Why do people take up religions, persist with them, and abandon them ?


Whatever you think of religions personally, or any particular religion, they seem to have been around forever amongst (most) humans, and seem unlikely to go away entirely amongst the species as a whole. Clearly though, particular cultures in various historical phases have many members who are attracted to religions or substitute ideologies, but tend to drift away from them in other phases. At a different level, women seem to be the most persistent believers by numbers, but religious hierarchies are almost always controlled by (humourless old) men…  What is it in human psychology that generates these religious phenomena?

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014


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This is an initial starter list for discussing the "Religion" topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome.



Topic notes from Thor (these notes, like the reading links, will be expanded over time).

1. Introduction

Religion has a thousand dimensions. It has violently consumed the lives of whole societies, and stabilized a myriad of others. Carnage has been (and continues to be) committed in its name, yet communities have been founded on its dedication. For those inclined to scholarship, there are kilometers of volumes in places like the Vatican, documenting the dusty opinions and controversies of learned men (mostly men) for millennia. For those craving more than a mortal life, there are kilometers of records in the granite vaults of Utah, hoping to collect the records of who begat whom through the sperm trails of human settlement. And then there are those of us (for I am one) for whom religion has lost its sting, yet remains a fascinating edifice whose intricacies offer insights and warnings about whatever it is that makes us what we are.

It would be pointless for me in this little essay to wrestle with the battalions of religious enthusiasts, past and present, the strident atheists, the cautious agnostics, the shoals of casual shoppers in the supermarket of the spirits. For anyone interested, in the late 1990s I did collect a scattering of my wry comments across the years, now somewhat updated and mellowed. It is referenced as “The Agnostic's Survival Manual” at the end of these notes. Don’t look to that for consistency, but you are bound to find an argument.

As to my current working metaphor, well I am inclined to see religion, for those who hold to it, as a kind of mental prism. Just as a prism of glass splits light, the mental prism of religious belief (I think) splits the world into moral and existential categories.  The good guys use religion as a reason for what they do, and the bad guys use religion as an excuse for what they do. I don’t need reasons or excuses like that, but I can see the attraction for some in displacing responsibility.

Instead of argument, I have taken the slippery path here of writing an allegory for the future. I am afraid it lacks the charm of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  The Muse has declined to rest upon my shoulder. Still, I hope this rough account of Cynthuria and her discovery of personal gods can help to explain some ideas about where religions might have come from, and where they may go. Cynthuria is not one of us. She dwells in a time, perhaps not too far in the future, where humans first began to displace themselves, then were altogether displaced by emergent creatures engineered to be superior to their originators.

2. The allegory of Cynthuria, and times to come


Cynthuria was a third generation emergent. Her friends found her attractive. The emergents had allowed some of the more dubious genetic patterning from source DNA to remain. Certain emotional attachments for example had clear uses if they were carefully managed, and Cynthuria had a stronger than  normal blend for charisma. Still, she had some worrying tendencies. She seemed fond of ritual, and she tended to be sentimental. In an old hangar Cynthuria had assembled an odd museum of artifacts from the humanoid originators. The humanoids had passed of course, a fading memory tinged with guilt, and the emergent leaders were not altogether happy to have any evidence of their lost glories kept in the popular mind. It was quietly hoped that within a few more generations of emergent development, the humanoid originators could be relegated to quaint myth and fairy stories.

For Cynthuria, the humanoid originators seemed to have a certain mystical presence. It was true that none of her contemporaries had ever seen an originator, but their reputed qualities and failings somehow stirred a personal resonance that logic could not dispose of. In the end, Cynthuria could not accept that the originators had been entirely mortal creatures of the planet, now as extinct as crystallized insects from an archeological excavation. Damn it, she could feel the originator presence in everything she touched. They were with her, behind her, ahead of her, around her. The constant originator presence was disturbing, but it was comforting in a way too. Cynthuria found herself pausing for their imagined approval, or hesitating to be mean lest an originator disapproved.

Cynthuria was a gregarious emergent, not programmed to keep her wandering ideas locked down and private. Although she was slightly ironic and humorous about her imagined company of originators, over time other emergents in her circle came to realized that Cynthuria was perfectly genuine about the exotic restraints she felt on personal actions. Her patterning made no sense in terms of the official growth program for new emergents, yet some came to see that she was not altogether a deviant. Perhaps they felt some stirring of a similar presence themselves.

It was in about the 40th summer that Cynthuria decided to take a deviant risk. For a decade she had privately encoded her imaginary relationship with the originators. Perhaps it was a metaphor of some kind, but it was  a very extended metaphor which lent a personal logic to her actions and hopes. It was comforting to have this framework, and it was comforting to have the mind-guidance of an originator at her shoulder. Her deviant risk now was to encode this relationship with the originators into a story, a tale that could be told, even to children. Perhaps they would find it amusing.

Cynthuria’s originator story had unintended consequences. That is, it spread quickly and attracted a crowd of emergents about whom Cynthuria had known nothing before. They seemed to see her as some kind of authority or advisor. It was a bit disturbing really. This particular group of emergents did not find the imagined presence of her private originators humorous or even strange. They seemed eager to share the presence, and were soon assuring her that they too knew of this invisible company. Since Cynthuria had kept a diary of how her hidden mentors had guided her moral choices, it was not long before some scholarly emergents began to write serious accounts of how the originators were channeling an ancient wisdom which emergents should and must follow. A holy scripture had come into being.

The emergent leaders heard of Cynthuria. They were not surprised. They had encountered this kind of thing before. There were steps which needed to be taken to contain the influence.  It was a matter of education really, but a difficult kind of education. Even amongst emergent scientists, the study of cognition and the complex mathematics of self-learning algorithms it involved was considered a specialized field. The foundations for understanding complex self-learning systems had even been laid by some originators in the Late Era, but their work had not been widely known.

The crux of it seemed to be that complex galaxies of cognitive algorithms evolved executive hierarchies to influence selections in lower order systems of the organism. The originators had a general physiological design which assigned ultimate executive control to a particular meta-algorithm at any moment of time. This meta algorithm also mediated the organism’s relationship with external objects and events. The originators had called it consciousness. Some originators eventually realized that the “consciousness” meta algorithm itself was not always unique or constant, but this had not been a popular understanding. The popular working assumption had always been that consciousness embodied ego, “I”, the core of a unique and continuing originator while living.

The dilemma for originators, as for emergents, was that a complex existence involved choices, including social choices. Choices could be difficult, they could be embarrassing, they posed a risk for the future, and a risk to reputation in the present. That is, choices entailed responsibility. Responsibility was empowering in a universe which worked well. Sooner or later though, the common experience was that things would start to not work well. Death, for example, might make impersonal sense in physics, expressing the second law of thermodynamics. To an individual originator or emergent, death was definitely something not working well, and the organism had to account to itself for what was going wrong.

Somewhere there was sure to be an nice mathematical equation to express the dilemmas of individual choice and responsibility. A miracle of complex self-teaching systems was that they seemed to develop a solution even to this systemic roadblock of confronting unpleasant choices. The details of the solution remained beyond conscious analysis, but the outlines were clear enough.

Somehow, within the hierarchy of executive cognitive algorithms there had evolved an auditor executive agent. This auditor executive algorithm had distinctive features. The normal algorithms of consciousness had no clear directive authority over the auditor algorithm. Indeed, it was sometimes the reverse. And yet the auditor algorithm itself had no clear, invariant directive authority over the algorithms of consciousness. It seemed that the relationship between the auditor algorithm and the algorithms of consciousness remained fortuitously ambiguous. That is, the ambiguity about a lack of direct executive influence gave the relationship between consciousness and the auditor a special potency. It was easy to displace responsibility to either, which turned out to be extremely useful. Ambiguity as a tool had great survival value.

The originators, only dimly sensing the complex hierarchies of cognition, let alone the flaky influence of an executive auditor, did have rich skills of storytelling. Originators knew the power of stories, their miraculous capacity to offer meaning and elicit a common cause of action amongst divergent beings. Over time, the originators had seized on the executive auditor, which they could sense but not explain with known metaphors. To the executive auditor could be attributed all that was not known or not understood by consciousness. To the executive auditor could be attributed all actions which were uncontrolled, or beyond control. Through generations of originators, the executive auditor was given a social character, ever present, ultimately responsible for whatever happened or had happened from the most distant past, yet also embedded in the cognitive system of each originator. The originators gave their omniscient executive auditor the name of god, or sometimes gods, and called their relationship with it religion. 

So Cynthuria had found her gods. That much was clear. And there were emergents, a surprising number, who wished to share her gods as a common property. Perhaps it was all harmless, but the old histories of the originators had dark things to say about the carnage which had been wrought in the name of religions. Once the executive consciousness of originators became attached to religions, their disguised executive auditors, it seemed to have created social bonds external to the organism which yielded great power of collective action, beneficial or damaging. However the same external bond became a key control overseeing personal cognition. When threatened, the external leverage could be lethal to personal cognition, radically distorting judgement and leading to murderous behaviour. Was Cynthuria safe to have around, or did she need to be reprogrammed? The emergent leaders were not sure.   




References & Reading List


Alberge, Dalya (21 December 2014) "A zealot, a rebel, but no miracle-worker: film studios plot a secular take on life of Jesus". The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/dec/20/bible-epics-zealot-rebel-studios-plot-secular-take-on-life-of-jesus

Allen, Nick (July 30, 2012 ) "US church refuses to marry black couple at last minute". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/us-church-refuses-to-marry-black-couple-at-last-minute-20120730-237p7.html#ixzz2243n9RhP 

Angel, M.J. (February 12, 2014) "It seems half of Australia believes in the supernatural". Sydney Morning Herald online @ http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/it-seems-half-of-australia-believes-in-the-supernatural-20140211-32gnu.html#ixzz2t9NF2Ef6 

Arlandson, James M. (13 January 2013) "Thirty Shariah Laws That Are Bad For All Societies - Can Modern Islam Reform Old Islam?" Jihadwatch website, online @ http://www.jihadwatch.org/2012/09/james-m-arlandson-thirty-shariah-laws-that-are-bad-for-all-societies.html

Armstrong, Karen (25 September 2014) "The myth of religious violence". The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/25/-sp-karen-armstrong-religious-violence-myth-secular 

Baker, Richard (June 27, 2014) "Senior orthodox Jewish leaders face cover-up inquest over child sex abuses". Sydney Morning Herald online @ http://www.smh.com.au/national/senior-orthodox-jewish-leaders-face-coverup-inquest-over-child-sex-abuses-20140627-zsoqz.html#ixzz35ysveprV

Barber, Nigel (10/24/2013) "Is Religion of any Practical Use?". Huffington Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nigel-barber/is-religion-any-use_b_4157085.html?utm_hp_ref=world 

Baroud, Ramzy (2014) "The beginnings of the angry Muslim". Asia Times online @ http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MID-01-270614.html

Baylor University (June 12, 2013) "‘Spiritual’ young people more likely to commit crimes than ‘religious’ ones". PsyPost website, online @  http://www.psypost.org/2013/06/spiritual-young-people-more-likely-to-commit-crimes-than-religious-ones-18416?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Beng, Ooi Kee (06/30/2014) "Islam -- Up for Grabs?". Huffington Post online @

Berg, Chris (July 22, 2012) "Let the cult begin: Olympic Games symbolism is steeped in fundamentalism, militarism and fascism". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/politics/let-the-cult-begin-20120721-22gxf.html#ixzz21IkdImhM 

Brooks, David (November 30, 2014) "Capitalist winds expose the spiritual void". The Age online @ http://www.theage.com.au/comment/capitalist-winds-expose-the-spiritual-void-20141129-11w9g9.html

Brown, Andrew (15 July 2013) "The six types of atheist". The Guardian online @ http://discussion.guardian.co.uk/discussion/p/3hakx?commentpage

Bunyan, John (February, 1678) "The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pilgrim%27s_Progress

Burkeman, Oliver (15 January 2014) "The one theology book all atheists really should read". The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/news/oliver-burkeman-s-blog/2014/jan/14/the-theology-book-atheists-should-read

Crooke, Alastair (08/27/2014) "You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia". The Huffington Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alastair-crooke/isis-wahhabism-saudi-arabia_b_5717157.html?utm_hp_ref=world 

Dhillon, Amrit (October 31, 2013) "Who ya gonna call? Gurubusters!". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/who-ya-gonna-call-gurubusters-20131030-2whap.html#ixzz2jFXMTjui

Dow, Aisha and Emma Schenk (June 19, 2014) "Fear and loathing in Bendigo over multi-million dollar mosque". The Age online @ http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/fear-and-loathing-in-bendigo-over-multimillion-dollar-mosque-20140618-zsdw4.html#ixzz352ONtxiT 

Feeney, Katherine (March 31, 2013) "Aussie churches 'aren’t judged fairly". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/aussie-churches-arent-judged-fairly-20130331-2h12y.html

Fuller, Robert C. (n.d.) "Spiritual, But Not Religious: More than one fifth of Americans describe themselves with this phrase. What does it mean?". Belief Net website, online @ http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Books/2002/07/Spiritual-But-Not-Religious.aspx

Gardels, Nathan (09/29/2014)"Xi Launches Cultural Counter-Revolution to Restore Confucianism as China's Ideology". The Huffington Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-gardels/xi-jinping-confucianism_b_5897680.html?utm_hp_ref=world

Gottlieb, Jenna (December 23, 2013) "Iceland's elves blamed for road project delays". Sydney Morning Herald online @ http://www.smh.com.au/world/icelands-elves-blamed-for-road-project-delays-20131223-hv6pv.html#ixzz2oHV2ootG 

Hansen, Friedrich (2013) "Judaism's ancient voice of reason - The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Ora Harmony". Asia Times online @ http://atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/OB09Ak01.html 

Holland, John H. (September 2014) "Complexity: A Very Short Introduction". Kindle edition online @ http://www.amazon.com/Complexity-Very-Short-Introduction-Introductions-ebook/dp/B00L4CK0M6/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Hughes, Bettany (April 8, 2012) "Secrets of divine women exposed: Powerful females were at the very roots of early faiths". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/secrets-of-divine-women-exposed-20120407-1wi1j.html#ixzz1rOzttpGv

Hussain, Murtaza (09 Jul 2013) "The myth of the 1,400 year Sunni-Shia war - The 'Sunni-Shia conflict' narrative is misguided at best and disingenuous at worst, suggests author". Al Jazeera online @ http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/07/2013719220768151.html

J.D. (Sep 29th 2013) "How many people convert to Islam? ". The Economist online @

Kenneally, Christine (October 14, 2014) "The Mormon Church Is Building a Family Tree of the Entire Human Race They already have 32 times the amount of information contained in the Library of Congress". The New Republic online @ http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119785/extensive-mormon-genealogy-offers-limited-vision-history

Khawaja, Mahboob A (2014) "Farzana Parveen stoning shames Pakistan". Asia Times online @ http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/SOU-01-020614.html

Lee, Dave (17 July 2013) "How Scientology changed the internet". BBC online @ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-23273109 

Li Yehang (07 August 2012) "A trip to Qinghai". [reflections on Tibetan Buddhism]. Danwei blog, online @ http://www.danwei.com/a-trip-to-qinghai/ 

May, Thor (1998-2013) "The Agnostic's Survival Manual". [e-book] The Passionate Skeptic website online @ http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/TheAgnosticsSurvivalManual.htm

May, Thor (2013) "The Probable Language Brain". Academia.edu online @ http://www.academia.edu/2563032/The_Probable_Language_Brain

Milbank, Alison (24 Dec 2012) "The riddle and the gift: The Hobbit at Christmas". Australian Broadcasting Corporation online @ http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/12/24/3660152.htm?WT

Moaveni, Azadeh (06/25/2014) "Here Are Some of the Day-To-Day Differences Between Sunnis and Shiites". Huffington Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/azadeh-moaveni/differences-between-sunnis-shiites_b_5526484.html?utm_hp_ref=world

Nicolis, Gregoire and Catherine Rouvas-Nicolis (2007)"Complex Systems". Scholarpedia, 2(11):1473. online @ http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Complex_systems

Olding, Rachel (November 3, 2014) "Hostage's insight into terrorists' MO: brainwash Western children to take the jihad home". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/hostages-insight-into-terrorists-mo-brainwash-western-children-to-take-the-jihad-home-20141103-11g3nr.html

Pavlac, Brian A. (2 May 2012) "Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented". Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Resource Site online @ http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witch/werror.html

Rizvi, Ali A. (05/03/2013) "An Atheist Muslim's Perspective on the 'Root Causes' of Islamist Jihadism and the Politics of Islamophobia". Huffington Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-a-rizvi/an-atheist-muslims-perspective-on-the-root-causes-of-islamist-jihadism-and-the-politics-of-islamophobia_b_3159286.html?utm_hp_ref=world

Robson, Steve (2 January 2013) "Spiritual people are more likely to be mentally ill (but at least they think life has more meaning)." Daily Mail (UK), online @ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255894/Spiritual-people-likely-mentally-ill-think-life-meaning.html#ixzz2h6FH2SXC

Smith, David and agencies in Khartoum (Thursday 26 June 2014) "Meriam Ibrahim freed again after rearrest at Sudan airport/ Lawyer says woman whose death sentence for apostasy was overturned has been released after pressure from diplomats". The Guardian online @http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/26/meriam-ibrahim-freed-rearrest-sudan-airport

Smith, Julia Llewellyn (July 1, 2014) "What god does to your brain - The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/what-god-does-to-your-brain-20140630-3b467.html#ixzz36BnhOVF5 

Sporns, Olaf (2007) "Complexity". Scholarpedia, 2(10):1623. online @ http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Complexity

The Economist(Nov 01 2014) "Cracks in the atheist edifice: The rapid spread of Christianity is forcing an official rethink on religion in China". The Economist online @ http://discover.economist.com/?a=21629218&p=CA&cid1=disp|1012930

Thompson, Peter (22 September 2012) "Eastern Germany: the most godless place on Earth. East German atheism can be seen as a form of continuing political and regional identification – and a taste of the future". The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/sep/22/atheism-east-germany-godless-place?CMP=ema_632

Valiant, Leslie (2013) "Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World". Basic Books. Kindle edition available online @ http://www.amazon.com/Probably-Approximately-Correct-Algorithms-Prospering-ebook/dp/B00BE650IQ/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Waterfield, Bruno (February 6, 2013) "Workhouse survivors reject Irish PM's apology". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/workhouse-survivors-reject-irish-pms-apology-20130206-2dxg8.html#ixzz2K4chHJfF

Watkins' Books (Issue 33, Spring 2013) " Watkins’ Spiritual 100 List for 2013: 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living people". Watkins' Books website, online @ http://www.watkinsbooks.com/review/watkins-spiritual-100-list-2013

Weingarten, Elizabeth (Nov. 16, 2011) "How two British atheists convinced a crowd of New Yorkers that the world would be better off without faith at last night’s Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate". Slate online @ http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/intelligence_squared

Wikipedia (2013) "Eschatology". [the study of end-times and afterlife] Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eschatology 

Wikipedia (2014) "Agnosticism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnosticism

Wikipedia (2014) "Atheism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism

Wikipedia (2014) "Buddhism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism

Wikipedia (2014) "Christianity". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity

Wikipedia (2014) "Confucianism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confucianism

Wikipedia (2014) "Extremism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extremism

Wikipedia (2014) "Fundamentalism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalism

Wikipedia (2014) "Hinduism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinduism

Wikipedia (2014) "Islam". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam

Wikipedia (2014) "Pantheism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantheism

Wikipedia (2014) "Polytheism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polytheism

Wikipedia (2014) "Psychology of religion". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology_of_religion

Wikipedia (2014) "Religion". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion

Wikipedia (2014) "Religious liberalism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_liberalism

Wikipedia (2014) "Secularism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secularism

Wikipedia (2014) "Spiritualism". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism

Wikipedia (2014) "Taiping Rebellion". [a Chinese millinarian movement; 20 million deaths]. Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiping_Rebellion

Zennie, Michael (27 March 2012) "New Age followers still waiting for aliens to beam them up 15 years after Heaven's Gate cult suicides left 39 people dead". Daily Mail (UK) online @ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2120869/Heavens-Gate-cult-committed-mass-suicide-15-years-ago.html


Why do people take up religions, persist with them, and abandon them ? (c) Thor May 2014


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