The judgement of a God upon us … it explains (insert bad event of your choice here)

preacherGlance into the Old Testament within the bible and you find some rather weird rules, for example …

  • Bad haircuts are banned: Leviticus 19:27 reads “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard.”
  • Pork is banned: Leviticus 11:8, while giving guidance on pigs, reads “You shall not eat of their flesh nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.”
  • Lobster is banned: Leviticus 11:10 reads, “But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers that does not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to you.”


Well, there are often good reasons that might have motivated the emergence of such guidance, not from a supernatural entity of course, but rather from humans making observations about specific things. When something bad happens they conclude, “Ah, so obviously god does not want me to do that“.

Take Pork for example, apart from the ultra religious within specific belief systems (Islam, Judaism, etc…), most humans can happily consume Pork, and … gasp … nothing bad happens. Pork eaters do not, like smokers, cause themselves any undue harm. However, if you do not handle Pork properly, then food poisoning will result. You must cook it properly, handle it hygienically, and store it correctly. If you don’t, then you risk food poisoning, or to be more specific “trichinosis” … but known to humans not by that name, but rather by the results … nausea, dyspepsia, diarrhoea  etc… We understand this, and generally know how to handle it correctly. Ah, but cast your mind back to a time when an understanding of what was actually going on did not exist … eat beef and no problem, eat pork (remember no fridges and no hand washing) and “oh shit” … pain, nausea, plus lots of uck, so obviously God does not want me to do that, it must be bad.  You can see how such religious rules and rituals arise … if nice things happen, it must be good, but if bad things happen,we conclude what was being done was bad and must not be done.

The emergence of religion is perhaps the ultimate Skinner box.

What is a Skinner Box?

American behaviourist, author, and inventor, Burrhus Skinner, discovered back in the 1940s that the humble pigeon does exactly the same. Skinner famously placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that randomly delivered food at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behaviour. He soon observed that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as the food was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions to get more food …

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return”

‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947. Burrhus Skinner.

Our primitive ancestors responded in exactly the same manner to random events in the world around them, and so over time they developed a comprehensive set of rules as they strove to appease the gods to ensure that they would be rewarded. Over successive generations these rules evolved into quite sophisticated belief systems, often involving complex rituals.

We don’t do this these days do we?

Actually, yes we do, you never have to look too far to find examples.

Last Wednesday, Religious Right activists and members of Congress, some leading movers and shakers, gathered together for a prayer event called “Washington: A Man of Prayer.” Among the speakers was Rep. Michele Bachmann, who used the opportunity to promote the 9/11 prayer event being organized by Birther-king Joseph Farah, saying that “it is no secret that our nation may very well be experiencing the hand of judgement ” and declaring that both the original 9/11 attack and the attack in Benghazi on 9/11 of last year were God’s judgement.

Really, she was actually saying that 9/11 was God’s judgement? Am I truly sure she actually said that? You betcha …

So there you have it, something bad happened, and that led to a conclusion that people had not been praying enough, so her solution is that we need to be praying a lot more.

Is there anything better we could do than pray” she says … er yes, praying is in effect doing nothing at all, so almost everything else is far better than that.

Why are we like this?

This is not a symptom of some lack of intelligence, but rather a side effect of what makes us human. It is quite natural for humans to avoid the consequences of bad things and to also seek to replicate the things that bring about pleasant things, we have been naturally selected to be like this, it gives us a distinct survival advantage. Alas, it also has side effects … religion and superstitious thinking.

Magical thinking still prevails today, and will continue to drive some to even greater degree of religiosity.

What brings hope for a better world is the rising tide of rationality that has resulted from the far greater flow of information we now enjoy.

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