THE UNACKNOWLEDGED REVOLUTION
"Why do we exist?" Secular Answer: Religious Revolution
Humanity's most ancient intellectual constructs are its religions.
As is well known, all religious beliefs have, over the ages, undergone
a more-or-less continual process of evolution. The process has been
unnoticed except in hindsight, as is the case with evolutions. It
seems also to be unnoticed or unacknowledged, by most of its prac-
titioners, that religion is today undergoing revolution. What, then,
has led to this revolution?
But first, why do we hold to religious beliefs at all? I see all
religious beliefs as having been adopted to satisfy just five funda-
mental human needs. These are, first, the need for explanation of
natural phenomena; second, for supra-natural assistance during life;
third, for assurance of an existence after death; fourth, for moral
and ethical guidance; and fifth, for ritual and ceremony. All these
needs may be satisfied by religious beliefs, but it is only the second
and third needs that can only be so satisfied. Explanation of natural
phenomena may be provided by science; moral and ethical guidance,
ritual and ceremony may be provided by other ethical or social disci-
plines not connected with the supra-natural. Divine involvement in
our lives and in our deaths can, however, only be promised by
I suggest that just three fundamental classes of religious belief
exist in any religion. They are the beliefs in 1) a supra-natural
Creator, God, or Divine Being, or a plurality of same, existing now;
2) the power of direct appeal for assistance--with prayer or with
sacrifice--to the One or to the Many; and 3) an existence after death,
in a beneficent supra-natural community as reward for a good life or
otherwise as punishment for a bad one.
One might add a sixth need and that is the need for power. As
specific religious beliefs came into existence in ancient times in
response to the five other needs, religious belief systems were
quickly brought into being in response to that sixth need--the need of
some individuals for power over, or for power imposed by, others. I
see the five needs previously identified as being relatively worthy
ones and the need for power often unworthy, and I see belief #1--the
belief in the supra-natural itself--to be the one independent (i.e.,
fundamental) belief, with beliefs two and three necessarily dependent
upon it: It would clearly be nonsense to pray to or expect to join a
God one did not believe existed. And finally, I see all religious-
belief systems as necessarily utilitarian in nature: Each and every
religious belief of mankind must possess utility--must have been
adopted because of a specific human need; when and if such utility
ceases to exist, any related belief is ultimately grossly changed or
*Copyright 1992 by Kennan C. Herrick but may be freely copied wholly or
in part only with this entire copyright notice included.* THEIST15.ASC
Examples of such belief-evolution abound and are well known: The
Sun as God himself; lightning as a manifestation of God's wrath; the
Earth as the center of the Universe. In more recent times, an example
of a belief undergoing radical evolution is the notion as to just
where God exists: in earlier times, it was "up there" in the 3-layered
universe of Heaven, Earth and Hell, changing later to "out there" as
being somewhere all around us in Space and Time, and finally becoming
for many today something like "in the depths of our being", i.e.
present somehow within each individual's unconscious aspect or soul.
I say religion is at present undergoing revolution because never
before was the utility of belief in the supra-natural itself seriously
in question. Such utility is threatened today, as it has been ever
since the advent of the science of genetics and the theory of cumula-
tive natural selection (Darwin's "Evolution"), within the past 150
years or so. During this very short time in terms of religious
evolution, the supra-natural's utility has become increasingly dimin-
ished by the general acceptance of those disciplines as practical
fact. Most specifically, by the increasing general acceptance of
those disciplines' secular answers to humanity's two most fundamental
questions about humankind: "How have we come to be as we are?" and
"Why do we exist?" Never before in all of history have there been
answers available for these two questions other than religious ones.
The first of these question, as to how we have come to be as we
are, can be taken in two ways: As a general question, "How have
living things come to be so different from those of ancient times?"
and as a specific one, "How does an individual living thing grow and
The secular answer to the general question, applicable to all
living species so far as we know without exception, cites the process
of Evolution--the process by which living organisms more fitted than
others to survive tend more to do so, even to the slightest degree.
Each generation's survivors will have passed on their survival-prone
genetic qualities to subsequent generations more often than organisms
less fitted--even to the slightest degree. Such infinitesimal im-
provements have accumulated over eons of time. Influenced by random
mutations and outright species extinctions, the evolutionary process
has brought to existence today not only ourselves as human beings but
also all the multitudes of other species of life on Earth, in their
The answer to the specific question relates to the action of our
genes. Genes provide the "recipes" in accordance with which we are
quite literally made. As is well known today, every cell of every
living thing contains the entire recipe, or genome, for how that indi-
vidual is to be constructed--how that individual's cells are to
divide, specialize and interconnect in order to achieve fabrication of
the end result, the living being. In short, each of us is made by and
of our living cells and they do that job as directed by our genes.
This function of our genome underlies the secular answer to that
most fundamental intellectual question, "Why do we exist?" This
answer has only begun to be widely appreciated, I suspect, over the
past two decades or so. It goes as follows:
Each living thing serves only one natural (that is to say, uncon-
scious) purpose in life; that purpose is literally to be a propagation
machine for its genetic information. This is, in fact, the funda-
mental concept of life, a concept most humbling indeed for the human
animal to contemplate. Each one of us is in a way but a living robot:
each of us has been built by our genes for the sole purpose of acting
as a repository for our genetic information; to comprise a cozy
vessel, if you will, constructed in accordance with our genetic recipe
specifically for the protection and cosseting of that recipe.
Each of us is made to act in such a way that our recipe might
survive our death. That is to say, each of us is programmed by our
genetic code--with greater or lesser effectiveness, depending on the
individual--to further that code's survival possibility by engaging in
a life style leading to procreation. In brief, we exist to make
babies so that our genes will live after us. That is why our genes
made us, it is the only reason they did so, and it is quite literally
why we exist.
Clearly, human individuals all have their own conscious purposes
for existence. Intelligent beings other than human ones may also
possess conscious purposes but we are, of course, not privy to those.
But there is only the one natural purpose; all others are learned.
Plants, for instance, presumably have no intelligence and so their
natural purpose for existence is their only purpose--to propagate
their genetic information in the most efficient way their genes have
been "able to learn" over the ages, in that great School of mutation
and natural selection.
And one comment regarding the word "purpose": When applying this
word to the actions of non-conscious genes or cells, I use as its
definition this one from the Oxford English Dictionary: "the object
for which anything...exists".
The world's recipes for making living beings, written into untold
numbers of different genetic codes and being continually modified by
selections and mutations over time, are wondrous indeed and are so
complex as to be far beyond today's understanding. But all such
recipes, ours included, are being continually tweaked, trimmed and
sharpened by Evolution and its ally mutation, albeit ever so slowly,
with only the one natural objective and purpose: survival.
There are a few curious parallels to this secular argument in some
of our religions' catch-phrases: There is a kind of god within us,
surely existing in the literal "depths of our being"; it is our
genome. That god made each of us in its 'image and likeness' in a very
real sense. That god offers a promise of eternal life--of a sort and
for itself only, to be sure--when we convey it to our progeny in acts
of procreation. And finally, we act 'in his service' when we follow our
genetic god's fundamental instruction, of which one human expression
is, "be fruitful and multiply".
Following, then, from the secular arguments, it is no longer
necessary to invoke the influence of a Creator--either in the making
and growth of, or even in the very justification for, any living
thing; or in the development of humankind over the ages; or indeed in
the evolution of humankind or of any other living thing from the very
first such things existent on Earth. It may be considered possible or
desirable for a God to have had a hand, but the utility of the notion
of a Creator shaping our lives is fast disappearing.
Since the independent belief--in the very existence of a
Creator--is increasingly open to question by virtue of its loss of
utility, the two dependent beliefs, in prayer and in an after-life,
must necessarily also be to the same degree. All three being under
attack, a revolution in religious thinking, rather than mere evo-
lution, must be in progress today.
That the beliefs I identify as dependent must be considered so,
and not as themselves constituting justification for the independent
belief's utility, is clear. Consider a fanciful analogy: An astro-
naut in training for the very first flight to the moon possesses
an obsession for green cheese. One day, there comes to him a revela-
tion: "Glory be!--I shall from this moment onward adopt the unshake
able belief that the moon is made of green cheese! And then, on that
glorious day when I actually arrive there, I may just bend down and
scoop up all the wonderful green cheese I will ever want!" Clearly,
our astronaut would best look to other factors supporting his belief
in a green-cheese moon, beyond the mere idea that it must be so.
During the last hundred years, questioning of or even discussion
about religious beliefs will likely have declined within the general
community of practitioners, of at least the main religions. This
would be due to the increasing perception, conscious or unconscious, of
weakness in that fundamental one of the three beliefs I enumerate. We
laugh today at the notion of earnest argument as to how many angels
can dance on the head of a pin, but in earlier times with the three
beliefs totally secure except for interpretations, few would likely
have balked at such robust discussion about them. In those times
faith in the immediate presence of the Creator was fully bolstered by
That perception of fact has been expressed most notably in the
celebrated "Argument from Design": The difference between the
complexity of living things (their design) and that of non-living
things is clearly so enormous that living things must have been, and
must continually be, created and caused to mature by an unimaginably
competent supra-natural Power; in short, by God. Today, religious
beliefs are no longer so supported; the Argument from Design is seen
to have been incorrect in its conclusion that by no other causative
means could living things exist. Consequently, with fear that dis-
cussion of beliefs may lead, as it would not likely have done in the
past, to questioning of the faith itself, religious people will have
backed away from the subject.
By now it may be clear that I am not a theist. I may be perceived
as having an axe to grind, and it could be argued that I should
question religious faith per se no more than I should question taste,
for instance. But one may surely question the factual circumstances
upon which taste is based. So, by the same token, one may properly
examine the connection or lack thereof of religious faith or belief to
perceived fact, and the logical dependence of one kind of belief on
* And the axe? It is this: In the short view of individual
human affairs and in countless instances of specific long-term
benefit to human culture, religion--to the extent of engendering
motivations to do good things and to be good and happy people--has
been and surely is beneficial, albeit being based on a false
premise. In the longer view of the overall welfare and progress
of humankind, however, just because it is very likely not based on
truth, religion must be very likely a net detriment, and the
sooner we have progressed beyond it the better. Consider this
trade-off, for instance, had there been no religion: Johann
Sebastian Bach would never write a note (of the 300+ classical
works of music inspired by his religious beliefs), but there would
be no Childrens' Crusade (in which perhaps 50,000 children died or
were sold into slavery as a result of their religious beliefs).
Does that sound like a good deal? Countless others could be
imagined. No doubt this argument has been met many times by the
"God works in unfathomable ways" counter-argument. But that is
not really a counter-argument at all; it is only a way of saying
we assume there is a God, that he knows what he's doing, and that
it's good for humankind.
And I do not, by the way, accept the label "atheist": That
pejorative term's implication is that I adhere to a specific
belief system opposed to those of "theists". That is precisely
not the case, since I merely do not adhere to any religious belief
system; so, I am merely "not a theist". The distinction is
important, I think, but universally unappreciated. It was most
likely blurred, in ancient times, so as to give theists a "handle"
in their opposition to non-theists. After all, it is easier to
attack a specific opposing belief system ("atheism") than to fight
a mere lack of one.
I think we heathens are due some small crumb of admiration
from religious folk: After all, we expect to face the universe
"alone" in life's struggle, without any divine guidance or assis-
tance, and we anticipate no reward at the end. Pretty grim and
daunting, many would say. Although the point was made by David
Hume, that if one was not concerned by a lack of existence before
being born, then why fear the same situation's occurring after one
Ultimately, perhaps, humankind will put most of religion behind
it. Along the path to that end, however, power in the religious
community (my need #6) will, I fear, increasingly become held by
charlatans, while honest leaders both within and outside of the
religious community will continue to abandon their religious beliefs
or never adopt them in the first place. The trend can be seen today.
But I hold no firm expectation of such an ultimate abandonment: A
substantial segment of humankind will, I suspect, find a way to
rationalize the continuing belief in an existent Supreme Being with
that belief's ever-increasing loss of real-world utility. To do
otherwise would render meaningless the psychologically-important
dependent beliefs in prayer and in an after-life. The choice of the
many not to face life and death "alone" will likely continue, support
ed by the propensity of the few to organize their power, honestly or
cynically as the case may be, around that choice. Hence I say only
that it is Revolution unacknowledged and not Extinction.
1. Dawkins, Richard; "The Blind Watchmaker". W.W. Norton, New York,
2. Dawkins, Richard; "The Selfish Gene". Oxford Univ. Press, New
3. Smith, Homer W.; "Man and His Gods". Little, Brown, Boston, 1955
(out of print).
4. Gould, Stephen J.; "Wonderful Life". W.W. Norton, New York, 1989.
5. Robinson, John A.T.; "Honest to God". Westminster Press, Phila-
6. Polkinghorne, John; "Science and Creation: The Search for
Understanding". Shambhala Publications, 1989.
7. Morris, Desmond; "The Naked Ape". McGraw Hill, New York, 1967.