"Man is a seeker of the Agent." This notion, cribbed from
John Fowle's superb book, The
Aristos, is a succinct summary of the reason for the emergence of
religion in the human mind.
We are seekers of the reason for why we are here, on this ball of dirt
in a vast, seemingly empty universe. We are seekers of meaning -
"what does it all mean?"
The latter question, as one philosopher notes, is most likely to be
asked by children, the mad, the anguished, the ironic, and the damned. It
is a question we all routinely push to one side as we occupy ourselves
with the family, the business, the bills, the lawn, the local.
The local - no, not the pub, but our local 'area of operation' - is the
primary locus of our sense of meaning. It's where we build our most
treasured meanings, since meaning is not something received 'from out
there' but something we make, something we construct.
If you - as cognitive scientists do - build a 'neural network', a
primitive set of connected, artificial neurons, it will take in what data
you choose to give it and seek to categorise that data in some way; it
will try to make understandable patterns from the data. "Which is
what you would expect," I hear you cry, "seeing that's why you
built the thing in the first place."
Well, yes, but neural networks are simply an impoverished imitation of
a brain, with all its billions of interconnected neurons. The brain is a
pattern-seeker, a pattern-builder par excellence, and it evolved
that way - we didn't build it.
Human brains run on meaning. All those neurons need nutrients, in the
form of information, data to work on, patterns to find. We desperately
need to put a meaning to things, to things that happen, things that we
see, things that we experience. Most of the time, we put meaning to things
by telling stories. We weave our stories in order to make sense of where
we are, what we are, who we are.
So, we work our way outwards. We build our local meaning - in family,
close relationships, home. We make wider meaning and stories about our
place in a community - our relationships with others who work and live
nearby - and we make our richest stories about 'ultimate meaning', first
causes, prime movers, in order to put some pattern we can handle into the
strangeness of our human condition, marooned here on our blue planet
between the lost garden of Eden and some mythical promised land.
The richest of these stories have a compelling sense of 'rightness' -
they match our pattern sense, they fire the 'God' neuron in our brains.
They are, however, stories. They are worked on by generations, refined,
passed on, passed down, handed over. But they are stories, built by
humans, people seeking meaning.
As Mr Fowles again points out, we find ourselves adrift on a raft, in a
silent, unyielding universe, dominated by hazard and infinitude. We reason
there must have been a shipwreck, before which we were happy. And we
reason there will be land ahead, where we will be happy again. Meanwhile,
we are miserable en passage.
This story underpins and underlies the major religions of the world.
Before there were religions, there were stories.
Such stories are devices necessary to the human brain. They allow us to
function, to handle our experiences. By building stories, we build our
lives. By interweaving our stories, we build communities.