By Vexen Crabtree 2011 Jul 22
The principal cause of an individual's religion is the inheriting of identity from parents and local culture. 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. It is easy to see that one of the least motivating factors is a conscientious deliberation over what claims are true.
For a period of time children always assume the religion of their parents. The 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 switch. 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; atheists 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 and call themselves a Catholic. If two parents of one religion live in a country where the default schooled religion is something else then peer pressure may cause the child to adopt the religion that their friends have rather than the one of their parents. Or they may grow to be interested in a religion that they encounter, and toy with the idea of becoming it.
After inheritance, initial 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, most people merely coast and are swept along by social factors rather than their own agency.
This page - about what causes religion is not about the coasters, but about the underlying psychological reasons that make religion a factor in human life at all.
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 religion. Religion thus serves a functional purpose quite separate from its actual religious content. What the majority of these influences lack is a genuine appraisal of the pros or cons of the dogmas of the appealing religion in terms of their truth or falsity.
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.1
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 ideas2.
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 life3.
“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 Egypt5. 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.
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 Bruce6, 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 "Morals With or Without Religion
Theory and Practice: 3.1. Moralizing: Being Religious in Order to Be a Good Person" by Vexen Crabtree (2012).
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. This emphasis is particularly 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. Hence, if someone wants to be good or, wants to be seen as good, they will gravitate towards religion.
Doctrine has even often been specifically formulated with behaviour-control in mind. Origen, one of the founding (Christian) Church Fathers, argued that while the actual terrors of hell were false, they were useful for scaring simpler believers. Plutarch calls hell an "improving myth"7.
But this isn't the whole story, because, it happens that people can also adopt non-religious and secular philosophies in order to promote good moralizing. Movements such as Humanism (and institutions such as the British Humanist Association) are devoted to encouraging moral behavior, moral thinking, overall conscientiousness and rationality. The main difference is, it seems that many traditional religious groups think that they are the sole (or best) reserve of moral goodness.
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 he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, 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. 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 themes8. 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. One major cause of this, say experts, is the tendency for us to see "agency" in the complicated movements of (unconscious) natural events:
“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.”
Dualism is the simplistic idea that things have physical bodies and separate intentions that can exist indepedently of the body. It is easy to see how we, as a species, found it useful to develop such an instinctive view. Prof. 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. [...] Justin Barett coined the acronym HADD, for hyperactive agent detection device.”
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)13
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 Daniel Nettle (2004)15
A final note from William James' psychological exploration of religion is that mystical and religious experiences can support any religion16. 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.
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. 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, of course, "deal" with 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.
Professional sociologists and anthropologists have often wondered what causes religion, and what psychological purpose it serves. Many have also noted that the fear of death provides a reason for various religious beliefs:
“Later functionalists included the anthropologist, Bronishaw Malinowski (1884-1942). In his principal book, Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (1948), he wrote that social phenomenon such as religion fulfill a function in relation to human psychological needs. In the case of religion, this function is to provide psychological safeguards against the fear of death and thus give human beings the feeling of mastery over their fate.”
Equally noted, 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"21. 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. "Fear", as the Roman poet Lucretius said, "was the first thing on Earth to make gods." Our conscious minds hunger for a permanent existence [...] as it gives the individual meaning.”
Karen Armstrong states in very simple terms that, "Human beings have always been mythmakers"23. I now take some text and quotes from my own "The Need for Dogma: Why Some People are Determinedly Religious" by Vexen Crabtree (2002). 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 because Human nature likes more:
“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. 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. Monica may not have meant to highlight such a fundamental way that atheists look on 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.”
We have seen how religious beliefs can frequently derive from the inaccurate ways in which we have evolved to see the world and from otherwise-normal psychological mechanisms misleading us into supernatural and irrational beliefs. Our instincts to look out for what objects are 'doing' confuses us into various parascientific beliefs. However not all religion is best explained as side-effects of normal psychology. Religious beliefs and actions are sometimes the results of abnormal psychology, as the following sections will show.
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).
In the face of complicated science, simple faith-based answers can be appealing. Simplicity of religious ideas combined with 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 technical evidence.
My "Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological Processes" by Vexen Crabtree (2002) examines many of the psychological factors that lead people to 'experience' the presence of various Gods, and the conclusions read:
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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"26, 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
See "Cultural Religion Versus Scholarly Religion" by Vexen Crabtree (2008) 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"27 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 intellectually28. 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.
Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.
A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4 (2005). Kindle edition 2008. First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Canongate Books Ltd.
Bear, Connors and Paradiso
Neuroscience (1996). Published by Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. The Amazon link is to a newer version. Mark F. Bear Ph.D. and Barry W Connors Ph.D. are both Professors of Neuroscience at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, and Michael A. Paradiso Ph.D., associate professor.
Religion Explained (2001). Hardback. Published by William Heinemann, Random House Group Ltd, London, UK.
Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (1996). Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK [Book Review]
"St Paul - History, Biblical Epistles, Gnosticism and Mithraism" (1999). Accessed 2013 Jan 17.
"The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs" (2002). Accessed 2013 Jan 17.
"Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological Processes" (2002). Accessed 2013 Jan 17.
"The Need for Dogma: Why Some People are Determinedly Religious" (2002). Accessed 2013 Jan 17.
Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1881). 8th edition published by D. Appleston and Co, New York. Digital version accessed via Amazon.co.uk.
Einstein, Albert. (1879-1955)
Ideas and Opinions (1954). Published in 1954 by Crown Publishers, New York, USA and in 1982 by Three Rivers Press. A collection of Einstein's writings and texts.
The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987, Ed.). 16 volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA.
Fenn, Richard K.
Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion (2009). A look at what 11 sociologists of religion think of "the sacred". Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, London, UK. [Book Review]
The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind (2007). My references are to the original edition published as "Creatures from Inner Space" (1984, hardback) by Rider & Company, London, UK. The edition linked to here is published by Inner Traditions 2007; information retrieved from Amazon UK on 2007 Dec 14. [Book Review]
The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins. [Book Review]
Kurtz, Lester R.
Gods in the Global Village (2007). 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.
"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.
The History of Magic (1860). 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.
(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.
Social Psychology (1999). 6th 'international' edition. First edition 1983. Published by McGraw Hill.
Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age (2002, Ed.). Aldershot: Ashgate/Milton Keynes: The Open University
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
Why I am not a Christian (1957). Quotes from Fourth Impression of 1967 edition, 1971, Unwin Books.
Fundamentalism (2007). First edition 2005. New edition now published as part of the “Very Short Introduction” series. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
The Bahá'í Faith (1992). 1993 reprint. Published by Element Books Ltd, Shaftesbury, Dorset.
Toates, Mackintosh & Nettle
Emotions and Mind (2004). A neurology textbook by Frederick Toates, Bundy Mackintosh and Daniel Nettle. Published by the Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.
Wilson, E. O.
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). Hardback. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is one of the foremost sociobiologists.
Global Religious Movements in Regional Context (2002, Ed.). Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd in association with the Open University. This was a religious studies textbook in the AD317 OU course.