Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred TruthsWhy Question Beliefs? Dangers of Placing Ideas Beyond Doubt, and Advantages of FreethoughtThe False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own BeliefsWhat is Science and the Scientific Method?
Pareidolia - Seeing False Patterns in Random Data: Faces in Toast, Bible Codes and Conspiracy TheoriesMass Belief: Everyone Believes It So It Must Be True!Selection Bias and Confirmation BiasWhy are Our Memories Unreliable?The Forer (or Barnum) Effect
What Causes Religion and Superstitions?Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological ProcessesHallucinations, Sensory Deprivation and Fasting: The Physiological Causes of Religious and Mystical ExperiencesScience and ReligionReligion and Intelligence
The principal cause of an individual's religion is the inheriting of identity from parents and local culture1 and most conversions are to another religion that is active locally2. Religion is primarily a result of where you are raised. But what other secular, sociological and psychological factors cause religion to prosper? What about new religious movements and spiritualities that are exotic, superstitious, anti-intellectual and counter-cultural? They all share in common a certain irrational and illogical character. What causes such beliefs? There have been many studies on these topics, and here the examination covers both arbitrary exterior circumstances and internal neuronal causes. Sociologists warn us that fixation on "the" cause of religion hampers research3. There are many causes of religion and superstition because the word "religion" covers such a variety of beliefs and practices, from dry academic ideas through to rituals and cultural behaviours. Of all the causes examined here it is easy to see that one of the least motivating factors is a conscientious deliberation over what claims are true4,5. Guy Harrison states with disdain that "a typical home purchase is given far more thoughtful analysis than the selection of a god to worship"6.
For a period of time children always assume the religion of their parents. This initial impression on children can be very long lasting, and it is exclusionary. Once a child learns what religion they are, it is unlikely that they will ever switch1. A study in America found that "fewer than 1% ... convert to an entirely new religion"7 and Guy Harrison agrees that "virtually every believer on earth today believes in the god that his or her parents believed in and/or the god that is most popular in their culture" (2008). In this sense, most people's religion is arbitrary. Inheritance will generally override early social factors, such as the common religion of local schools, and is one of the rare areas of self-identity where parental definition trumps peer pressure.
Pluralism is the next source of pressure on a young adult; exposure to religious cultures can offer constant intrigue about others. This works both ways; non-religious folk may gain interest in religions, and, religious adherents will meet non-religious people and consider the merits of living life without religion. But still, most conversions to a religion are predictably based on what other religions are active locally2 - decisions, in other words, are still woefully arbitrary. Evaluations are psychological and based on ad-hoc experiences, not on rationality or intellectual comparisons.
Many call themselves a religion even though they have no real beliefs. See "Institutionalized Religions Have Their Numbers Inflated by National Polls" by Vexen Crabtree (2009).
A person who is brought up by (for example) Catholic parents, in a Catholic area, and attends (perhaps) a Catholic school will be a Catholic. They don't necessarily have to believe, but nonetheless they will behave as one and call themselves a Catholic. Even after peer pressure and exposure to religions through globalisation, only a small percentage of people will ever take the effort to examine a number of religions, investigate their philosophies and theologies, critically compare their claims, and attempt to conclude which ones contain truth. In short, only a small percentage of people deliberate about religion and make an informed choice. It is only really this proportion who are truly responsible for their own religion. Nearly all people, in history and in the present, are simply swept along by social factors rather: for nearly all people, one's religion is an accident of where one happens to be born.
Individuals will often adopt a religious position for social reasons. Associating with a group of like-minded folk feels good, and can engender a feeling of empowerment and worth8. Examples of this abound, and include the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, the embrace of alternative religions by teenagers, the embrace of Eastern mysticism by intellectuals and students at the turn of the twentieth century, and the reaction against Western materialism through the embrace of anti-commercialist religions. Religion thus serves a functional purpose quite separate from its actual religious content. Many people adhere to a religious life because it helps combat loneliness, helps them stay off of alcohol, helps them oppress sexual urges, or helps them cope with anxiety or depression9.Pascal Boyer in "Religion Explained" (2001) listed many of the commonly theorized explanations for the success of religion, and, most of the list consisted of items that described functional roles of religion such as "religion holds society together" and "religion allays anxiety and makes for a comfortable world"10. But what the functional influences lack is a genuine appraisal of the pros or cons of the theological dogmas of the religion in terms of their truth or falsity. I.e., functional elements of religion can remain fully operational even if the underlying belief system contains serious flaws.
Some people join religions because "a cohesive, supportive church plays a central role [in] providing social network[s]"11. Many times it is not even structure that appeals - the very fact of joining a group can be uplifting12. In analysing the growth of evangelical Christianity from 1940 in South Korea, for example, the sociologist D. Martin notes that the basis for the spectacular growth is partially the same as in South America and Asia in general; 'success can be attributed to a combination of vibrant Pentecostal worship ... and personal support' and 'the chief pastor/executive combines many secular roles, as, indeed he does in Brazil. He is a social worker and employment exchange official, a kind of store manager and a broker, an educator and a fixer". I.e., such motivated people attract flocks of followers for their general function in society.13
The same purely pragmatic approach to religion can be found amongst Cantonese coverts to Mormonism (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) in Hong Kong. Caroline Plüss studied this and in 1999 reported the following:
“Chinese residents in Hong Kong joined this church despite [a] negative perception of the church ... because [it] offered potential recruits help with learning English by, for example, operating a tutorial college. It also helped Chinese converts gain financial support for studying in the universities it operates in the United States.”
"Migration and the Globalization of Religion" by Caroline Plüss (2011)14
Religion attracts some people because of the usefulness of the organization and not because of the underlying truth of the religion. Religious leaders know this and their hope is, of course, that some people caught in this way will develop a genuine interest at some later date.
Religions are often associated with particular stances on particular subjects. From the late nineteenth century a few generations of women seeking equality and empowerment found that some alternative religions were strongly appealing for their stance on gender equality; such religions naturally became magnets for feminists and activists. The membership of Greenpeace is, likewise, notably skewed away from traditional patriarchal religions and towards pagan ones. "Among the Airo-Pai, a small group of Amazonian people on the borders of Peru, Ecuador and Columbia, [Christian evangelicalism and Pentecostalism] has served to prevent alcoholism and drug abuse" because it is embraced as a statement of abstinence rather than strictly for its religious ideas15.
By far the major example of religion-as-activism was the Protestant reformation that swept away Catholicism in much of Europe. The masses were utterly despondent with the immoral, power-abusing, money-centered activities of the Roman Catholic Church, and they were aided by early governments who could no longer stand seeing such huge volumes of religious taxes being sent to Rome. Although there were also theological concerns, the mass of the movement was clearly socio-political in nature; the appeal of Protestantism was mostly its social-activist function and not the specific theology of Martin Luther, its founder.
Some sociologists explain religion - especially new religion, as a form of reactionism against the modern world. So, religious argumentation appeals because it helps justify a rejection of features of the modern world. Main (2002) describes one set of such reactions as "romanticism", where intuition, imagination and holistic-sounding ideas are espoused in opposition to the cold sciences and practicalities of life16.
“Religion has traditionally been linked to specific geographic locations in the social world. Because faith traditions can either sustain or subvert the social systems in those places, some traditions - or versions of them - attract a system's elites, whereas the rebels in a society have a natural affinity for other religious beliefs or interpretations of the same tradition. Elites in virtually every culture use religious legitimations to explain why they are in control and others are not. Similarly, the most effective dissident movements often employ religious arguments to legitimate their own positions.”
Giving things religious meaning 'gives the struggle an intensity and legitimation otherwise unavailable, and makes it easier for reformers and revolutionaries to mobilize popular support'. Leaders and followers both use religion and religious symbols as social tools. It was used in that way by ancient civilisations' rulers such as those in Egypt18. As long religion can act as an authority or as an anti-authority, groups of people will be called to religious traditions based on their position in society vis-a-vis the powers that be.
Some of the greatest shifts in the numbers of religious adherents occur when a community converts en masse from one religion to another in a short period of time. This was common in history, although it is now rare. One single cause of this behaviour stands out as the most common influence that facilitates these events: The threat of a conquering enemy.
“Spain and Portugal, for example, took over all of Latin America, and with their armies came their established church, Roman Catholicism. Spain also conquered the Philippines in the South Pacific, thus putting Catholicism in place there, too. Great Britain had the most far-reaching set of colonies - in North America, Asia and Africa [...] all of which were influenced by Anglicanism, Britain's established Church. In like fashion, the Dutch exported the Reformed tradition, Russia its Orthodox tradition, and so forth.”
"Religion and the State" by Phillip E. Hammond and David W. Machacek (2011)19
It just so happens that mass conversions are nearly always of the kind that convert the populace to the same religion or denomination as a new encroaching power. This bodes well for the material wellbeing of newly captured colonies, but, it does not indicate any positive evidence towards the overall truth of the religion's doctrine and beliefs. And if in doubt, consider, what happens to those who fail to convert? Slavery, subjugation and the massacre of natives plagued the imperial age across the globe. The expansion of world religions should be based on individual's evaluation of the evidence for the religion's claims, but in reality, such a cool approach is very rare. Power games have converted more souls than faith ever did.
In today's complicated and globalized world, migration and multiculturalism have become the norm. Religion has become a private affair because there is no shared, public religion. Individuals find themselves presented with many foreign religions and cultures, and in these circumstances one's own religion can find itself at the forefront of one's own self-definition even though previously it was a minor technicality. In the sociological analysis of why the USA has such high rates of strict religion for a developed country, this concept became known as "cultural transition and defence", as formulated by Steve Bruce20, explaining how defensiveness can bolster religiosity.
The coming-together of different religions results in much less certainty in religious ideas. It is especially hard for laypeople to explain the things they supposedly believe in. Because of these challenges, belief has massively declined but those who still remain firm are more committed than ever to their religious identities - often irrationally so. The central majority of a religion often works to reign-in extremists, through social pressure. As the central mass of believers dwindle in numbers, the growth of fundamentalist and extremist factions continues unchecked.
This section is taken from "Do We Need Religion to Have Good Morals?: 1.3. Is Religion Required to Be a Good Person?" by Vexen Crabtree (2014).
Religions almost universally emphasize the moral duty of the individual. "God knows all" as the Qur'an and Bible repeat: examples in the Christian Bible include Job 28:24, 37:16; 1 John 3:19-20; and very frequently in the Qur'an: the first chapter (after the introduction) iterates God's omniscience ten times, for example Sura 2:29, 77, 85, 115 and 137. We all answer to God eventually. Buddhism and Hinduism likewise teach that we pay the consequences of this life throughout our next. So many people come to think of religions as being a bastion of moral thinking, because, religions tend to dramatize and exaggerate the rewards and punishments of good and bad behaviour. Don't forget that when Psalms 14:1 says "the fool saith in his heart that there is no God", the word it uses in Hebrew also means immoral people: immoral people say 'there is no god'. This emphasis is strong amongst laypeople: despite their record against human rights on an institutional and national level, locally popular religions are often seen as a force for good and there is a general belief that religion supports morality10. A 2002 poll in the USA, an unusually religious country for its state of development, found that on average 44.5% of the adults believed that "It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values"21. This included both church-goers and laypeople. 65% of regular churchgoers believed it, thinking therefore that the vast majority of the members of "wrong" religions therefore could not be moral people. This ridiculous belief is still held by 25.7% of those who never attend church. Although it is hard to believe that this level of ignorance can exist in the rest of the world, the underlying belief was more popular in pre-modern times throughout the world. Academics have also toed this line; Talcott Parsons in 1966 said the same thing, merely using bigger words. After saying that what makes moral rules valid is a 'legitimation system', he adds that 'a legitimation system is always related to, and meaningfully dependent on, a grounding in ordered relations to ultimate reality. That is, its grounding is always in some sense religious. [...] The process of secularization, then, undermines the system of legitimation by which a society's rules seem to be grounded in ultimate reality.'22
Bryan Wilson is an insightful and respected sociologist of religion. Even he, in 1982, warned of mass breakdown in morality in the West if the religious underpinnings of moral propriety were forgotten.
“As Wilson (1982: 52) concludes, 'Unless the basic virtues are serviced, unless men are given a sense of psychic reassurance that transcends the confines of the social system, we may see a time when, for one reason or another, the system itself fails to work...' [...] Wilson (1982: 86) describes how secularization resulted in the breakdown of morality in Western societies: 'When in the West, religion waned, when the rationalistic forces inherent in Puritanism acquired autonomy of their religious origins, so the sense of moral propriety also waned - albeit somewhat later, as a cultural lag. Following the decline of religion [... and the resultant] process of moral breakdown [... we should have] genuine concern about the role of morality in contemporary culture' (Wilson 1982: 87)”
After Parsons in 1966 and Wilson in 1982, Karen Armstrong repeats the same story in "A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4" (2005), arguing that myth is essential for good ethics and meaningful living. How do all of these thinkers rationalize the fact that many god-believers, myth-believers and suchlike, appear to commit the same atrocities and immoralities as unbelievers? From the Dark Ages presided over by Christianity, to the spectre of Islamist brutality against (for example) women and gays in Islamic countries, it seems that religious morals are hardly a panacea. Karen Armstrong dismisses these problems with the odd concept that they are caused by "failed myths"23. An element of double-think appears to be in place: if religious people do good, it is because they are religious, whereas if they do wrong, it is because they are fallible human beings. Such circular logic ought to be challenged wherever it is heard.
So there are numbers of people who, if they want to be good or, wants to be seen as good, will gravitate towards religion simply because they think it is what required. These people, who have come to actively choosing to be a better person, will find that their efforts are rewarded whether or not they choose to do it within a religious framework.
There is plenty of evidence that religion is not required. Parson in 1966 and Wilson in 1982 both warned of systematic collapse in morality if secularisation continued. It not only continued, but has accelerated. There has been no mass failure. Crime is down, wars are shorter, violence is down. It happens that people can also adopt non-religious and secular philosophies in order to promote good moralizing. Secular movements such as the British Humanist Association and IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union) are devoted to encouraging moral behavior, moral thinking, overall conscientiousness and rationality. The main difference between these and religious groups who do the same, is that the religious groups often teach that they are the only valid source of morals.
If I am threatened into behaving in a good manner then I am at best amoral, because I am not acting with free will. If you believe that a supreme god is going to punish you (in hell) or deny you life (annihilation) if you misbehave, it is like being permanently threatened into behaving well. In addition, if you believe there is some great reward for behaving well, then your motives for good behavior are more selfish. An atheist who does not believe in heaven and hell is potentially more moral, for (s)he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, both act morally. Some of both groups act consistently immorally. The claim that belief in God is essential or aids moral behavior is wrong, and any amusing theistic claim that they have "better" morals, despite acting under a reward and punishment system, is deeply questionable. Who is more moral? Those who act for the sake of goodness itself, or those who do good acts under the belief that failure to do so results in hell?
In conclusion, the simplicity and drama of religious stick-and-carrot approaches to morality often make religions appealing, and, to be seen as good in society - or to try to reform themselves - many people find themselves attracted to a religion. Unfortunately, all of this psychology functions just as well no matter if the tenets of the religion are actually true, or not.
It is only in modern literate times that myth and religion have become individual areas of study: they were previously and universally tied up with human culture. So, agricultural communities had agricultural religions as part of that culture. A 1915 study of ancient Mesopotamian religion found that it was apparent that although many cultures shared beliefs and myths, "striking differences remain to be accounted for. Human experiences varied in localities because all sections of humanity were not confronted in ancient times by the same problems in their everyday lives"24. Agricultural people had gods that waxed and waned, lived and died, with the seasons. Native hunting tribes had gods and rituals that would secure them luck in the hunt25. Those gods are clearly products of the people's environment, and the personal stories and dramas told about them are products of the imagination in an attempt to explain facets of the natural environment. In retrospect it is hard to tell what elements of ancient cultures were actually believed, what was known to be mythical, and what was therefore religious (i.e., thought to be true but basically mythological). In "A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4" by Karen Armstrong (2005) we see this confusion as a central theme26. It continues today: Buddhism and Hinduism are very hard to separate out into culture and religion and no-one knows whether "Jew" means the religious, dietary-observing Synagogue-attending type, or the atheist secular type. For that reason, there are many sociologists who deny that Hinduism is a distinct religion, although in recent decades, Hindu nationalists have been building a much clearer and more forceful definition of Hindutva ('Hindu-ness').
In general, it must be acknowledged that a lot of what we call religion is in fact a mixture of semi-believed mythology and cultural practices; a 'cause' of religion is therefore our want of simple categorisation.
Anthony Laying (2010) has studied the prevalence of superstitions and witchcraft-accusations in certain cultures in this case, the Caribs. The general idea, held by "many tribal and peasant communities all over the world" is that witches are responsible for many social maladies from disease to failed crops, and they are simply evil and sneaky. Often so-called witches are murdered, tortured, expelled or at least shunned; the Dark Ages of Christian history and the heresy-accusations of Islam today both follow(ed) the same psychology. The features of witchcraft highlight the functionalism of religion in wider ways. "Believing that there are witches inclined to harm others with their malevolent power can have numerous social and psychological consequences for a community" says Prof. Laying. Witness how many of the effects serve to reinforce people's already-existing beliefs and to maintain social structure even when the religious dogmas suffer from counter-evidence:
Maintaining mental health (gaining sympathy and compensation for low status, displacing antagonism and jealousy, achieving a sense of control). Victims of witchcraft, often persons who otherwise attract little attention, receive intense sympathetic concern from their neighbours. Those accused of using witchcraft are frequently very unpopular and, therefore, are ideal scapegoats. Blaming misfortune on gods, demons, or bad luck gives the believer very little sense of control; witches, being here among the living, may be identified and dealt with.
Providing Explanations (explaining death, illness, misfortune, and why magical cures sometimes fail). Where witchcraft is presumed, bad luck, accident, or infection are not considered satisfactory explanations. When misfortune is especially persistent, witchcraft is readily assumed to be the cause. When magical cures fail, witchcraft may be blamed for the failure, thus preserving faith in such good magic.
Encouraging proper conduct (reinforcing and clarifying correct behaviour and providing negative role models to discourage bad behaviour). Nonconformists are the most likely to be accused of practicing witchcraft; their strange behaviour provides 'evidence' of their evil nature. [...]
Encouraging generosity and sharing (ensuring an equitable distribution of material resources). In egalitarian societies and communities plagued by persistent poverty, individuals and households adapt by sharing with others. Those who refuse [can be accused of being a witch, or conversely might attract the attention of a jealous witch].
Conserving tradition (defending the social order and community cohesion). Those who openly challenge accepted norms are especially likely to be accused of witchcraft. [...]
Providing entertainment (creating drama and stimulating imagination). Dramatic folktales about witches and gossip concerning an unpopular neighbour suspected of inflicting illness or bad luck on a household are listened to with great interest, especially by children. Consequently, lessons to be learned from these accounts fall on fertile ground and help perpetuate the beliefs.
Coping with rapid social change (attempting to reinstate social order). Under conditions of rapid cultural change and prolonged stress, witchcraft accusations may increase dramatically. Tolerance for deviant behaviour decreases under these conditions, inviting witch hunts and creating incentive to abide by traditional cultural norms. [...]
One hears less about witches once a certain level of economic development has been achieved, but when hard times return, accusations of witchcraft may become common again. For example, there has been a resurgence of this belief in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years. [...]
Some of the methods used subconsciously by believers to defend their beliefs are typical. When traditional remedies fail (or in modern monotheistic religions, when prayer fails) it is often said that lack-of-genuine-belief is the cause. The ironic solution to failure of traditional solutions is therefore is to believe more strongly!
Many psychologists, scientists and researchers have come to the conclusion that religion is a by-product of otherwise-normal processes in the brain. A theory of religion developed by Stark and Bainbridge (1987) "is both cognitive in nature and fundamentally atheistic", being rooted in the idea that the information-processing and language-producing functions of our brain are not perfect as they evolved for practical purposes only, and when they are applied to theoretical issues they result in faulty conclusions and perceptions. Lawrence Krauss notes that "we are hardwired to think that everything that happens to us is significant and meaningful"27. Certain types of stimulus are misunderstood and some of these processes cause us to hold religious beliefs.28
Pascal Boyer throughout "Religion Explained" (2001) argues that a panoply of psychological factors explains religion, explains why religion is successful and why we are inclined to believe in it and find religious arguments plausible, and also explains why it does not appeal universally, and explains why it is partially persistent even in the face of science29.
Other human behaviours also result from misapplied cognitive functions. Our enjoyment of music is the result of a side-effect of our complicated auditory systems in the brain and a lot of other behaviours are of a similar ilk: an over-stimulation or a misuse of a built-in system. Figurative art is another area Boyer uses as an example of our embrace of artificial stimulation of parts of our brain (object and face recognition, etc). These parts of the brain would normally have a purely practical function. According to Boyer religion isn't a case of 'neuronal dysfunction' as I say, but more like a case of misdirected, overstimulated, or inappropriately applied cognitive functions30.
Scott Atran (2002) and Justin Barrett (discussed in the next section) offer "a compatible evolutionary argument about why humans tend to imagine supernatural beings that have feelings, thoughts, and desires. [...] in an environment where we were both hunters and hunted"28, centering on the way we attribute conscious intent to events. Prof. Richard Dawkins summarizes some more of the contributors towards the biological psychology of religion:
“The ethnologist Robert Hinde, in Why Gods Persist, and the anthropologists Pascal Boyer, in Religion Explained, and Scott Atran, in In Gods We Trust, have independently promoted the general idea of religion as a by-product of normal psychological dispositions. [...] The psychologist Paul Bloom, another advocate of the 'religion is a by-product' view, points out that children have a natural tendency towards a dualistic theory of mind. Religion, for him, is a by-product of such instinctive dualism. We humans, he suggest, and especially children, are natural born dualists. [...] Other by-product explanations of religion have been proposed by Hinde, Shermer, Boyer, Atran, Bloom, Dennett, Keleman and others.”
One major cause of religious thinking, say experts, is the tendency for us to see "agency" in the complicated sequences of natural events. Dualism is the simplistic idea that things have physical bodies and separate intentions that can exist independently of the body. It is easy to see how we, as a species, found it useful to develop such an instinctive view. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, explains that various components of our normal working brain can result in beliefs that are religious and irrational in nature, due to the scientifically inaccurate way that we model the world. The 'hyperactive agent detection device' is the clumsy name given to the clumsy way in which we tend to personify complex movements (giving them intentions):
“We are biologically programmed to impute intentions to entities whose behaviour matters to us. [...] Children, and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks. All of us are prone to do the same thing with machines, especially when they let us down. Many will remember with affection the day Basil Fawlty's car broke down during his vital mission to save Gourmet Night from disaster. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, then got out of the car, seized a tree branch and thrashed it to within an inch of its life.”
The psychologist Justin Barrett came up with the term "Hyperactive Agent Detection Device"34 to describe the kind of neurological side-effect whereby our first instinctive reaction to events is to try to figure out the intention of the agent who is behind them.
“According to psychologist Justin Barrett, this feature of our psychological functioning is fundamental to understanding concepts of gods and spirits [... Because people] detect traces of [supernatural agents'] presence in many circumstances [... Even] in many contexts where other interpretations [...] are equally plausible. It is part of our constant, everyday humdrum cognitive functioning that we interpret all sorts of cues in our environment, not just events but also the way things are, as the result of some agent's actions. [...] There are important evolutionary reasons why we (as well as other animals) should have 'Hyper-Active Agent Detection'. Our evolutionary heritage is that of organisms that must deal with both predators and prey. In either situation, it is far more advantageous to over-detect agency than to under-detect it.”
The idea of agency behind most physical events is normally quickly discounted. But when it comes to gods and spirits, it is very hard indeed to find any immediate evidence against our instinctive reactions. So, when seeking answers about the reason for an event, the 'something must have done it' part of our instincts cannot, in some people, be dismissed rationally. All it takes is a cultural framework or social discussion, and these indistinct feelings can be given concrete names and even personalities. A scholar of Eastern religion, Arthur A. Macdonell, explains that "as soon as a person has taken the place of a natural force in the imagination, the poetical fancy begins to weave a web of secondary myth" and personalized stories, myths, about this primal spirit become attached to the idea, with the details of the stories often taken from other sources36. So from an idea of agency, we humans excel at building up a backstory to go with the invented mystical being. Hence, there are local tribal spirits, sky gods, evil and wild spirits, ghosts in certain buildings, and when most of them are no longer found to exist as we develop our intellectual insights, there is always the eternal creator-God who never really does anything but secretly influences subtle events in the world. Our evolutionary history has led us into a world of spirituality and religion, based on cognitive functions that are designed to give us good instincts about when and where predators are. When this system starts getting in the way of our exploration of the actual world, this has become cognitive dysfunction.
As religion developed out of these instincts in our history, now, our present science disconfirms our projections of intent on to inanimate objects. But frequently we still believe in the religions that have developed out of these misdirected ideas. The attribution of natural events to 'magical' and 'spiritual' causes is frequently an easier way to understand than to study the phenomena scientifically. It is an easy way out of existential difficulties.
There is much evidence in history that the more profound religious insights occur alongside mental dysfunction. The psychologist William James, in his survey of religious experience, comments that there are a massive proportion of prominent religious people in history that have shown signs of now-recognized long-term neurological complaints.
“Religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. [...] They have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have [...] been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often [...] these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.”
The average believer does not suffer from such severe cataclysms, however, and merely believes in the irrational results of others' experiences that have become codified as part of a religion. In normal believers, it may be a long-term background dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex that leads to illogical beliefs:
“People with greater paranormal beliefs showed lower levels of executive function. Particularly, they had less impulse control and greater disorganization, independent of age, sex, or level of education. In contrast, people with greater moral attitudes showed greater executive functioning in all areas measured (motivation, impulse control, empathy, planning, and organization). These findings support studies suggesting that superstitious thinking involves some degree of dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex, even in the general population, while moral attitudes involve better prefrontal functioning. [...] People with religious beliefs showed a minute increase in both empathy and impulse control, characteristics encouraged by most orthodox religions.”
M. Spinella and O. Wain, Skeptical Inquirer (2006)38
It is not only chronic neurological dysfunction that can cause religious and supernatural beliefs. Some of the founding experiences can be based on single neurological events such as isolated strokes or seizures. Many types of fit do not involve the motor area of the brain, so do not result in obvious, physical signs of fitting. They can be purely sensory in nature, involving sights, sounds and feelings that range from subtle through to overwhelming.
“Partial seizures can [...] cause clonic movement of part of a limb [, ... or] may trigger an abnormal sensation, or aura, such as an odd smell or sparkling lights. Most bizarre are the partial seizures that elicit more well-formed auras such as déjá vu (the feeling that something has happened before) or hallucinations.”
William James is not alone in being convinced that St. Paul was converted to Christianity by a vision that was the result of a seizure. Other neurological complaints such as schizoid events can also be recurrent and form part of a person's normal life experience; many such people never develop complete schizophrenia but sit half way on the spectrum between normality and delusion.
“It is best to see 'schizophrenia' and 'normality' as two overlapping distributions, not two distinct states. Given this view, it may be that we have already found many of the key biological mechanisms [...]. Many of the most creative and spiritual individuals show certain apparently schizotaxic traits - unusual patterns of thought and behaviour, unorthodox beliefs, a tendency to have visions and hear voices. Where this does not become disorganizing, and where it can be expressed in a socially accepted form such as art or religion, this kind of thing is usually seen as one of humanity's great psychological assets, rather than as an impairment.”
"Emotions and Mind" by Toates, Mackintosh and Nettle (2004)40
A final note from William James' psychological exploration of religion is that mystical and religious experiences can support any religion41. It depends on culture and phenotype of the person. It can cause, or support, any form of a religion including asceticism, gnosticism, theism and such experiences can also cause insanity, genius or works of art. It would be truly enlightening if we could perform some neurological tests on some of the great religious figures in history.
For more on this topic, see "The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs" by Vexen Crabtree (2008):
Hallucinations caused by eye problems can result in surprisingly specific visions of grotesque faces with large eyes and teeth, blood running upwards, and costumed figures43 as our brain tries to interpret errant inputs44. But most hallucinations start in the brain and most of them are subtle and not just a matter of visual phenomenon. Disease, neurochemical imbalances, fasting, exhaustion, sleep and sensory deprivation45,46, chanting, practices of austerity and ritualistic behaviour can all induce hallucinations and other strange states of mind47. They can also be triggered artificially by doctors. The range of experiences produced is varied, from mundane events such as smelling something to out of body experiences. Experimenters can consistently generate deeply meaningful religious experiences which would be utterly convincing if participants didn't know it was being generated artificially. People interpret these episodes in terms of their local culture - Western Christians don't receive Buddhist enlightenment and witness their previous lives, for example, whilst Eastern Daoists don't receive images of the Virgin Mary48. For those who know no neurology it is easy to see how supernatural beliefs can result from such episodes.
A wide variety of religious customs and beliefs across the world are clearly the result of misunderstood biology47. Native American tribes considered fasting being the way for receiving guidance from the Great Spirit. Moses fasted for forty days on Sinai while "talking to God" - the result was the 10 Commandments (Exodus 34:28), Elijah fasted forty days as he journeyed to Horeb, where, in a cave, he experiences a range of effects (1 Kings 19:8-15) and Bahá'u'lláh, (of the Bahá'í Faith) received revelations after spending months in a black underground prison. Jesus also fasted 40 days and as a result, experienced a battle with Satan in a series of visions (Matthew 4:1-11). As a species, we have been artificially inducing mystical experiences for as long as there are records of our behaviour, although nowadays we have a much better understanding of the underlying neurology and how it effects our consciousness.
Not many people would say that subconscious cognitive processes are responsible for their beliefs and actions. We construct rational-sounding reasons to back up the beliefs we have, and we simply don't - and frequently can't - get any insight into our true inner workings. Sociologists have found that people deny subconscious causes of their actions or beliefs. The formidable thinker Paul Kurtz explains that people frequently let themselves blindly believe certain things:
“I surely do not wish to suggest that conscious deception is the primary explanation for all or even most paranormal beliefs. Rather, it is self-deception that accounts for so much credulity. There is a powerful willingness in all too many people to believe in the unbelievable in spite of a lack of evidence or even evidence to the contrary. This propensity was due in part to what I have called the transcendental temptation, the tendency to resort to magical thinking, the attribution of occult causes for natural phenomena. The best antidote for this, I submit, is critical thinking.”
People often do not know how strong subconscious misdirection is and it often feels very awkward when one attempts to deconstruct one's own thought processes. It may be that such psychological investigation is best done by outside sociologists. William James, the psychologist of religion famous for his work at the turn of the twentieth century, examines the difficulty of such self-examination through a metaphor based on drunkenness:
“Knowledge about a thing is not the thing in itself. You remember what Al-Ghazzali told us in the Lecture on Mysticism - that to understand the cause of drunkenness, as a physician understands them, is not to be drunk. A science might come to understand everything about the causes and elements of religion, and might even decide which elements were qualified, by their general harmony with other branches of knowledge, to be considered true: and yet the best man at this science might be the man who found it hardest to be personally devout.”
In "Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths" (2008) I write about the subconscious causes of our behaviour and thought:
“We all suffer from systematic cognitive dysfunctions; they infuse the very way we notice and analyse data, and distort our forming of conclusions. Emotional and societal factors influence our thinking much more than we like to admit. Our expectations and recent experiences change the way we recall memories. Even our very perceptions are effected by pre-conscious cognitive factors; what we see, feel, taste and hear are all subject to interpretation before we are even aware of them. Our brains were never meant to be the cool, rational, mathematical-logical computers that we like to sometimes pretend them to be.
- People easily misperceive random events as evidence that backs up their beliefs.
- We attribute causes to events based on our beliefs even when we don't know we're doing it.
- Physiological causes can lay behind even profound supernatural experiences.
- Our perception of reality is distorted by our expectations and beliefs.
- Our experiences are not objective, but are informed by our mindset and culture.
We can take preventative steps. Learning to think skeptically and carefully and to recognize that our very experiences and perceptions can be coloured by societal and subconscious factors should help us to maintain our cool. Beliefs should not be taken lightly, and evidence should be cross-checked. This especially applies to "common-sense" facts that we learn from others by word of mouth and traditional knowledge. Above all, however, our most important tool is knowing what types of cognitive errors we, as a species, are prone to making.”
Keeping the power of the subconscious in our minds, let us look at the causes of religion in particular, aside from the causes of general error.
Two of William James lectures on religion from 1901-02 were devoted to tracing the psychology of 'conversion' into a religion. He introduces Dr Starbuck:
“Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child's small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity. [...] In his recent work on the Psychology of Religion, Professor Starbuck of California [says] "Theology takes the adolescent tendencies and builds upon them; it sees that the essential thing in adolescent growth is bringing the person out of childhood into the new life of maturity and personal insight.”
This compares well with the notes of many psychologists on god and religion, including Sigmund Freud: that religious feelings, and adult ideas about religion, are actually childhood fantasies in disguise. Luhrmann describes it in terms of "recreating a childhood world", in order to re-enchant adulthood52. This is not directly what Dr Starbuck and William James were implying, but it is true that many aspects of religion are drawn-out ideas of childhood such as the idea of an ever-present all-loving parent, the feeling of guilt when no-one is looking, the lack of death, etc. In the Christian Bible, in the first letter of St Paul to Corinth, Paul says "when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me" (1 Corinthians 13:11). Although this may be the conscious and intellectualized testimony, religion is largely the subconscious survival of childhood fantasy into adulthood. Childish seeming ideas may have been tidied away into the closet, but from the dark corners of the mind they continue to exert much pressure on the religious mind. Giving childish ideas adult terminology no longer hides the route of wishful thinking from psychologists.
Child psychologists say that 'there is no death' in the world of most children. Others in history, such as Freud, have explained that "dealing" with the learned idea of death is one of the greatest challenges of adulthood. Many avoid it by imagining that death is not real. That, in fact, we somehow survive death, despite that the self is the brain, and the brain dies. Many have come to the conclusion that the way religion provides reassurance against the spectre of death is one of the main appeals of religion10.
Many thinkers have theorized on the relationship between religion and death. The ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius (99-55BCE) famously said "Fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods"54. Modern sociologists and anthropologists have also often wondered what causes religion, and what psychological purpose it serves. The anthropologist Bronishaw Malinowski was born in 1884 and in his functionalist book Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays he argues that religion safeguards us against the fear of death and gives us a sense of power over it55. The astute mind of Einstein also discerned in religion a response to fear of death. Einstein wrote in 1930 that "with primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death"56. We have agreement from the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson who examines the neurobiological and evolutionary basis of human behaviour:
“The formidable influence of the religious drive is based on far more, however, than just the validation of morals. A great subterranean river of the mind, it gathers strength from a broad spread of tributary emotions. Foremost among them is the survival instinct. [...] Our conscious minds hunger for a permanent existence [...] as it gives the individual meaning.”
Some academics also point out that the extent to which fear of death is to be considered the cause of religion has been exaggerated. Pascal Boyer objects that "the human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress and fear"57. It is a fine point. Religion can even make the fear of death worse for some people. However, it is clear that beliefs are often based on psychological needs. Not many people in ancient water-soaked lands think that the correct dances could bring rain, because that´s not their concern. But there is something particularly important about death and the horrible looming danger of everlasting non-existence.
It is hard to imagine non-being, and from this hardship, from wishful thinking, and from a sense of justice, we yearn for an afterlife. To make meaning of our lives we want this life to be part of a learning curve that doesn't just end, unfinished. Religion, and the afterlife, serve to make us think of death as less important and less of a barrier. We should not doubt the power of the idea that death is not final. In Buddhism, the representative of the Earth, and of Earthly attachments, is Māra, and in Buddhist texts "it is in connexion with death, but particularly the overcoming of death, that Māra is often mentioned in the Canon"58.
Some people's reactions against death goes so far as to trivialize it. Think of suicide cults where death is embraced as a way forward, and, in his book on fundamentalism, Malise Ruthven warns that death can become so insignificant that murder and suicide are merely stepping-stones in a divine plan that can be enforced on others:
“Religious images and texts provide ways in which violence, pain and death are overcome symbolically. Human suffering is made more durable by the idea that death and pain are not pointless, that lives are not wasted needlessly, but are part of a grander scheme in which divinely constituted order reigns supreme above the chaos and disorder of the world. In such a context, the horrors and chaos of wars, as described in the Mahabharata and the Book of Joshua, as debated in the Baghavad Gita, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, and as alluded to in the Koran, are subsumed within an order seen to be meaningful and ultimately benign.”
It is not just a personal rejection of death that compels people towards religious ideas of an afterlife - scholar of religion William Sims Bainbridge calls these primary compensators. The secondary type of reaction against death is social. People like having something comforting to tell others to lessen the gravity of death of a loved one, making the social dynamics less morbid and more positive in outlook60. Hence, there are a range of subtle internal psychological factors that give us a need and a want for an afterlife and/or for a purpose of death that transcends life and mitigates the disaster of losing a human being forever.
As the modern world slowly sheds organized religion it seems that decentralized and individualist spiritualisms have ascended, including the New Age and Pagan movements. Some people just seem to have an inherent need for ceremony, ritual and dogma in their lives. Some authors have concluded that religious-like behaviour is an expression of humanity that will not go away, and that the instinct towards symbolism is a result of our evolution through a pre-literate phase of development both in history and as an infant. Karen Armstrong writes that "Human beings have always been mythmakers"62. The existence of a base, emotional and primitive instinctive connection to strange symbols and otherworldly ideas is admitted not only by the New Age movement and esoteric religious writers, but mainstream religious scholars have come to this conclusion too. Needless to say, such religious writers mostly "realize" that mankind has in innate need for their particular religion (how lucky!) but occasionally they appear more friendly towards the idea that such a Human inclination has a basis in the general Human psyche. As a result of this inclination, the Anglican academic Monica Furlong, in her book on the Church of England (2000), explains how the reformation, that reformed Christianity and placed a heavy emphasis on text, caused a backlash:
“Behind the repudiation of the ceremonial by the reformers lay a radically different conceptual world, a world in which text was everything, sign nothing. [...] It would take centuries for the Church of England to acknowledge and try to recover what it had lost [...]. In its place text ('the word') became in its own way a different sort of worshipped image, one which sometimes excluded feeling and the deep movements of the unconscious mind which ritual had faithfully fed. It is not, of course, that poetry or powerful preaching cannot express feeling, but that part of our human consciousness is pre-literate, both historically and in our personal childhood experience, and the whole of our experience cannot necessarily be captured by words. It may be important to lay wordless experiences alongside the wordy ones, as in music, colour, form, movement and smell.”
This is recognition that our need for such things is based not on God-given instinct, but a subconscious biologically-based leftover from our preliterate days, and our preliterate youth. A time when symbols, as in early religion, were much more powerful and imposing because we had no words. Symbolism and ritual form part of our development, and part of our needs, in life. Furlong may not have meant to highlight such a fundamental way in which the non-religious look upon religion - as a misguided answer to some biological impulse. Science and humanism don't satisfy this impulse for some people, because of the lack of symbolism and ritual.
“Myths can be debased and uprooted. All that happens is that modern myths and rituals replace the traditional ones, for myths and archetypes are an inherent part of the human psyche. Human beings appear to need a religious underpinning both to their personal and to their social lives. At the personal level, human beings need a mythology within which to frame their identities and the meaning of their lives. At the social level, some ideology is needed to give people a vision of their history, their present place in the world and their future direction, to act as a focal point of unity, an agreed framework for public policy and a justification for the public rituals that affirm social cohesion. Where formal religion no longer provides this underpinning, various alternatives have evolved. At the social level, 'pseudo-religions' such as Marxism and nationalism have been successful partly because they do provide an alternative picture - a myth of history and a direction for the future.”
Despite all the arguments that some people need and seek out religion, it also happens to be the case the large parts of the world do without religion. It is common sense in non-religious countries such as the UK that the purpose of our lives is connected only to personal aims and personal values, such as love or happiness, or the socially orientated "to do good". People simply like things that take their minds off the mundanity of life. Religion, football, hobbies and interests all serve similar functions.
“Simple faith-based answers to fundamental questions are very appealing, because the world is very complicated65. Human knowledge is broken up into so many deep specialities that it is no longer possible for anyone to attain an accurate overall picture of reality66. Least of all is it possible to grasp what it all means for us personally. Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that "man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe"67. The same psychological factor can be explained from a cynical point of view: "the contemporary persistence of religion indicates an inability or refusal on the part of many people to take on board the implications of science and rationality"68. This would appear to be a factor both amongst science-denying American Christian fundamentalism, and in Western New Religious Movements epitomized by the New Age which embraces a wide range of zany, and very unlikely, beliefs about reality.”
My Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological Processes examines many of the psychological factors that lead people to 'experience' the presence of various Gods, and the summary conclusion lists the main points:
The psychological wish for an ever-present loving parent looking over us, combined with our ability for abstract ideas to become the basis for our emotions, especially love, form the concept of God as a subconscious parent-substitute and ideal carer. The childhood memory of our seemingly all-knowing and all-capable parents, whom we continuously miss in adult life, causes some people to desire a parental god to exist.
Pride and ego incline us toward god-belief: It is more prideful to think that the creator of the billions of galaxies cares deeply about oneself, and it is a function of the ego that we want such an all-powerful eternal being to be watching and judging us. The opposite: That no-one is watching, and no-one keeps measure of our actions, is cold in comparison, so that some peoples' ego's and pride wish for there to be a god. See: Homocentricity or Anthropocentrism: Why Do Religions Think Humanity Is Central to God and Creation?.
As we can see from the different ways people experience the same event, peoples' expectations influence their reality. Examples of this include, as discussed, sleep apnea: Experienced by some as UFO abductions, and others as attempted demon possession. Of all the experiences and messages given by God, many contradict each other. From this mess of contradictory experiences, combined with the lack of any logical reason why gods would exist, I conclude that there is no God. There are human beings, our wishes, our projections and our experiences led by our own abstractions and expectations, but there is no objective, real God external to the self. See: The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs.
That we can stimulate parts of the brain and induce mystical and spiritual experiences in people means that such experiences are explained by the neurological sciences whether or not there is actually a 'spiritual realm'. See: Soul Theory and Skepticism: Science Versus Spirituality.
Hallucinations are easily interpreted in religious terms, and, the religious instinct towards fasting and sensory deprivation are both sought after as routes towards gaining 'divine' or 'spiritual' messages - when in reality, it is the starved brain misfiring. See: Hallucinations, Sensory Deprivation and Fasting: The Physiological Causes of Religious and Mystical Experiences: 2. Hallucinations.
The burden of proof remains firmly with the spiritualists: Experience of these types of mystical events is not proof of the reality of them, therefore different (logical or experimental) proof needs to be found. Until such proof arrives, it is not sensible to believe in god.
For the full page, see: "Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological Processes" by Vexen Crabtree (2002).
That religion is ultimately all based on worship of the sun, and of the stars and other visible stellar bodies (such as Mercury, Venus and Mars), has been a very common observation. The sun has obvious life-giving properties; its waning during autumn and winter gives rise to natural decay, loss of vegetation and eventually, to human difficulties in obtaining food. But the powers of darkness are eventually defeated, and the sun's power starts to rise on the winter equinox. The celebration of the solstices, equinoxes and seasons has often been done via the apotheosis of natural forces: in the history of mankind, more gods are attributed to the cycles of nature than from any other source.
“Prodicus of Ceos [5th century BCE), also one of the most famous sophists, advanced the idea that the conceptions of the gods were originally associated with those things which were of use to humanity: sun and moon, rivers and springs, the products of the earth and the elements; therefore bread was identified with Demeter, wine with Dionysus, water with Poseidon, fire with Hephaestus. As a special instance he mentioned the worship of the Nile by the Egyptians.”
"Atheism in Pagan Antiquity" by Anders Björn Drachmann (1922)70
“... as late as the days of the French Revolution, Dupuis, in a voluminous work, tried to trace the whole of ancient religion and mythology back to astronomy.”
"Atheism in Pagan Antiquity" by Anders Björn Drachmann (1922)71
In the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox occurs when the length of the day increases until it is equal with the length of the night, which occurs on the 21st of March each year72. The sun, growing in power, finally overtakes darkness, and its rebirth is celebrated. This was an especially important event for early human civilisations that relied upon agriculture. This is why so many ancient religions and cultures celebrate renewal and rebirth at and after the spring equinox, and is why Easter is tied up with the ideas of fertility and growth, hence, the symbols of the egg and the rabbit. Ancient pagans anthropomorphized the forces of nature, and told stories to explain why the sun was resurgent. Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Osiris and many other Greek and Roman cults incorporated the death and rebirth of their gods at this time, with the principal dying-and-resurrection god returning to Earth for the sake of humankind73. When Christianity arose, Christians also told stories of Jesus dying and resurrecting at Easter, and since the very first centuries of Christianity, Christian apologists have had to defend themselves against accusations that the whole Jesus story was a retelling of pagan myths but without understanding of the underlying solar symbolism73.
If you pick cards randomly from a pack (perhaps, the lower value of the card, the less likely we are to win the game), when we pick a low card it is likely to be followed by a higher card. When we pick a few low cards in a row, we are equally likely to pick a higher card next time. If, when we have picked a series of low cards, we perform some action (such as putting on a hat), we can mistakenly attribute the ending of the losing streak to the fact that we just put on a hat. On average, things return to the normal, and with a series of results this is called the regression to average. What does all this have with superstition, beliefs and religion? The social psychologist David Myers explains that "when things reach a low point, we will try anything, and whatever we try - going to a psychotherapist, starting a new diet-exercise plan, reading a self-help book - is more likely to be followed by improvement than by further deterioration"74, and this statistical naïvety often leads people into thinking some supernatural 'luck' or religious 'reward' has taken place. This explains why a conversion to a new religion when done at a low point in one's life, often leads to an improvement. The same with making sacrifices to a new god, or praying harder than normal; if done during desperate times (such as during drought, alcoholism or financial ruin), the chances are things will get better simply because the law of regression takes effect, but in practice many would mistakenly attribute their reversed fortunes to their new supernatural affiliation.
This would explain why many cults and religions prey on the weak, depressed, down-and-outs and those who have recently experienced catastrophe. Such people are more likely to try new religions75. The Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) is one example Christian faith-healing church, finding support amongst the poor, ill-educated and desperate victims of cancers and AIDS (click for more on SCOAN). It is amongst these people that they find recruits are most likely to attribute their recovery to the religion, and therefore such people tend to cling to their new religion harder than others who would be tempted to judge the religion on more openly rational grounds.
Other desperate measures are connected with the frailty of being human. Among the Mossi people of Burkina Faso, for example, "barrenness among non-Muslim women may be treated by the divinatory diagnosis that the would-be children are refusing to be born except as Muslims. The obvious remedy is conversion to Islam". This abuse is effective - people during desperate times are open to wilder influences. The same author who described the Mossi above provides a similar cultural illustration of this in action:
Translatabiliity in Islam and in Christianity in Africa by Lamin Sanneh (2002)76
It might seem ridiculous to outsiders and educated people in modern countries that this can truly result in conversion, but, in the West, many convert to Scientology on the basis of its pseudoscientific Dianetics practices, many converted to EST, and take up Edward Bach´s flower remedies, all kinds of New Age healing methods, aromatherapy and a large number of highly suspicious and ineffective "cures" because they think they might work. In Hong Kong, anthropologist Daniel Métraux documents how 10 members of a family all converted to Soka Gakkai on the basis that when the wife converted, the husband recovered from a serious illness77. Did they stop to think: why join this religion? Given that thousands of different religious movements claim thousands of healing events, why should we trust that this one in particular embodies otherworldly truth? The answer is that conversions are based on interpersonal relationships and social factors, rather than on a serious attempt to understand the world.
National under-development, low national average intelligence and poor social stability are all correlated with high rates of religious belief. In other words - as a country gets richer, better educated and more stable, religion declines. The more well developed the country is the less religious it is. For our purposes here, we need to also consider education to be of note. Mass education is one of forces that works to undermine religious thinking. The correlation between low intelligence and religion is discussed elsewhere on this page. Social stability relies on the arms of government such as police, justice and infrastructure management to be in good functional order. Corruption, poverty and poor governance affect an entire countries health - including mental health.
Chart data footnote: 79
In countries with a per-capita GDP equal to or below $2,000, the average religiosity rate is 95%. For rich countries, with per-capita incomes higher than $25,000, the rate is half as much - 47%. A few countries do not fit this trend, but, there are clear historical reasons for this. All four lower-income countries with low religiosity rates (Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Vietnam) were all subject to long-lasting restrictions against religion80.
Dr Nigel Barber has analysed many of the same sets of statistics as I have, and his published works are somewhat more methodical than mine and show the same results. He writes that "the question of why economically developed countries turn to atheism has been batted around by anthropologists for about eighty years. Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence" (2011).
Likewise, researchers Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman have approached this from an evolutionary and a sociological stance and both argue that belief in God is correlated with the level of difficulty of life in general - that "in countries where food is plentiful, health care is universal and housing is accessible, people believe less in God than in those countries where their lives are insecure"81. Sociologist of religion Professor Roderick Main writes that "where the technology and resources to mitigate major sufferings such as poverty and sickness exist, it is understandable that, for some, the appeal of religious consolations should diminish"82
The link is between development and our understanding of the world. In other words, the more mysterious and hard to control the world is, the more strongly religion suits people's demands83 for an ultimate victory over life. This future may take the form of a perfect afterlife (and maybe punishment for wrongdoers), or it may take the form of absolute dissolution where all the trials of life can be seen to have been steps towards annihilation - the former one being a typically "Western" solution adopted by Abrahamic religions whereas the latter is "Eastern" as adopted by Hinduism and Buddhism.
Taken from: "Theological Problems with Heaven, Paradise and Nirvana" by Vexen Crabtree (2003).
The idea of heaven is one of the most attractive features of religion. The ends to which people will go in order to foster the required spiritual brownie points to get to heaven is seemingly endless - from lives spent in prayer, meditation and repentance, to lives wasted in suicide attacks and isolation: if there is potential reward at the end, people will believe in it, and then act on those beliefs.
The following things make the concept of heaven compelling and mentally addictive:
The attainment of a personal state of eternal happiness and bliss.
The idea that friends and family, alive and dead, have found peace and happiness in an afterlife.
The idea that all the wrongs of life are righted because good people go to heaven, and the bad people we've encountered are tortured in hell even if they got away with their wrongful attitudes during our own lives.
The worse one's own life in this world, the stronger is the compulsion to believe in a better life after this one. The statistical correlation between social inequality and religion, and, social instability and religion, has been reported on thoroughly by Barber (2011). People yearn for, and then believe in, an ultimate and absolute justice that will rectify all the wrongs of this life. There is certainly a strong element of condolence in believing that those who do wrong against us will be punished for each and every deed.
“Because the distribution of wealth and power inhibits them, the resentful cannot act out of their desire for vengeance against the wealthy and the noble; as compensation, therefore, they seek to score moral victories that in the end will enable them to turn the tables on those who have previously lorded it over them. Thus, as Weber (1964: 110-11) put it, 'suffering may take on the quality of the religiously meritorious, in view of the belief that it brings in its wake great hopes for future compensation.' The notion that unconscious drives for salvation, motivated by suffering, take on the form of religious claims to eventual privilege, was shared by Freud, perhaps in a common debt to Nietzsche.”
Taken from "Religion and Intelligence" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)
General intelligence is negatively correlated with strength of religious belief from national to individual average: The historical battles between religious institutions and science, such as those in physics, astronomy and biology, indicate there is something wrong with the religious approach to the study of reality. The underlying problem extends to negative effects on the individual intelligence of believers, and a related negative effect on educational achievements. Hardly any of the several-hundred Nobel Prize winning scientists have been Christians. Only 3.3% of the Members of the Royal Society in the UK and 7% the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, believe in a personal God. The more senior and learnéd the scientist, the less likely they are to believe in God. The children of highly religious parents suffer diminished IQs - averaging 7 to 10 points lower compared to their non-religious counterparts in similar socio-economic groups. As you would expect from these results, multiple studies have also shown that IQ is opposed to the strength of religious belief. 39 studies since 1927 (out of 43) have found that the more educated a person is, and the higher one's intelligence, the less likely someone is to hold religious beliefs - "religion declines in proportion to the rise in education and personal income"86. Countries with a higher rate of belief in God have lower average intelligence; all countries with high average intelligence have low national levels of belief in God. For countries where belief in God is over 80%, the average national IQ is 83 points. For those countries where stated disbelief in God is greater than 20%, the national average IQ is 98 points. Instead of belief in God, countries with the highest IQs adhere to Far-Eastern belief systems such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. It is not just intelligence and education that is inversely correlated with religion - it has also been found that the more you know about religion itself, the less likely you are to be religious87.
Suggestibility: In The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind Stan Gooch examines many aspects of supernatural experience, and finds that those who experience such things score highly on suggestibility indexes, are better hypnosis subjects, and are more religious and spiritual.
There are a few general causes of the continual growth of unusual, novel, small, untraditional, often magical, seemingly counter-cultural and Earth-centered religious movements. The New Age, the Celtic revival (Druids, et. al.), neo-Paganism and Wicca all seem to share some features and often share actual practices, beliefs and members89, and all are growing in sync. Likewise, there are often similar motivations for people to get involved with these types of movements. Robert Schroëder states that people "in today's societies, finding themselves spiritually and morally lost, seek alternative routes to faith and the meaning of existence"90. But we can do better than that, and identify some of the precise areas of attraction for alternative religious movements:
Some adopt new religious movements and alternative spiritualities as reactions against the complexities of science and of reductionism91 and many members of the New Age in particular maintain attacks upon science, calling it closed-minded and limited in scope92,93. But the same rhetoric against the modern world can be found in conservative Christian and Muslim groups, so this does not entirely explain the growth of NRMs in particular.
Anti-consumerism and anti-materialism supply common motives alongside general disillusionment with Western capitalism and globalisation94. Two scholars who have comprehensively examined modern Paganism state that the rise of interest in Paganism is "a response to an increased dissatisfaction with the way the world is going ecologically, spiritually and materially; people are disillusioned by mainstream religion and the realisation that materialism leaves an internal emptiness" (Harvey & Hardman 199595). But these feelings are also shared by many other traditional and world religions and by secular critics. For example, zany Pentecostal Christianity, also a growth sector in religion, shares these traits. Harvey Cox in his analysis specifically states that Pentecostalism is a response against contemporary materialism, giving expression to "the language of the heart" and supporting "chaotic emotions without suppressing them", and providing people with an "alternative" life, all within a Christian context96. All very similar proclamations to those supporting the New Age and many NRMs.
Activism. Areas of popular concern are often taken up quickly by small and new religious movements. Activist causes have found accord with neo-pagan groups and bolstered their numbers and popularity, in particular from the 1970s. As liberal Christians have embraced many of these same concerns97 we can see that they are not the reserve of NRMs but of modern religious liberalism and moral conscientiousness.
Environmentalism is commonly proclaimed by all kinds of pagan, Celt, pseudo-Native and New-Agers, and attracts many people on the basis of their concerns and passions for the world that we live in. A "desperate" reaction to the sad loss of the countryside and rapid urbanisation from 1890 onwards made people turn towards paganism98,99 as a theoretical solution - and soon enough, neo-pagan religions arose to take on the challenge. Predictably, such people are nature-deprived city folk "as is usually true of those who love nature (the farmers are too busy fighting it)"100. Many alternative spiritualities now sell themselves as representing "green religion"101. Conservationism and sustainability are ubiquitous and this is the case both amongst the emoting of individuals and the doctrine and stance of organised groups.102
Pagans are especially into environmentalism, preservation, sustainability and other 'green' endeavours. Prudence Jones writes that "by experience we know that we can be transported into rapture by the beauty of Nature. [...] For Pagans the divine, transcendent powers seem to be present within Nature itself, and by deliberate ritual and contemplation the devout Pagan can make contact with these"(1995)103. A study published in 1986 brokedown the reasons that American Pagans gave for becoming involved, and the positive and green stance on environmentalism was amongst the top 6 most commonly given motivations104. Researchers William Bloom and M. York state that this has also been a strong trend within the New Age; according to York a New Ager "through interdependence and interpenetration, accepts responsibility for the planetary state"105. Author Kenneth Rees imagines that we might expect to find that one hundred percent of all Pagans are environmentally-conscious and "professing a green spirituality"106.
See: "Religion Versus Womankind" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)
Feminism: Neopaganism and Wicca formed strong associations with early feminists. Feminists joining Dianic witchcraft in the 1980s (influenced by authors such as Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk) outnumbered all other kinds of convert in that decade107, and Paganism in general attracts those who are interested in feminist spirituality and goddess worship108.
Emotionalising, escapism and primitivism ('golden age' romanticism): Many NRMs are sourced from the vagaries of human experience, human credulity and introspective emotions: spiritualities where whim and fancy trump historical and scientific skepticism. It is related to what sociologists call "cultural primitivism": a romantic view of a past 'Golden Age' in a pre-industrial world, where a less sophisticated life is deemed more desirable, less spiritually constrained, and the idea helped along by a sense of mystery aided by a lack of concrete evidence on distant cultures109. Those who adopt "native" mores are particularly likely to have a cultural primitivist outlook110. Escapism and romanticism easily merge with mysticism, attracting many of those who now find Christianity too dogmatic, organised and proscribed.
Native Peoples' Fandoms include a wave of Native-American "aspirational Indians" and British-orientated "Cardiac Celts" (Bowman 1996), interlinked with the New Age in a haphazard manner, whose audience are often those disaffected souls who espouse rhetoric against capitalism and modern technology. (Porterfield 1999, Mumm 2002 p114,p120)
A lack of magic and fantasy in text-based religions has been highlighted by multiple sociologists as causing a gap in the provision of public religion. Monica Furlong (2000)111 describes how institutional religion in Britain from the Reformation became increasingly dogmatic and text-based; reformers made "a world in which text was everything, sign nothing". David Martin talks of "religious frustration with an over-intellectualized" Christianity112. The zealous suppression of supernaturalism made Christianity more abstract and removed. This has produced two opposites; a gradual increase in secularism (as it is supernatural thinking that grants religious legitimacy) and a gap into which non-textual alternative spiritualities has grown. Another scholar of religion, Momen, says that the roots of religion can be removed but "all that happens is that modern myths and rituals replace the traditional ones, for myths and archetypes are an inherent part of the human psyche"64, and Christopher Partridge tells us that "many are drawn [to Wicca] by the desire to practise magic"113. These NRMs are rising to cover the supernatural ground that organized Christianity has increasingly shunned over the last few centuries.
The rise of individualism and the modern pick-and-mix approach to religion has seen people abandon the concept of adopting a religious tradition that is formulated, structured and archaic in favour of personalized collections of beliefs, some from one tradition, some from another. This approach does not suit centralized or dogmatic religions where doctrine has been worked out as part of an entire theology of existence. Instead, unstructured, new and novel pseudo-religions are embraced where freethought (but not skepticism) are likely to be accepted. Adler (1986) found that of the 6 main reasons American gave for being involved in Paganism, most of them were individual-based including the freedom of practice, the exercise of the imagination, intellectual satisfaction and personal growth108.
We have seen how cognitive processes can lead to religious beliefs and superstitions. The possible range of such beliefs is huge, however, most religions concentrate on some very familiar ideas. There appears to be a selection process by which most zany beliefs are filtered out whilst other successful ones spread. This process has been expertly examined by Pascal Boyer:
“But we can approach the question from another angle. Indeed, we can and should turn the whole 'origin' explanation upside down, as it were, and realise that the many forms of religion we know are the outcome not of a historical diversification but of a constant reduction. The religious concepts we observe are relatively successful ones selected among many other variants. [... From] the many variants that our minds constantly produce and the much fewer variants that can be actually transmitted to other people and become stable in a human group. [...] An extremely small number of variants remain in memory, are communicated to others in a way that more or less preserves the original concepts. These are the ones we can observe in human cultures.”
All kinds of crazy beliefs are generated all the time by our minds; but most will not survive transmission to other people as they will disbelieve them, as they don't have the same experiences in life as we do. Most of the world's crazy beliefs are never examined critically. To be debated on a forum, a belief must first survive and spread. Most beliefs don't survive the battleground they find themselves in, fighting against other beliefs. If they survive and prosper, and can be transmitted to other people and remain intact without getting modified too quickly, they may start appearing in academic journals, websites, forums and in conversation. At that point, they might start getting called scientific theories, philosophies, etc, according to who is classifying them, and why. If they don't fit those more respectable categories, people might instead call them religious beliefs, or superstitions. If they survive long enough and the beliefs are loudly proclaimed, their believers might get called cultists, members of sects, or eventually, members of a religion. So it often not the case that we are looking for the causes of 'religion' par se, but that we are looking at the cause of theories and the cause of thought. The discussion at this point could get very technical. There are journals and books, and bookshelves, dedicated to the technical discussions of what we should call 'religious'. Here, however, I am dismissing that entire endeavour of meta-analysis and I simply rely on the reader's instinct to define 'religion' and 'belief' in whatever way they see fit.
See "Cultural Religion Versus Scholarly Religion" by Vexen Crabtree (2013) for a full discussion of grassroots-religion versus academic religion.
All of this results in the basis for religious beliefs: a slow transition then takes place whereby they are institutionalized into an official doctrine of thought. Where this transition does not take place, the beliefs are seen as superstitions or statistical outlayers.
Bottom-Up Grassroots Movements: Individuals come to hold paranormal beliefs, for whatever reasons (as discussed), and sometimes these become popular beliefs held by many. In these cases, a bottom-up transformation affects the religions of the era. This also happens when new religions impose themselves upon a populace: they combine folk, paranormal beliefs with the terminology of the new religion. Many scientific discoveries have affected religion in this way: The orthodox fought against astronomers who said that the Earth was flat, but eventually the beliefs of the masses changed until finally, the official doctrine of the Church changed. Many similar battles have occurred.
Top-Down Effects: Sometimes religions are spread through the forceful and convincing arguments of particular reformers. As religion develops over time its tenets and beliefs filter down to the populace. Particular pieces of a religious paradigm can become so mainstream that their origins in the religion are forgotten. When the religion changes, or is superseded, odd practices still remain behind. Levi wrote in 1860 that "superstitions are religious forms surviving the loss of ideas"116 which explains things like why people say "bless you" when others sneeze, even though the majority no longer believe that demons are entering and leaving the body.
If institutional religions become too dry, new religious movements will come to embody popular beliefs. Formal beliefs themselves are slowly moved along by culture and popular morality but in general religious powers resist such change. The driving factors and underlying causes remain unchanged despite changing social situations.
New Religious Movements such as neopaganism and the New Age are growing forms of grassroots religion. So are alternative forms of Christianity such as Pentecostalism, which expresses “the language of the heart”, emphasizing unrestricted spirituality that is largely left unscrutinized intellectually117. The New Age thrives on basic magical and supernatural beliefs. Both fulfil the role of low-brow religion unhampered by institution. Increasingly Christianity has become purely textual, dry, predictable and proscribed. It no longer involves itself with supernaturalism, whereas in previous centuries the Church was a master of everything spiritual and supernatural, now, that ground is being taken by the New Age and other NRMs, who embrace an emotional and active approach rather than a textual one.
While religious beliefs are mostly the result of parental instruction and geographic incidence, there are many subconscious, psychological, sociological and neurobiological factors that cause religious and superstitious beliefs to prosper. This includes the idea of functionalism, where traditionalism and rebellion are achieved by adopting religious labels and following or rejecting typical cultural-religious behaviour. Likewise, many activists are drawn to particular religious groups on account of their association with their stance on worldly issues. Culture and religion are also mixed up, so that many times (for example in Northern Ireland) conversion is a political act; and beliefs are secondary to labels. This is also apparent in the way that the amount of Christians in countries like the UK (72%) somehow outnumber the number of actual god-believers (~50%). Religion is mostly caused by social and psychological factors and not by any examining of the evidence or logic behind the beliefs involved. This is why skeptics often find it so hard to bring their scientific knowledge to productive use in arguments with religionists.
Psychologists, sociologists, ethnographers and scientists tend to view religious beliefs as the result of mostly normal psychological systems being applied in the wrong context. A prime example is the way we get angry with cars and computers, and shout insults at them, or the way we tend to see patterns in random behaviour such as brownian motion (our 'hyperactive agent detection device'). Historical investigators such as William James have found that outstanding religious innovators and leaders have frequently been epileptic, psychotic, suffered from strokes and various mental problems and nervous instability and that this often give them more command in areas of spirituality. Experiments on the Human brain have allowed us to discover many of the specific neuronal networks that can misfire to cause us to have 'religious' feelings and experiences. Childhood fantasies, including an absence of death and the seemingly all-present, ever-caring and all-knowing parental figures who give us comfort, often become the basis for religious beliefs in adults. This hidden wishful-thinking mechanism feeds our ego (that "someone" cares about everything we do) and gives us consolation from death in the idea of an afterlife. Many strange things we 'experience' are cultural (therefore an aspect of upbringing), and once a scientific and critical understanding of them is attained, the beauty of the natural world displaces the appeal of the supernatural. Religion, when not considered a byproduct of misapplied cognitive psychology and social factors, is self-inflicted delusion, illusion, smoke and mirrors.
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