When we're very young, we believe anything we're told to. We're wired to do so; we need to learn the skills and habits that have proven useful in survival, so we start out very impressionable. Most of us no longer live in an environment where selective pressure is so strong, but the patterns remain. And so, for our first years, we learn very quickly, easily, and accept just about anything.
But as we grow older, we leave this tendency behind. We start questioning the things we're told, determining for ourselves what's true and what isn't; the lack of this skill at questioning - skepticism, if you will - is called gullibility. It's a necessary part of our growth that we stop believing whatever we're told, lest we spend all our days buying bridges.
At the same time, our increasing maturity enables us to accept harder and harder truths without becoming overloaded. We've all heard stories of families who tell a child, after a beloved pet has died, that he ran away. He's safe, he's fine, he's just not here anymore. It's a story told with the realization that one day the truth will come out, but when it does, the child will be older and better able to deal with reality.
These two things go hand in hand. We tell children comforting lies, to avoid stressing them too much before they're ready for it, and with the full expectation that when they grow up, they will see these lies for what they are, and move past them.
I believe that much the same can be said of humanity as a whole. If we look at ourselves, across our ~2 million year history, I think many parallels can be found. The scenario I've outlined above is of particular poignancy for me, as a very active atheist, when it's put parallel to religion.
In our beginnings, when we were first coming to sentience, the world was a scary place. We developed the ability to think about things, mull them over, long before we developed any tools to find out what they actually were. Thunder was terrifying. Fire could kill. People got sick and died, for no apparent reason. Herds would move, or change their patterns, or plants wouldn't grow, or the nets wouldn't be full, and a lean winter would be had by all. But why? What could cause these things? We had, at the time, no way of knowing. And so, like children, we made things up.
We needed to make sense of our lives, and of the world around us, because to do otherwise was to be overwhelmed with fear and grief. We needed comfort. And this, I believe, is how the concept of religion came to be. The people needed answers, and so particularly creative individuals from whatever culture stepped forward, and told stories. They explained why the sky was crashing. There was a huge, all-powerful thing up there, and he was mad; but that's okay! We can make him happy, and when he's happy, he'll be nice to us. The stories from there, obviously, grew and merged and morphed, until we have the various pantheons of history.
As an aside, I'm convinced this is why the majority of religions throughout history have been polytheistic. Since there were so many things to try to explain, it only makes sense that each category will be headed by a god of it's own.
But then we started to grow up. We started looking around us and noticing inconsistencies. We developed tools, we took measurements, we weighed and built and scoured our world for data. And like children beginning on the path to skepticism (questioning, for example, how Santa could possible visit all the houses in the world in a single night), we began to wonder.
We, as a species, have reached this point. More and more of us are beginning to look, to see, to learn, to ask questions, to stop accepting things dogmatically. It's a hard enough process for a child to let go of treasured beliefs in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny; how much harder is it for an entire people to let go of cherished beliefs in gods?
This is particularly true in terms of the comfort aspect of it all. Letting go of the belief that after we die we'll go to a safe, wonderful place forever. That our departed loved ones are there already, happy, waiting for us, eager to greet us with open arms. That there is an eternal, all-powerful being who loves us and wants nothing more than to free us from suffering. It's like a security blanket for the psyche. It's hard to let something like that go.
We're ready to step into adulthood, I think. We have the knowledge, now, that the universe isn't such a scary place. We have the maturity, as a species, to be able to look at what's actually out there, to see the truths, and to not be overwhelmed by them. And with the ability to do these things comes the responsibility to do them. As Greta Christina has said, I care that my beliefs be true.
The time is coming. Atheism, skepticism, and evidence-based beliefs are on a rapid rise, on a level and with a speed unprecedented on this planet. We're growing up. I hope to see it happen in my lifetime that religious belief is discarded by humanity as a whole just as most individuals discard the comforting lies of their childhood. I think it's got a good chance of happening, and I'm working to hasten it.
I believe that leaving behind superstition and woo, and embracing reason and evidence and logic, and putting a much greater portion of our resources towards science and discovery and education will lead us, humanity, into a new renaissance. If we can just get through these difficult years, decades, and make it to maturity, I think we can become something great.
Even though I won't see it all happen, because I will have long ceased to exist, I take a great sense of pride and accomplishment that I will have, in some tiny way, contributed to our advance as a species, and to the making of a better way of life for my own descendants and those of everyone around me.