The Persistence of Religion

At the conclusion of Elaine Pagels’ lecture on the Book of Revelation, the first question someone asked her was why does religion persist? Pagels answered: “I think because this is about emotion. This isn’t conceptual. People who talk about it as if it matters whether you believe in God or not, have got it completely wrong. It’s far too over intellectualized. This is about hope and fear. This is about how we dream.”

While I greatly admire Pagels’ work and understand this was a lecture setting, this answer won’t do. The emotional explanation for religion has been around for a long time and was most famously stated by Sigmund Freud in The Future of an Illusion (1927).

Freud explains religion as wish fulfillment, with emotional fear playing the major role. Humans faced with an inexplicable and cruel world create coping mechanism gods: “The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them.”

This is a good explanation as far as it goes but the problem is that it doesn’t go very far. Many things contribute to religiosity, with emotions being only one of several contributing factors. There undoubtedly is a cognitive component to religiosity. Human brains have evolved in such a way that we naturally generate supernatural concepts.

At some time in human history, perhaps 60,000 years ago, minds became fully modern or capable of thinking as we think. Once this occurred, it would not have taken long for people to begin constructing stories about supernatural perceptions. Over tens of thousands of years these stories would have become increasingly elaborate. All modern religions are related, in deep time and through conceptual descent, to these early forms of religion or shamanisms.

Two more recent transformations altered the basic ancestral patterns of supernaturalism. The first was Neolithization or the domestication of plants-animals. When people settle down and begin producing food, shamanisms give way to the earliest organized religions. The second was the transformation wrought on these religions by Axial movements or the Axial Age. Today’s “world religions” all have Axial roots.

The entire history of religions, therefore, has a cognitive component and a cultural component. They work together and it is hard to say one is more important than the other. They are equally essential to explain the persistence of religion.

All cognitive and cultural activities have an emotional aspect to them. In this sense, one can say that emotions play a major role in religiosity even if this role is not (as Pagels suggests) mono-causal.

This is of course simply an abbreviated sketch of religious history. The emotional aspect of this history is treated with considerable sophistication by Robert Fuller in Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience (Oxford 2008). Fuller situates these emotions within an evolutionary framework and shows how everything works together to produce what he calls “spirituality.”

Even if you don’t agree with Fuller, his body or emotion based approach to these issues deserves serious consideration and makes considerable sense.

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9 thoughts on “The Persistence of Religion

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Fuller’s ‘. . . in the Flesh’, like ‘Shamans Sorcerers and Saints’ from Brian Hayden brings to mind Dennett’s ‘Virus’ argument: religion evolves to overcome the evolving resistance of humans to be infected. These explanations address why it looks like it does (It is ‘designed’ to fit our psyche), not why we have it in the first or continued place.

    On a diversion – I recently uncovered an argument relative to a side comment you made a bit back:
    Christopher Boehm, in ‘Hierarchy in the Forest’, extends that ‘art of not being governed’ back 100,000 years (his clock), observing that hunter-gathers are guided by a love of personal freedom. He could have sub-titled this tomb: ‘The Art of Not Being Dominated’. In a nutshell, the process of evolving the ‘modern’ human, the modern human band, required developing the art of collective resistance to dominating individuals – much like the ‘art’ James Scott saw in communities avoiding state domination.

  2. Cris Post author

    I don’t have any use for virus or meme talk, and even less for Dennett, but this Boehmn business sounds fascinating and like it has wheels. I could google it, but is this a book?

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Yes. Not new (’99), and not near so entertaining as Scott, but a similar vision. He is explaining ‘modern’ as a cultural innovation. A bit convoluted in the explanation – reverse domination: The weak learned to dominate the strong through teamwork and effect an egalitarian community. I agree, but due to the prose, its harder to understand him. – Several reviews online. Quote: Their reactions involve fear (of domination), angry defiance, and a collective commitment to dominate, which is based on a fear of being individually dominated. As potential subordinates, they are able to express dominance because they find collective security in a large, group-wide political coalition.

  4. Anthony McCarthy

    “All modern religions are related, in deep time and through conceptual descent, to these early forms of religion or shamanisms.”

    Is there any aspect of modern culture, including math and science, which aren’t related in deep time to aspects of thought in the deep past of our species and, perhaps, even whatever our non-human ancestors thought?

    The concept we have about the world and universe through science is an inherently human conception, the product of human perception, thought and culture. But we don’t impeach its validity due to that parochial heritage. Any conception we have of God or gods or anything else are also peculiarly human conceptions, formed by us according to our experience and thinking. To impeach that concept due to its inherent limitations due to its human origin isn’t any more warranted than to impeach a mathematical description of aspects of the physical universe due to it being in human terms for human consumption.

    We don’t have any idea how limited the most sophisticated product of science actually is but we do know it is limited. That our conception of God is limited isn’t a surprise, especially if, as much of religion holds, that God surpasses our ability to understand.

  5. Cris Post author

    In the very broadest sense, all aspects of human behavior have deep evolutionary and historical roots, going all the way back to the first life form(s). But this broadest sense doesn’t tell us very much about specific attributes. If we focus on particular things, such as math and science, this becomes clear. Math is a fairly recent innovation which may have started 5,000 years ago but which didn’t really begin to flourish until 2,500 years ago. The foundations of math were still being laid as recently as the 18th century. Science is even more recent.

    When it comes to “religion,” those not familiar with the evolutionary and historical record tend to think it all basically began during the Axial Age, roughly 600 BCE to 600 CE. Many assume that this is when “religion” began, or they just assume it is timeless and somehow appeared, fully formed, a few thousand years ago. My comment is intended to disrupt these ideas, and a goal of the blog is to show that what we today call religion has very deep roots and that what appears to be new or recent (i.e., the modern “world religions” developed during the Axial Age) have a great deal in common with forms of supernaturalism that are perhaps 50,000 years old.

    This is not a matter of impeaching so much as it is a matter of understanding; if the latter leads to the former, then so be it. I don’t hold a progressive or teleological view of evolution or history. It doesn’t seem to me that there has been any kind of advance or progression in supernatural ideas; the difference is in writing, doctrine, and organization. There is a good argument to make that it actually has become less sophisticated, less rich, and more impoverished.

  6. Anthony McCarthy

    I appreciate the focus of your post but it exists against the common received POV of popular atheism as seen on blogs everywhere.

    Before text is available what is “known” about religion is extremely obscure, almost entirely the product of conjecture. If it is relatively “new” that makes the quote commented on “All modern religions are related, in deep time and through conceptual descent, to these early forms of religion or shamanisms.” less certainly relevant to the topic.

    Early mathematics is certainly known to have been related to religion and mysticism, I’d like to know how you could separate Pythagorean mathematics from mysticism or the development of the calendar or most other surviving applied mathematical products. And that kind of mysticism still pervades the faith of a lot of mathematicians and scientists. that their mathematical descriptions of the physical world are uniquely legitimate as a representation of physical reality, that the laws they derive from their application of mathematics have a privileged, even universal, view of objective reality.

    The separation of human thought into discrete entities such as mathematics and science as opposed from “religion” is a truly recent novelty, one which is contradicted by the history of science, replete with many important figures in them who were both mathematicians and scientists and religious believers, for whom religion was an important aspect of their lives. The narrowing, reduction and abstraction of their experience and thought in their mathematical and scientific writing was a conscious, deliberate act, ignoring other aspects of their thinking and experience.

    It is certain that science arose in cultures and countries in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam were major influences in thinking, many of the known figures in science were Christian clergymen, some are today.

    It’s one of the monumental lapses of thinking in contemporary atheism to pretend that their wider thinking and experience was not there or even impossible, that religion is incompatible with producing legitimate science, ignoring the lives of those scientists, their biographies, at times, even their testimony about their experience. It is also one of the conceits of that line of atheism that ignores that all mathematicians and scientists have aspects of their thinking, experience and judgement that have to, also, be excluded from their formal work, political, ideological, etc. Indeed, even their atheism has to be excluded from that formal writing for exactly the same reason that the religion of religious scientists exclude their religion from it, it is not relevant to the focus of that writing and research.

  7. Cris Post author

    As you might have guessed, this isn’t a popular or contemporary atheism blog. While I agree with much of what new atheists say, I also disagree with some of what they say or how they see things. John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts just posted a nice piece on the various meanings of agnosticism; I have some sympathy toward this stance.

    Your post reminds me of what Richard Schacht says about Nietzsche’s project: to read humans back into nature (i.e., jettison the metaphysics and all a priori assumptions), and then read humans back out of nature. This latter move might have entirely new metaphysical implications, the likes of which have not yet been imagined.

    The new atheists have read humans back into nature but seem to have gotten stuck there and think the human project is somehow finished. I don’t agree. The next step is to read humans back out of nature. Because this project has hardly begun, it is difficult to say what might come of it.

    I recently came across this fantastic interview with the philosopher Graham Harman that touches on some of these issues (and gets at what I am trying to say here); I am going to post on this but here are some key excerpts:

    This statement causes outrage for scientistic philosophy, with its insipid model opposing real facts outside the mind to arbitrary, decorative, poetic fictions inside the mind. I reject this scientistic model not for the “postmodernist” reason that everything is a poetic fiction inside the mind, but rather because everything is a poetic reality outside the mind. In other words, I don’t see the real world as the brutal collision of physical chunks monitored by tough-minded researchers in white coats, cheered on by their philosophical sycophants. Instead, I see the physical world as riddled with cracks and fissures of the same sort that is generated by poets, and the great scientists know this as well.

    Different personality types dominate philosophy in different eras, as new needs come to the fore. The dominant personality type of recent decades has been the precise and assertive arguer who speaks clearly and likes to call people out on “nonsense.” It’s a personality that holds itself not to believe in very much, but to undercut the gullibility of other people’s beliefs.

    My view is that the era of this personality has now run its course, and has become a pestilence of sorts. What we need now is something more like the artist type, given to new ways of staging problems. We need to find the equivalent of “philosophy installations,” whatever that might be.

    There are too many calls in philosophy for clear writing, but rarely any calls for vivid writing. I agree that writing should be clear, but if this is your first priority, it means that you think the real problem with most philosophy is obfuscation, muddiness, evasiveness, and so forth. But the real problem with much philosophy is that it simply takes a position in some pre-existing trench war without innovating as to the terms of the problem. The result is an increasing supply of rational but boring assertions, not a fresh rethinking of the problem.

    Philosophical language should be primarily vivid, and only secondarily clear. We should be clear when things are clear, but when we reach the edge of what is known, why pretend to know more than we do? I like a philosopher with a sense of when to use chiaroscuro. There are shadows in the world, and good writing should contain corners of shadow as well.

    I love the humility of “when we reach the edge of what is known.” There is a certain kind of reductionist scientism which has great difficulty acknowledging this “edge” and admitting that beyond the edge there are many things unknown. Whether those things are supernatural or “religious” I can’t say.

  8. Pococurante

    Religion takes the common spiritual truths of a living mystic’s experiences, and turns it into a human institution that provides stability and comfort (at a price) to those fundamentally unable to share the mystic’s experience.

    Religion is a great foil to prevent people from maturing spiritually, to remain in a childish state of “what’s mine is mine”, to make sociopathy socially acceptable.

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