Why religion is still around
Do we really need God/gods today to bind our relationships, provide amoral compass, when we have marriage and music, laws and police, democracies and global institutions? Why do we still return to this ancient idea? And after all, why should human life have “meaning,” any more than a tree has “meaning”? Surely spiritual experiences (undeniable) are simply a part of our general psychology, a by-product of our ability to think rationally, to look for cause and effect. If we throw a stone, we see the splash. So if we see lightning, we invent a god who must be throwing it. That’s the persuasive argument that religion is just anthropocentric, projecting our wishes and fantasies on to the world around us. Now that we’ve grown up we know better than this, and our religious genes are no more relevant than the male nipple.
Sometimes it’s the young who turn to God (or politics) through idealism; they feel there’s more to life than their parents let on. There must be a hidden pattern that makes sense of everything (I’ve been there — thinking that my committed evangelical Christian parents were not really evangelical enough). Or the middle-aged do so through frustration at not reaching their dreams; they begin to see themselves as they used to see their parents. Or the old because they need new ones; the end is coming like a train and they wonder if there isn’t something beyond extinction. After all, the laws in physics and math are timeless; why should life itself be finite? Dissatisfaction, the thought that we’re being pushed around the edges of life rather than enjoying its center, is a powerful force that leads to belief. Fear can do it still faster. Nothing prompts agonized questioning as much as imminent death, whether of a partner or our own.
This may all seem a bit over the top. For those of you who don’t have any kind of feeling for religion at all, I’m just trying to convey something of the intensity which it can reach. Obviously, we can live well without formal religion, or religion of any kind — that’s common. In the better-functioning societies of today, like some of the European countries, particularly in Scandinavia, it plays a much lesser role than it used to. In part, I’d suggest, because in those societies good religious principles have been absorbed into the mainstream — it’s just the difficult, ancient “creeds” they’ve abandoned. But the idea first mooted a couple of centuries ago, and common 50 years ago, that these beliefs would die off has proved an illusion. Around the world, overall, belief in God — and religion in general — flourishes, for good or bad. And I doubt there are many, religious or not, who don’t recognize some kind of “scale” of experience, in terms of relationships with others or the world, and wonder if there isn’t some kind of blueprint for it somewhere.
“Materialism,” whether by that you mean anything from consumerism as the main principle of a good life, or simply a scientific understanding of how we came to be as we are, is not a compelling answer for many. For some, sure. I admire people who can live a good life in contentment, without the props of religion, or drugs, or alcohol, or the aphrodisiac of power. But we mostly have a sense that there’s more to life, that it could be “better,” that it has a “point.” Partly, it’s the positive wells we draw on that keep us coming back to it. There’s a “state of flow”; the sheer delight at being alive, at the amazingly intricate beauty of nature. It could be experiencing the unity of the crowd at a soccer match, or a rock concert, or enjoying an extreme sport. These experiences can be just emotional. But then there are the peak experiences, described by Abraham Maslow as “the moments of highest happiness and fulfilment.” There’s the wonder of a discovery, there’s gratitude at being loved, and at the power of love to change ourselves and others. And love — it’s not something that science can describe, or give you an equation for; but life without it — it’s one-dimensional.
A new born baby, a dying friend, a walk in the woods, maybe even in a church — those often empty shells of the faith we used to have — at times most of us feel the pull of something, of being connected to a whole that embraces our little selves, that is in some sense absolutely “good.” Maybe even a sense of awe, that pinnacle of consciousness, where we see ourselves in something else, or indeed lose all sense of distinction, when the boundaries dissolve. We might describe it as God, variously emphasizing the loving aspect, or the beautiful, or the true, or simply as a mystery that we can touch the edges of but can’t know. These experiences might even lead to a state of self-transcendence. Sometimes, maybe just once or twice in a lifetime, we might have a breakthrough moment so strange and wonderful that nothing is ever quite the same again (and I’m not counting LSD trips here, though they can work in the same way; and ingesting entheogens could well be the oldest stimulus to religious experience, much as mind-altering practices like dancing, meditation, fasting, chanting, speaking in tongues, etc., are still part of the general tool-kit). We might even redefine the priorities in our lives. After all, the world is over there, and it’s astonishing. We’re here, and we’re the only starting point we have. Surely we’re related. If there’s a meaning behind it we want to know, to be part of it. And in so far as we’re rational creatures we need a reason for living and a framework to live by. Rules are useful for that. And life is more than rules and logic. Hope would be a nice thing too.
Religion is a way of enabling it to come at will, rather than just on occasion. Perhaps even leading to “plateau experience” — the province of saints and mystics who reportedly live in it all the time. And what most religions agree on, if you look at it broadly, is that when you strip away everything that we tend to think of as constituting our lives — our possessions, home, health, friends, family, even our daily sense of self, the bundle of nerves and emotions that get us through the day — we get down to who we really are, and find there’s something there. We’re more than a bundle of molecules, more than science has yet described. If you dig deep enough there’s a spark, a spirit, rather than nothing. There’s “me.” Some describe this as the “soul.” Connecting with it brings us back to Eden, to the time before we realized we were naked, and invented clothes and fashion, work and worry, religion and psychology. We find we’re back in touch with the world. The problems fall away, and nothing could be other or better than it is. We might even see the true nature of consciousness as eternal rather than transient. That love is real. That life is more energy than matter, force fields rather than flesh. That underneath the appearance all is essentially one.
Many say they encounter a force, which most characterize as loving and healing; many personalize it as a deity, which sustains and informs this world, nudging it every moment toward life rather than chaos.
There is no more powerful feeling on earth. Millions of talented, wealthy, beautiful people have given up ambition, money, and sex for religion. They even still do. It’s not just for the uneducated, the ill, or the oppressed. It can be the assurance of being saved and loved, reconciled with yourself and the world. The moments when you know prayers have been answered, even of foreknowledge. Maybe it’s the times when you are caught up in worship, when the veil between this world and the next, between yourself and God, splits. It can bring healing, opening up innermost thoughts, bringing to light childhood problems and clearing them. The experience of time, space and nature can be changed by it. The presence of God can be the defining point around which the world turns. We can actually love ourselves because we are part of a greater love. This then spills over into a love for others. It makes sense of everything. It’s better than drugs, and without the downside. It can bring us peace: sometimes even happiness.
Depending on the channel they’ve found, some phrase it as reaching for God up there, others as God reaching down to us, others as finding God in here, others as going beyond the idea of God. The voice of God speaking out of the hurricane, the roaring fire, or the still quiet, the voice of reason or conscience, or no voice at all. But all describe the experience as a feeling of coming home, of being welcomed to our true state; a moment that wraps up past, present, and future, self and other, in an explosion of understanding and awed contentment, a “oneness.”
Why we believe in God (of whatever kind) is easy to see. We always have done. It’s a bridge over the abyss — the foreknowledge of our own death — the light at the end of the tunnel. It takes our uncertainties and fears and turns them around, enabling us to believe that what happens was meant to happen, and will turn out for the good. It’s what drives us, makes us believe that love is more than sex, relationship more than advantage. That there’s a “whole” we can be part of, where life makes sense. That even death might not be the end. We’re even prepared to die ourselves for a cause as causes can make life worth living. If we can’t, if life has no cause, no purpose, we think of it as having no meaning, no “worth.” It turns self-awareness into a blessing rather than a curse, enables us to love life rather than fear it.
Whether this is true or not, it “works,” or we would have given up on it thousands, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Evolution, the survival of the fittest, applies as much to ideas as to animals like us. Alcoholics are more likely to be persuaded to give up drinking by acknowledging the “Higher Power” of the AA 12-Step Program than by being lectured at by doctors. Parents do not lessen their grief by thinking of their dead child as rotting flesh, but by believing their spirits might touch again. We’re more likely to act in the interests of others if we can believe in love as a universal principle in life than if we see it as a self-gratifying fiction. We’re more likely to be happy if we believe creation is basically good, and joyful, and continuous than if we think of it (rationally) as random, painful, and meaningless. A universe of billions of galaxies and black holes, destined for extinction, without a single particle of love, intention or spirit anywhere, which at the quantum level is absurd, an inhuman monstrosity, no meaning — apart from the meaning we bring to it, the stories we tell, the relationships we develop — okay, that may be the reality. We don’t know, and probably never will. But even a fiction of salvation is better than a despairing suicide, if you’re looking for something extra to get you through the day.
Atheists won’t completely win the argument on the ground in another thousand years, because what they offer is not enough for everyone. Religion can support you when you have nothing, can give you something to reach for when you have everything. Indeed sometimes the more we have the more we realize there’s never enough, and it’s not what we really want anyway. In its purest form, it’s the ultimate democratic way of thinking, asking the same kind of questions and exerting the same kind of power over a millionaire in her New England Hamptons’ mansion as over a dying Neolithic clan leader clothed in wolf skins and huddled by a cave fire. In between it covers the lot — from birth to death, fear to hope, guilt to joy, from poor people to rich, happy to sad. In a vast and complicated world, religion gives us reference points, explaining who and where we are, and what we should do. What kind of priorities we should give our lives, and how we should live together.
And there’s a point that every religion agrees on — that the key to understanding is in surrender, acceptance, rather than taking up a sword and battling through life for your own self-interest. Most of us have learned to let go with a partner in the interests of a deeper relationship: religion is about letting go of the world. The trick of doing it, of having faith (believing beyond the evidence) that the world makes a deeper kind of sense, comes with knowing for yourself where that point is, where faith is credible. Where you can make the jump. Where you can let go, and believe the unknown will take care of you. I think that’s what “faith” is. It’s believing hopefully.
We do this all the time, every day, in relationships, trusting people that they will build on what we’ve developed rather than beat us up or cook us for supper. It’s what being human is about — having faith, risking love, making deeper connections. The trick of having faith that the world is one of love and meaning without switching off your brain seems to be a question of knowing for yourself where that point is. It’s different for everyone, and the average position changes through the centuries in different cultures, religions, and traditions within those religions — none more so than in Christianity; you can be saved by works (James 2:21–24); by faith alone (Galatians 2:16); only by helping the poor and needy (Matthew 25:34–46); by baptism (Mark 16:16); only if you endure to the end (Mark 13:13); just by believing (John 3:16); by keeping the law (Romans 2:13); by being born of water and of the Spirit (John 3:5); by eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood (John 6:53–54); and so on… dozens of them, frequently contradicting each other (eg; in Romans 10:13 you can be saved by calling on the name of the Lord, but in Matthew 7:21–23 you won’t necessarily be); some passages say that you can never lose your salvation while others say you can — it’s a Babel of confusion, although of course that’s not God’s fault, it’s yours (1 Corinthians 14:33).
We’re all uncertain, if we have any sense, and there’s no divine blueprint to help us out. We can ignore religion, like staying single, or join one, recognizing that it’s never going to be perfect, any more than any other relationship can be. But there’s a point where you have to commit, to make a decision. The point changes through your own life. Mindfulness, if you can manage it, is staying focused on where the point makes sense. Wisdom is thinking and acting out of that awareness. Salvation, or enlightenment, or reconciliation, or awakening, or peak experience (there are hundreds of ways of describing it), happens in the realization that the point is everything, the doorway through which you leave behind yourself and reconnect with life as it is rather than the little bit of it we can see.
It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason.
Pascal (seventeenth century AD)