8 Reasons People Embrace Religion
Itâs been estimated that nearly 90% of people in the world belong to a religion; even if you exclude the children of religious people (in many countries, children are legally of the same religion as their parents until they are adults), itâs clear a large percentage of people have religious beliefs. The question is why? Is there a âgod shaped hole in our brainâ? Why do people have the need to âbelieve fervently in the very unlikelyâ?
The short answer is no-one knows for sure, but there are some aspects of our behavior that provide some clues. Here are eight reasons that have been given for religious behavior.
Iâm a fan of cricket and, occasionally, I have a feeling that I suspect many other sports fans will find familiarâif I stop watching a game for a couple of minutes and a wicket falls, Iâm tempted to stop watching again to see if that âtakes another wicketâ. Football fans report a similar feeling if they stop watching and a goal is scored, they feel they should stop watching again to see if that scores another goal.
Although my logical mind knows that me popping out to the toilet canât really affect a game being played hundreds or thousands of miles away, the feeling is thereâand itâs widespread; Iâve heard plenty of stories starting âIâm not superstitious, but…â..
Whatâs interesting is that superstition isnât confined to people; psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that pigeons are also superstitious; he put hungry pigeons in a box and delivered food at random timesâthe pigeons would repeat whatever behavior theyâd just been doing to âmakeâ the food come again.
As has been pointed out; it is very difficult to distinguish between superstitious behavior (getting a cup of coffee to âmakeâ a football team score a goal) and religious behaviour (talking in a quiet voice to âmakeâ it rain).
Hands up who talks to their computer? And not because it has speech recognition. Yep, I can see lots of hands thereâincluding my own. We talk to (or shout at) computers, cars, screwdrivers, almost anything we interact with. Itâs a widespread practice and children, in particular, do itâimposing personalities on inanimate objects.
There is some evidence that this is useful behaviorâfor example, if youâre looking for something youâve lost then saying the itemâs name out loud makes it easier to findâas if âtalkingâ to something helps people concentrate on the item. Again, if pressed, people will confess that the computer, car or screwdriver canât actually hear themâeven if we shout, but also people canât stop doing itâitâs built into our brains.
How does this tie in to religious beliefs? Religion has been described as âtrying to talk to the weatherâ; is talking to our cars so different?
We seem to have a natural ability to see purposes for things; for example, rabbits can be seen to have lots of purposes; they eat grass, they make holes, they make more rabbits (obviously!), they feed foxes and so on. It seems that itâs natural to feel everything should have a purposeââbut what use are wasps?â is a question Iâve heard plenty of timesâas if wasps have a bit of a nerve existing without a clear purpose. It feels wrong to say, âwell, some things have no purpose; they just are.â The tendency to say âeverything has a purposeâ leads to questions such as âwhat is the purpose of life?, of death?, of evil?â Many philosophers would argue that these arenât sensible questionsâpartly because theyâre based on an assumption that such things have a purpose, but if you insist that things do have a purpose, then a supernatural explanationâwhich can explain anythingâcan obviously explain it.
It seems people have an innate belief in justice; particularly when weâre youngââitâs just not fair!ââsound familiar? Although the parentsâ standard response is âwell, life isnât fairâ, the feeling that life *should* be fair is deeply ingrainedâas with superstition, thereâs evidence that it isnât restricted to humansâevolutionary biologist, Professor Marc Bekoff believes that a sense of morality is built into the brains of all mammalsâbut people simply hate to see wrongdoing unpunished and itâs a common factor in religions that thereâs a *lot* of punishment going on. Itâs rather unpleasant to think that one of the biggest âdrawsâ of religion is the hope that âevilâ people get really punished.
The other side of the belief in justice; when someone dies, one of the stages of grieving that people go through is angerâit just seems so wrong, so unfair that someone we love is gone. Who would not like it to be true that weâll see them again? As with many of these things, our logical mind might accept that simply living, and being conscious of living is enough, but our logical mind isnât the only thing that drives our beliefs.
The closest living relative to modern humans are gorillasâdepending on how you count the DNA, weâre up to 99% gorillaâor gorillas are 99% human. As the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough has pointed out, their vision, hearing and sense of smell is so similar to ours that they experience the world in the same way we do.
The behavior of gorillas, however, is different from humans. Bands (or whoops!) of gorillas live in small groups with one dominant maleâcalled a silverback because the fur on a maleâs goes silver as the male ages. The silverback defends the group from attacksâand, as youâd suspect, a mature, male gorilla is *very* strong, so itâs likely to win. The silverback also ârunsâ the group; making all the decisions, sorting out fights, deciding where the group goes and so on.
Humans donât live like this; they live in relatively large groupsâparticularly compared with other apesâand they donât have a supremely powerful male leader, but there is a theory that until (in evolutionary terms) recent times, we did and part of our brain misses him; a lot of religious behavior is identical to submissive behavior to a dominant male (eyes are downcast, thereâs quiet and respect in their presence). The difference is that our dominant male isnât so tangible nowadays.
Indigenous people in South America have been taking ayahuasca for centuriesâEuropean missionaries described it in in the 16th century, but it was long established then. Ayahuasca is easy to makeâassuming youâve access to a rain forest, and can boil waterâvarious leaves are crushed and boiled and consumed. Itâs, apparently, quite difficult to keep the mixture down but users describe life changing, spiritual experiences under the influence of the psychedelic chemicals in the leaves. Other effects reported are âbecomingâ prey animalsâin a spirit world.
Humans are no strangers to psychedelic drugs; evidence for magic mushroom use date back to prehistoric times and itâs believed that early religions were an attempt to explain the psychedelic experiences of drugs.
Although itâs difficult to know for sure how behavior evolves, there is usually one of two reasons why it survives; either it provides a benefit or itâs a side effect of something else that provides a benefit.
At first look, religion is evolutionary expensive; animal and human sacrifice is, historically, commonplace, religious wars, to this day, cost thousands of lives how could religious belief survive the evolutionary process?
One theory is that religious belief brings people togetherâor more precisely, that it allows lots of people to live together without killing each other; our closest relativesâgorillas and chimps live in small groups (150 individuals is probably the biggest chimpanzee band). Chimpanzees and humans have a common ancestor from around 8 million years ago, so it seems likely that early humans lived in small groups, but started living in larger and larger groups with the invention of agriculture forcing them to live together.Something in early humansâ brains would have to change to allow us to live in large groups without continual fighting; a common religious belief could be that change. One interesting point about the theory is that it doesnât matter what the religious beliefs are, but it is important that everyone in the community believes the same thing. That may explain some of the bizarre beliefs in religions.