What Causes Religion and Superstitions?

By Vexen Crabtree 2013 Jul 30

The principal cause of an individual's religion is the inheriting of identity from parents and local culture1. 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 research2 - 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 true3. Religion is mostly an accident and by-product of other psychological and social processes.


1. Arbitrarily Inherited

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. 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. 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.

2. Functionalism

2.1. Performing Social Functions (Intro)

Religion does not exist primarily as an intellectual venture; it is tied firstly with the inheritance of an idea from the parents, and as a social impactor. This means that normal social factors come into play: rebellion or subservience to the parents, rebellion or subservience to society, the seeking of the esoteric or unfamiliar, or the seeking of the familiar and the culturally-acceptable. Therefore, individuals will often adopt a religious position for a social reason. 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. 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"4. 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.

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, dynamic leadership and the appeal of churches (and small cell groups within them) as a basis for community and personal support in a rapidly urbanizing society'. Martin explains that "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.5

2.2. Religion as Activism, Reactionism and Rejectionism

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 ideas6.

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 life7.

2.3. Political Power Struggles

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.

"Gods in the Global Village" by Lester R. Kurtz (2007)8

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 Egypt9. 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)10

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.

2.4. Identity Reinforcement

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 Bruce11, 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.

2.5. Moralizing: Being Religious in Order to Be a Good Person

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 morality4. 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"12. 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.'13

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)

Bryan Wilson (1982)
Being discussed in "Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion"
Richard K. Fenn (2009) [Book Review]

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"14. 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.

2.6. Culture and Myth

Book CoverIt 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. 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 themes15. 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.

2.7. An Example: Carib witchcraft

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:

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!

3. Biological Psychology

3.1. Misapplied Cognitive Functions

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. Certain types of stimulus are misunderstood: some of these processes cause us to hold religious beliefs.16

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 science17.

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 functions18.

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"16, 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.

"The God Delusion" by Prof. Richard Dawkins (2006)19

3.2. Hyperactive Agent Detection Device (HADD)20

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 God Delusion" by Prof. Richard Dawkins (2006)21

The psychologist Justin Barrett came up with the term "Hyperactive Agent Detection Device"22 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.

"Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer (2001)23

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. 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, 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.

3.3. Neuronal Dysfunction

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 Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James (1902) [Book Review]24

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)25

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.

Book CoverPartial 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.

"Neuroscience" by Bear, Connors and Paradiso (1996)26

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)27

A final note from William James' psychological exploration of religion is that mystical and religious experiences can support any religion28. 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.

4. The Subconscious

4.1. Hidden Inner Causes

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.

Paul Kurtz in Skeptical Inquirer (2006)29

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.

"The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James (1902) [Book Review]30

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.

"Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths: 7. Conclusions" by Vexen Crabtree (2008)

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.

4.2. Childhood Fantasies

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:

Book CoverConversion 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.

"The Varieties of Religious Experience"
William James (1902) [Book Review]31

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 adulthood32. 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.

4.3. The Fear of Death

Book CoverIt is not rational arguments, but emotions, that cause belief in a future life. The most important of these emotions is fear of death.

"Why I am not a Christian" by Bertrand Russell (1957)33

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 religion4.

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"34. 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 it35. 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"36. We have agreement from the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson who examines the neurobiological and evolutionary basis of human behaviour:

Book CoverThe 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.

"Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by E. O. Wilson (1998)34

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"37. 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"38.

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.

"Fundamentalism" by Malise Ruthven (2007)39

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 outlook40. 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.

4.4. Myths and Ritual: Leftovers from a Pre-Literate Humanity41

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"42. 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:

Book CoverBehind 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.

"The C of E: The State It's In"
Monica Furlong (2000) [Book Review]43

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.

"The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach"
Moojan Momen (1999) [Book Review]44

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.

5. Life Experiences

5.1. Simple Dogmatic Answers in a Complex World

Human knowledge about the world has increased in depth to such an extent that all knowledge is broken up into many specialities, each populated by its own brands of scientists and academics. It is no longer within human capabilities to grasp more than a few disciplines in depth and this causes a lack of unity of knowledge and a lack of overall clarity in what it all means. The best book on this concept is "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by E. O. Wilson (1998). According to the views of some academics, this complexity of human knowledge is leaving a number of people behind, and "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"45 . 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.

In the face of complicated science, simple faith-based answers can be very appealing. This line of reasoning is given by many to be an important factor behind the appeal of religion4. Ideas that are short, easy to remember and quick to explain to others are naturally more agile than ideas that are hard to explain, complicated and require multiple layers of knowledge. The simplicity of religious ideas combined with the confidence in their ultimate meaning is a quick and easy way to confront those (scientists and rational thinkers) in the world who pester religionists with things like skepticism and demands for technical evidence.

5.2. Experiencing God

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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?.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Hallucinations are easily interpreted in religious terms, and, the religious instinct towards fasting and sensory depirvation are both sought after as routes towards gaining 'divine' or 'spiritual' messages - when in reality, it is the starved brain misfiring. See: The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs: 4.1. Hallucinations and Fasting.

  6. 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).

5.3. Desperate Times: Religious Experiments Including Conversion, Superstitions and Lucky Charms

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"46, 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 religions47. 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. 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.

5.4. National Under-Development, Low Average Intelligence and Poor Social Stability48

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: 49

Chart showing National Development is negatively correlated with national religiosity

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).

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 demands50 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.

5.5. The Lack of Justice in the World (the Appeal of Heaven)51

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:

  1. The personal escape from death.

  2. The attainment of a personal state of eternal happiness and bliss.

  3. The idea that friends and family, alive and dead, have found peace and happiness in an afterlife.

  4. 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.

"Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion" by Richard K. Fenn (2009) [Book Review]52

5.6. Intelligence and Suggestibility

6. The Causes of New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualities 53

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 members54, and all are growing in sync. Likewise, there are often similar motivations for people to get involved with these types of movements:

7. The Institutionalisation of Irrationality

7.1. The Selection Process of Beliefs73

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.

"Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer (2001)74

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.

7.2. The Creation of Religions

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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"75 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 intellectually76. 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.

8. Conclusions

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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By Vexen Crabtree 2013 Jul 30
Second edition 2011 Jul 22
Originally published 2007 Jan 08
Last Updated: 2014 Sep 28
http://www.humanreligions.info/causes.html
Parent page: Human Religions

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(1996) The New Age Movement: Religion, Culture and Society in the Age of Postmodernity. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, London, UK.

Hutton, Ronald
(1996) The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. 2001 re-issue. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

James, William
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins. [Book Review]

Jones, Prudence
(1995) Pagan Theologies. This essay is in "Pagan Pathways" by Graham Harvey & Charlotte Hardman (1995) [Book Review] (pages 32-46).

Kurtz, Lester R.
(2007) Gods in the Global Village. 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.

Laying, Anthony
"Faith in the Power of Witchcraft" in Skeptical Inquirer (2010 Mar/Apr) p51-53. Laying is emeritus professor of anthropology at Elmira College. He spent a year conducting ethnographic research among the Caribs on the West Indian island of Dominica.

Levi, Eliphas
(1860) The History of Magic. Translation and Preface by Arthur Edward Waite, 1971, first edition of Waite translation was 1913. Eliphas Levi is the writing name of Alphonse Louis Constant. Published by Rider & Company, London, UK.

Ling, Trevor
(1997) Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil. Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. First published 1962 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Luhrmann, T.M.
(1994) Persuasions of the Witches' Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. First published 1989. Published by Picador, Basingstoke, UK. In "Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age" by Joanne Pearson (2002) chapter 4, p163.

Main, Roderick
(2002) Religion, Science and the New Age. This essay is chapter 5 of "Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age" by Joanne Pearson (2002) (pages p173-224).

Martin, D
(1990) Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. In "Global Religious Movements in Regional Context" by John Wolffe (2002) p88-89.

Momen, Moojan
(1999) The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach. Published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. [Book Review]

Mumm, Susan
"Aspirational Indians: North American indigenous religions and the New Age" (2002), chapter 3 of "Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age" by Joanne Pearson (2002).

Myers, David
(1999) Social Psychology. 6th 'international' edition. First edition 1983. Published by McGraw Hill.

Partridge, Christopher
(2004, Ed.) Encyclopedia of New Religions. Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.

Pearson, Joanne
(2002, Ed.) Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Published by Ashgate, Aldershot, UK and The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

Rees, Kenneth
(1995) The Tangled Skein: the Role of Myth in Paganism. This essay is in "Pagan Pathways" by Graham Harvey & Charlotte Hardman (1995) [Book Review] (pages 16-31).

Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1957) Why I am not a Christian. Quotes from Fourth Impression of 1967 edition, 1971, Unwin Books.

Ruthven, Malise
(2007) Fundamentalism. First edition 2005. New edition now published as part of the “Very Short Introduction” series. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Toates, Mackintosh & Nettle
(2004) Emotions and Mind. A neurology textbook by Frederick Toates, Bundy Mackintosh and Daniel Nettle. Published by the Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

Wilson, E. O.
(1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Hardback. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is one of the foremost sociobiologists.

Wolffe, John
(2002, Ed.) Global Religious Movements in Regional Context. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd in association with the Open University. This was a religious studies textbook in the AD317 OU course.

York, Michael. Principal Lecturer in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology and Director of the Sophia Centre at Bath Spa University College, UK. Previously a post-doctoral reasearcher at the Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies in London.
(1995) The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movement. Published by Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, USA.

Footnotes

  1. Harrison (2008) chapters 2, 32 and 44. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 23.^^
  2. Boyer (2001) chapter 1 "What is the Origin?" p10-12, p56-57. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 30.^
  3. Harrison (2008) chapter 32. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 23.^
  4. Boyer (2001) ch.1 "What is the Origin?" p6-7. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 25.^^^^
  5. Martin (1990) pp.143-4.^
  6. Wolffe (2002) p78-79.^
  7. Main (2002) "Religion, science and the New Age", chapter 5 of Pearson (2002).^
  8. Kurtz (2007) p17.^
  9. Draper (1881) p31. The authors exact words are that Egypt's rulers 'prostituted [religion] to the purpose of state-craft'^
  10. Hammond & Machacek (2011) p393-394. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 27.^
  11. Bruce (1996) p165, 197.^
  12. Bainbridge (2011) p324. I suspect that if the logical opposite question was asked - 'Are those who don't believe in god necessarily immoral?' few would have put 'yet', so I suspect the numbers found in the 2002 survey represent people while thinking non-rationally. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 30.^
  13. "Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion" by Richard K. Fenn (2009) [Book Review] chapter "Talcott Parsons" p89-90. Great apologies to Talcott Parsons if this misrepresents his position; the commentary stems from R. Fenn, who is unreliable and unclear in places. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 30.^
  14. Armstrong (2005) p136. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 31.^
  15. Armstrong (2005) i.e. p15.^
  16. Bainbridge (2011) p332-3. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 29.^
  17. Boyer (2001) ch9. Why belief? p342-3 contains a summary of the book's main themes. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 28.^
  18. Boyer (2001) ch.3 The kind of mind it takes p150-151. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 29.^
  19. Dawkins (2006) p177, 179, 184.^
  20. Section created out of existing text mixed in with new references and commentary. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 28.^
  21. Dawkins (2006) p183.^
  22. Referenced by Dawkins (2006) p183 and Boyer (2011) p165-166.^
  23. Boyer (2001) ch.4 Why gods and spirits? section Supernatural agents and dangerous beasts p165-166. Boyer references two different psychologists called Barrett. In reference of elements of our psychology being based on predation: Barrett, H.C. (1999). In reference to "Hyperactive agent detection and religious concepts": Barrett, J.L. 1996 and 2000.^
  24. James (1902) p29.^
  25. Marcello Spinella and Omar Wain in Skeptical Inquirer (2006 Sep/Oct) Vol 30:Issue 5, p35-38. M. Spinella is an associate professor of psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, USA. O. Wain is a graduate student in biomedical sciences at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, USA.^
  26. Bear et al (1996) p464. Added to this page on 2007 Mar 05 and posted on my LiveJournal for discussion.^
  27. Toates, Mackintosh & Nettle (2004) chapter 3 "Schizophrenia" (by Daniel Nettle) p113.^
  28. James (1902) p410-411.^
  29. Skeptical Inquirer (2006 Sep/Oct) Vol 30:Issue 5, article by Paul Kurtz.^
  30. James (1902) p467.^
  31. James (1902) p203.^
  32. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 28. Luhrmann 1994 p19.^
  33. Russell (1957) p74.^
  34. Wilson (1998) chapter "Ethics and Religion" p286.^
  35. Momen (1999) p54.^
  36. Albert Einstein wrote this expressly for the New York Times Magazine (1930 Nov 09) pp.1-4. The German text was published in the Berliner Tageblatt (1930 Nov 11). Sourced from Einstein (1954), p36.^
  37. Boyer (2001) ch.1 "What is the Origin?" p24. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 27.^
  38. Ling (1997) p56-57. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 22.^
  39. Ruthven (2007) Chapter 6 "Fundamentalism and Nationalism II" p119. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 27.^
  40. Bainbridge (2011) p332. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 29.^
  41. Added to this page on 2012 May 11.^
  42. Armstrong (2005) p1.^
  43. Furlong (2000) p48. Added to this page on 2002 Dec 04.^
  44. Momen (1999) p296.^^
  45. Main (2002) p174. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 28.^
  46. Myers (1999) p115-116.^
  47. Armstrong (2005) p117. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 26.^
  48. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 26.^
  49. Two data sets. (1) Religiosity from Gallup (2009) on gallup.com/poll/142727/.... The survey question was "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" and results are charted for those who said "yes". 1000 adults was polled in 114 countries. (2) Human Development Index data from United Nation's Human Development Report 2011.^
  50. Barber (2011).^
  51. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 27.^
  52. Fenn (2009) Chapter "Max Weber" p80-81. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 27.^
  53. Added to this page on 2014 Sep 28.^
  54. Pearson (2002) p3.^
  55. Multiple sources:
    • Bowman (2002) p60.
    • Main (2002) p177.
    • Pearson (2002) p21.
    • York (1995) p14. In Main (2002) p187.
    ^
  56. Multiple sources:
    • Bowman (2002) p60.
    • Heelas (1996) p106, 135-136.
    • Mumm (2002) p114.
    • Pearson (2002) p7.
    • York (1995) p14. In Main (2002) p187.
    ^
  57. Harvey & Hardman (1995) Introduction p.x.^
  58. H. Cox "Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century" (1996) p120-1. Published by Cassell, London, UK. In "Global Religious Movements in Regional Context" by John Wolffe (2002) p97.^
  59. (1) Bowman (2002) p87. And (2), Deinsen, R. (2000-2) via personal correspondence. Deinsen has organised animal-welfare groups with the ECUSA (Anglican Communion, in the USA) and is an ordained female priest. She reports general mass support for female equality and animal rights within the ECUSA.^
  60. Hutton (1996) Ch 28.^
  61. Multiple sources:
    1. Adler (1986) p22-23.
    2. Bowman (2002) p75.
    3. Mumm (2002) p118.
    ^
  62. Jones (1995) p37.^
  63. Adler (1986) p22-23.^
  64. Main (2002) p188. Cites Bloom (1991) and York (1995 - The Emerging Network) p89.^
  65. Rees (1995) p20.^
  66. Pearson (2002) p21-22, 36-38.^
  67. Adler (1986) p22-23. Adler notes the common reasons that American pagans give for their interest in Paganism.^
  68. Multiple sources:
    • Bowman (2002) p62,75.
    • Lovejoy, A.O. and Boas, G. (1965) Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity p7 published by Octagon Books, NY, USA. In Bowman (2002) p61.
    • Piggott, S. (1993). The Druids p92. Published by Thames & Hudson, London, UK (first published 1968). In Bowman (2002) p61.
    • Rees (1995) p26-27. Romance and reconstruction "play a role in the founding of Paganism and in its attraction".
    ^
  69. Mumm (2002) p119-120.^
  70. Furlong (2000) p48.^
  71. Martin, David "On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory" p130. Published by Ashgate, Aldershot, UK. In "Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion" by Richard K. Fenn (2009) [Book Review] chapter "David Martin" p115.^
  72. Partridge (2004) p295.^
  73. Added to this page on 2013 Jul 30.^
  74. Boyer (2001) ch.1 "What is the Origin?" p36-37.^
  75. Levi (1860) p138.^
  76. Cox, H. (1996) Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century pp120-1, Published by Cassell. In "Global Religious Movements in Regional Context" by John Wolffe (2002) p97.^

© 2014 Vexen Crabtree. All rights reserved.

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