Human beings have the ability to adapt on four levels. The most basic, and slowest, is the physical and genetic process guided by natural selection. Also shared with more intelligent animals is the ability to learn, to adapt within a single lifetime to environmental conditions, rather than rely on genetic variation to encode new behaviour. But we have two additional levels of adaptation. One is the ability to imagine and respond preemptively to circumstances--to ask what if. This is the fastest and highest level. But there is another mode of adaptation that stands between physical adapatation and learned behaviour. This is cultural adaptation, which changes over generations but represents a shared body of beliefs which both describe and define human nature. These govern our expectations not only of what is good, but of what is possible or likely in human behaviour.
These cultural norms set the standards for human interaction, and provide the framework by which we can engage in positive sum exchanges. Such exchanges are the secret of homo sapiens' success. I give you something which is easy for me to make in return for something that is easy for you to make, but each gets something which is relatively cheaper than if the individual were forced to provide it for themselves. Specialization and trade permits win-win deals by which both participants are enriched. This is why humans gather together in large concentrations, in villages, towns, and finally, cities. Our social organization has more in common with social insects, like ants or bees, than it does with most mammals, who reach a peak pack size, after which they must split to avoid exhausting resources. If human competition were as simple as social darwinists claim (and scientific darwinists are not social darwinists,) we would never build cities. The concentration of population only works because we are able to organize into large, cooperative, and mutually beneficial social and economic arrangements. Cooperation, not competition, is the primary guiding principle in human interaction. Competition, where it exists, is strongly governed and restrained by moral, legal, and political strictures. The mark of a successful civilization is the ability to harness competition towards cooperative ends. Unbridled competition is war, with all the waste and destruction that war entails.
Religion originates as a cultural myth which depicts in narrative form the ideals of the tribe, community, or society. In religious mythology gods and heroes acts as exemplars of ethical positions, both good and bad. In these stories, the struggle between these figures reflects the struggle which occurs both within the individual and within the society. The narrative format is well suited to transmitting these norms; stories are, for us, the most efficient way for transmitting these ideas. A story expands in our minds, supplied by an understanding that we all share about what it is to be human. Religion is therefore not a depiction of the world as it is, but the world as we would like it to be in a moral sense. It is both an attempt to depict human nature as it is and an intentional act to redefine it in a way that promotes social cohesion. Religion therefore acts within a realm of social ethical freedom, human adapatation at the cultural level. But it is, first and foremost, a means of establishing social and political control.
While the content of religion may deal with ethics, religion itself as a tool for social control is ethically neutral. It may be used for good or ill. The distinction most often drawn between religions and cults therefore usually centers on the intent of those who control it, and how susceptible the sect is to control and abuse by a small group of individuals. Many of the traits often attributed to cults--isolation from outside influence, censorship, strict hierarchy, thought jamming, shaming, ostracism, black and white thinking--can be found to some degree in many religions considered respectable--and indeed, some are practiced to an extent in all social organisations. Many of us would consider these methods to be foul play, a form of brainwashing that runs against our code of conduct of a free society. But the tools of religion are in the public domain. New religions can be built to order, and older, more established religions can be 'hacked'. If a sufficient proportion of the populace belongs to a religion, the leaders of that religion can then use their influence to exert control over politics, economics, and culture. Politics, too, can be hacked.
In fact, the respectability of the older religions usually stems from a system of checks and balances against corruption within its hierarchy, and these generally do not exist until some time after the founder's death. The history of recent religions--the Unification Church, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses--suggests that even the our oldest and most honoured religions may have originated as cults in every sense of the word. The transition and moderation of the Mormon church is particularly revealing. Joseph Smith's escapades were so outrageous to the majority of Christians that he was dragged from a jail cell and lynched by an angry mob. Nevertheless, the Church of Latter Day Saints has reformed itself to the point that it is now considered a legitimate faith. One is left to wonder how well Christianity and Islam would fare against someone with a time machine and a small digital camera. How well would the historical founders of our most cherished spiritual traditions stand up to the intense public scrutiny that they would suffer if they lived today?
The point, however, may not be the murky origins of our faiths. Contrary to the claims of biblical literalists, the Jesus of history is irrelevant; it is the Jesus as fictional hero, the ideal man of the imagination, that is important. What does matter is how these systems of faith may be derailed by political opportunists, and to what murky depths they might take them. Two tendencies work against us here: religion provides an ready disguise for authoritarian figures, and outrageous demands can actually encourage strong levels of commitment. The first tendency I call The Man Behind the Curtain. Like the Wizard of Oz, a demagogue can disguise his own agenda and prejudices by throwing his voice into the mouth of the Idol, cherry picking passages from any of the holy texts, which are good for everything from genocide to homophobia. Claims of scriptural infallibility are essentially claims of personal infallibility, since the content of such claims are always interpretations of scripture. The second tendency works because cognitive dissonance renders people less likely to admit that they are wrong when they are very wrong. This underlies the doctrine of the Big Lie--get someone to agree to something that they would be a fool to accept, and they will stick to it rather than admit they are fools. Religions that require a high level of commitment, and adhererance to arbitrary and absurd measures of fealty, are harder to break with. This requires admitting not only that the religion is wrong, but that you are wrong. Pride is a powerful motivator.
While I understand where the adversaries of religion are coming from, there is a flaw in their strategy. Religion may not arise naturally in children who are specifically taught a naturalistic world view, but most children are not so successfully weaned from the magical thinking of childhood. For most, the religious impetus remains strong, particularly if it is not counterbalanced with a profound curiousity which drives the individual to fill in the gaps in their understanding of the natural world. The most prevalent theistic argument is 'God in the gaps'. This exploits educational lapses and inadequacies. The frontal attack on religion is actually far less effective against fringe beliefs than it is against more responsible traditions, who meet such challenges openly and are therefore more susceptible to being weakened by them. What such attacks may achieve is the very worst scenario--a weakening of moderate and reasonable specimens of religion, clearing the field for more virulent and destructive forms. Secular humanism may be a victim of its own success, precisely because it has won over those who were already had the most in common with it. In the wake of such a conversion a new generation arose with no acquaintance with religion; if these same people lack the inherent curiousity and education required to study and grasp naturalistic models of the world, they may easily become fodder for religious demagogues who employ advanced marketing techniques to win converts. This new wave of religious empire builders are exploiting an ideological monopoly. Worse yet, established religions are copying their strategies in an attempt to break into this market.
It is unlikely that we will ever be able to abolish religion. There are too many cognitive and emotional weaknesses that it caters to: conformity, tribalism, need for community, pride, comfort, habit, easy answers, justification of ignorance, a child's wish to be the center of the universe, the illusion of certainty, magical thinking, transformative power, and misdirected theory of mind, amongst others. It would be better to accept this and attempt to curb the more malevolent manifestations of it, to back the moderates against the wackos and Waco's. It is far easier for a quiet Anglican, Presbyterian, or casual Catholic to accept a naturalistic world view than it is for a fanatical fundamentalist or a New Age flake, and for the most part, the former are far less likely to try to ascend to heaven by the power of explosives. Pastors, priests, and reverends have, at least, some training and a broader education, unlike the current pack of lay preachers armed only with their own prejudices and the illusion of their own infallibility. Clerical certification is no guarantee of moral quality, any more than a degree is proof against academic fraud, but it does offer the possibility of establishing a baseline code of conduct.
Perhaps the greatest advance we can make in the reformation of religion is to understand its purpose as a means of communicating those values necessary for harmonious social arrangements, and regulate it towards that purpose. This means that we must understand that religion is not necessarily the best means of discovering those values, and should be subject to scrutiny and correction from without. This exposes religion's greatest weakness--the very notion of the sacred often places doctrine beyond question, and as a cultural form of adaptation it tends to be highly conservative, changing at a generational pace. Nevertheless, change it does, and sometimes for the worse. This is because such change usually occurs below the level of conscious choice, driven by political and economic concerns that may have little use for genuine ethical consideration but which hide their true nature through moral disguises. This process of change, and the motivations that drive it, must be brought into full view.
The best way to avoid being tricked is to learn how the trick is done. This may be dangerous knowledge, but it is knowledge that has already fallen into the hands of the very worst people. There is no question that the magic works; religion has no influence on the physical world but a tremendous influence upon the human world. Rather than teach a specific religion, or even comparative religion, it might be better to introduce people at an early age to the psychology of religion, so that they can understand why people come to believe the unbelievable. It's not all bad news. As already noted, religion is a means of establishing and transmitting cultural norms, for good or ill. So rather than simply study the successful or established faiths, it might be even more instructive to study the cases where it has all gone terribly wrong, to understand the shortcomings in our emotional and cognitive makeup that made these disasters possible. Such an education would be invaluable when it comes time to question the man behind the curtain.