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Where Does Religion Come From:

I recently heard a podcast of Hidden Brain entitled "Where Does Religion Come From?" which explores how people become believers, where rituals come from and what purpose religion serves.

As believers, we tend to think about religion only in terms of theology and faith. But scientists are looking at religion in terms of human behavior and cultural evolution.

The theory is that cultural cues developed to get larger and larger groups of people to work harmoniously. "Basically, if early humans could be convinced that a god was going to punish them if they didn't act in line with the interests of the group, well, they would start to cooperate." (Shankar Vedantam, host of the podcast.)

I'm sure I'm not the only one who grew up being taught that the God of the Old Testament was a punishing God, and the God of the New Testament is a loving God. Maybe those stories of punishment (the Flood, the Exodus, Sodom and Gomorrah) come from the human behavior idea of enticing cooperation across large groups of people?

In the podcast, Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, studies religion and human behavior, says "there are theories which suggest that a punitive god has become so popular in religions because it's an effective stick to deter people from immoral behavior... The societies that have been able to grow largest with the religions that they believe in have had this idea of supernatural punishment at their core because it is an effective deterrent. It does compel people rationally to act in ways which will avoid the wrath of a punitive god who can punish you quite severely."

Cultural evolution doesn't deny the divine aspect of faith, but it offers explanations for the different ways in which people worship and observe their faith. "You can understand religions as they are today ... as bearing the legacy of thousands of years of trial and error and selection so that what current religions are made up of, they're made up of those things because those served social functions in the past. They contributed to the societies that they were attached to surviving." (Shariff)

Shariff says that in modern society, there are institutions that are taking the place of religion when it comes to bringing people together in a cooperative manner: nationalism, patriotism, rule of law. "In terms of the governmental institutions that can spread trust, one of the interesting things you see is that .... those countries that report having the least importance of religion to their daily lives are the countries that have the highest faith in the rules of law."

While I've always been a Lutheran, today’s church is very different than the church of my childhood. Thankfully. We're no longer waiting for people to walk in our doors, we're looking to see how we can serve those in our community. We still preach about sin, but we focus more on grace and redemption than punishment and hell.

Shariff believes that if governmental institutions start to provide the cooperation that used to come from religion, that current religious practices might change, an angry, punishing god is no longer needed. Religions might spend more time on building community.

I think we're getting there.

- Ann Iona Warner

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