Who Needs God(s) — Nearly Everyone!

Over at the New Humanist, Tom Rees has posted a nice article asking “Who Needs God?” and “Why is religion on the rise in so many countries?”  The frame for Rees’ commentary is modernization theory, which claimed that as countries developed and became more “modern,” religion would decline and people would become more secular.

As Rees notes and as the sociologist Rodney Stark demonstrated in his classic article, “Secularization, R.I.P.,” this has not happened.  Indeed, it appears that modernization has had the opposite effect and made people more religious.

This certainly appears to be the case in the United States, where belief in God is thriving.  Yesterday’s USA Today reported that a Gallup poll of 1,000 Americans (margin of error +/- 4%) found that an astonishing 92% of Americans believe in God and 83% believe that this God answers prayers.

The United States has always been a religious outlier compared to other developed countries, and history partially explains the intense spiritualism of Americans.  An open and competitive religious marketplace also contributes to high levels of belief in the US.  Another factor contributing to such high rates of belief is that the US is the leading consumer-capitalist society in the world.  Constant work and consumption can lead to an inner emptiness which drives spiritualism. Finally, America’s infatuation with individualism leads to social isolation which further contributes to religiosity.

In Rees’ article, however, he notes there are additional factors — intrinsic to the human mind — which drive religiosity:

A new field, the “cognitive science of religion,” has brought together a broad group of scientists in an attempt to identify the psychological, neural, and even evolutionary roots of religious belief. There have already been some remarkable discoveries. For example, it turns out that although irrational beliefs are part of human nature, whether or not people succumb to them depends on how threatened they feel. If you remind people of death, then they react by rejecting other cultures and clinging to their own conservative beliefs. If you make people feel lonely, then they start thinking that household gadgets have got personalities. And if you threaten their sense of control, then they start seeing things that aren’t there.

Supernatural thinking, in other words, is deeply rooted in normal operations of the mind.  These operations are always embedded in affects or emotions, which further drive supernatural thinking.

Rees thus notes that fear — one of the most powerful human emotions that is highly adaptive in an evolutionary sense — plays a major role in religiosity.  This is an old idea — going back to Sigmund Freud and Paul Radin last century and philosophers such as Hume and Nietzsche in earlier centuries.  Surely fear — and its opposite, consolation — plays a role in promoting and sustaining religion.

A nice example of this can be found in a recent article by the scientist Karl Giberson, who admits that “[b]elief in eternal life, though, is hard for me. My mind has been largely taken over by science and has trouble getting itself around ideas so far outside the normal course of events. But I still believe.”  Why does Giberson still believe?

Giberson’s mother recently died, and he simply cannot endure the idea that she is not in heaven and he will not see her again:  “My belief in God grounds a hope that I might one day see the wonderful woman in that coffin again. This hope does seem magical to me, but it’s not superstitious. Standing at my mother’s graveside with that hope seems so much richer than standing there without it.”

While Freud was wrong about many things, and psychoanalysis is largely non-empirical, there seems little doubt that fear and wish fulfillment play major roles in sustaining religious beliefs.

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2 thoughts on “Who Needs God(s) — Nearly Everyone!

  1. Troy

    In regard to the usage of fear and death in the rise of religious belief, what are your thoughts on Becker’s “Denial of Death”?

  2. admin Post author

    Becker’s work is intriguing, sometimes correct, sometimes wrong, but always thought provoking. On the one hand, I think it important to take the human symbolic capacity seriously (as Becker does) and to understand that history is not simply the product of a one-way causal arrow pointing from material/biological conditions to cultural history. Human thinking and ideas, in other words, have an effect on the material and biological conditions of life.

    Having said that, Becker’s work is a bit too idealistic (i.e., in the Weberian sense) for my tastes, and I cannot accept his argument that human civilization is simply an elaborate defense mechanism that serves as a bulwark against our awareness of mortality. This may be partially true, but there are many other good explanations for the rise of human civilizations. Becker’s work would have benefited from a careful consideration of hunting and gathering societies, in which humans have lived for 99% of their existence on earth.

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