Not every development in human evolution serves to perpetuate the species. Not every variation benefits us in more ways than it harms us. There ultimately is no rhyme or reason to what happens from moment to moment—there is only order in what remains over the long haul because only those things beneficial to the preservation and propagation of the species get transmitted down to future generations.
Religion is one of those things, and it is my growing suspicion that religion (and more narrowly god belief) serves a purpose for which we have not yet found a viable alternative.
I think we are trying. I think humanists the world over are working to craft a grand narrative as inspiring and socially cohesive as our god beliefs have been, but we have yet to develop those narratives fully enough to eclipse what world religions have accomplished thus far. Or maybe we’re just not to the point yet where we can appreciate those new narratives even when they are fully developed. I don’t know.
What I am beginning to suspect, however, is that some people really do need Jesus, so to speak. Maybe even most people.
I don’t like making this concession, mind you. In fact, some days I’m not ready to make it at all. But there are other days when things just click and fit together and the world makes sense to me…and it seems to be in those moments that I look at religion and say, “You know what? Of course people believe in this. They probably need to, so just let ’em.”
Religion Persists for a Reason
Heroes of skepticism and secularism love to proclaim that if we work hard enough we can dispel god beliefs from the planet, and then finally the world will become a better place (I’m looking at you, Krauss and Dawkins). But not so fast. I don’t think it’s that simple at all.
For starters, there are plenty of other powerful reasons to be terrible to each other outside of religion. I can tell you right now that I experienced far more mistreatment from a handful of secularists with large egos and tiny empires to protect than I ever experienced from their religious counterparts in church. I’m not saying atheism makes you a worse person, only that it doesn’t necessarily make you any better.
Some people are just naturally jerks, and they need something besides their own personal character to make them treat others well. I suppose social reinforcement will have to suffice for those people, but it’s really hard to do better than believing that an all-knowing, everywhere-present Supervisor is watching everything you do even when no other human being is looking. Bonus points if you can make him benevolent, or even better yet parental.
Can people be good without God? Absolutely, yes, they can be. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be. Some people need a little nudge.
I think that’s one of the main reasons why religion isn’t going away any time soon. It meets a number of human psychological needs, not the least of which is to provide us with the sense that we will be held accountable for the things we do and say. It also helps with loneliness and maintaining a sense of meaning and purpose from day to day, and that makes it all the more indispensable to most people.
People have been saying for centuries that religion was going to die away, but they’ve always been wrong. It always comes back in a new form that’s better adapted to the new environment. Religion, like most ideas, evolves along with its host—humanity. That may seem less evident in those European countries where church and state were joined as one until the church became obsolete, but in the United States it’s pretty obvious the separation of the two freed up religion to evolve much faster than it ever did before.
After Darwin, people thought religion would go away for good because we discovered better (and more demonstrable) mechanisms for the differentiation and development of the rich biodiversity we see evidenced around us today, not to mention for the 99% of all species ever to have lived but have since become extinct. But religion didn’t go away.
Just because we were no longer satisfied with “God did it” as an explanation for natural processes didn’t mean we were completely done with the God hypothesis. No, it stayed around and is arguably as popular today as it ever was. Clearly there are needs being met by religion that nothing else has come along to handle better.
It’s not enough to do away with something we all depend on. You have to replace it with something better, and I’m not sure we’ve managed to do that just yet where religion and god belief are concerned.
A Useful Fiction, Sometimes
A few weeks ago I read someone arguing that it’s no use trying to develop a more defined sense of “self” because the self is a construct—it’s not a real thing at all. And in a way, she is right. The self is a construct, a manner of speaking metaphorically about our histories, memories, relationships and aspirations.
What we call “ourselves” are largely images in our own minds. They are collections of narratives about our identity and as such they are subjectively biased and at times totally misleading. The self can easily be deconstructed through trauma, through therapy, or even just through a hefty sampling of the right pyschotropic drugs.
But just because the self is a construct doesn’t mean it’s not a useful way of relating to our own lives and experiences. Viewing the self as a coherent unit—an object in itself—enables us to make better decisions about how to conduct ourselves from day to day. We have needs to be met like food, shelter, purposeful work, and love, and it helps to view these needs as necessary to the care of our “selves” whether the self is a construct or not.
We can speak of a need to learn self-awareness, self-control, or self-compassion, and the fact that the self is something we mostly imagine doesn’t actually negate the benefits of putting those skills into practice. The concept “works” whether it refers to an objectively real thing or not.
Maybe that’s the way it is with God, as well. Maybe for more people than not, it helps to imagine an all-seeing, all-knowing, benevolent Overseer watching over everything that happens, somehow making sure that we make the best decisions possible.
Speaking for myself personally, I know I find it much easier to follow a set of standard procedures after I’ve been shown how doing so benefits the work and lives of others. Without that information personalizing things for me, being told what to do and how to do it merely rubs me the wrong way and leads me to ask, “But why do it that way? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do it another way?” Impersonal rules and regulations leave me completely cold—unmotivated to do things a certain way “just because.”
But show me how what I do impacts others and suddenly I have every reason in the world to do it the way I’ve been told. I’m a human being—a member of a fundamentally social species—and as such I will always find it easier to do things that I know benefit others and perhaps earn their favor to boot.
Now project that tendency onto the entire universe. Wouldn’t it work a lot better to motivate humanity if they believe, not that the universe is a vast empty space that cares nothing at all for their own survival, but that behind it all there is a benevolent Person who cares what they do, and who also wants what’s best for them?
There’s just one huge problem. See, there actually isn’t an Intelligent Designer behind the universe, nor does the universe care one bit what happens to us. So it’s not actually true. Gods aren’t real things. They are a construct, just like religion in general.
But constructs can be useful, provided they are improved upon and shaped to fit our lives in order to accomplish what we need to accomplish. I’m not saying all gods or religions are created equal. But as vehicles for communicating values and priorities, and as a tool for creating group cohesion? If we’re being objective, putting our personal feelings aside…yeah, religion works pretty well, all things considered.
I’ve noticed that even those of us who say we are done with religion only end up having to re-create something similar to religion in order to regain the benefits of what we left behind. Maybe that’s not true on the scale of a single individual life, but certainly on any collective level it seems to hold true that whatever it is that religion does for people, the need for it doesn’t go away when we leave a belief in gods behind.
Working with the Machines
So am I suggesting we should actively promote belief in things that don’t even exist? No, I’m really not. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to speak about gods as if they are real things myself. But I am saying that maybe trying to disabuse humanity of its belief in gods isn’t where our focus needs be.
Perhaps until something better comes along, our focus should be on promoting (or at least not actively fighting) those forms of religion which reinforce values which we feel are beneficial to the rest of humanity. It seems quite obvious to me that even anti-human religions like the Abrahamic family of faiths can in time evolve into something more socially progressive and humanistic.
The less beneficial forms of the religion remain, and they should be called out for their abuses and excesses. But perhaps we can find among our more progressive religious friends a group of natural allies ready to fight for the same things. Perhaps the God concept isn’t automatically so bad after all, provided it tracks with the needs of humanity (and of our larger ecosystem) in such a way that believing in him/her/it brings real benefit to everyone and everything.
Do you feel that’s impossible? Dangerous, maybe? I’m willing to acknowledge it’s a gamble. And I don’t pretend to know how to go about doing it without inadvertently propping up some of the less desirable elements within religion along the way.
But I do know this: Religion isn’t going away any time soon. It is a persistent element of human nature, and it enjoys the privilege of thousands of years of development, differentiation, rationalization, and social reinforcement. And if that’s the case, it seems to me we would do well to figure out how to work with this machinery for our own purposes rather than always losing against it.
Remember how Neo finally defeated Agent Smith in The Matrix? For the longest time he thought he could overcome him by getting stronger and developing more skills, but he soon found that each step forward on his part only made Smith more powerful as well (note the parallels between secularism and fundamentalism). They were connected in an adversarial but still symbiotic relationship with one another. The only way that Neo could finally defeat what his adversary had become was to join forces with the machines, offering a solution that mutually benefitted his own aims as well as the aims of the machines themselves.
The Wachowski siblings are no philosophical louses (lice?), and they knew good and well what they were arguing in that series of films, which taken together were an audiovisual dissertation on the Western intellectual tradition. Among other things, they were suggesting that simply “raging against the machine” doesn’t work because the machinery of culture, of society, always wins in the end.
Related: “My Life in Movies: The Matrix“
To overcome our anti-human ideological enemies we need to get creative and accept the possibility that working with religion rather than against it may better serve our purposes. I can’t tell you what that looks like in practice, but I can say that I have a strong suspicion it’s the only way for us to make any real and lasting progress in the world.
Perhaps at a future time humanity will no longer need their gods. I like to think the progressive future envisioned in Star Trek is possible, ostensibly free from tribalistic religious influences. But we’re certainly not there yet. Until that time, maybe we should be rethinking the way we approach the task before us as freethinkers in today’s world. Maybe we should be looking for our allies among the believers, because on more things than not, some of us are fighting on the same side.
[Image Source: Lifevesting]