Is Religious Behavior Human?

When we talk about religion, the general consensus is that it is natural for people to have a certain religion or a belief system whether that be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or any other brand-named religion. It has always been an important category for classifying people groups, and even Facebook asks for your religion. It is true that religious behaviors are found in most cultures and throughout the human history. However, I am wondering if it is fair to even assume that religion is so intrinsically “human”.

One observation is that, religion is not very fundamental for an individual to survive and procreate, such as food, sex, and sleep. In fact, there are atheists, who genuinely cannot bring themselves to believe in the existence of higher beings (if not aliens). Are we to say that these atheists are somewhat less human than theists? I don’t think so. In fact, atheists tend to have higher level of critical thinking and creativity which is arguably the very things that define humans as humans (Proof? Survey the religious beliefs of modern day scientists, popular artists, etc). Atheists even tend to have greater knowledge about world religions than theists themselves! The very fact that atheists exist among us and that they are neither mentally disabled nor having significantly worse-off than their theist friends shows that religious behavior is not necessary for survival. Despite its prevalence, religion might not be one of the fundamental features of being a human.

Then what is religion? Some (including Richard Dawkins or this guy here (http://freethoughtblogs.com/lousycanuck/2009/09/18/religion-as-a-mental-parasite/) hypothesize that religion might be a mental parasite (a kind of a virus) that controls human behaviors (prayer, rituals), controls the way that we interpret incoming information (such as seeing the Sun as a god instead of as a giant flame made of helium/hydrogen gas), and spreads itself into the larger pool of hosts (missionaries, conversion experiences). The blogger from the above link uses a fair amount of the microbiological/computer virus analogies, and I think it’s not just this guy who does this. I think the very same metaphor is being used by some fundamentalist Christian churches themselves.

If you ask any “good” or “true” Christian people about their religion, you can often find them denying the very fact that their religion is in fact a religion. They say that it has the life form of its own. They say that the holy spirit is alive and is living in them. They say that things are revealed and directed to them by this being called the holy spirit. They claim to have obtained special abilities called “gifts” through their religious training which enable them to become a better host for this holy spirit by letting it thrive inside of them and letting it spread through their interactions with other people around them. In order to become a Christian you need to “accept” Jesus who dwells in each of us. Some Presbyterians believe that when a Christian woman gets pregnant, the baby automatically becomes the host of the mother’s religion even before he is born. Some Baptists believe that they need to be “born-again”. Add to all these, the new trend that I have observed  among Christians is the extension of the concept of “predestination” so far to claim that it’s not their own will, but it is the will of Jesus and the holy spirit that they become Christians.

Now, make a little change to the above paragraph. Insert “worms” in place of holy spirit or Jesus. These worms are alive and is living in us. The worms reveal things and directs us to certain behaviors so that we will be better hosts for the worms (sounds awful like the crickets that are led to death by parasite worms in this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7r1S6-op8E). Some Presbyterians believe that when infected mother gets pregnant, the baby will also become the host of these worms. Some Baptists believe that people need to be “infected” by the worms after they were born. Regardless, some believe that it’s not their own will to be infected, but worms themselves actively infect them. This makes me wonder: if the modern day churches used the word “worms” instead of the holy spirit, would people still readily accept the worms who inhabit their brains and control their minds?

I’m not suggesting that there might be a physical entity – like a worm – that induces religious behaviors (Or is it true? Statistics support that the religious diversity in a region is positively correlated with the number of parasites in the region: http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2008/11/how-parasites-spread-religion.html).  And by the current definition of the word, it cannot be a virus unless it has a physical form. But perhaps that is because we haven’t studied enough yet. Perhaps, we are at the brink of discovering the new kind of threat to humanity – a psychological virus. Psychology is a relatively newer field compared to other “hard” sciences. There are efforts being made to explain mental illnesses which are induced by the right combination of hormones and neurological signals but are not caused by any particular form of a brain damage. Even when there is no specific damage in the brain is found (especially in case of depression), doctors, for the purpose of treating these diseases, prescribe to the patients the medicines that contain the chemicals that will induce the desired changes in the patients’ behaviors. But even when we are treating these patients, we are not sure about the causes. It’s too weak of an argument to attribute everything to personal experience or trauma (as in the case of the recent discussion of the side effects of concussion among American football players). Perhaps, there is something that we do not know yet but is affecting us everyday. Imagine yourself in the days before Pasteur discovered bacteria; you would have never guessed it! Perhaps there are some agents (or literally, what we call the holy spirit) that induce the release of specific mixtures of hormones and other stimulants in our brain when we go through intense religious experiences.

I study epidemiology, and we do not call it a human nature to get infected by the HIV just because the AIDS is prevalent. I do think it’s a human nature to seek explanation for natural phenomena using the current information. I do think that it’s a human nature to pass down these explanations from a generation to the generation. But I do not think organized religions such as Christian fundamentalism is intrinsically “human”.