The Best Deal in Town

All evidence tells us that there is an undeniable fact. It has been extensively tested in science and observed in nature. There is no question that this fact is true, we all know it from our own experiences. The fact is an internal drive of biology present in every living animal. It is of course the survival instinct.

There are many examples of human instincts which are hardwired into our DNA. In 1915 Walter Cannon, a physiologist from Harvard University, tested and coined the term “fight or flight response.” When humans are confronted by danger the hypothalamus is activated, initiating a complex series of chemical reactions and nerve cell responses. The heart rate is increased pumping blood rapidly into our muscles, adrenaline is released into our bloodstream and our senses are sharpened.[1] All of these factors evolved from the precarious existence of our ancestors. The world is a dangerous place. From the existence of a single cell organism through to the most complex forms of life on the planet, every living creature lives under the shadow of a constant threat of danger. These threats take many forms. The environment in which we live is subject to extreme temperatures. The volatile earth’s crust causes earthquakes and other devastating geological events and our weather system peppers us with life threatening floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. If the weather doesn’t kill us there are many animals that view us as food. A vast range of bacteria and viruses threaten our lives. We are even at the mercy of our own haphazard biology: teeth that rot and become infected, a breathing system connected to our digestive tract making it easy to choke, or the dangers inherent in our soft delicate organs. Truly we are fragile creatures, in a world like this all animals have evolved an instinct for survival. Those intelligent and resilient enough to survive pass on their genes and the survival instinct becomes more ingrained in our physiology.

But why such a drive for survival, why can’t we just accept our fate? The survival instinct transcends even consciousness. Even the simplest of creatures, those to whom we would credit no self-realisation, come pre-equipped with an inherent and overwhelming desire for survival. It is because our life is the most fundamental thing that we have, everything else is based on it. Without life nothing else matters. We also come pre-programmed with a desire to pass on our genes. But there is no procreation without life in the first place, dead people don’t make babies. It appears that our DNA understands the value of protecting itself. And this instinct goes way beyond a conscious choice. In most cases a person reacts automatically, as a result of their collective brain cells. A person will automatically fight or flee without thinking. The more primal and instinctive parts of our brain are stronger and more authoritative than our higher brain. Ironically though, it is the higher brain that we identify as our self.

Just observe the conversations that we engage in as human beings. Watch any news program and you will see the survival instinct at work. There are endless articles about what is good for us and what is harmful, what can we do to extend our lives? In medical science we search for the solutions to disease, a cure for cancer. Why? Because above all we desire to live on. If you wanted to exploit some aspect of the human character, this is the primal target. A threat to our existence is the ultimate threat, but the promise of extending life is the ultimate offer… Have I got a deal for you! What if I told you that you never had to die, that you could live on forever? Not only that but you will be young and vital, you won’t ever grow old or become frail.

You may have heard this offer before. Of all things that religion could offer it is interesting that almost every religion offers the one thing that is more attractive to people than anything else – eternal life. What a coincidence that they are all offering the same thing. And it is also interesting to note that as religion developed and evolved over time the deals they offered to potential initiates became much sweeter. The monotheistic religions not only offered a better God, but a way better deal. The Norse gods offered an eternity in Valhalla drinking with your buddies, but Christianity offered to turn you into a demigod yourself where you can live in a mansion and walk on streets of gold. Islam latched onto another fundamental human instinct – you get eternal life and seventy-two virgins, plus your wife, if you want her. I’m not going to ask where they are getting all these virgins from, but needless to say it’s not as good a deal if you’re a woman.

It is interesting that of all the things that it could offer religion offers an answer to our most fundamental genetic desire. There is no question that the authors of the Bible, and other religious texts, were clever. They cottoned on to the key motivating factor for human beings and exploited it to the max. Religion exploits our internal genetic desire to survive. And that brings us to its major magnetic force. If you are a believer religion has its hooks in you. Most believers will not leave their religion because their internal desire to survive and live forever is so strong that it overwhelms even logic. What am I talking about? Logic can’t even compete with our genetic desire to survive! The higher brain is a relatively new adaptation, but the survival instinct has been around for billions of years. It requires a massive overhaul of one’s thinking and a willingness to let go of vain hopes in order to bypass such a powerful internal drive. The truth is that most people who have invested themselves in religion will never let go because they stand to lose way too much. And that is the beautiful simplicity of religion. It locks people into its clutches by hacking their innermost desires and draping its tendrils around their fundamental human instincts.

[1] Are Humans Wired to Survive? Charles W Bryant. http://adventure.howstuffworks.com/survival/wilderness/wired-for-survival1.htm

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