3.1  Introductory Thoughts on Human Nature, Ethics and Religion  
last revised/edited 11/2010, 10/2014, 5/2015, 2/2018, 6/2018

3.1.0 Summary
3.1.1 Some little recognized factors that have apparently impeded progress    [added 6/2018]
3.1.2 Scientific understanding of motivation and decision-making
3.1.3 Recent unintended and undesirable developments
3.1.4 Natural inclinations towards ethical thinking versus religious morality
3.1.5 Natural inclination towards religiosity and its exploitation; development of religious diversity
3.1.6 Conflicts within religious thinking; conflicts of religions versus science-based perceptions of life
3.1.7 General loss of deeper meaning of religions; cultural developments
3.1.8 Religion in politics versus secular democracies

3.1.0 Summary
Evolution led early humans to mistrust novelty and to be wary of others in large groups. Cooperation has been impeded by ‘us-versus-them’ thinking. Thus progress was, for hundreds of thousand of years, extremely slow. Humans also evolved to be docile and easily subdued into slave-like conditions. When, with the development of agriculture, groups grew to about 150 members or more, order was enforced by primitive legal systems. The historical ‘high cultures’ relied on exploitative class or cast systems and slavery, and the big majority of people had hardly any opportunity or incentive to use their highly developed mind. The notion of and a belief in science-based progress appear to have developed in 15th century Europe. The notions of ‘rights of man’ or ‘human rights’ are even much more recent.
Today’s scholars usually underestimate the importance of the interconnectedness between ethics, economic systems, legal and political institutions and cultural traditions. The effects of a country’s institutions on the health of society and its individuals are not adequately studied. Human nature, the way human minds work, how humans make decisions, and what is beneficial for emotional health are widely misunderstood. Humans are not “rational animals,” people are driven by emotions that are direct and indirect expressions of our instincts. Rather than avoiding discomfort and doing what appears rational, people are mostly motivated by what feels appealing, exciting, meaningful or “right.”
Enterprises and politicians are driving developments with little consideration of ethics and sciences. The economic system has had devastating effects for many people. Particularly tragic has been the increasing availability and seductiveness of loans and consumer credit; as a consequence, severe indebtedness of most people is now necessary to maintain a money supply and keep the economy functioning (at least in some countries, particularly the U.S. adn U.K.); however indebtedness leads to stress, depression, impaired functioning, crimes, and suicides.
As developments have been accelerating, religious-cultural traditions have lost importance. Modern media and cultural changes that many perceive as offensive foster a division between liberal religiosity and agnosticism versus fundamentalism, people seeking comfort in old religious beliefs that bring back abandoned unethical traditions and bigotry.
People have some natural inclinations towards ethical behaviors; however, science-based ethics must be studied and taught; ethical thinking and behaving should evolve and consolidate throughout people’s lives. Today, most people seek morality in religions that incorporate many unethical notions of local cultures, adapt and change continuously, and lead to tensions between members of different religious groups. Studies of inborn ethical propensities that are found worldwide are relevant, and they became part of many religions. Still, the world’s religions are not fundamentally the same; they do not teach some universal truths; they differ radically, and their teachings often include inhumane hierarchies and odd notions about life after death.
A major problem of moral and legal thinking is the fact that our mind requires the illusion of a free will, but it cannot consciously decide and act against its strongest emotions (values can only override unwanted urges if supported by emotions that are stronger than the urges); we can never claim that we could have acted differently when later recognizing a mistake. If there would be free will, it would be minimal and practically negligible; discouraging and preventing unethical acts is important, but punishments can never be ethically justified.
In politics and legal thinking, cultural-religious notions often interfere with rational, ethical decision-making. It is time to completely separate religious cultural traditions from the pursuits of sciences and ethics.
While people feel free, they often perceive themselves as powerless when knowingly doing something ‘bad’: they may not have the emotional strength to resist impulses and cravings, and they may rationalize unethical actions with some awareness of the irrationality of their justifications. Children often lie because they do not have the strength to say something adults do not want to hear.
Much theological discourse deals with concepts that are unimaginable: the human mind cannot grasp concepts of eternity, the notion of God, etc. Historically, when the big majority of people were largely ignorant about theological dilemmas, religions had a role in giving people a sense of belonging and meaning in life. Unimaginable suffering has often been obediently accepted due to its religious meaning.
In our global civilization many religious groups live close together. Consequently the problem of religious beliefs being intolerant has become a major issue: religious faith asserts that any contradictory belief is wrong – there are no alternate truths. However, even self-proclaimed religious people have some recognition that religious teachings are inconsistent, continuously changing according to cultural developments and hardly answering fundamental questions about the world, human life and its meaning, and people may discard their faith in favor of some other religion or spiritual orientation.
Obviously, modern people are hardly able to observe moral teachings of their religion while living according to a value system that embraces materialism and competitiveness. Even teachings concerning most cruel punishments after death rarely deter unethical behaviors. Today, religions have for most people mainly social functions; some abuse religion to justify biases and archaic or recently invented moral notions. Communal religious ceremonies may be helpful, but religions should be essentially private, part of family and personal culture; religious education must avoid instruction that contradicts sciences and global ethics.

3.1.1 Some little recognized factors that have apparently impeded progress
Humans had relatively large brains for millions of years and Homo neanderthalensis had an even bigger brain than modern Homo sapiens. Two questions arise: ‘why did they have big brains?’ and ‘why were developments so slow, taking hundreds of thousands of years for any small invention to spread and become widely used? According to Yuval N. Harari’s account1, it took about 500,000 years from occasional use of fire to regularly cooking food that is otherwise hard to digest, and stone implements hardly improved in the same period.
1. Evolution of higher animals emphasized that the young learn from their parents; they are not to stray to wild experiments. The reluctance of primates to invent new and give up old ways is still with us. This is probably the main reason that progress by way of inventions was, for much of human history, extremely slow, hardly faster than progress by genetic mutations. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, progress was still incredibly slow; many inventions did not spread and were soon forgotten.
Only since the cultural evolution in Europe around 1500 has a significant number of people started to believe in progress by developing sciences and technologies. Still, people commonly think the past was better than the present, and when there is a problem, rather than finding new ways of addressing it, people tend to do more of the same. The genus Homo has had excellent senses, brains and versatile bodies; little of its potentials have been used. Our gathering-hunting ancestors knew their environment well and used their memories and observation skills more than later agriculturalists; however, throughout history few humans have enjoyed their abilities or used their inherent mental capacities to develop better practices for the benefit of their families and offspring.
2. Instinctively, humans appear to lose a natural sense of confidence and comfort in large groups, a tipping point being just below 150 members (the Dunbar number): only smaller groups function smoothly with members readily following conventions and doing what is in the interest of the group. Above that number, people appear to instinctively lose trust in others’ cooperation and they are likely to assume that others do not follow rules; gradually, many lose the incentive to do what is best for the group.
As an explanation, about 150 has been assumed to be the maximum number of individuals people can keep track of, more or less knowing what everybody does. While people feel fairly comfortable and trusting in groups of less than 150 people, they hardly can know everybody and observe all individuals who work in the same building or are in the same military unit. In addition, most people are part of multiple groups of up to 150 members: groups at the work place, members of their extended family, church members, etc. The number appears instinctive rather than due to limits of memory.
When the development of agriculture allowed large groups to live close together, this limit led early on to people being divided into smaller groups by establishing casts or classes who act towards each other almost like different species. In addition, where there is no inherent trust, crude legal institutions have served to keep a sense of order.
3. As Jared Diamond described2, few animals are docile and most do not lend themselves to be domesticated; in Eurasia, only 13 large herbivores could be domesticated and in South America one; none in the other continents. Animals generally do not respond to negative reinforcement and rather let themselves be killed than subdued into unnatural work and driven out of their familiar surroundings; additionally, most animals will not reproduce if in stressed and unnatural environments. Humans are naturally docile and have characteristics of domesticated animals; they are easily enslaved. They will work extremely hard if refusing to obey is severely punished, and even if chronically abused, humans stay fertile. Leaders of the ‘high cultures’ ruthlessly exploited this human characteristic, living in luxury and creating elaborate temples, graves, and other monuments. There was hardly any incentive to finding ways of improving the lives of the mostly docile slaves and lower classes, or to invent and invest in tools that could ease the work of the low classes.
4. An additional factor is the instinctive us-versus-them thinking. It not only leads to lack of compassion towards as ‘them’ perceived others, it also interferes with broad cooperation.
Concerning the brain size of birds and mammals, it appears that much or most intelligence was needed for the incredible control of the body and the mapping of the environment. Computing power for simple body control that human and other animal children readily learn is major. While computers may do well with tasks that are difficult for humans, such as playing chess and solving mathematical problems, it takes much computing power for a robot to tie shoes, jump and climb like average human children, or move like mountain goats. Thus it is still unclear what average human brains, having tripled in size, have to show for, and we should probably not be surprised that the very small-brained Homo floresiensis made and used decent stone tools and was able to adjust to the significant climate changes during the times of the last few ice ages.
Developments in the ‘high cultures’ of Antiquity and the Middle Ages and the very modern developments that started in Europe in the 15th century are hardly based on mutations, and there is no reason to believe that all humans have to pass through similar stages of development. As Jared Diamond observed, children of families that lived recently in Stone Age conditions readily learn to use modern computer technologies and blend in with any international group of modern workers and scientists.
There is still no convincing explanation for the development of upright gait and disproportionately big brains; for about a million years or more there was no obvious advantage. Walking upright in the savannah made humans visible to big cats at large distance, it was hard on back, hip, and knee joints; the simultaneously enlarging brains made a narrow pelvis impossible for females, thus worsening the joint problems. One simple explanation: girls started to like it and were impressed by an upright gate, and girls liked humor that required a more sophisticated brain. Upright gait and big brains were very hard on our ancestors’ bodies, particularly women’s; while they made specific developments possible; these developments happened coincidentally one to several million years later.
The reason for Homo sapiens to, in the last few millennia, develop high cultures independently in most parts of the world is not clear. Homo sapiens, when encountering groups of Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, did not have superior tools and actually adopted some of their stone tools. A question is whether the lasting, unusually benign climate of the last 10,000 years (Holocene) was conducive to homo’s population growth and density and a slight increase in the speed of humans’ development.
Sadly, while humor, storytelling, religious myths and art helped people to some degree, most historical humans and many rural people today appear to have been existing in very depressive conditions. People have been suffering much, living more like domesticated animals than thinkers. Premature deaths were much more frequent due to infectious diseases carried by the domesticated animals, more easily spreading of epidemics because of denser living, and poor nutrition. Violent deaths continued to be frequent, partly due to the invention of armies and genocidal warfare.
Some individuals have developed extraordinary skills but often ended up becoming very competitive and living painful and restricted lives. They rarely derived lasting benefits from their accomplishments. People still have difficulties finding a balance of developing their abilities, enjoying them and creating meaning in life.
Steven Pinker describes that, over the centuries, much progress has been made. He sees the printing press as a main reason empathetic thinking has finally spread throughout all modern cultures. Naturally, us-versus-them thinking limits compassion and empathy, but by reading we often identify with people of other groups and learn to empathize. Compassionate empathy can and should be felt across all boundaries and lines that humans draw between groups, such as different ethnic, socioeconomic and religious groups; the sexes; levels of maturity and later decline; etc. The modern development of reading and compassionately learning about others will hopefully help eradicate abuses and the exploitation of people, which has been pervasive since the agricultural revolution.
Since the scientific revolution that started around 1500 in Europe, developments accelerated. However, novelties were mainly adopted if they were enticing and/or addictive, leading to the possibility of imminent wealth, increased power, etc. Ideas that simply addressed improving many people’s quality of life still lag behind. Whenever somebody brings up a good idealistic idea, there is usually immediate skepticism with assumptions that proposed ideas will not work and create more problems than they may solve. Presently, people’s addictions to speed, electronic gadgets for entertainment, comfort and luxuries, wealth and power, etc. may destroy our ecological systems, even though most people know how detrimental their choices are. Most positive in technological developments appear to be more ‘by-product’ from hardly desirable inventions, rather than developments that were designed with ethical goals in mind.

3.1.2 Scientific understanding of motivation and decision-making
Studies examining human nature, cultures, and ethics are scientific pursuits that are critical, particularly in the efforts of advancing economic, legal, and political reforms. During the extraordinary changes in modern times, cultural values and traditions lost much of their importance, and people experience frequent conflicts between instincts, addiction to material goods, moral-religious values, and pragmatic ethical considerations. Leaders widely disregard the scientific understanding of human nature and ethics. Instead, there is an overreliance on traditions in some and a deleterious laissez-faire attitude in other areas, and blatant abuse of power is still frequent.
Misconceptions about human nature are widespread. Humans are not “rational animals,” we are driven by emotions, which are direct or indirect expressions of our instincts. Rational thought processes serve mostly to help pursue emotion driven goals or to foresee possible catastrophic outcomes and mobilize emotions that counter what drives the individual towards disaster. People are not primarily guided by what they believe to be “right”; insights, culture and personal morals only contribute to decision-making to the extent that they are linked with emotions. Humans are mainly motivated by what is emotionally appealing or feels right and by powerful positive goals that are supported by emotions; goals may be small short-term or major long-term objectives. People do not pursue stress-free, painless lives – even awareness of likely or certain suffering and deprivation before and after reaching a goal rarely deters from the pursuit of a powerful emotional goal, and rational or moral thoughts are often ignored.
Rather than making efforts to avoid discomfort, people often seek excitement that includes indirect instinct fulfillment, such as making attempts to rise in rank, to impress attractive people of the other sex, to get special food, or to pursue abuse-addiction behaviors. Sometimes people appear to perceive a need to do something outrageous, painful and/or dangerous, apparently in an attempt to prove to themselves and/or others that they have strengths and will power. People readily endure deprivation and painful forms of practice and exercise, e.g. in sports, when studying or on an expedition, and they may endure painful procedures to enhance their beauty or earn acceptance within their clan or groups; particularly males may pursue very dangerous activities apparently to impress others. Questions whether a goal or a type of pursuit is ethical is usually considered secondary or completely ignored; cultural-moral standards and injunctions may be consciously or unconsciously considered, but they are often overruled by the desire to pursue a goal.
For the effective functioning of the mind, we must feel like we decide freely; when the mind weighs options that we are aware of, we feel like we are choosing freely. Trying to stop that sense of choosing halts the conscious decision-making process. However, it appears unlikely that free will exists at all, but if there is free will, it must be extremely limited: believing one could have acted differently always assumes that one had, at the time of the decision or action, knowledge and/or emotionally supported goals which were at the time absent or not strong enough to cause a different decision or action. Furthermore, people may make a decision without awareness of the factors that led to it.

3.1.3 Recent unintended and undesirable developments
In modern democracies, conflicts between economic, ethical, religious, and political considerations lead to continuous antagonisms, but there rarely is dialogue or even awareness of the basic problems. Legal and penal systems are based on obsolete, false premises. In addition, they follow capricious ideological and cultural trends, neither justifiable by research nor by ethics; corporate interests may add to the inconsistencies in legal opinions. Democratic institutions of most countries work poorly, but it is rare that improvements are made, particularly changes that are based on systematic reviews of the dysfunctions. Most people show little curiosity as to how economic institutions lead to situations that are appalling, for instance that today many people have no job security and are indebted. Lack of savings and debts leads people to become stressed, depressed, and underperforming; some become criminal and/or suicidal. The U.S. is also unusual in that for most children of poor areas it is all but impossible to get a good education and decent jobs.
Political leaders largely disregard ethical mandates that concern poor countries, including needs of people who live in war zones and/or drought, flood, and earthquake prone areas; consequences of decisions for future generations are, to politicians, a low priority. Particularly in the USA, many pivotal government tasks are not treated as highest priorities, for example sufficiently investing in education, providing health care to every human being, improving infrastructure and minimizing economic activities that cause global warming and damage ecosystems with many endangered plant and animal species.
In the U.S., apparently consequent to economic and cultural changes, many of today’s children have little interest in studying. This is in stark contrast to children of the Third World. Resilience to adversities appears seriously decreased. Peer pressure has become more influential, and adolescents comply today more with peer groups than parental advice. Parents often do not even dare to set limits or make specific demands. Many young people do not achieve a healthy transition from puberty-adolescence to adulthood. Adolescents have high rates of psychiatric problems, with frequent anxiety and mood disorders, self-abusive behaviors, substance use disorders, other abuse-addiction behaviors, and criminal involvement. Since the late 20th century there have been unprecedented rates of child and adolescent suicides.
How the USA appears to fail many of its children may be, at least in part, explained by economic-cultural changes. Primarily due to economic considerations, in its disregard of ethics and without much discussion, the U.S. commenced a huge, uncontrolled experiment by raising babies as young as six weeks mostly in commercial establishments that employ minimally trained and lowly paid, frequently changing workers, and using electronic devices to entertain children. There has been minimal consultation with child development specialists, no serious efforts to evaluate the suitability of most TV programs and video games, and no attempts to scientifically evaluate the long-term consequences of these practices. There is no research data on how diverse children and adolescents may respond to widespread, inappropriate media influences, unhealthy school settings and questionable study tools; only recently has there been some research regarding children’s watching pornography on cell phones and getting their ‘sex education’ from the media3.
Child Protective Services frequently removes children from parents, and/or parents are jailed when they needed help. Particularly poor parents who commit non-violent and drug-related crimes are incarcerated in irresponsible ways, harming mostly the children. Mothers are often harmed when losing the financial support of an incarcerated husband. Consequences of the punitive legal actions are usually life-long; children are psychologically harmed, previously convicted parents have a very hard time finding later good work. In middle-class and wealthy families, children often suffer when parents with substance addiction disorders repeatedly enter ineffective hospital treatments rather than long-term outpatient treatment or low-intensity residential treatments where children can stay with their parent or parents.
Another issue that may not be adequately reviewed is the paradox of parents and schools trying to offer more to children than they can reasonably handle, while basic tasks are neglected. Children are not competent to choose what is best for them and parents may feel inhibited in guiding them. Many children do not adequately learn courtesy, empathy and responsibility; respect of adults, for artifacts and for nature; etc. Children’s natural curiosity concerning nature, natural plants and wild animals may not be fostered. U.S. children often have very one-sided lives: talented or not, they may have to decide between daily sports, artistic or other activities; they should have reasonable balance among all types of practice.
As physical punishments, such as immediately slapping a naughty child, appear crude, parents and teachers often lack negative reinforcements that immediately spoil the enjoyment of unethical behaviors, such as immediate ‘time out.’ Delayed punishments by withholding privileges generally do not work well.

3.1.4 Natural inclinations towards ethical thinking versus religious morality
Philosophers and other scholars tried to establish principles of ethics based on a broad understanding of many societies’ traditional morals. Research appears to have established what may be considered universal ethical principles.
People apparently have an inherent desire to be ‘right’ and usually assume that what feels right is probably morally acceptable. This inclination appears to be a basis of morality. Wanting to be ‘right’ in accordance with one’s culture is probably related to a desire to be accepted and to maintain or rise in status within a group.
Following tradition feels morally right. Humans appear to have an instinctive inclination to emulate their elders: parents, older peers and idols within a group.
People perceive sympathy: when seeing another person, we instinctively initiate movements towards imitating that person’s visible expression of feelings and emotions, which leads to feeling, to a lesser extent, what the observed person feels. People often go further and seek empathy, attempting to understand others’ causes of emotions and feelings, their fears, aspirations, etc. In case of observing persons that are perceived as part of one’s own group, empathy may be powerfully combined with compassion, a desire to help; however, if there is a separation between “us-versus-them,” people hardy feel sympathy, empathy or compassion. Cultures often reinforce us-versus-them thinking, erasing any sympathy people may naturally feel across lines between ‘us’ and ‘them.’
Religiosity has generally been closely associated with morality. It appears that humans have a natural propensity to seek some form of religion that includes myths, complex superstitions, spirits and gods. Cultural morals and practices were probably later incorporated into religions. While research shows that many basic moral-ethical principles can be found in very disparate cultures, religious morality sometimes contradicts ethics; the teachings of different religious groups vary greatly and religions often incorporate inconsistent and contradictory doctrines.
The advancement of ethical thoughts should be independent of religious studies, even though some religious leaders, particularly Jesus, taught ethical ways of living. However, exploring ethics is inseparable from studying human nature, mainly our social instincts, our innate desire to understand others, and our capacity for empathy.
Humans’ propensities towards social thinking may be illuminated by reviewing ‘global ethics,’ broadly found principles of morals and pragmatic solutions to basic ethical problems found in virtually all cultures. European early Humanist, Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers attempted to understand principles of ethics that are not based on cultural-religious notions. However, ethics must be developed further, considering data which was unknown or not appreciated by philosophers, religious authorities, and other leaders of traditional cultures. Rather than creating a rigid structure of mandates, ethics has to develop pragmatic ways of consideration, valuing, and behaving that are largely based on social instincts and broad, compassionate empathy without us-versus-them thinking.
Of particular interest are the contradictions of a belief in justice that relies on punishments (vengeance), versus science-based determinism, versus Christian ethics (which emphasizes loving, not judging, and forgiving); and the contradictions between cultures having developed elaborate hierarchies that often mistreated low-ranking individuals (including women), versus the 18th century call for equality of all people. However, while propagating the notion that “all are born equal,” women, slaves and ‘inferior’ indigenous inhabitants of colonies were hardly considered – few white men and not even most women seemed to notice. Naturally, humans seek hierarchies and are often happy being of mid-level or low rank. In some earlier cultures, high-ranking individuals had to uphold complex and often uncomfortable standards and they were supposed to protect lower ranking ones and treat them humanely, they were to mediate when there were squabbles among low-ranking group members and to bravely defend their community.
Empathy is not necessarily combined with compassion. ‘Us-versus-them’ thinking may lead to empathy being abused. Visualizing what others feel, think, fear and desire can be used to more effectively use and abuse others.
In recent decades, religiosity has grown in many parts of the world, probably related to destabilizing effects of globalization, the development of addicting technologies and forms of entertainments, and consequent degradation of local cultures. Profit driven media have had mixed effects but have been perceived as deleterious. Responding to these developments, proclaimed conservative values gained importance in politics. For complex reasons, some religious groups became extremely influential in the USA, although their beliefs are widely considered obsolete and even aberrant. While successful politics has to be pragmatic, a moral fervor has swept the USA, comparable to the political climate in many Islamic countries. This odd development adds to the importance of studying religiosity as a human cultural phenomenon.

3.1.5 Natural inclination towards religiosity and its exploitation; development of religious diversity
Humans naturally long for myths and some form of religiosity that bond the groups they live in. Images and representations of supernatural beings were readily erected and worshiped with people being aware that they were human creations. Throughout human history, myths and knowledge from observations were rarely separated, and literature blended historical reporting, mythical beliefs, and fiction. Main aspects of early religions included ancestor cult, awe of nature and superstitions concerning ways to appease spirits and as dangerous perceived forces of nature; a culture-specific set of moral rules and traditions usually became part of primitive and modern world religions, leading to major differences between branches of related religions.
Since the earliest developments of civilizations, religions were closely associated with chiefs’ and kings’ solidifying their power. Kings either were high priests themselves, they claimed to have special communication with the gods of their cultures or they were closely associated with a class of priests who supposedly communicated with influential ancestors and the gods. People often believed that their kings were installed by the gods. Priests often had to justify the elite’s actions: kings serving as or controlling judges, kings suppressing their own people and waging war, etc.
The significance of religions in modern times is unclear. Anecdotal data indicates that conservative people who consider themselves religious may be happier; however there is also data that “liberal” and “progressive” people act or behave happier. Secular civilizations do generally well socially and with regards to happiness, as indicated by surveys.
It is also likely that religious people are less ready to admit that their life is bad and that they are unhappy since religiosity tries to instill a belief that the “creation” is good, that God helps them and that they are to be grateful. However, religiosity is hardly associated with less child abuse and other forms of abusive treatment. Religions often reinforce us-versus-them thinking with righteous people having no compassion for cruelly punished sinners, in life or in an afterlife. Religious beliefs sometimes lead to or become part of psychotic thinking. Inhumane institutions are often based on misguided religious morality, and religious morality has frequently justified ancient, inhumane traditions. Many crimes and wars have been justified by religious beliefs and with religion associated traditions.
People often assert that the great religions essentially teach the same message. This is true in a very limited way only: some global ethical principles that are based on human instincts may be found in most religions. However, otherwise, teachings of religions vary greatly, contradict each other, encompass incompatible notions and keep changing over times. In addition, the main focus of different world religions and widespread cultures varies greatly. It appears that, if a God had intended to communicate to humans certain moral principles, this God’s communications would have been extremely confusing.
Social functions of religious institutions appear beneficial; for many people their church functions as clan-like group they belong to, and in many communities of the USA, religious activities integrate different age groups better than most secular organizations. Secular civilizations may not do enough to fulfill such functions, particularly since families are frequently torn apart by work-related moves, and when nuclear families are not adequately supported by their communities.
In the development of religions, the phenomenon of often hallucinating the voice of a recently deceased person, having a sense that he/she is still there, etc. may be a main factor having led to the belief that ancestors watch and influence us. Naturally consequent events are readily considered to represent cause and effect, additionally, good outcomes are more remembered than ‘normal/average’ events. Example: prayer to gods and hoped-for outcome (rain or recovery of a loved-one) – if outcome as prayed for, it is considered the result of prayer and sacrifice; if negative outcome, it is soon forgotten, and there is hardly a belief that the non-event, lack of rain or recovery, were caused by the praying; people are likely to pray more and remember the good outcomes while possibly blaming themselves for not praying sincerely enough, if there was no good outcome. Naturally, humans project human-like characteristics into spirits and gods, and consequently they try to influence them, offering sacrifices to appease them, reason with them, etc., as exemplified in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.
Religious teachings vary greatly, differences between religions appear much more significant than commonalities. While in antique Judaism, life after death was hardly discussed, Christian teachers taught how life after death is determined by individuals’ sins and their beliefs; Hinduism includes all animals in its teachings about cycles of reincarnation, etc. Many religious teachers justified and even mandated unethical practices, including revenge and honor-related crimes, ruthless exploitation, abuse of the poor and mutilating practices. Buddhism was originally a philosophy of life but was transformed into a unique world religion with very different branches. Religions of indigenous people tend to focus on the spiritual and god-like nature of natural phenomena, invisible ghost-like beings, and the power of ancestors.
Historically, common people appear to have benefited much from religiosity. Most people did not understand and question theological concepts. Religion was about rituals and associated traditions, including sacrifices such as fasting, pilgrimages and possibly self-injurious behaviors. A belief of belonging to a religion was somewhat comforting, even if there were often teachings about possible severe punishments after death. Extraordinary suffering was interpreted as the will of a god, a punishment or a test of piousness and faith. People generally accepted hierarchies and maltreatment without questioning traditional orders. Few believed in the possibility of progress, avoiding intermittent starvation, having access to education, etc. Such conditions have remained largely unchanged in rural Third World areas where children may learn to recite the Koran but could hardly judge specific applications and interpretations. Although more often victimized, girls have been more likely to accept traditions and religious instructions without questioning apparent contradictions between teachings and their daily life experiences. People have generally accepted that powerful aristocrats, wealthy merchants or members of a dictator’s family did not live piously, despite the fact that they have had the luxury of choices poor people never had. Recently, television, Internet, and cell phones have complex influences on cultural developments of poor rural areas.
Today, it is unclear what the terms “religious belief” and “faith” actually mean. Religious teachings have been dealing with concepts that cannot be grasped by the human mind, and which incorporate irreconcilable conflicts, for instance: eternity with creation as its beginning (what was before eternity, what was before God, how did God come into existence? If a god could create himself out of nothing, why is there only one God?); teachings of a benevolent, omnipotent God-creator who allows unimaginable suffering, either having created evil or unable or unwilling to control it. Many religions teach extremely dire consequences for leading an immoral life. However, people not only ‘sin’; they often rationalize and plan sinful pursuits, apparently without concerns about punishments after death. An unyielding belief of possible eternal torture in hell would paralyze people with fear; and it would be extremely callous to enjoy paradise while knowing of relatives, friends, or any strangers enduring continuous torture in hell.

3.1.6 Conflicts within religious thinking; conflicts of religions versus science-based perceptions of life
Many Christians who proclaim to ‘believe’ appear to live a “double life.” Many ostensibly believe in an utter simplification of Christian teachings, which essentially separates believers who will be “saved,” nonbeliever-sinners who will be permanently punished in a most cruel way, and possibly many good souls in an in-between or “limbo” state. However, virtually all these Christians actually live materialistic lives that contradict Jesus’ teachings on ethics.
Some Christians seriously try to follow Jesus’ ethical teachings but find it very difficult to live very simply without feeling egoistic and vindictive. They rarely give up most of their income to help the poor, the sick, and the neglected. They may recognize their shortcomings but find it impossible to part with the lifestyle of family and neighbors; some may fear that starting to live very simply would not be understood by others and isolate them. Most Christians are unable to do more than give some to churches and charities, do some church-related and/or charitable work, and pray.
If a people would wholeheartedly and without any doubts believe that a religious leader, such as Jesus, who is considered part of the ‘Trinity of God,’ has given us a guide to God’s will, individuals would and could not ignore these teachings in their daily lives in a way almost all Christians do (Amish groups and certain nuns being probably the most notable exceptions). Following human nature, modern Christians seek comfort in numbers and join churches which, rather than asking people to follow the ethical teachings and example of Jesus, settle for very minor concessions in their pursuit of status, comfort and other ethically questionable goals.
Religious believing poses more troubling questions. If we assume that mature adults truly believe in their religion’s teachings, how could they, when entering a close relationship with a person of different religion, give up theirs and convert to the loved one’s? How could people feel at peace in a loving relationship, if, according to their religion, their partner will never reach heaven or paradise because of “false” beliefs or lack of faith? How can we treat beliefs like entities we choose and exchange at will for external, coincidental reasons?
The inconsistencies and contradictions within the great religions’ sacred texts make assertions of believing them as divine proclamations or will of God meaningless. For instance, Old and New Testament moralities are very different; within Christianity, Catholic teachings have changed greatly over the recent and distant past; religions keep splitting up over disagreements concerning “truths”, and many competing Christian groups proclaim to teach “the absolute truth.”
Theoretically, people want to and often claim to be tolerant towards people of other religions. The problem is that the religious teachings, the beliefs that followers must accept, are, by definition, intolerant. Beliefs are to be held as absolute, indisputable truths that exclude ‘alternate truths,’ as taught by other religions.

3.1.7 General loss of deeper meaning of religions; cultural developments
“Religious belief” may be interpreted as primarily implying efforts to follow a religious cultural tradition, which may include attending religious services, following specific religious initiation and life passage rituals, making payments to one’s religious organization, and praying. Practitioners may make some efforts to believe much of what religious instructors teach, but rather than truly believing, people generally surmise that they have faith in the essence of their religion, ignoring that they are not attempting to comprehend or follow much of the sacred texts. People may read some short text and try to find meaning in it without actually being able to apply it to their life and without putting it into the context of other passages that contain inconsistent and contradictory messages.
The focus on “believing” rather than knowing, understanding, and following religious teachings is extraordinary: if presented with the teachings of Jesus, many Christians would believe to hear the words of a modern socialist revolutionary. In the USA, conservatives have been associating compassionate, social thinking, creating a safety net for the poor and universal free or subsidized health care with ‘atheist communism,’ while economically conservative capitalist policies are perceived as representing Christian values. Many self-proclaimed Christians mechanically pray the Lord’s Prayer unaware that an important line affirms our forgiving persons who commit crimes against us. Most Christians are also barely aware of the great similarity of Old Testament texts and today’s fundamentalist Islamic teachings. Some Muslims interpret their religion to justify wars; this is no different from some Judeo-Christian interpretations of sacred texts.
We may observe that religion apparently gave people, particularly women, a sense of meaning and comfort in life without them trying to understand the problems of unintelligible and internally contradictory teachings. Many girls and women were victimized in many ways, by parents, husbands, in-laws, by the hardships and often deadly outcomes of many pregnancies, by frequently losing children, etc.; for them, a sense of community when working very hard, combined with a vague belief that their moral behaviors please God/Allah and may lead to a better afterlife, may add to the meaning of their lives and to their ability to tolerate harsh suffering. By nature, women rebel less against cultures and their patriarchal religions, and they are more able to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic.
With religious and related bigotry associated terrorist crimes appear to be primarily due to a person’s inability to find meaning in life, there is a lack of motivating enthusiasm in alternative “normal” pursuits; the terrorist may have felt empty and lost outside groups of extremists. A lack of close bonds with family or other social groups, lacking a meaningful career, and possibly severe indebtedness or a sense of having been victimized may contribute to a move towards extremist positions and towards groups that encourage them. The pursuit of extreme crimes may feel in some way meaningful and avert despair. Disturbed lonely people, particularly men, tend to reinforce each other, when meeting or in electronic communication, aggravating bigotry and encouraging actions individual group members would not consider by themselves. Lonely disturbed persons may follow the example of even more disturbed persons, as they are portrayed in the media; rather than inventing terrorist actions, they copy others.
There has been a profound failure of Western cultures to set constructive examples of ethical, humane civilizations that postcolonial and by corrupt repressive governments plagued populations may pursue.
Islamic fundamentalist fighters hardly believe ancient teachers’ interpretations (an misinterpretations) of texts. Islamic men hardly become martyrs in a political cause, because they believe they look forward to having a sex orgy with many naive virgins they do not know or love. That Muslim women often support suicidal acts of war and even became voluntary “suicide bombers” underscores this point. People who make big personal sacrifices and even become martyrs for a political or religious cause usually do so because, in their stage in life and interpretation of world affairs, no other action seems more meaningful.

3.1.8 Religion in politics versus secular democracies
Most people are pragmatic and there is little focus on religiosity in most highly industrialized countries (the USA, Ireland, and Israel appear to be exceptions). Many people distinguish between spirituality and religiosity. Spirituality is a universal human potential that religious and agnostic people share. There are apparent benefits to religions, but often, benefits and negative aspects are hard to evaluate. Agnosticism and even atheism are in no way equal with lack of ethics, even though atheists and agnostics consider parts of religious morality wrong.
Learning from history and with considerable wisdom, many political thinkers demanded a separation of religion and politics, church and state. Enlightened kings and emperors introduced freedom of religion rather than demanding that their subjects profess to believe in the religion of their own families; however, secular political leaders often assumed that they had to at least pretend to be religious.
Religions should be essentially a private matter of family and personal culture, and religious education must be careful to avoid instruction that is abusive to young people, creating fear of torture after death and teaching callousness towards persons who supposedly deserve cruel punishment in life or after death. Religions must never instruct that ‘sinners’ or ‘non-believers’ ‘deserve’ to be discriminated against or ‘deserve’ to die with some people claiming a right or duty to execute them.
In recent history, the idea of religion-based political parties and states has had catastrophic consequences. The world needs secular humane governance, not Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Mormon or Christian states. Many countries have been far too careless in allowing religious notions to overrule ethical and scientific reasoning when legislating; politicians must never appeal to voters who want their religious beliefs enshrined in a state’s laws. Religiosity often goes along with justification of gross discrimination, racism and warfare.
The issue of religious freedom versus discrimination has to be clear. As healthcare provider, educator, or as the only plumber in a community, etc., it would be unethical to claim one’s religion and morals as an excuse for not working for a community member according to, as feasible, highest scientific-technological standards; and institutions must never claim religious or moral justifications for refusing sales or any services, including indicated vaccinations, abortions or blood transfusions. Regarding abortion, a gynecologist who does not want to perform abortions must work in an area where alternative providers are readily available. However, consumers may boycott unethical businesses and providers.
It is most important that we distinguish between ethics and religious morality: politicians must not follow religious mandates but they must be ethical. Ethics and good politics are inseparable. Governments essentially devoid of ethics may do more harm than a lack of governance beyond village or neighborhood organizing; and basing governance on any religion is dangerous.
In any attempt to design model institutions,  we must consider scientific data on human nature, separate religion and government, and observe science-based ethics. Political, legal, sociological, and economic sciences should be considered subordinate to the pursuit of the scientific study of human nature and ethics.
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1 Yuval Noah Harari  Sapiens  A Brief History of Humankind [2011] English translation from Hebrew 2014, page 13
2 Jared Diamond describes in Guns Germs and Steel 1997, p. 159ff, that only 14 large herbivore mammals lent themselves to domestication and were domesticated, 13 in Eurasia, 1 in South America.
3 New York Times Magazine 2/11/2018 cover story “When Porn Is Sex Ed (What teenagers are learning from online porn)” by Maggie Jones

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