“Religion is as Human as the Flint Ax and the Computer”

BN3735_37 Lewis Wolpert believes that mankind's "incorrigible and wholly irrational" religiosity is as human, and as explicable, as the flint ax and the computer. It is a tool for the soul.

Religion and belief in a supernatural being is a natural consequence of how we are wired as human beings: our brains evolved to become "belief engines." And for that reason, we should not accept that our beliefs, particularly our religious beliefs, are correct.

Along with Richard Dawkins, the provocative Wolpert is one of Britain's best known atheists explainers of science. An eminent developmental biologist at University College London, he believes it is "ethically unacceptable and impractical to censor any aspect of trying to understand the nature of our world."

Wolpert penned a book-length meditation on "the evolutionary origins of belief," published as Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Having pondered the subject, Wolpert sees no reason to modify his reductionist, materialist, atheist view of the universe. Deconstructing the belief engine will usefully explain how humans are different from other animals.

"I believe that religious beliefs are at least partly genetically determined. How else can you explain the fact that there's no society ever discovered that didn't have some sort of religious belief?"

"What makes us human," Wolpert explains, "is causal beliefs. What makes us different from other animals is that we have a concept of cause and effect in the physical world."

Wolpert believes that what made us human is technology: "It can be summed up in Kenneth Oakley's definition, 50 years ago, that 'man may be distinguished as the tool-making primate'." Once our ancient human ancestors figured out how to manipulate the natural world. Toolmaking made us human. Early hominids understood cause and effect and came to believe in unseen gods and spirits as causes for life's great mysteries, including illness and death.

But how does that get us to God? In an interview last year Wolpert said "It was the mental concept of cause and effect which was critical. Once you had that concept which enabled you to manufacture complex tools, you then wanted to understand other things as well – why we got ill, what happened when we died, why the sun shone or disappeared. Those, too, must have causes. And that's the origin of belief."

The Daily Galaxy via http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/apr/11/religion.books


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