Why is there Religion?
I am helping Ed Snyder and Ron Beard to teach a course on “Moral/Social Evolution” at the Acadia Senior College in which we are asking whether or not Martin Luther King was right in saying that the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards jusice.” In preparation for the session on “Religion” and the “arc of the moral universe”, on participant asked, from the point of view of a non-believer, why there are religions. What leads people to have them? (Perhaps, especially, in light of all the problems they can give rise to.) Here are some initial reflections on this:
Note that it might be useful to first distinguish religious institutions – like the Catholic Church – from spiritual experiences which get interpreted and sometimes packaged or promoted by such institutions.
Reasons why there are religious institutions could vary widely but might include all the ways they might serve like, other insitutions, to coordinate society – but be distinguished by drawing especially heavily on “charismatic” and “traditional” forms of legitimacy. (cf. Max Weber). They might also serve, in many cases specifically to interpret, package and promote spiritual experiences that people might often have independently of their existence.
Some possible sources of “spiritual experience” in the broadest sense of the term:
1. Fears and desires in the face of the enigmatic environment – superstition, manipulations (theories of animism and religion as a kind of primitive science – cf. E. B. Tylor http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Burnett_Tylor#Religion_as_a_survival
2. Anxiety or dread (Angst) as a structure of human existence – cf. Soren Kierkegaard’s THE CONCEPT OF DREAD, Martin Heidegger in BEING AND TIME and the Existentialists
3. A variety of feelings and experiential states that are different from the banal experiences of instrumentally organized everyday life – dreams, hallucinations, déjà vu, the calm of alpha brain waves, the exhiliration of adrenaline, dopmamine or other chemicals. These can take many forms and have led to all sorts of animistic and polytheistic religions
4. oceanic feelings of joyful merging with the environment that might motivate monotheistic spiritual visions and religions – from drugs, from chasms, from spinning,, memories of the womb? – keyed by molecules (cf. Freud THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION and CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS)
5. oceanic thoughts of being a text in an overwhelming and infinite context – from meta-reflection, which comes with language as a distinctive exaptation or spandrel of natural selection. (see the history of western philosophy from the Pre-Socratics on as well as other traditions on the “meta” basis of this and see Stephen Jay Gould on the biological basis in exaptation and spandrels http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology_of_religion .)
a. E. g. who is the I that thinks about me and wonders who I am? Or the we?
b. What is the biggest number? Or the first cause? Or the justification for the justification? Or the next why? Or what happened on the day before time began?
6. Reciprocities of love – the transformation and transcendence that provides the experience of becoming more, by listening and joining with the other in a larger community and identity – parent and child, comrade, couple, community . . . in mutually constituting relations of I and You (cf. Martin Buber on I AND THOU)
a. Including the feeling of freedom
b. And transcendence
c. And being affirmed and loved
d. Versions of these expressed in rationality and ethical principles like Kant’s Categorical Imperative as a demand that we will only those actions that we could will universally, always considering everyone as ends in themselves and not as mere things – Many understandings of modern notions of justice including Universal Human rights are often strongly associated with some version of this rational notion of reciprocity and grounded in experiential levels in a, b, and c.
These sources of spiritual experience are all coded into our DNA and our ability to use language. In some sense there possibility must also be coded in the nature of reality, though what that means remains open to much debate. Materialists who are atheistic generally find it much easier to explain away religion by focusing on 1-4 and find #5 & 6 much more challenging to interpret – or dismiss.
An interesting question might be why don’t we experience variations on #4-6 more?
Perhaps because they make us dysfunctional as objects, as instruments, as machines. We are too creative to obey standard rules and be used for the ends authorities have. And so they teach us other languages and get us to stop spinning on the ground or staring down from trees, they make us stop asking why or wondering what the biggest number or first cause was. They put us to work and make us want to keep focused.
Most creedal religions are in fact part of a plan of life and action that standardizes behavior and removes us from the mystical and the revelatory. That is its function. It takes a dose of the awesome, oceanic love and Light and wraps it in Christmas or some other special space and time and tones everything else down.
It is the political economy that pushes us into conflict and out of love. And so we suffer. We view all of life as a conflict between two islanders over one coconut – or variations on that theme — and see ourselves locked in a struggle over fears and desires framed by an underlying dread of death. And religious experiences of types 1 and 2 predominate and those of 4-6 are obscured. We cannot even, in our mainstream society, very well articulate what real love is. (For more on this, see my talk given recently to the South Central Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Bruceville, Texas: “Sharing the Spiritual Commons”.)