In the beginning, man made god.
Ever since the beginning of history, religion has played a role in the dynamics of human societies. The seals and terracotta figurines found in the Indus Valley, the Sumerian cuneiform temple hymns, and the Egyptian pyramids constitute solid evidence that belief in the supernatural is as old as civilization.
In ancient times, myths and legendary tales offered explanations for natural phenomena that lay beyond the range of human knowledge. The rumbling of thunder, the cycle of the seasons, the ebb and the flow, solar and lunar eclipses, earthquakes — all of these processes and events posed a mystery to the primitive homo sapiens sapiens, which, in its eagerness to assign a meaning to the world around it, ascribed the unexplainable to the intervention of deities. These early stages saw the rise of religion as an institution headed by priests, prophets, seers and healers: an elite with privileged access to the divine and a powerful influence on culture and politics.
A change of paradigm
As science progressed and the criteria for understanding the world became more sophisticated, religion lost prominence as a reference in terms of scientific knowledge. The theory of evolution refuted the claim that humanity had a divine origin; the findings of psychology and neurology provide explanations for human behaviors, thought processes and emotions, which differ greatly from the arcane and ambiguous religious concept of soul; the relatively recent advances of physics in relation with the cosmos leave no doubt of the insignificance of planet Earth in a chaotic, ever-expanding universe.
How, then, can religious belief still be prevalent? As mentioned above, religion has been, since the beginning, a body of myths, principles and practices with an institutionalized status. For millennia political power and religion have functioned in symbiosis, supporting and legitimizing each other. This has allowed religions to continue exerting influence on socially accepted moral standards, education, health and other areas of public life even to the present day, when secularism has gained ground as never before, at least in some parts of the world where the problem of church-state relations has been partially overcome.
Exploring believers’ motivations
The reasons for an individual to hold religious beliefs are as diverse and subjective as the psychological constitution of the individual itself. However, there are certain recurrent patterns that can be observed with frequency amongst believers. For the clergy, religion presupposes power. Monetary gains and social status might be the most noticeable manifestations of this power, but the most effective and dangerous one is the control of the will, the desires and the fears of the faithful. When a religious minister succeeds in convincing an individual to embrace a moral code supposedly established by a superior being, they acquire authority over that person. Considering that these moral codes are almost completely arbitrary and that the mythical narratives which justify them can be interpreted in a number of ways to suit the priest’s agenda, the authority granted by religion is anything but harmless.
Believers’ motivations have less to do with power (although belonging to a powerful majority might be a factor in choosing a creed). A vast majority of believers are indoctrinated into their family’s religion in early childhood. Whether they maintain this faith or embrace a new one, their motivations for remaining loyal to a certain religious belief system are manifold. In his article “The Sixteen Strivings for God” (2004), Ohio State University researcher Steven Reiss exposes the relationship between belief systems and our basic desires and core values. Approaching the topic from the field of psychology, Reiss explains how religion helps individuals to regulate the joy we experience when we fulfill these desires. For instance, believing in an almighty authoritarian deity might contribute to the delusion of an orderly universe that is subject to rules and the will of a supreme being, thus avoiding the anxiety and fear caused by the notion of chaos.
Practical and philosophical believers
With a view to better understanding believers’ motivations, a distinction between two categories can be drawn: practical motivations and philosophical motivations. Practical believers approach religion in the hope of finding the solution to an immediate problem: unemployment, illness, drought or their favorite team’s losing streak.
Believers with philosophical motivations are probably the key to explaining the pervasiveness and longevity of belief in the supernatural. Religion offers an answer to two of the most important questions that humanity has ever made: why are WE here? And then, what happens after death? The lack of an intrinsic reason or purpose for our presence on this planet and the definitive and irreversible nature of death frequently prove too hard for believers to accept, and thus they seek solace in the delusion of a deity that supervises the world and has a plan for every human individual, as well as in the promise of an eternal afterlife of bliss and pleasure.
In conclusion, the presence of religion in modern secular societies dates back to the first centuries of human civilization. Its current pervasiveness should not be attributed to one single factor such as intergenerational transmission, since the motivations that drive people towards religion are diverse and originate from a variety of material and philosophical concerns. A critical analysis of religion entails an understanding of these concerns.