In High School chemistry you may have learned about chemical kinetics. Chemical kinetics explains chemical reactions in terms of energy states. Remember the fun experiment where you exploded hydrogen in a test tube but then had to listen to a long, complicated lecture on the chemistry behind it?
Below, I will use chemical kinetic-like graph analogies as a tool to understand religion. Many of my readers have a deeper knowledge of chemical kinetics than I do. But for those of you who don’t remember or never learned chemical kinetics here is the wiki article and here and here are two simple sites explaining the science. There are thousands of other sites, and if you find better sites, please share those links in the comments.
As a preface to my diagrams, below are classic chemical kinetics graphs showing both Exo and Endothermic reactions (source).
Now, instead of molecules, let’s look at human society — in particular, the evolution of religious thinking in society. Both atheists and theists alike acknowledge the evolution of religion to some degree, so I imagine the graph below should not be controversial.
Early in human history, many human groups operated with worldviews populated by many gods/spirits and various shamans to intervene with those entities — there was no central power. The above graph illustrates part of the “Religious Thermodynamics” of that time period when those worldviews developed competitors. The outcome: hunter-gatherer worldviews have been largely extinguished. Overthrowing the shamanistic worldview required energy input. An aspiring ruler cast himself as an all powerful tribal chief using a reinforcing worldview which declared that there was only one main god (henotheism) and he claimed to be the main conduit of power and authority throw that god. For the better or the worse, such a society is often more competitive than shamanistic polytheism/polyspiritism.
But revolutions don’t always succeed — either in the short term nor in the long term. The other possible outcome is that though the shamans may fall, the resulting society may become more chaotic, less prosperous, and unstable. Only history reveals the outcome(s).
Now let’s look at “Secular Thermodynamics“. The graph below shows how in recent history we have societies that transitioned from theocracies to secular governments. That graph shows the same thermodynamic principles of energy needed for change, stability risks and desired end-product.
The Myth of Progress
To the right, let me illustrate the “Myth of Progress” and state that I do not hold to this theory. Society can undergo both endothermic and exothermic reactions and reach new stable states in any direction. For though Secular tribes can offer greater prosperity, safety and happiness, for historical reasons, sometimes they fall apart (consider Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan) and society returns to theocratic rule to fulfill some other desire of those who grab power. History is not stable. The catalysts and interactions of complex systems does not guarantee progress. Systems are not destined to freedom or happiness: neither evolution, the gods, the universe, karma nor anything else cares.
OK, in last graph below I illustrate Philosophical or Psychological Thermodynamics. Using this graph, you can clearly see what theists fear: that without God people will fall into cynical depression or depravity. Well history shows us that this is not the case, well, not always. But to discuss the issue any further, I thought these models would be helpful.
Religious freedom requires energy — it is endothermic. But there are several obstacles to freeing oneself from religious oppression:
- the energy and effort required (education, activism …)
- the real risk that the change may lead to worse states
When discussing religion, it may be useful to remember chemical thermodynamic models where it is easy to see how, given context, religion can indeed offer benefits. Yet religion has horrible oppressive components that need changed or destroyed. The task is complex. Hopefully this model help illustrates the benefits, costs and and risks of change. All of us are at least subconsciously aware of these and they feed our desire for change or repulsion of change depending on our investments, our temperaments, our perceptions and our social settings.