As a primate, guided by reason and science, I view religion as a mental illness akin to psychosis. Bertrand Russell's suggestion that religion is a vestige of our species' childhood comes close to summarizing my view of our kind as dysfunctional apes.
The primary religious experience stems from the intrauterine experience of the last trimester. The psychosis stems from an inability to resolve a sense of the eternal experienced in the womb with the cold fact of death. In between birth and death comes the politics of organized religion which encompass the first labour movement and the beginnings of taxation.
The intrauterine experience of the third trimester is a subject of conjecture supplemented by some scientific findings. The study of the mental state of a foetus is complicated by technical and ethical considerations. My readings suggest that what can be referred to as the primitive brain is active in the foetus. I'm not advocating the idea of The Triune Brain, but rather that the primitive brain is that which is basic to elementary consciousness as experienced by the foetus. This elementary consciousness includes REM activity, which indicates dreaming. Perhaps the foetal experience is in some ways akin to the experience of a sensory deprivation chamber wherein the dividing line between self and environment dissolves. Piaget's work suggests the infant lives in an egocentric world wherein there is limited differentiation between the infant's sense of self and it's environment.
The concept that comes closest to what I see as the foetal experience is termed the dual unity. It is the unity of mother and child, pictured as the Madonna and Child. The idea is ancient, but the borrowings of the Christian faith often picture the idea in terms of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The idea of a dual unity is, as the name suggests, one being experiencing another as intrinsic, as not apart, but rather, of the same, undifferentiated existence. It's the experience of the dual unity that underlies religious beliefs of being one with God. An all encompassing nourishment and fulfillment experienced by an elementary consciousness engulfed in the womb. It's this experience that constitutes the idea of heaven. While much could, and has, been said about the dual unity, the important points, in terms of the foetal experience, are that it's eternal, and, it doesn't know death.
The foetal experience is primitive and vestigal. Whether the experience is ever laid down as a memory is open to conjecture. There is evidence to suggest no long term memories can be laid down before, approximately, the fourth year. Many sources suggest foetuses dream, and, recent literature suggests dreaming is a processing of recent memories. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has been suggested to be an outcome of infant's dreams of the intrauterine experience wherein the need for breathing stops. Sleep is still a new frontier and our knowledge of dreaming is scant. I think the foetal experience of the last trimester informs our development along the lines of the characteristics exhibited by the right side of the brain. The right side of the brain doesn't distinguish between the symbol and the thing as such. For the right side of the brain the map is the territory.
The dual unity is that between mother and child. The experience has been usurped by patriarchal religions with the father becoming the creator and union with God being substituted for union with the mother. Matriarchal religions are very ancient. Bertrand Russell has suggested that the birth of agriculture required forethought. I believe women pregnant with child naturally plan and need to harvest food close to their young. I think women invented agriculture. Women were demonized by many patriarchal religions. The demonization of women may in part have to do with oddities like Menstrual Synchrony, and their similarities to lunar cycles. Primates fear the night when predators like leopards hunt. It's with good reason that religions embrace the light and creator gods characteristic of the sun. Robert Graves book The White Goddess is a fun, if fanciful, and informative introduction to religions of the Goddess that predate patriarchal religions. The book is also a good introduction to the borrowings of the Judaic Christian religions and the snippets and themes they looted from other religions and told and retold into the greatest story ever told.
From birth we go to death. Perhaps the oldest symbolic act of our kind is burial. In burial we recognized death, loss and our mortality. It's the conflict that arises from the irreconcilable experiences of the dual unity and death that generate the psychoses that embody religion. In denial of death we profess to be reborn into eternity. In the name of the Father the intrauterine experience is usurped. While women might gain entrance to heaven they are as likely, as virgins, to serve the elect men who drink from rivers of wine, dine on the choicest meats and are serviced by endless harems of young virgins.
Pimping the embrace of God pays well. Sacrifices and offerings went in part to the priest who set themselves up as intermediaries between God and the choosen. The tithe given over to the Church is a primitive form of taxation. Death, the afterlife and taxes seem to have been holding hands since the birth of religion. The early churches, especially in the Judaic-Christian line, offered the faithful a day off. The Lord's Day is the start of the labour movement. While Nietzsche may have been right in characterizing Christianity as a religion of slaves, the early Church got it right in giving the faithful what every slave wants, a day off. And, of course, the various Churches and their priesthoods among the first to see the profit in Intellectual Property Rights, retaining to themselves a type of copyright to the words of God.
The conservative religious right has opted for a new foray against Evolution. Intelligent Design suggests at opportune times in the history of life on earth a haute culture, perhaps a la the Sun King, descended from above and played pin the tail on the bacterium, and, so, guided Evolution. Gregory Bateson in his seminal book Mind and Nature writes as follows: "...human beings are very careless in their construction of the tautologies on which to base their explanations.
I suspect the right side of the brain is, partially, the product of the intrauterine experience. Gregory Bateson in the above mentioned book looks at the corpus callosum and suggests it's broad, deep interface is optimized for exchanging images between the two hemispheres. I think the corpus callosum shunts states of mind between the hemispheres, and, religious belief amounts to a coup de tet supplanting the rational with the irrational. Many religions, especially patriarchical ones harken back to a Garden of Eden, which in patriarchical tribes referrence the status quo ante, i.e. the ur state of sinless union with the tribal god. I suspect the Garden of Eden syndrome is a vistigal memory of the intrauterine experience. Ironically the tribal patriarchs of Christianity blame woman for man's fall from grace, this misogyny is as false as the cruel and criminal punishment today of women who don't bare their tribes male heirs. The fact that the male sperm is the vehicle that decides the gender of the offspring only serves to underscore the blind, testosterone poisioned state of patriarchical tribal belief systems. Tribal religious beliefs promulgate a variation of the pathetic fallacy wherein natural disasters are accredited to the anger of the local god. This fallacy sets up a classic double bind, OTOH the god rains bounty down on believers when things go well, even when the practices that bring the bounty set up systemic feedback that brings on times when things go bad and OTOH the god is angry.
En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton theon, kai theos en ho logos,
The above sentence is translated in the Bible as John 1:1. "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God" . The term Logos, translated as God, was translated by Gordon Clark as Logic. I think of it as transcendent reason. The interesting thing is that the word Logos carried with it a belief in a pure Logic akin to the mind of God. Christianity carried as a memetic virus the drive for perfect Logic that bore Science. It's interesting to note the Catholic faith has a strong sense of sin and forgiveness. The American biologist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson commented that teaching Catholics and Communists produced better results because both groups had a strong sense of what it meant to be wrong, and, as such, were much more likely to look at the presuppositions underlying their statements.Now science threatens the religious right, but their attack on the theory of Evolution is misplaced. Molecular Biology is unravelling the secrets of life, and, Evolution will fall in place behind the advances made in molecular biology. In hand with molecular biology, neuroscience is defining consciousness. Perhaps in the not too distant future we will be able to synthesize the high religious experience we dimly recall from the intrauterine experience. Unfortunately, I think the priesthoods will use science to pimp the embrace of their god and the faithful will ante up. Few of us can reconcile our death with the immmortal promise of our birth.