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Deus ex machina
Religion is often described as the realm of the supernatural. The entities and phenomena it treats transcend the natural world and its natural laws. Believers in religion accept this description and don't require natural explanations for what they experience in their world of faith. If asked where religion came from, they answer: From God of course.
Non-believers don't accept this explanation for religion. Yet non-believers curious about this enduring realm of the human condition still want answers. How is it that every culture has religion of one sort or another? What do these religions have in common? What inspires humans to build their lives around assertions for which there is little or no physical evidence?
A possible answer comes from, of all places, the field of artificial intelligence. The chatbots that have been unleashed upon the world in the last several months have shown a remarkable ability to pull together information from various places and combine it into coherent stories. Sometimes the stories are not factually true, but they still read pretty well. It's hard to tell what’s going on inside these black boxes of software, but it appears that when they reach a point where they can't find an answer, they make up something that sounds plausible. Their minders have a name for these excursions beyond the bounds of what is known to the bots; they call them hallucinations.
With no disrespect, the same term might be applied to religious belief and doctrines. The workings of the human brain are even more opaque than those of the chatbots. But over eons, the brain has evolved into a powerful inference engine. It takes a bunch of facts and attempts to arrange them in causal patterns. This had a decisive selective value for the species. Individuals and societies that could figure things out could gain control over their environment and an advantage over competitors.
But like the software, the human brain didn't know when to stop. When it ran out of data from which to infer, it made things up. What happens to us after we die? There's no evidence. So the brain spun out a story that sends our souls to a place that looks like a better version of what's here below, or a very much worse version, depending on how we conduct ourselves in life.
Why does a universe exist at all? Again, we have no evidence. So the brain, extrapolating from the fact that humans make things, inferred that some supernatural being made the universe.
Does life have a purpose? Here's where the hallucination analogy works best. Hallucinations seem very real to the hallucinators. A person who hallucinates an invisible friend can develop a relationship with that friend almost indistinguishable, in terms of interior emotional state, from a relationship with another human.
People who choose to believe that life has a purpose, ordained by a divinity, can live very purposeful lives. It is as though belief creates its own reality. What every one of us perceives of reality comes through the wiring of our brains; belief can modify the wiring to make the unreal indistinguishable from the real. This happens temporarily to all of us when we dream; hallucinations are the dreams of the awake. And a belief that life has a divinely appointed purpose is one of the most appealing dreams imaginable. If God took an interest in us, we must be really important.
Believers and unbelievers start from very different positions in considering religion, but if they're open-minded, they can wind up not very far apart. Whether the human religious experience is based on a fact about the cosmos or on a fable told about the cosmos, the effect on human actions can be much the same.
As he was dying, Benjamin Franklin was asked to share his thoughts on religion. Franklin's theology had evolved greatly, from the Puritanism of his childhood to the atheism of his young adulthood to the deism of his middle years to something approaching Unitarianism at the end. At times in his life he had defended these different positions with vigor. But in response to the eleventh-hour question, he said it wasn't something worth arguing about. He would discover the answer firsthand soon enough.
Not a bad approach for all of us.