Many educated people dismiss religion as little more than superstition, and I don’t disagree. However, the reasoning processes that encourage us to reject religion are themselves the long-term consequences of developments in which religion played a key part. Just as we should not dismiss apes in the belief that they are a lower form of life, so too it is ungracious to denigrate something that played a large role in getting us where we are today – well, where some of us are today. And no, I am not suggesting that theists should be locked up in zoos.
As I suggested in a previous essay, religion was the natural outcome of the interaction between the natural history mental module and the social reasoning mental module. Anthropomorphizing environmental forces made more sense to early humans than quantum theory would.
The advent of civilization advanced the cause of religion by linking it directly to the social hierarchy. A simple deal emerged: the rulers provided the priests with expensive temples and lavish accoutrements to enhance the sense of awe that religion instilled in the population. The priests, in turn, deified the rulers. Thus, disobedience to the rulers was an outrage against the gods.
Moreover, religion wasn’t entirely a sham. The priests studied the sky, kept records, and carried out all manner of investigations into physical phenomena. Not being equipped with the intellectual tools of modern science, they didn’t get far, but occasionally they actually did something useful. Their most important success was the creation of an accurate calendar. We moderns, for whom a calendar is nothing more than a device to present pretty pictures, seldom appreciate the importance of the calendar to an agricultural society. Every farmer needs to know two crucial times: when to plant the crop, and when to harvest it. A few weeks too early or too late can result in the loss of the entire crop and starvation. This is why the calendar is so important. An accurate knowledge of the first day of spring and the first day of fall is vital to an agricultural society – and the priests were the ones who developed that knowledge.
However, one important distinction must be made: religion did not take on ethical overtones until much later. Obedience to the gods was solely a matter of pleasing them with sacrifices. How you dealt with your fellow man was not the concern of the gods. We find no moral strictures in any of the early religions. After all, since the king himself was a god, he didn’t want any Ten Commandments interfering with his authority.
The first connection between religion and ethics appears to have been made by the Hebrews with their Ten Commandments. Interestingly enough, most Bible scholars believe that these commandments were surreptitiously attached to the Pentateuch long after Moses had died. While the Exodus is approximately dated to about 1200 BC, the Ten Commandments were probably inserted sometime around 700 - 800 BC. It makes some sense that we didn’t see religious laws of ethics until monotheism arose. If there are multiple gods, what’s to stop them from making multiple and conflicting laws? Only after theological supremacy had been vested in a single god could laws of behavior arise. The Greek and Roman gods certainly promulgated no specific codes. A man was expected to be upright and honest, but there was no specific set of rules to obey. The gods punished men who were presumptuous, who in some way diminished the authority of the gods. But sinful behavior didn’t exist; indeed, the very notion of religious sin wasn’t part of the Greco-Roman culture. Only the monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – developed detailed codes of social behavior.
Interestingly, each of the major religions had a different take on logical reasoning.