Religion is a funny thing. It can play such an important role in our lives, yet it’s intangible and unquantifiable. You have no real way to say “My religion works, and I have the proof”. In the long run, there is no irrefutable scientific evidence that any one religion or belief system is better than any other. Still, we each cling to our own religions simply because it’s what we have chosen to invest our belief in.
Let me be very clear: I’m not smack-talking religion, and I’m certainly not writing this from either a “for” or “against” position. I am simply looking at the curious behavior that is an irrational, unexplainable belief in something we can’t see, touch, taste, feel, or hear.
In my wanderings of the internet, I found a fascinating article on LiveScience called “The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved“. It’s basically a scientific look at why mankind needs religion and belief systems.
The article is quite fascinating, and I’d highly recommend that you read it, but it boils down to something simple: humans understand that some things can act of their own accord. A lion will try to eat you, a snake will bite if threatened, and so on. Humans developed the ability to determine what can and cannot act on its own accord.
However, humans eventually started looking at other things and believing they acted on their own accord as well. When raindrops fell, lightning struck, and the heat of the sun turned water to steam, they gave it the same “identity” or “agency”. They began to believe that these things would “act”.
Humans understand that lions eat when hungry or snakes strike when threatened. So why wouldn’t raindrops, lightning, and sunshine have a “purpose” or a reason for the action? Humans gave these things intention or purpose, and the belief in the supernatural was born.
According to the article: “The roaring threat of a thunderstorm or the devastation of a flood is widely seen across cultures as the product of a dangerous personal agent in the sky or river, respectively,” said Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Likewise, the movements of the sun, moon and stars are widely explained as the movements of personal agents with extraordinary powers,”Kerkeslager told Live Science in an email.
This tendency to explain the natural world through the existence of beings with supernatural powers — things like gods, ancestral spirits, goblins and fairies — formed the basis for religious beliefs, according to many cognitive scientists.”
Of course, there is the non-evolutionary theories of religion, which state that humans developed religion as a way to “promote cooperation in social groups”. According to the article:
Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom whose work focuses mostly on the behavior of primates, including nonhuman primates like baboons. Dunbar thinks religion may have evolved as what he calls a “group-level adaptation.” Religion is a “kind of glue that holds society together,” Dunbar wrote. “Primates tend to live in groups because doing so benefits them in certain ways. For instance, hunting in groups is more effective than hunting alone. But living in groups also has drawbacks. Namely, some individuals take advantage of the system…”freeriders.”
“Freeriding is disruptive because it loads the costs of the social contract onto some individuals, while others get away with paying significantly less,” Dunbar wrote in a New Scientist article, “The Origin of Religion as a Small-Scale Phenomenon.” As a result, those who have been exploited become less willing to support the social contract. In the absence of sufficient benefit to outweigh these costs, individuals will leave in order to be in smaller groups that incur fewer costs.”
But if the group can figure out a way to get everyone to behave in an unselfish way, individual members of the group are less likely to storm off, and the group is more likely to remain cohesive.
Religion may have naturally sprung up from this need to keep everybody on the same page, Dunbar said. Humans’ predisposition to attribute intention to just about everything (e.g., volcanic eruptions, lunar eclipses, thunderstorms) isn’t necessarily the reason religion came about, but it helps to explain why religions typically involve supernatural elements that describe such phenomena.
Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? It’s never crossed my mind to think of WHY we need religion or belief systems, but it’s an interesting thought to consider.
Why do you think religion exists and is so important? Drop a comment below and share your thoughts…