A Discussion: Why does religion persist?

By | April 22, 2011

Chuck opened the discussion:

By the late 19th century it was believed by some leading intellectuals that with in¬creased education and improved standards of health and economic well being, our classical religious orthodoxies would be replaced by a humanistic civilization based on compassion, reason and science. Yet, even though the scientific revolution has invaded our lives at almost every level and has discredited many sacred dogmas and religious myths, religions still flourished. Religious loyalties still persist.


Chuck: Why should we be surprised? After all, humans still fear pain and loneliness. Most still find it hard to accept death as a finality. We still look for some ultimate divine purpose to our lives; we want all our suffering to have some higher meaning. We also marvel at how this universe and life came into being. And, of course, many of us want to believe what we really want to be true. Logic and scientific evidence are seldom enough to dislodge personal beliefs and prejudices, particularly if these beliefs offer great comfort and even joy. Our mind’s capacity for self-delusion is enormous! In fact, E. O. Wilson of Harvard even hypothesized the predisposition to religious belief may be the most complex and powerful drive in the human mind, an innate and possibly irreplaceable part of human nature.

Adrian: Chuck, your thesis foists the entire justification for the popularity of religion on the individual’s needs and wants rather than also seeing religion as a very effective behavior controlling institution. The sociologist Durkheim noted that it isn’t so much the individual’s spiritual neediness that promotes adherence to religion so much as the State’s recognition of religion [through the fear of hell and damnation] being one of the most powerful forces of public deception and social control.

Juan: I would guess that Adrian is at least partially right. Those who rule or govern always seek effective instruments by which their power my be increased or at least maintained. Some religious institutions surely fill the bill. But what Adrian wrote applies only to those religions which emphasized eternal suffering in hell for sins and wrong doing, primarily Christianity. Many of the world religions do not emphasize this other-worldly punishment (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, some forms of Judaism, etc.). Hence, people’s adherence to those religions could hardly be motivated by their fear of hell. But in those cases where the religion emphasizes the punishment that awaits most souls (primarily Christianity), Adrian is probably right in saying the kings, emperors, and other state leaders made use of the religious institutions to add to their control of people. Christianity closely aligned with the powers of the king (or the state) is a great instrument for those in power and in privileged positions (church hierarchy).

[Will Durant in his Lessons of History, in the chapter on Religion and History, quotes Napoleon as saying that religion has kept the poor from murdering the rich. Durant offers the observation that since men are not equal in talent, many are doomed to poverty and defeat, and thus some supernatural comfort is hoped for.]

“Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified. Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.” (p. 43.)]

Juan: Nevertheless, I believe people tend to overstate the degree to which people’s behavior can be controlled because of the fear of hell. Many psychologists, ethical historians, and moral philosophers have questioned the effectiveness of “fear of hell” as a form of behavior control and as an effective way of getting people to behave lawfully, morally and treat others well. In short, the threat of eternal suffering in hell as a modifier of behavior may be greatly over-rated. There is little or no reason for thinking that the countless criminals, thugs, murderous types in all classes who believed in the Christian doctrine on the afterlife behaved any better in terms of the law and morality than people who hold no such beliefs. People who are naturally inclined to treat others decently will do so, regardless of their religion. And those inclined to screw their neighbor (in the many ways that that is done!) will do so regardless of their religion.

Chuck: Jeffery Victor, a professor of sociology, writes that there is no doubt that powerful elite groups have used religion to manipulate the less powerful and to justify their vested economic interests. Today the Christian Right blames “Big government” for taking the Bible out of schools, for sanctioning murder (abortion) and encouraging homosexual “perversion.” Their allies in Congress receive considerable financial support from corporations that also see “Big government” as the enemy, but for different reasons. “Big government” makes laws that inhibit corporations from maximizing their profits —laws concerning equal pay for women, parental leave, work safety conditions, environmental protection, minimum wages, day care, health insurance. Such programs and laws drain money away from the wealthy and the corporations.

Juan: I would argue that there are a number of causal explanations for the continued ‘life’ of religions. Some are sociological in nature (societies and governments find religion useful), psychological (people feel a need for religious faith, religion cultivates unity and solidarity), habit and cultural inertia (religion has always been part of our lives) and maybe in some cases philosophical (a complete explanation of reality requires some form of religious faith). I’m sure you can come up with many more.

Adrian: Let me add to the discussion by sharing my “functions of spirituality” from the class I teach entitled Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion. I provide 5 such functions, each of which offers another explanatory facet of the tenacity of religion in this “enlightened” age:

1. Answer unanswerable questions (e.g. What is death? Why is there suffering? What fate awaits us? etc.).

2. Sanction human conduct (i.e. to break the law is a crime…(if you’re caught), but to disobey god is a SIN and NO ONE gets away with that. What king or emperor wouldn’t want a tiny cop in everyone’s brain?).

3. Promote social solidarity (to many people, especially those living in the anonymity of a vast urban center such as ours, church, temple, and synagogue “brothers and sisters” are the only “family” they have).

4. Explain the unknown (no religion or spiritual system worth its salt hesitates to tell us anything we need to know; and, if we back a religious leader into a corner with a tough question, they can always play the “joker” card: “Strange are the ways of the Lord,” or, “Humans are not meant to know those things,” or, as a priest once told me when I baffled him with a theological question, “You’ll find out when you die, Novotny!”

5. Explain reality (theology, including cosmology and philosophy in general, constitute “grand theories” that encompass the whole of cosmic order and the virtual entirety of social structure. Anything anyone wants to know is answerable using theological dogma. It’s all there; whatever you may need to know).

Chuck: Many a ruler has found (or believed) that it was much easier to exterminate the enemy if the enemy were defined as evil, immoral, and ungodly. To be strong, it was believed, a society must cultivate citizens with a fanatical devotion to its values and its interests. Citizens must believe that their society is an incarnation of truth and goodness, that their nation is beloved by God, and that its enemies are evil. Fundamentalist religion has been one key to a strong and lasting nationalism. Religion also makes people more inclined to accept death, war, sacrifice, and authority.

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