Why Do We Have Religion?

by Jack

I’m not picking on any religion here, I’m just asking the question: Why do we embrace religion, any religion? Is it because we feel we lack self-control, so we must fall back on our higher power to help us enforce those matters of conscience? Is it because we were told by authority figures early in our lives that we need it… so we became indoctrinated? Was it really because of a divine entity acting purely for our best interests, so we need it for our survival?

I’ve wondered these things and more and then yesterday I came across the essay below. If you read it looking for hard answers, you won’t find any. But, you will find reasons to be inquisitive and seek more knowledge. In my way of thinking that is reason enough to read it. (I would rather know enough to formulate the question than to propose I know the answer to the unknowable.) Interestingly enough one of the world’s greatest religions, Islam, does not like people who ask questions? To ask questions is forbidden because it’s an terrible evil that can’t be tolerated. Not exactly the thinking man’s religion is it? Yet, it’s growing faster than any other religion and what does that say about us? Okay, enough – its essay time:

8 Reasons People Embrace Religion
by Andrew Pepper June 13, 2013

It’s 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), it’s clear a large percentage of people have religious beliefs. The question is why? Is there a “god shaped hole in our brain”? Why do people have the need to “believe fervently in the very unlikely”?

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.

8 People are Superstitious

I’m a fan of cricket and, occasionally, I have a feeling that I suspect many other sports fans will find familiar—if I stop watching a game for a couple of minutes and a wicket falls, I’m tempted to stop watching again to see if that “takes another wicket”. 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 can’t really affect a game being played hundreds or thousands of miles away, the feeling is there—and it’s widespread; I’ve heard plenty of stories starting “I’m not superstitious, but…”..
What’s interesting is that superstition isn’t 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 times—the pigeons would repeat whatever behavior they’d just been doing to “make” the food come again.
As has been pointed out; it is very difficult to distinguish between superstitious behavior (getting a cup of coffee to “make” a football team score a goal) and religious behaviour (talking in a quiet voice to “make” it rain).

7 People Can’t Help Anthropomorphism

Hands up who talks to their computer? And not because it has speech recognition. Yep, I can see lots of hands there—including my own. We talk to (or shout at) computers, cars, screwdrivers, almost anything we interact with. It’s a widespread practice and children, in particular, do it—imposing personalities on inanimate objects.
There is some evidence that this is useful behavior—for example, if you’re looking for something you’ve lost then saying the item’s name out loud makes it easier to find—as if “talking” to something helps people concentrate on the item. Again, if pressed, people will confess that the computer, car or screwdriver can’t actually hear them—even if we shout, but also people can’t stop doing it—it’s built into our brains.
How does this tie in to religious beliefs? Religion has been described as “trying to talk to the weather”; is talking to our cars so different?

6 Need for Purpose

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 it’s natural to feel everything should have a purpose—“but what use are wasps?” is a question I’ve heard plenty of times—as if wasps have a bit of a nerve existing without a clear purpose. It feels wrong to say, “well, some things have no purpose; they just are.” The tendency to say “everything has a purpose” leads to questions such as “what is the purpose of life?, of death?, of evil?” Many philosophers would argue that these aren’t sensible questions—partly because they’re based on an assumption that such things have a purpose, but if you insist that things do have a purpose, then a supernatural explanation—which can explain anything—can obviously explain it.

5 Belief in Justice

It seems people have an innate belief in justice; particularly when we’re young—“it’s just not fair!”—sound familiar? Although the parents’ standard response is “well, life isn’t fair”, the feeling that life *should* be fair is deeply ingrained—as with superstition, there’s evidence that it isn’t restricted to humans—evolutionary biologist, Professor Marc Bekoff believes that a sense of morality is built into the brains of all mammals—but people simply hate to see wrongdoing unpunished and it’s a common factor in religions that there’s a *lot* of punishment going on. It’s rather unpleasant to think that one of the biggest “draws” of religion is the hope that “evil” people get really punished.

4 Hope of Afterlife

The other side of the belief in justice; when someone dies, one of the stages of grieving that people go through is anger—it just seems so wrong, so unfair that someone we love is gone. Who would not like it to be true that we’ll 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 isn’t the only thing that drives our beliefs.

3 We Miss Our Silverback

The closest living relative to modern humans are gorillas—depending on how you count the DNA, we’re up to 99% gorilla—or 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 male—called a silverback because the fur on a male’s goes silver as the male ages. The silverback defends the group from attacks—and, as you’d suspect, a mature, male gorilla is *very* strong, so it’s likely to win. The silverback also “runs” the group; making all the decisions, sorting out fights, deciding where the group goes and so on.
Humans don’t live like this; they live in relatively large groups—particularly compared with other apes—and they don’t 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, there’s quiet and respect in their presence). The difference is that our dominant male isn’t so tangible nowadays.

2 Imbibing “Special” Plants

Indigenous people in South America have been taking ayahuasca for centuries—European missionaries described it in in the 16th century, but it was long established then. Ayahuasca is easy to make—assuming you’ve access to a rain forest, and can boil water—various leaves are crushed and boiled and consumed. It’s, 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 “becoming” prey animals—in a spirit world.|

Humans are no strangers to psychedelic drugs; evidence for magic mushroom use date back to prehistoric times and it’s believed that early religions were an attempt to explain the psychedelic experiences of drugs.

1 It Brings us Together

Although it’s difficult to know for sure how behavior evolves, there is usually one of two reasons why it survives; either it provides a benefit or it’s 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 together—or more precisely, that it allows lots of people to live together without killing each other; our closest relatives—gorillas 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 humans’ 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 doesn’t 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… END (or is it?)

Closing Note: #1 can also be argued that it goes the other direction. Religion keeps us apart and the business of keeping people apart is good! There’s a lot of prestige, money and power to claimed by rising up to become the Ultra-Supreme Spokesman for an omnipotent being that nobody else can see or hear, except in their never-to-be-trusted imagination or some other dream state. But, for some reason we trust the Ultra-Supreme Leader to do that? It’s a historical fact that we have countless examples of people who have abused religion for their own not-so-divine purposes and thus controlled people like a King, even better if you are God-King. And further, this usurpation of power inevitably meant the slaughter of more than a few opponents, sometimes for the most trivial of reasons. In that sense religion has many of the earmarking’s of good old politics. So, it’s rather predictable that some religions have morphed into a religious/political movement, through what the faithful see (but, only after intense indoctrination) as divine regulations that must be strictly adhered too or face the prescribed, often lethal punishment.

Coming up…reason we really do need religion.

1. Interesting essay on religion.

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17 Responses to Why Do We Have Religion?

  1. Tina says:

    Interesting essay.

    This person is obviously observing from without as he addresses religion (organization) rather than faith. There’s a palpable absence of spiritual experience in his musings. He/she appears to begin from a cynical perspective that dismisses the soul and the concept of revelation leading to greater wisdom. The list of reasons certainly reflect certain behaviors in religious people but I doubt human beings would sustain an attraction or devotion (for centuries) if there wasn’t something much more compelling that drives that devotion.

    My cynical side says this person thunks he’s his DNA. Nothing more than a highly developed machine with a determined shelf life. Where is the life? The animating presence?

  2. Peggy says:

    Ever hear of Lee Strobel? He’s had a very interesting life when as an atheist and journalist he tried to prove religion was a lie and in particular Jesus a phony. His search for the truth through facts didn’t take him where he wanted. He has since written several books and even has a movie out called, “The Case For Christ.”

    Lee Strobel:

    Lee Strobel: The Case For Christ – Documentary

    Also recommend the movie available on NetFlix.

  3. It’s a common theme in all cultures. No culture every evolved without simultaneously evolving a religion of some sorts.

    This leads to the inevitable “my God is greater than your God” wars, which are nothing more than deity sanctioned tribalism

    • Tina says:

      Good to hear from you Anthony.

      Humans often resort to the mine is “bigger, better, more than yours” argument. It doesn’t matter what the subject might be. Your work on environmental concerns has been admirable, for instance, but there are those involved in the conversation who claim their science is better and those delivering their message more learned and respectable.

      In neither example is “tribalism” useful. 😉

    • Pie Guevara says:

      Ditto Tina

  4. Tina says:

    Related article and book announcement:

    TownHall – “Dennis Prager’s new book, “The Rational Bible: Exodus” (available on Amazon)

    …I have believed all my life that the primary crisis in America and the West is the abandonment of Judeo-Christian values, or, one might say, the dismissal of the Bible. Virtually everyone on the left thinks America would be better off as a secular nation. And virtually all conservative intellectuals don’t think it matters. How many intellectuals study the Bible and teach it to their children?

    And yet, from the time long before the United States became a country until well into the 1950s, the Bible was not only the most widely read book in America; it was the primary vehicle by which each generation passed on morality and wisdom to the next generation.

    Since that time, we have gone from a Bible-based society to a Bible-ignorant one; from the Bible being the Greatest Book to the Bible being an irrelevant book. Ask your college-age child, niece, nephew or grandchild to identify Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel or the ten plagues. Get ready for some blank stares. I recently asked some college graduates (none of whom were Jewish) to name the four Gospels. None could.

    But what we have today is worse than ignorance of the Bible. It is contempt for it. Just about anyone who quotes the Bible, let alone says it is the source of his or her values, is essentially regarded as a simpleton who is anti-science, anti-intellectual and sexist.

    Our society, one of whose mottos is “In God We Trust,” is becoming as godless as Western Europe — and, consequently, as morally confused and unwise as Europe. Just as most professors regard most Bible believers as foolish, I have more or less the same view of most college professors in the liberal arts. When I hear that someone has a Ph.D. in sociology, anthropology, political science or English, let alone women’s studies or gender studies, I assume that he or she is morally confused and bereft of wisdom. Some are not, of course. But they constitute a small minority. (continues)

    Too many Americans have no understanding of the importance that “faith and wisdom” as well as knowledge of the Bible had in forming our Constitution and the moral and ethical foundation in the populace required to hold on to our republic.

    Religion, formal or informal, helps to form clarity and consistency in how we treat one another from support and adherence to the rule of law on down to the most basic social relationships and encounters.

  5. Ezikiel says:

    Why do we have religion?

    Stop asking such blasphemous questions. We have religion so heathens like you have the chance to repent and avoid going to Hell.

    Take my advice and repent now! You will be eternally thankful.

    Your welcome.

  6. Pie Guevara says:

    I only take issue with “Humans don’t live like this; they live in relatively large groups—particularly compared with other apes—and they don’t have a supremely powerful male leader…”


    The examples are endless and appear throughout human history. Male and female.

    Nice to see Anthony comment. He is has it exactly.

    I have never been a religious person but have always had this hunch there may be a God. I figure it is not in the capacity of man to know the mind of God and that religion with sacred texts is more about men trying to understand the mind of God than the texts actually being the “word” of God.

    From the few classes I took in anthropology I learned to look at religion as a powerful socializing force and examine it as such. It is often a political, judicial and organizational force. It provides an organizational framework and is responsible for guiding youths into adulthood. Rites of passage are common in all cultures in one form or another, whether religion plays a significant role or not.

  7. Joe says:

    Come on Jack, everyone knows the Annunaki are our gods…


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