Religion as a Coping Mechanism

Religion as a Coping Mechanism October 4, 2018

“All religions are human in their origins, erroneous in their theories, and ridiculous in their threats and rewards.”

Dr. D. M. Brooks

David Marshall Brooks is the author of a book titled “The Necessity of Atheism.”. Brooks, a psychologist, was born in 1902 and died in 1994. The title of his book makes it clear, as does the opening paragraph of his Preface, where he stands with regard to organized religion:

Plain speaking is necessary in any discussion of religion, for if the freethinker attacks the religious dogmas with hesitation, the orthodox believer assumes that it is with regret that the freethinker would remove the crutch that supports the orthodox. And all religious beliefs are “crutches” hindering the free locomotive efforts of an advancing humanity. There are no problems related to human progress and happiness in this age which any theology can solve, and which the teachings of freethought cannot do better and without the aid of encumbrances.

The key word here is “crutch.” Life is full of dangers for all living things. From the earliest humans until today, we have faced those dangers, and coped with our fear as well as we could. Brooks examines how our coping mechanisms…crutches…have evolved over time.

Chapter 1, The Evolution of Religious Beliefs, gives a brief history of how belief in supernatural spirits arose, and then developed over thousands of years.

Our story takes us back some twelve thousand years to neolithic man. Squatting in his rude hovel or gloomy cave, he listens to the sounds of a storm without. The howling of the wind, the flashes of lightning, and crashing of thunder give rise to that elemental emotion—fear.

Fear, he says, is the basis of religious belief. Fear of natural events, fear of beasts who preyed on early man…and, of course, fear of death. Brooks describes how those primitive humans learned to cope with those fears.

Slowly, through his groping mind there evolved the thought, due to past experience, that he could not contend with these things by physical force, but must subdue them with magic; his magic consisted of the beating of crude drum-like instruments, dances, and the mumbling of words.

Upon falling asleep he dreams, and awakening, he finds that he is still in the same place where he had lain the night before. Yet, he is certain that during the night he had traveled to his favorite wood and killed an animal whose tender flesh he was still savoring. Since the conception of a dream was as yet foreign to him, the logical conclusion he arrived at was that he had both a body and a spirit. If he possessed a body and a spirit, then all things about him, he reasoned, must likewise possess a similar spirit. Some spirits, he felt, were friendly; some, hostile to him. The hostile spirits were to be feared…and he hoped to be able to win them over to the camp of friendly spirits. In this manner, man passed from the stage of contending against the spirits to one of placating them.

He shows how, from those ancient rituals, religions grew in complexity as our social interactions developed. But have these rituals really changed?

Slowly, slowly, down through the ages, as the mind of man progressed, his self-made religious conceptions advanced. He now worshiped idols, and these idols were his gods. The Celts, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, all had their idols. All were certain that their gods were the true ones, and that the others were all inferior and even false gods. But, is the modern worshipper who is contemptuous of the ancients very different from them?

It would be of value for the modern religionist who believes that the worship of a deity in our own age is far removed from the worship of an idol by our savage ancestors, to retrace his steps and compare the savage mind worshiping his particular idol and a so-called civilized mind of today worshiping his deity.

His conclusion: Nothing much has changed in the worship of gods since men lived in caves.

The present-day methods of worship are no different from those of the savage; the method of supplication has changed with the advance of the years, but the fundamental ideas at the base of all worship are just as crude today as they were 4000 years ago. Primitive man was no more a fetishist than is the modern Catholic. The latter still wears medals and images suspended from the neck and pinned to the inner clothing.

It is all about fear, and the worship of gods is how many of us cope with that fear. Even if the belief in supernatural beings is an illusion, if it gives people reassurance, and comforts them when a loved one dies, what’s wrong with that? Visiting Fantasyland is okay if you are a child at Disneyland. For adults who have left Mickey Mouse behind, facing reality and trying to understand our place in the real world, self-delusional crutches are, as the author says, an “encumbrance.”

Religions tell us that we live beyond death; that we live forever. Eternal life. I don’t think many religious believers have really thought about that. It may allay their instinctive fear of death, but think about this: If you learned one infinitesimal thing every day, at the end of your eternal life, you would know everything. What an awful thought!

HAHA! Gotcha! There is no end to eternity.

In fact, the whole notion of eternal life is absurd when you really think about it. It’s a childish fantasy, and I am glad that it is, because living forever is a far more horrifying prospect than death.

I don’t need a crutch to cope with my fear of death, but imagine being a prisoner in life with no escape. No way out. Ever. Heaven or Hell, it doesn’t matter.

It is the horror movie to end all horror movies.

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