Debating the existence of God and the relevance of religion is the doorstep to understanding the role of imagination in reality. Imagination is a tool of dynamics of reality- Imagination, shaped by the past of reality, shapes the future of reality. It evolves reality in time.
To explain the above statement with an example, consider a chess game. The board, the pieces and the players are real. The game setup and rules are imaginary. In the imagination, the board is a war-field, each piece is a certain type of warrior, and so on. The future of reality, i.e, the next move to be made by the players is entirely guided by this imagination.
The sense of loss or win is also determined by the imagination. Losing a pawn is a much smaller loss than losing the queen- although in reality, they are both just pieces of plastic or wood.
God is an imaginary entity. So are the rules of religion and the associated wins and losses, rights and wrongs. In what way does it impact the reality? What is the magnitude of this impact? Is it possible for a civilization to exist without religion?
A civilization without a religion is likely to collapse internally or remain primitive. We could have seen why is this true, if we had a chance to watch the formation of a civilization, and observe how they came up with God and religion. We can do so, but such an experiment will take several thousands of years, and so, it better be a thought experiment. :D
A thought experiment
Let us choose an inhabitable, but uninhabited island, far off from the rest of the world as the site of our experiment. Let us then initiate a civilization, with young children. For a few generations, we have to silently protect them, making sure that they survive safe. Later on, we can cut off all contacts with that island. A a few generations later, the people in the island will forget about us, and it will grow just like any natural civilization; no civilization remembers a time when they didn’t have a language of communication and a system of documentation. They will eventually find us, after they invent ships and start sailing, but this will take a very long time.
We can observe how the civilization develops, from a remote sensing satellite. Of course, this will take several generations of observation in reality, and that is the reason why this is a thought experiment.
This setting can be used to analyze many things. Our question here is of relevance of religion and God: Will the civilization in the island necessarily develop a religion and a God? Let us refer to our history. We know of a large number of civilizations that existed sometime in the past, somewhere in the world. How many of these didn’t have a god or a religion? Turns out, most of the known civilizations have a religion and god(s), with extremely sparse exceptions. Pirahã people is one such example. They don’t believe in any deity, but they do believe in spirits. However, they are not an independently grown civilization; they are a subtribe of a bigger tribe. So, this doesn’t really tell us how to evolve the civilization in our island without a religion.
Does this mean that no civilization can exist without religion and God? There are two possibilities: One, religion is a part of the growth of a civilization, or two, all those civilizations that didn’t develop a religion collapsed too soon to leave any footprints of their existence, and so we don’t know about them. Perhaps, they collapsed because of not having a religion.
For one thing, the civilization in our island should say something about death; something nice like, dead people become stars in the sky, or they become spirits or, they go to heaven/hell. Otherwise, the civilization will collapse internally. People are glued in to a society by an emotional attachment(relation, friends,, etc). This attachment also has a bad facet – it causes anguish, particularly over death, which is certain. If it is not dissipated, it can potentially crush the civilization. So, a strong civilization needs a strong attachment and a robust way of dissipating destructive emotions. Evidently, rituals associated with death and afterlife are a big chapter in every religion.
Moving ahead, the most prominent feature of a religion is, it creates God, as a protector of all :D. Is it really necessary to have an imaginary protector? Will the civilization in our island develop such an imaginary protector?. Well, if it doesn’t, it will never explore outside the island, and so, it will make a very slow progress in science!. Let us see why:
A civilization will attach value to life of a person(and many more things), not only that a person values his own life, but also, others value his life. Any prospect of loss of life will therefore induce an emotion called fear. It prevents the civilization from exploring too far away from their safe home. An imagination of a protector, can create a counter emotion to fear and therefore make it possible to explore. Knowing that this protector is not real does not alter anything!; Imagination can create real emotions. One example where this method of evading fear is employed is, explorations in the ocean. Sailors are known to be superstitious, in order to evade the fear due to risks in their sailing. (Sailor’s superstitions. Why aren’t there similar superstitions with today’s astronauts? This has a simple answer :D ). Therefore, the people in our island may never find us, if they don’t imagine a protector!
Exploration is the key for scientific progress. Scientific progress is not a process carried out by scientists alone. It is carried out by the entire society. Scientists need a strong support from all sections of the society. As an example, let us consider the big revolution brought by Newton’s laws of motion(they partly caused the industrial revolution). What does it take for the civilization in our island to make this breakthrough?. It takes three things, in order of decreasing importance:
- A thorough documented knowledge of the objects in the sky. This is accumulated by a thousand years of night sky observers
- A thorough knowledge of the surface of the earth, and how the sky looks when viewed from different locations on the earth. This is gathered by exploratory sailors.
- A genius like Isaac Newton
The people in our island will never get to this without being able to explore. As paradoxical as it is, science has gained a little from some superstitions too!. :P.
So, the civilization in our island should have a method of dissipating destructive emotions, in particular, it should have something nice to say about death. And it should also have a protector(or a means to evade fear). Do these two complete a religion? I don’t think so. I have considered only those aspects that affect the stability and growth of the civilization. Religion also has another kind of value that is shared by the arts- music, dance, stories etc. In societies where religion is strong, it appears to influence the way people think(something I don’t understand). That is a subject of another blog post. I will conclude now by saying, man created God, and then God created man!.