Simple faith-based answers to fundamental questions are very appealing, because the world is very complicated1,2. Human knowledge is broken up into so many deep specialities that it is no longer possible for anyone to attain an accurate overall picture of reality3. Least of all is it possible to grasp what it all means for us personally. Instability and uncertainty make people search for ideas which give a sense of personal control over destiny4.
Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that "man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe"5 and many say it provides them a sense of meaning and destiny6,7,8. The same psychological factor can be explained from a cynical point of view: "the contemporary persistence of religion indicates an inability or refusal on the part of many people to take on board the implications of science and rationality"9. 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. Unfortunately, and we find it hard to admit this to ourselves, many of our beliefs are held because they're comforting and simple10.
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)3. 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"9. 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.
The bewildering sciences can make simple faith-based answers like "god did it" very appealing2 because it answers questions without having to do the hard work of understanding evidence and science. 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 complexity of the living natural world, in particular the human body and the role of consciousness in animals, is an area that is rife for "god did it" type of arguments. The belief that the human body was designed, and not evolved, is one of the main reasons that people give for being religious12 and such arguments are explicitly made by many adherents of theistic religions13. 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.
Before the advent of organized skeptical thinking, it was the case that many theories could be developed in isolation from the world, without the need to take into account the many confounding factors which real-life throws our way. So, William James' following comment is no longer true:
“The theorizing mind tends always to the over-simplification of its materials. This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested.”
Only some theories are developed with an instinct to over-simplify, and crowd-sourced ideas-bashing no longer means that we can get away with voicing ideas that are too simple. Of course, there are many who wilfully avoid the advantages of the academia of the modern world, and persist in promulgating unfounded rhetorical solutions to mental problems. Even in today's world, these are the exact types of people described by James as dogmatically walking the road that leads to extremism.
Events that cause instability, changes that create uncertainty, and new and unclear situations, all have a tendency to make people search for clear and simple answers. As part of a quest for significance "people can be attracted to affiliating with social identities that become an 'antidote' to uncertainty" (UN, 2022)4, and that can include embedding ones' identity in a religious framework. It also helps people regain a sense of control of their own lives and destinies, which is lost during uncertain times15. This can be especially true for new religious movements that have a first or second wave of energetic new leaders:
“Self-uncertainty strengthens group identification, favouring groups with greater distinctiveness and clear leadership.”
Religion provides simple answers to 'life questions' such as why are we here and what is the purpose of life'6. This has been noted by psychologists such as Carl Jung. Moojan Momen, a scholar of comparative religion, writes that "for Jung, religion could play a positive role in human life: 'Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe.' Religion thus acts as a form of therapy, explaining and reconciling human beings to the pains and suffering of the world"5. This line of reasoning is given by many to be an important factor behind the appeal of religion17. The true answers to those philosophical questions are not apparent, and are certainly not simple nor reducible to a one-belief-fits-all. Hence, difference religions appeal to different people.
“Religions cope with 'problems of interpretability': namely, 'anxieties' about how to understand the natural and social environment, how to deal with suffering and death, and how to manage 'puzzles' about moral conduct8. Religions deal with these anxieties 'conceptually' by developing world view or cosmologies, 'emotionally' by reducing anxiety, and 'practically' through ritual and other practices8.”
Robert Todd Carroll in "Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" (2011)10 discusses one social psychologist who evaluates all religious attempts at understanding life alongside weird beliefs that, altogether, represent our attempts at understanding life in areas where we know we're not being rational.
“Weird beliefs also satisfy the quest for significance: they satisfy our moral needs and our desire that life be meaningful. Finally, he says, people believe weird things because weird things give them hope.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011)10
“Why can't science answer so many big questions? Religions certainly are not shy about offering their answers confidently and directly. Does this mean that religion is better than science? Some believers say it does. [...] Some believers criticize science for leaving them cold and empty. Compared to religion science is unsatisfying, they say. But people who condemn science in this way fail to understand that it was never designed to serve as some kind of heart-warming life philosophy. Science helps to reveal life, the world, and the universe for what they are-good, bad, beautiful, and ugly. Science is a not a feel-good religion. It is not a system that is designed to cater to everyone's emotional needs. [...] Science can't answer everything because science doesn't cheat by providing answers without evidence.”
William James discusses this with much more eloquence and talks of how of knowledge changes over time. Even the wisdom of the wise is only temporary, and must change as we learn more about reality. In a changeable world, it is difficult to ascertain a truly rational "purpose" in life or a depth of meaning to life.
“The mere outward form of inalterable certainty is so precious to some minds that to renounce it explicitly is for them out of the question. They will claim it even where the facts most patently pronounce its folly. But the safe thing is surely to recognize that all the insights of creatures of a day like ourselves must be provisional. The wisest of critics is an altering being, subject to the better insight of the morrow, and right at any moment, only "up to date" and "on the whole". When larger ranges of truth open, it is surely best to be able to open ourselves to their reception, unfettered by our previous pretensions.”
Some theists will claim that because science cannot explain everything that God must exist. Many point out that explaining the unknown in simple terms is one of the great appeals of religion and one of the causes of its success17. Adherents plead that new facts may come to light that suggest gods exist and which will in the future bring god into the light of science. However historically the opposite has occurred. As Human understanding has increased, the role of god(s) in the world has drastically reduced. It seems that the more we understand about reality, the less there is need to talk of gods, spirits and other supernatural elements. God is that gap between imagination and knowledge, wherein we falsely detect signs of agency because we don't understand what's really going on.
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