Religion is such a strong driving force in most (if not all) cultures as it significantly affects how people behave and how they look at the world around them. It’s interesting to see that so many religions share certain common elements, and it seems likely that these common elements arose from several factors including some psychological similarities between human beings. Much like Carl Jung’s idea of a “collective unconscious”, humans likely share certain psychological tendencies and this would help to explain the religious commonalities that have precipitated over time. It seems plausible that some evolutionary mechanisms, including natural selection and also the “evolution” of certain social/political structures, also played a role in establishing some of these religious commonalities. I’d like to discuss some of my thoughts on certain religious beliefs including what I believe to be some important psychological, social, political, and evolutionary factors that have likely influenced the formation, acceptance, and ultimate success of religion as well as some common religious beliefs.
Fear of Death
The fear of death is probably one of the largest forces driving many religious beliefs. This fear of death seems to exist for several reasons. For one, the fear of death may be (at least partly) an evolutionary by-product of our biological imperative to survive. We already perform involuntary physical actions instinctually in order to survive (e.g. fight-or-flight response, etc.). Having an emotional element (such as fear) combined with our human intellect and self-awareness, can drive us to survive in less autonomous ways thus providing an even greater evolutionary advantage for natural selection. For example, many people have been driven to circumvent death through scientific advancements. Another factor to consider is that the fear of death may largely be a fear of the unknown or unfamiliar (related to the fear of change). It shouldn’t be surprising then that a religion offering ways to appease this fear would become successful.
Could it be that our biological imperative to survive, coupled with the logical realization that we are mortal, have catalyzed a religious means for some form of cognitive dissonance reduction? Humans that are in denial about (or are at least uncomfortable with) their inevitable death will likely be drawn towards religious beliefs that circumvent this inevitability with some form of spiritual eternal life or immortality. Not only can this provide a means of circumventing mortality (perhaps by transcending the biological imperative with a spiritual version), but it can also reduce or eliminate the unknown aspects that contribute to the fear of death depending on the after-death specifics outlined by the religion.
A strange irony exists regarding what I call “spiritual imperatives” and I think it is worth mentioning. If a religion professes that one’s ultimate goal should be preparation for the after-life (or some apocalyptic scenario), then adherents to such a doctrine may end up sacrificing their biological imperative (or make it a lower priority) in favor of some spiritual imperative. That is, they may start to care less about their physical survival or quality of life in the interest of attaining what they believe to be spiritual survival. In doing so, they may be sacrificing or de-prioritizing the very biological imperative that likely catalyzed the formation of their spiritual imperative in the first place. So as strange as it may be, the fear of death may lead to some religious doctrines that actually hasten one’s inevitable death.
Morality, Justice, and Manipulation
Morality seems to be deeply ingrained in our very nature, and as a result we can see a universal implementation of moral structures in human societies. It seems likely that this deeply ingrained sense of morality, much like many other innate traits shared by the human race, is a result of natural selection in the ongoing evolution of our species. Our sense of morality has driven many beneficial behaviors (though not always) that tend to increase the survival of the individual. For example, the golden rule (a principle that may even serve as a sort of universal moral creed) serves to benefit every individual by encouraging cooperation and altruism at the expense of selfish motives. Just as some individual cells eventually evolved to become cooperative multi-cellular organisms (in order to gain mutual benefits in a “non-zero sum” game), so have other species (including human beings) evolved to cooperate with one another to increase mutual benefits including that of survival (John Maynard Smith and other biologists have shared this view of how evolution can lead to greater degrees of cooperation). A sense of morality helps to reinforce this cooperation. Evolution aside, establishing some kind of moral framework will naturally help to maximize what is deemed to be desirable behavior. Religion has been an extremely effective means of accomplishing this goal. First of all, religions tend to define morality in very specific ways. Religion has also utilized fairly effective incentives and motivations for the masses to behave in ways desired by the society (or by its leaders).
Many religions profess a form of moral absolutism, where moral values are seen as objective, unquestionable, and often ordained by the authority of a god. This makes a religion very attractive and effective by simplifying the moral structure of the society and backing it up with the authority of a deity. If the rules are believed to be given by the authority of a deity, then there will be few (if any) people willing to question them and as a result there will be a much greater level of obedience. The alternative, moral relativism, is more difficult to apply to a society’s dynamic as the behavioral goals in a morally relativistic society may not be very stable nor well-defined, even if moral relativism carries with it the benefits of religious or philosophical tolerance as well as open-mindedness. Thus, moral absolutism is more likely to lead to productive societies, which may help to explain why moral absolutism has been such a successful religious meme (as well as the fact that morality in general seems to be a universal part of human nature).
Though I’m a moral realist in a strict sense since I believe that there are objective moral facts that exist, I’d also like to stipulate that I’m also a moral relativist, in the sense that I believe that any objective moral facts that exist are dependent on a person’s biology, psychology, and how those effect one’s ultimate goals for a satisfying and fulfilling life. Since these factors may have some variance across a species and for sure a variance across different species, then morals are ultimately relative to those variances (if any exist).
In any case, I can appreciate why most people are drawn away from relativism (in any form). It is difficult for most people to think about reality as consisting of elements that aren’t simply black-and-white. After all, we are used to categorizing the world around us — fracturing it into finite, manageable, and well-defined parts that we can deal with and understand. We often forget that we are subjectively experiencing the world around us, and that our individual frames of reference and perspectives can be quite different from person to person. Relativism just isn’t very compatible with the common human illusion of seeing the world objectively, whether it is how we look at the physical world, language, our moral values, etc.
As for moral incentives, religions often imply that there will be some type of reward for the adherent and/or some type of punishment for the deviants. Naturally anybody introduced to the religion (i.e. potential converts) will weigh the potential risks and benefits, with some people implementing Pascal’s wager and the like, likely leading to a larger number of followers over time. You will also have established religious members that adhere to the specific rules within the religion based on the same moral incentives. That is, the moral incentives put into place (i.e. punishment-reward system) can serve the purposes of obtaining religious members in the first place, and also to ensure that the religious members maintain a high level of obedience within the religion. Of these converts and well-established followers, there will likely be a mixture of those that are primarily motivated by the fear of punishment and those primarily motivated by the desire for a reward. Psychoanalysis aside, it wouldn’t be surprising if by briefly examining one’s behavior and personality, that one could ascertain an individual’s primary religious motivations (for their conversion and/or subsequent religious obedience). It is likely however that most people would fail to see these motivations at work as they would prefer to think of their religious affiliations as a result of some revelation of truth.
The divine authorization and punishment-reward system within many religions can also provide a benefit to those that desire power and the manipulation of the populace. If those in power desire an effective way to control the populace, they can create a religious structure with rules, morals, goals (including wars and conquests), etc., that benefit their agenda and then convince others that they are divinely authorized. As long as the populace is convinced that the rules, morals, and goals are of a divine source, they will be more likely to comply with them. Clearly this effect will be further amplified if a divine punishment-reward system is believed to exist.
One last point I’d like to make regarding morality involves the desire for divine justice. People no doubt take comfort in the thought of everything being fair and orderly (from their perspective) in the long run, regardless of whether or not any unfairness presents itself during their lifetime. It is much less comforting to accept that some people will do whatever they want and may die without ever receiving what one believes to be a just consequence, and/or that one has sacrificed many enjoyable human experiences in the interest of maintaining their religious requirements with potentially no long-term (i.e. after-death) return for their efforts. The idea of an absolute justice being implemented after death definitely helps reinforce religious obedience in a world that has imperfect and subjective views (as well as implementations) of justice.
Desire for Free Will
Another common religious meme (related to the aforementioned moral frameworks) is the belief in classical free will. If people practicing a particular religion are taught that they will be rewarded or punished for their actions, then it is logical for them to assume that they have free will over their actions — otherwise their moral responsibility would be non-existent and any divinely bestowed consequences incurred would be unjustified, meaningless, and futile. So, in these types of religions, it is assumed that people should be able to make free choices that are not influenced or constrained by factors such as: genetics, any behavioral conditioning environment, any deterministic causal chain, or any random course of events for that matter. That is, everyone’s behavior should be causa sui. This way, it is the individual that is directly responsible for their behavior and ultimate fate rather than any factors outside of the individual’s control.
While the sciences have shown a plethora of evidence negating the existence of classical free will, many people continue to believe that free will exists. It seems that people are naturally driven to believe that they have free will for a few reasons. For one, the belief in free will is consistent with the illusion of free will that we consciously experience. We do not feel that there is something or someone else in control of our fate (due to the principles of priority, consistency, and exclusivity as explained in Wagner’s Theory of Apparent Mental Causation), and so we have no immediate reason to believe that free will doesn’t exist. It certainly feels like we have free will, even though the mechanistic physical laws of nature (whether deterministic or indeterministic) imply that we do not. Second, from a deeper psychological perspective, if one believes in moral responsibility, has feelings of pride or shame for their actions, etc., the belief in free will is naturally reinforced. People want to believe that they are in control because it better justifies the aforementioned punishment-reward system of both society and many religions.
Now granted, if all people agreed that free will was non-existent (most people assume we have free will), society’s system of legislation or law enforcement wouldn’t likely change much if at all. Criminals being punished or detained for the protection of the majority of society would likely be a continued practice because pragmatically speaking, law enforcement has proven itself to be effective for providing safety, providing crime deterrence and so forth. However, if people universally accepted that free will was non-existent, it would likely change how they view the punishment-reward system of society and religion. People would probably focus more on the underlying genetic causes and conditioning environment that led to undesirable behavior rather than falsely looking at the individual as inherently bad or as someone who made poor choices that could have been made differently.
If someone feels that they have a lot to gain from a particular religion (or has invested so much of themselves into the religion already), and free will is a philosophical requirement for that particular religion, then they will likely find a way to rationalize the existence of free will (or rationalize any other religious assumption), despite the strong evidence against it (or lack of evidence in support of it). There are even a few religions that simultaneously profess the existence of free will as well as the existence of an omniscient god that has complete knowledge of the future — despite the logical incompatibility of these two propositions. Clearly, the desire for free will (whether conscious and/or unconscious) is stronger than most people realize.
Also, it seems that there is a general human desire for one’s life to have meaning and purpose, and perhaps some people feel that having free will over their actions is the only way to give their life meaning and purpose, as opposed to their life’s course being pre-determined or random.
Anthropocentrism & Purpose
Since religions are a product of human beings, it is not surprising to see that many of them have some anthropocentric purpose or element. There seems to be a tendency for humans to assume that they are more important than anything else on this planet (or anything else in the universe for that matter). This assumption may be fueled by the fact that human intelligence has brought us to the top of the food chain and has allowed us to manipulate our environment in ways that seem relatively extraordinary. Humans certainly recognize this status and some may see it as necessarily divinely ordained or at least special in some way. This helps to answer the age-old philosophical question: What is the meaning of life and/or why are we here?
By raising the value of human life over all other animals, religion can serve to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, and thus separate humans from any animalistic traits that we dislike about ourselves. Anthropocentric views have also been used to endorse otherwise questionable behavior that humans may choose to employ on the rest of the nature around them. On the flip side, anthropocentrism can in fact lead to a humanistic drive or feeling of human responsibility to make the world a better place for many different creatures. It seems however that the most powerful religions have often endorsed a human domination of the world and environment around them. This selfish drive is more in-line with the rest of the animal kingdom as every animal fights to survive, flourish, and ultimately do what they believe best serves their interests. Either way, elevating human importance can provide many with a sense of purpose regardless of what they think that purpose is. This sense of purpose can be important, especially for those that recognize how short our human history has been relative to the history of all life on Earth, and also how relatively insignificant our planet is in such an unfathomably large universe. Giving humans a special purpose can also help those that are uncomfortable with the idea of living in such a mechanistic world.
Desire for Protection
Certainly people are going to feel more secure if they believe that there is someone or something that is always protecting them. Whether or not we have people in our lives that protect us in one way or another, nothing can compare to a divine protector. It is certainly possible that this desire for protection is an artifact of the maternal-child dynamic from one’s earliest years of life, thus driving us to seek out similar comforts and securities. Generally speaking however, the desire for protection is yet another facet of the biological imperative to survive. Either way, the desire for some form of protection has likely played a role in religious constructs.
If religious members fail to receive any obvious protection or safety in specific cases (i.e. if they are harmed in some way), it is often the case that many find a way to reconcile this actuality by coincidentally believing that whatever happens is ultimately governed by some god’s will or plan. This way the comforts of believing in a protective, benevolent, or loving god are not jeopardized in any circumstance. This is a good example of cognitive dissonance reduction being accomplished through theological rationalization. That is, people may need a special combination of beliefs (which may evolve over time) in order to reconcile their religious and theological presuppositions with one another or with reality.
Another form of protection (and an evident form at that) offered by religious membership is that which results from group formation and dynamics. Specifically, I am referring to the benefits of both protection and memetic reinforcement by the rest of the group. From an evolutionary perspective, we can see that an individual will tend to have a greater survival advantage if they are a member of a cooperative group (as I mentioned previously in the section titled: “Morality, Justice, and Manipulation”). For this reason and many others, people will often try to join or form groups. There is always greater power in large numbers, and so even if certain religious claims or elements are difficult to accept, many people will instinctually flock toward the group and its example because it is safer than being alone and more vulnerable. After joining a group (or perhaps in order to join the group) many may even find themselves behaving in ways that violate their own previously self-ascribed values. Group dynamics and tendencies can be quite powerful indeed.
After a religion becomes well established and gains enough mass and momentum, people increasingly gravitate toward its power and influence even if that requires them to significantly modify their behavior. In fact, if the religion gains enough influence and power over a culture or society, there may be little (if any) freedom to refrain from practicing the religion anyway, so even if people aren’t drawn to a popular religion, they may be forced into it.
So as we can see, group dynamics have likely influenced religion in multiple ways. The memetic reinforcement that groups provide has promoted the success and perpetuation of particular religious memes (regardless of what those particular memes are). There also seems to be a critical mass component, whereby after a religion gains enough mass and momentum, it is significantly more difficult for it to subside over time. Thus, many religions that have become successful have done so by simply reaching some critical mass.
God of the gaps
Another reason that many religions or religious memes have been successful has been due to a lack of knowledge about nature. That is, at some point in the past there arose a “god of the gaps” mentality whereby unsatisfactory, insufficient, or non-existent naturalistic explanations led to deistic or theistic presuppositions. We’ve seen that for a large period in history, polytheism was quite popular as people were ascribing multiple gods to explain a multitude of phenomena. Eventually some monotheistic religions precipitated but they merely replaced the multiple “gods of the gaps” with one single “God of the gaps”. This consolidation of gods may have resulted (at least in part) from an application of Occam’s razor as well as to differentiate new religions and their respective doctrines from their polytheistic predecessors. As science and empiricism continued to develop further in the wake of these religious world views, the phenomena previously ascribed to a god (or to many gods) became increasingly explainable by predictable, mechanistic, natural laws. By applying Occam’s razor one last time, science and empiricism has effectively been eliminating the final “God of the gaps”.
The psychological, social, and political benefits given by various religious constructs (including but not limited to those I’ve mentioned within this post) had likely already set a precedent and established a level of momentum that would continue to impede the acceptance of scientific explanations — even up to this day. This may help to explain the prevalence of supernatural or miraculous religious beliefs despite their incompatibility with science and empiricism. Once the most powerful religions gained traction, rather than abandoning beliefs of the supernatural in the wake of scientific progress, it was science that was initially censored and hindered. Eventually, science and religion began to co-exist more easily, but in order for them to be at all reconciled with one another, many religious interpretations or explanations were modified accordingly (or the religious followers continued to ignore science). Belief can be extremely powerful — so powerful in fact that even if a proposition isn’t actually true, if a person believes it to be true strongly enough, it can become a reality for that person. In some of these cases, it doesn’t matter if there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to refute the belief, for that evidence will be ignored if it does not corroborate the believer’s artificial reality.
Another “God of the gaps” example that still perpetuates many religious beliefs is the mis-attributed power of prayer. Prayer is actually effective for healing or helping to heal some ailments (for example), but science has shown (and is continuing to show) how this is nothing more than a placebo effect. To give just one example, several studies on heart patients demonstrated that prayer was only effective on their recovery when the patients knew that they were being prayed for. This further illustrates how the “God of the gaps” argument has never been very strong, and is only shrinking with every new discovery made in science. Nevertheless, even as evidence accumulates that shows how a religious person’s notions are incorrect, there are psychological barriers in the brain that keep one from accepting that new information. In the case of prayer just mentioned, a person who believes in prayer will have a confirmation bias in their brain that serves to remember when prayers are “answered” and forget about prayers that are not (regardless of what is being prayed for).
In other cases, if one chooses to actually consider any refutative evidence, it can become extremely difficult if not impossible for one to reconcile certain religious beliefs with reality. However, if it is psychologically easier for a person to modify their religious beliefs (even in some radical way) rather than abandoning their religion altogether, they will likely do so. It is clear how powerful these religious driving factors are when we see people either blatantly ignoring reason and the senses and/or adjusting their religion or theology in order to reconcile their beliefs with reality such that they can maintain the comfort and security of their deeply invested religious convictions.
It should be noted that the “god(s) of the gaps” mentality that many people share may result when the human mind asks certain questions for which it doesn’t have the cognitive machinery to answer, regardless of any scientific progress made. If they are answerable questions (in theory), it may take a substantial amount of cognitive evolution in order to have the capability to answer them (or in order to see certain questions as being completely irrational and thus eliminate them from any further inquiry). Even if this epistemologically-enhancing level of cognitive evolution did take place, we may very well be defined as a new species anyway, and thus technically speaking, homo sapiens could forever remain unable to access this knowledge regardless. It would then follow that the “god(s) of the gaps” mentality (and any of its byproducts) may forever be a part of “human” nature. Time will tell.
It appears that there have been several evolutionary, psychological, social, and political factors that have likely influenced the formation, acceptance, and ultimate success of many religious constructs. It seems that the largest factors influencing religious constructs (and thus the commonalities seen between many religions) have been the psychological comforts that religion has provided, the human cognitive limitations leading to supernatural explanations, as well as some naturally-selected survival advantages that have ensued. The desire for these psychological comforts (likely unconscious although not necessarily) seems to catalyze the manifestation of extremely strong beliefs, and not only has this affected the interplay between science (or empiricism) and religion, but these desires have also made it easier for religion to be used for manipulative purposes (among other reasons). Furthermore, cognitive biases in the human brain often serve to maintain one’s beliefs, despite contradictory evidence against them. Perhaps it is not too surprising to see such a complex interplay of variables behind religion, and also so many commonalities, as religion has been an extremely significant facet of the human condition.