There was a lot of stuff going on in the life of Stone Age wo/man that s/he couldn’t explain. For instance, where they themselves came from originally and where they went when they stopped living. So what do you do when you have no clue, and have to say something to your offspring when they ask questions, get frightened, mourn a family member and so on? You invent a warm, fuzzy story to comfort, calm and sooth the offspring.
That worked for a long time, then an Agricultural Revolution came by, and not because hunter/gatherer man wanted to work for the food that otherwise only needed to be picked, or picked up. No, they wanted beer! For that they were willing to wait several months for the corn to grow, and then even work on it to get in a drinkable form.
A fun fact about beer: It has the one of the highest ratings on the glycemic index, which means that it has the highest effect on our blood sugar level compared to other food sources. Hence the beer belly: when we drink beer, the blood sugar level skyrockets, and the body answers by pumping insulin into the blood stream to lower the blood sugar level, and sadly, convert the sugar into fat which it disposes on the belly (if you’re a man). But also, glucose (sugar) is the energy of the brain. So a higher-octane brain fuel starts a chain of wild ideas that we see the effects of now, some 10−12,000 years later. If you don’t believe me, sit sober in a pub a whole evening, and count the really practical ideas (research show that creative people get less creative under influence of alcohol, while less creative people let their inhibitions go and become more creative, at least up to a certain level of alcohol consumption, beyond that level it’s all downhill).
Somewhere along the way, people started to question where we came from in more detail, and the mind-expanding effect of beer generated more ideas and explanations. Still having no clue about what really went on in nature, the warm, fuzzy and comforting stories became more detailed and vivid, and pretty soon the person with the best story had followers: Organized religion was born.
Let me add here: I think everyone is entitled to believe what s/he wants. If you have a spiritual experience you cannot explain, you are entitled to interpret this as you wish. What I really cannot stand, though, are people who push their stories onto other people, also known as organized religion.
Anyway, for many thousands of years, organized religion gave answers to common problems, had a soothing effect on emotional struggles, and above all, promised an afterlife that was better than the life we now experience—way better, too! This promise made the misery of everyday life as ‘slaves’ to an upper class (kings and priests) not only bearable—it was now also noble. In the words of Pope Leo X (1475−1521): “All ages can testifie enough howe profitable that fable of Christe hath ben to us and our companie.” In clear English: “It has served us well, this myth of Christ.”
The power of this régime was unchallenged until the next great revolution in our species history: the Industrial Revolution, or science revolution, if you will.
So although “great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12), being rewarded in this life is better still. Science was able to deliver were organized religion couldn’t: it gave ordinary people the possibility of living as only kings and priest had been able to before. Predictably, this gave organized religion a knock that it still is taking the count for, and in the parts of the world were material standard of living rose sharply, the need for reward in the afterlife took a dive. Add to that the level of knowledge and explanations about nature that science provided, which exposed organized religions’ stories and answers for the hoax it was (like a pope on a marketing tour in Africa telling aids candidates to stay off the condoms).
And yet, in the light of the horror of the Catholic Church and Islam, science hasn’t yet put organized religion out of its misery. People with material riches, which should be living in trust and happiness, realizes that the second house, the third car and the fourth flat screen TV doesn’t really reward them as much as it used to… Something is missing.
So do we go back to mass delusion, blindly following the guy with the best story (and the funny hat and clothing)?
I suggest this is science’ greatest challenge: in our search for meaning and purpose, the awe-inspiring aspects of science do not reach enough people. Instead the fighting within science turns many people off. The story of Dr. Semmelweiss comes to mind, as well as the more recent fight over the reasons and effects of climate change. This fighting among scientist is of course the strength of science: No idea gets away with a hard sell or BS. Evidence, proof and repeatable experiments have the final say. Scientists do (finally) admit error in the face of proof, leaders of organized religion never do (unless they awake from their indoctrination).
Science is winning the ‘battle’ here, no doubt. This does not mean obliteration of religion. As I stated earlier, everyone has the right to believe what they want, and gather in groups to share their experiences too. Science has done more for humanity in a few hundred years than organized religion has in several thousand years, even without discounting all the nasty stuff organized religion has caused. Organized religion is running out of ways to scare people into its fold, while science has barely begun scratching the surface of the power of good it will do for humanity.
But like any top quality product, making it isn’t enough; the beauty and glory of science needs to be ‘sold’ in an inviting, intriguing way as well, so laymen can relate and be enthused by it.