I’ve talked to many people over the years about religion and faith and have developed my own personal theory why I think people are religious.
I know people will cite all kinds of different reasons for their faith – everything from that feeling of “there has to be something that created this” when you consider the beauty and diversity of nature to “The Bible gives me the morals that guide my life” to “I believe in the good work the church does” to “I simply feel it in my soul” and probably a million other reasons.
But I think, underlying all of these, on a conscious or subconscious level, there are three real reasons why people are religious and all people of faith have one or some combination of these three as the cause of their faith:
By far, the major reason I think people follow a particular religion is that they were born into it and they were, if this isn’t too strong of a word, indoctrinated from a young age. This makes it harder to either change religions or be less religious as they get older – especially with some of the threatened punishments for not believing. (With that said, belief among young people is dropping at an enormous rate – which I think comes from a number of things – the wider availability of alternate viewpoints on the Internet, church scandals, more vocal proponents of atheism in popular culture.)
This idea of conformity is best illustrated by one of the American exchange students I had this debate with when I was in England. He was Jewish and we were talking about religion and faith and belief. I said, “So, you’re telling me that if you were essentially the same person but were born to two Indian parents, you believe you’d still eventually become Jewish instead of being a Hindu? If you were born in rural Japan, you’d still be Jewish instead of Shinto?” He replied in the affirmative and perhaps he truly believed this. But it sounded like a whole lot of denial to me. Richard Dawkins has used this same line of reasoning to great effect.
I touched on this in my “Evolution of an Atheist” post where I mentioned how I used to pray every night when I was young, mostly because I was afraid of the dark. I think one of the greatest appeals of religion is that it helps to give comforting answers to frightening questions. “I lost my job but I know God will provide for me,” “Aunt Sue has cancer – I’ll pray for her to get better,” “A natural disaster killed 30 000 people halfway around the world but that’s not random, it’s part of God’s master plan.”
The biggest “scared of the dark” for most of us of course is death. Dying is extremely frightening to most people since, without Heaven or reincarnation or whatever, there is a terrifying finality to it.
Dawkins’ response to this (maybe I should call this Dawkins Week instead of Atheist Week?) is that we should truly be overjoyed at the fact we’re even here to enjoy the 80 or so years most of us will get. He points out that for this to have happened, every single one of our ancestors over millions of years had to live, at least to the point they could successfully pro-create – no dying by accident or in war or disease or being mauled by a bear. Then that child had to do the same thing – no death of influenza or crib death or drowning in a pool. Each time, one single sperm cell out of millions had to successfully implant an egg to create the unique snowflake that is each individual human.
Of course, after I die I’d love to live forever and look down from in heaven and watch how the future unfolds and see what Pace and my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren might do in their lives. But from a scientific/rational point of view, we’re already immortal by passing along our genes and our traits. That’s not as good as smiling down on Pace Jr. from a golden mansion. But it’s still pretty cool and reassuring in the face of The Big Dark.
This is sort of parallel to my last point in that there’s another form of comfort that comes from having a community of people who are automatically your tribe, just because you go to a house of worship with them once a week (or twice a year as is the case for many believers!) Whether it’s Sunday barbeques in the parking lot or a mission to build churches in central Mexico, having a sense of common purpose and belonging is a powerful motivator for human beings, especially when many of our other traditional “communities” – whether it’s our dissolving family units, lack of connection with our neighbours in ever-colder cities or even falling memberships in some organized sports or service clubs. Religion can be a quick and easy way to find a ready-made group of friends and acquaintances who, by virtue of belonging to the same church, are already “vetted”.
I don’t want to sound too dismissive of all the myriad reasons people give for why they are religious since I know they believe those to be true for themselves. But after many years of thinking about this and talking to people of faith, it’s been my experience that it is one of these reasons (or some combination of the three) that underpins why they are religious.