Why is religion so pervasive in human societies? Organized religion has been with us since the dawn of civilization. In fact, religion is so common that few societies have existed without it. As far as ideas surviving in human brains (memes) religions are among the most successful. That’s right religions are memes, but they are usually referred to as traditions. They stay in existence because they are ideas that are passed on from person to person and on to the next generation.
In The beginning
How and why did religion begin? For something like religion to arise it requires a highly evolved being. One would assume it requires a large enough brain to formulate abstract ideas, such as: an acute awareness of life and death, a sense of self, language, and the passage of time. That pretty much rules out every other species except humans. It is my contention that as soon as a being is able to pose a question it can’t answer, the raw materials for a religion are present. Although, it does not necessarily mean religion had to come about. The fact that it did is indeed complex. However, I will try to break it down by proposing a lengthy list of possibilities.
- Fear and Uncertainty – Without a workable understanding of the natural world, imagine what kind of questions our distant ancestors must have had. Why are we subjected to thunder and lightning? What is behind the force of a hurricane? Why does the Sun set in the horizon? There is perhaps no greater fear than the unknown and the ancients were pretty much left in the dark by their lot in history. Natural occurrences that are now clearly understood were often (and perhaps logically) attributed to the will of gods by our ancestors.
- Agriculture – At around 9000 BC the rise of agriculture made it possible for civilizations to develop. As humans went from living in small groups of hunter gathers to farming villages, it may have set the stage for organized religion. Farming made humans increasingly vulnerable to the whims of nature. The idea of praying to gods for blessings in a ritualistic setting may well have originated with agriculture. In addition, with large groups of people living in close proximity, it may have been wise to have everyone on the same page (so to speak).
- Solidarity – We are social beings at heart and there is something to be said for unity. Unlike today in the developed world, in ancient times survival was at the forefront. It likely would have been a survival advantage for a society to share common goals and ideas. A fractured community would have been at a disadvantage in fighting off enemies and acquiring resources. Religion may have been vital for strengthening social bonds and getting people to work for a common cause.
- Order and Ritual – Life was then and is now a mix of unforeseeable and anticipated events; both can create anxiety and worry. For many people, the belief in something behind the ebb and flow of life provides order for their lives. This sense of order, even though life does not necessarily reflect it, is often reinforced in people’s mind through religious traditions and rituals.
- Perseverance – If you think life is hard now (and it is at times) imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago. Without modern conveniences, the ancients had to work much harder for sustenance. They had no theory of disease, limited medical care and a shorter life expectancy. With a difficult life and the awareness of eventual death, would humans have been able to persevere without religion? Religion may have been a survival advantage, not directly but perhaps indirectly over the long haul.
- Hope for an Afterlife – The awareness of death is a by-product of a highly evolved brain. We are aware that we will lose everyone we love, unless death overtakes us first; this is a sobering realization. Central to most religions, is the prospect for an afterlife. This idea alone helps religions remain viable for long periods of time. It is very hard to come to terms with the idea that someday we will no longer be.
- Agency – We go through everyday life with desires and intentions. We are also aware that other living beings possess them as well. If every animated being we are in contact with (human or non-human) has intentions, we could say they are intentional agents. Nature is also animated, with wind, rain, rivers, vegetation, celestial bodies and much more. In a pre-modern world, was it such a stretch to extend the principle of agency to nature? Even today nature is still personified as Mother Nature. And if animals and nature were thought to have intentions, it was just one more step to attribute agency to gods.
- Power and Control- Small groups of people have a way of regulating themselves. If someone is taking advantage of others they can usually be dealt with. However, when small groups grow to become villages, cities and empires, things change. An ugly side of religion is that it has been used (or misused) for controlling people. This is how it works in a nut shell: When populations become too large for self-control, we end up with government and laws. If we break the laws then we are punished. But it is impossible for any regime to police everyone. Religion steps in as an all-encompassing secondary force. If you think you got away with something, then there is an eye in the sky that sees all and in the end you will be held accountable. This is a very powerful force and difficult to eliminate.
- Morality- Some people tend to view religion as the de facto origin of morality. However, it is hard to imagine how humans could have evolved to the point of organized religion, without first adherence to social norms. As a matter of fact, other primates exhibit social norms as well. Religions have been successful at converting established social norms into moral codes. As a consequence, religions have mostly presented themselves as moral authorities. The moral dimension of religion, in part accounts for their staying power.
- Explanation- Many of the existential questions, which puzzled humankind for centuries, have in large part been address by the scientific enterprise. At present we have access to a beautifully coherent explanation for how the universe works and how we got here. However, all this knowledge came to us much like a dripping faucet. As information was being collected the business of living was at the forefront. For generations religions provided an explanation in the form of origin stories which could be shared with the masses.
- Meaning- Humans are meaning making beings; we tend to look for meaning in life situations. I suspect that the ancients did not differ in that regard. The religious stories have and still provide meaning for large sections of the population. Today things have changed a bit, in the sense that we now have the scientific story to factor in, as opposed to the largely unchallenged voice of religion. That said, I must admit that the meaning value of the scientific story is incomplete.
One would think that our religions provided some survival advantages along the path of human development, how else can we explain their universality. To be clear, they are ubiquitous in their presence although not necessarily in their message. Some of what I touched upon earlier could very well fall under evolutionary gains, such as solidarity, perseverance, order, and perhaps even meaning. It appears that religions have contributed to civilization in a significant way, but will they continue to do so going forward? Or will something else step in to take its place?
Religion may have been our first attempt at understanding the world and ourselves. One might even say that religion was our first attempt at philosophy, morality, and perhaps science. However, much has changed in the world since religion was in its infancy. For the most part they don’t have the same hold on people as they once did, also we can now look at religion with a wider perspective. We tend to think of religions as being ever-present but they do have life spans. We are all aware of ancient religions and gods that are no longer taken seriously. However, normally religions easily out live their followers.
With the advantage of a lengthy history behind us it is easy to see that religions are universal in their presence but regional and cultural in their message. A look at the demographics for the various world religions points this out; numbers very slightly from different sources but not enough to matter for my purpose here. Also, I have rounded off the numbers for simplicity. This is how they rank globally in percentage of followers:
- Christianity 30 %
- Islam 20 %
- unaffiliated 16%
- Hinduism 15%
- Buddhism 7%
- others 12%
These figures indicate that in a best case scenario (if you’re a Christian) 70 % of all the people in the world will disagree with you on this matter. And let’s not forget that there is much disagreement amongst numerous Christian denominations. If one falls in any of the other five categories, the disagreement is even greater. Hypothetically, from a visiting alien’s point of view, any given religion would be indistinguishable from the others. In other words, with no cultural bias, it would be difficult to favor one religion over any other.
I suspect that in ancient times, it was far easier to buy into the religion of the day, but perhaps the golden age of religion has past. Not that today’s religions don’t have influence in many pockets of the world; they just aren’t as universal in their appeal. We are not as isolated geographical and far more aware of numerous past dead religions and a variety of current active ones. The religious stories continually change over time and across cultures. Religions stay alive for varying lengths of time in a sort of natural selection of ideas. It may be comforting for believers to think that today’s religions are here to stay, but if history is any indication, the future of religion is not set in stone.
References: Dr Michael Shermer | God does NOT exist, OxfordUnion, Published on Dec 21, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pOI2YvVuuE
Religion – when, why and how did it begin? http://www.garvandwane.com/religion/religion1.html
World Religions – populations pie chart statistics list. http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/mysticism/world_religions_populations.html