Just so there’s no doubt: Anthropomorphic theism is about as natural as tennis rackets, ice cream cones and bikinis. It is neither automatic nor inevitable. No religion has emerged twice anywhere on the planet, no single deity has been envisaged by two populations separated by time and geography, and not a solitary person in history has arrived independently at Mithraism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Scientology or Judaism without it first being taught to them. That is an inalienable, unarguable truth. Theism (the progeny of far older generations of pantheism, Totemism, paganism, animism and the oldest of them all, ancestor cults) is nothing but the latest imaginative appendage to have grown out from (culturally-centric) superstition; itself nothing but the elaborately dressed-up residue cast off from blunders in causation and correlation. That’s all superstition is; irrational mistakes in cognition where we observe one event (B) happening after another event (A) and assume A is responsible for B. Upon sensing a storm approaching my wife’s deeply superstitious great grandmother would, I’m told, crawl beneath the kitchen sink and furiously beat pots and pans together until the lightning and thunder had passed. Not so surprisingly this method of chasing storm demons away worked every time. The storm would pass. The reasons why, of course, differed according to whom you asked.
“The General root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other.” (Francis Bacon)
Like theism, superstition is however also not natural. It will not rise instinctively like hunger, and no two populations will arrive at the same irrational fears. A monstrous, head-exploding, palm tree bending sneeze on the Banks Islands of Polynesia is cause for serious concern as someone is certainly talking badly of you, but for the Maoris in nearby New Zealand the same roof-lifting nose orgasm is reason to celebrate because someone fun is surely about to visit. The tripwire for superstition is cultural, it’s anthropological, but this is not however to say there isn’t a physiological trigger buried deep inside the genome that kicks the door open to culturally-centric superstition and through that paves the way for its uglier but more organised cousin, religion. There is, and it’s spelt P A R A N O I A.
Granted, on first inspection most will say paranoia, like superstition, is simply an unwelcomed cognitive clusterfuck, the information processing equivalent of a shipwreck, and in many ways it is just that. It is however an unavoidable, preordained shipwreck hardwired into each and every one of us… and for very good reason: the madness served us extremely well at a time not that very long ago when even the strongest of us were counted as snack items. A breeze bending blades of grass could easily be attributed (albeit in this instance incorrectly) to a stalking lioness and all the dangers that it implied. Danger is bad, and to get ahead of it we, as a species, played it safe and erred on the side of caution. We learnt to jump before (possible) peril arrived. The causal associations made between the unpredictable movement of grasses and the presence of danger (to use this example) was a good thing, a promotable skill, a biologically useful adaption that was slowly but surely etched into our genome. To put it simply, our evolutionary path rewarded the lesser of two evils whereby the cost of paranoia was deemed lower than the cost of scepticism which, if wrong, extracts a painfully high price: namely death. The sceptical hominid might see the bending grass but take a moment to then survey surrounding trees and see if they too were bending. If they were then the probability of wind causing the movement of the grass increased but did not necessarily rule out the presence of a hungry lioness. Wrongly attributing the bending grass to an approaching lioness ninety-nine times out of a hundred was, it appears, far less costly than being wrong once. The paranoid lived on to practice (or fend off) increasingly bad pick-up lines whereas the brazen sceptic tired of jumping at the slightest rustle met a less than pleasant demise.
In a sentence, nature beatified the neurotic.
A tendency to make quick albeit mostly false associations was deemed more evolutionarily beneficial than more reliable but equally more time-consuming rational scepticism. There was a price to pay for this inbuilt paranoia, anxiety and suspicion, but the price was evidently considered tolerable in the face of the more costly alternatives. We are, as such, biologically predisposed to this neurosis. Paranoia is, at a genetic level, our default setting: the natural state of a human being at rest. Bending blades of grass are observed, synaptic nerve endings fire and the observation is linked to past events where the pattern of bending grass is followed by a blinding flash of sandy blonde fur and hazardously huge feline paws. What happens next is entirely involuntary. Up top there is a not-so mild biochemical explosion and norepinephrine floods the brain; the neurological equivalent of someone yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre. Adrenal glands go off like solid rocket fuel motors and adrenalin saturates the sympathetic nervous system. Neurons in the visual cortex spark off at triple normal speed and time appears to slow. Faster than thought the liver dumps its store of glucose into the blood. The heart and lungs snap into overdrive flooding muscles with oxygen, and with that the body is near-instantly prepared for Flight or Fight: a survival mechanism that has changed little, if at all, through the last 830,000 generations.
That’s just the way it is and I can no sooner change that than I can change my eye colour. Today as I walk my dogs an abrupt rustle in the tall grass will make me jump. The likelihood of a lioness leaping out might be remote, a mouse is more probable, but my natural, pre-programmed bias to making the quicker and cheaper false association is there, ingrained. My speedy (life-preserving) reaction, which I’m not shy to admit might include yelping like a little girl, I can thank some deep time relative – perhaps Australopithecus afarensis – for. However, simply because some 830,000 generations ago this neurosis was deemed less expensive than careful scepticism does not mean there hasn’t been a hidden cost slowly accruing in the background; an expense steadily but surely building up like silt behind a once useful dam wall. The truth is there has been, and that cumulative cost is our stubborn attachment to superstition: the nucleus of theism and all its unnatural nonsense.