis the body has several response systems, the same can be said for the psychological homeostasis. Here, I argue that religion in essence is a form of psychological homeostasis in an environment ever growing in psychological complexities.
The hardest part is introducing a religion into a community, usually this process includes various persuasive methods, both violent and peaceful. However, once that has happened, religion becomes fluid in the community. It no longer needs any persuasion to stay as it becomes rooted in the society in which it was introduced to first. Few generations later, religion is no longer a matter of question, it becomes rather holy and the society, that once rejected it (maybe), becomes its protector. The need to protect the religion might be one of the strongest characteristics of deeply rooted religions. While religion in return protects the society, or so is believed. So a question rises, does the law protect the citizen or does the citizen protect the law? The main function of any rule or law is to set boundaries on social interactions of all sorts. The modern law is primary civil while many places in the world function by religious law. It is important to notice that religion primary organized human social interactions, hence, it is a product of humans’ existence in a social environment. Furthermore, unlike civil law, religion rule has a personal aspect and it directly tackles human psychology. And while civil law requires some education and awareness among the citizens, religious law does not require that for one simple reason. One the one hand, civil law is set by a known and attainable entity; the government, a citizen can directly contact the government, critique it, and throw it making an imperfect entity. On the other hand, the religious rule is set by a higher intangible entity, this entity assumes perfection, and so does its rule. This makes religious law the strongest, as it is a law set on stones and is unchangeable. Actually the only way to stimulate changes in the religious rule is by interpreting it differently and shifting the common understanding of it. A process that might result into the religious wars the we see now. However, all of this is to achieve one main goal, to explain and excuse new and old social behaviors. Most of the time the new social behaviors develop to adapt to changes in the environment, while old social behaviors are maintained for the fear of change, and the fear of being surpassed by the new changes, hence, what is know as liberalism and conservatism.
Religion for sure developed as two edged sword, but its development and expansion was not an accident or a mistake. Quite the opposite, it is an adaptation and survival method that many need. I would say that religion works primarily as the glue for social unity, specially in crises where civil law becomes useless. Religion also works at confirming hierarchy which has proven to be a key element in human societies, and even in many animal ones which might suggest that having a society or a community would necessarily mean the existence of hierarchy? Anyhow, by living in a society, there are no real individual action/response mechanism, or at least not a direct one. All actions, even when taken autonomously go through the cycle of social response both for the individual and for the society, making the existence of individual decision making impossible, specially that all individuals are influenced one way or another by society, and the existence of an individual response impossible. Moreover, the magnitude of any individual action is limited to its surrounding groups, which means that it is easy for the society to change someone, but it is not easy for someone to change the society, or the social law. This creates a sense of helplessness at first, specially when some human ideals are not realized, such as equality of fairness. Religion here works as the bandage, the hope for a better life, a better society, a better circumstance that can never be achieved most of the time. Religion now is an institution that distributes hope and certainty, two things that are needed and wanted for social survival.