I want to believe in God, but “religion” stops me. I hope God has less to do with religion, and religion with God, than we usually think.
Some claim that religion needs nothing supernatural, that religion, without God, can form and flourish. To others, the claim is blasphemous: God exists and religion is God’s revelation. All agree that religion affects humanity profoundly.
Why is religion a force so powerful? Even those who believe in God should understand how personal psychology and group sociology drive religion.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking The Spell describes religion as a “natural phenomenon.” No one naturalizes religion better than Dennett, who defines it succinctly as “belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” He suggests that, “the question of whether God exists is actually of less importance to the modern world than maybe it once was.”
Dennett encourages us “to think not just historically, but biologically or evolutionarily.” He says, “We have to realize that Homo sapiens—us—descended from earlier hominids; we share a common ancestry with chimpanzees going back about 6 million years. Can we see what religion adds to the mix that makes us so different from all other animals?”
He thinks that we can. “I think we can discern religion’s origins in superstition, which grew out of an overactive adoption of the intentional stance,” he says. “This is a mammalian feature that we share with, say, dogs. If your dog hears the thud of snow falling off the roof and jumps up and barks, the dog is in effect asking, ‘Who’s there?’ not, ‘What’s that?’ The dog is assuming there’s an agent causing the thud. It might be a dangerous agent. The assumption is that when something surprising, unexpected, puzzling happens, treat it as an agent until you learn otherwise. That’s the intentional stance. It’s instinctive.”
The intentional stance is appropriate for self-protection, Dennett explains, and “it’s on a hair trigger. You can’t afford to wait around. You want to have a lot of false positive, a lot of false alarms [because you can’t afford even one false negative!]”
He continues: “Now, the dog just goes back to sleep after a minute. But we, because we have language, we mull it over in our heads and pretty soon we’ve conjured up a hallucinated agent, say, a little forest god or a talking tree or an elf or something ghostly that made that noise. Generally, those are just harmless little quirks that we soon forget.But every now and then, one comes along that has a little bit more staying power. It’s sort of unforgettable. And so it grows. And we share it with a neighbor. And the neighbor says, ‘What do you mean, a talking tree? There’s no talking trees.’ And you say, ‘I could have sworn that tree was talking.’ Pretty soon, the whole village is talking about the talking tree. The talking tree idea has entered the world. It has made multiple copies of itself. Everyone in the village has a copy of the talking tree idea. What’s it for? It’s for itself. It just happened because it could. It’s like a virus.”
He goes on: “When I first started studying religion, people said, ‘Oh, an evolutionary account of religion. What do you think religions are good for, Dan? They’ve got to be good for something [for evolution to have selected it for propagation]. After all, every human group that’s ever been studied has some kind of religion.’ And I said, ‘Every group that’s ever been studied has the common cold, too. What’s it good for? It’s good for itself. Similarly, these ideas are just good for themselves. They’re good at reproducing in minds.’ They start out, as it were, as wild superstitions that happen just because they can. They enter through cracks in our cognitive machinery. Then, they’re around; they can be used. People begin appreciating them; people begin to use them for other purposes—and now we’re on our way to organized religion. And the ones that we see today, the ones which have the big budgets and the big churches, the musical histories and all the rest, those are the hardy survivors of a very large competition.”
Dennett says that, “If we think about all the features of religions from an evolutionary point of view. we see lots of ‘design’ features that are otherwise a bit baffling. Were they consciously, deliberately designed by clever priests? For the most part, no. It’s just that the religions that happen to have this ‘mutation’ did better than the religions that didn’t. And so they were better able to spread themselves.”
To Dennett, religion is explainable by modern methods of social science. And there’s noresidual, nothing left hanging: There’s no need, or room, for God.
I like his arguments; I buy them all. But still I wonder: Even if religion as we know it, particularly organized religion, is entirely of human origin, does it then follow that there is no God?
I speak with a theologian who appreciates religion as a social construct, but also believes in God. J. Wentzel van Huystteen, an expert on “theological anthropology,” seeks ancient origins of religion. The core of religion, he says, is “how to make sense of our own vulnerability of death and suffering,” and religion provides “great incentives for ethical behavior … in spite of the many harms it has done.”
To van Huyssteen, “God is always going to be a deeply personal commitment.” He agrees that “we can make strong scientific arguments why religion can function perfectly well without God” and that “for getting God back into the picture, science is not going to be helpful.” He is “deeply impressed and overwhelmed by science,” he says, “but at the same time, do I need to accept that empirical methodology should always have the absolute last word in explaining away religion? Science has no reach beyond the empiricism that it itself professes.”
This is indeed the core issue: In seeking ultimate truth, can we ever be epistemically justified in going beyond empiricism?
Van Huyssteen argues that “a very clear commitment to religious traditions and to the kind of God or gods that we believe in is not something that ordinary science, such as evolutionary psychology, can explain to me.”
On the other hand, he does not argue that “the more we find religion, the more likely for God to exist.” He admits that even though “our ancient ancestors had a clear sense of symbolic activity, ritual, religious faith,” this is not a good argument for the existence of God. Similarly, he says “people today, the world over, are still religious, and this too is not a good argument for God”—“but it is an argument for what it is that we humans, or most of us, feel we need,” he adds. He then says, “I’m willing to prune back all kinds of excessive or extravagant beliefs, but I don’t think this goes to the heart of the spiritual sense, which I find to be so important for many people.”
Van Huyssteen agrees with Dennett that religious belief is a natural and continuing human need. But they part ways in that van Huyssteen gives credence to the content of that belief, which, at its core, is a deeply personal connection to the divine. But to do so, he must reach beyond empiricism, venture beyond science.
To psychologist Susan Blackmore, that’s an egregious error. She is an expert on how certain cultural ideas, called “memes,” can grow and propagate and take hold of people’s minds. She proffers that religion originated with early cultures wanting control over an uncontrollable world. “Our ancestors invented spirits,” she says, “to explain the weather or certain events. That’s the ground of it all, and at some point, there were competing ideas about God—competing memes (which is any information that’s copied from person to person). The idea is to treat cultural products like biological products, all of them in competition. Take songs and jokes and playground games and clothes: The ones we know are the ones that won the competition.”
She continues: “Religions are like that too. They compete to infect people’s brains and thus propagate into more people. What makes a successful religion? Originally, perhaps, one that seemed to bring the rain. But at some point, we started some major religions which evolved to have some really, really nasty tricks. So if you look at the major religions on the planet today, particularly the Judeo-Christian traditions, you see the most incredibly well-evolved complexes of memes that hang out together.”
Blackmore takes Christianity’s story of Jesus, from virgin birth to resurrection from the dead, as an example of “intrinsically unbelievable things.” Why do people go around believing these things, then? The “very clever packaging,” she answers, which is “basically a ‘copy me’ instruction backed up with threats and promises. If you’re a Catholic, you have to learn the catechism all at once. You put on your white dress, you attend the ceremonies, keep the traditions. This discourages people from picking and choosing because once you start to pick and choose, then memes loose their power. If ordinary rationality enters, these things look ludicrous, don’t they?”
Blackmore continues: “You are infected with these ideas when very young, when you have almost no mental immunity, no skills of argument—and it’s heaven if you believe and pass on these ideas to other people, and it’s the hell of toasting forks and pits of sulfur if you don’t. It’s the same in Islam: If you die propagating these memes, you’ll get so many virgins (I don’t know what women get).”
She explains that, “religious memes are very infectious. There’s room for only one per brain because it encompasses and regulates so much of one’s life. It takes over a whole lot of jobs in your brain—giving you meaning in life, a reason to get up in the morning, a social life. Once you understand how the memes of religion work, you can see the awful affects they have on people and how difficult they are to get rid of.” She concludes with her hope: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just let go of believing in those daft things?”
Blackmore sees religion as almost all bad—founded on false, silly promises and empty, vile threats. But because it is empowered by memes—these infectious, parasitic ideas that lock minds and control belief—religion can commandeer belief systems, institutionalize itself, and jump generations.
To explain religion without God, memes are crucial, so I’ll put them to the test. Because memes are analogized to viruses, I speak with Denis Alexander, a biologist and a believer. How does he defend religion against the explanatory onslaught of memes?
“The meme metaphor has no substrate,” Alexander says. “We don’t actually absorb ideas, especially complex ideas, as a sort or viral invasion of our brains. The anti-religious rhetoric of the memologists seems kind of like medieval ideas of demonology when people kept their windows closed for fear that demons would come in, infect their brain, and do terrible things to them without their knowing. But in reality, we have beliefs that we have to justify, that we have to give reasons for. And that’s why the memes rhetoric doesn’t work for me.”
Alexander admits that religion does fulfill psychological and sociological needs. “We are social animals,” he says. “When a bunch of skeptics and atheists get together to listen to a well-known speaker supporting their skepticism and their atheism, they’ll have group cohesion, they’ll feel good about it, they depart with their belief supported, they feel happier—their atheism has been nurtured by the group. It’s the same when football fans go to a football match. And when people go to church, the same processes are going on. But so what? At the end of the day, none of that tells us about the true status of what’s really going on.”
So whereas religion can be explained without God, the question is: Even though you are explaining it, could there still be a fundamental reality to it?
“All we can do is to give descriptions,” Alexander says. “We, as scientists, can measure the brainwaves of religious believers, but that doesn’t tell us whether those beliefs are actually true or not. We could do similarly with scientists. We could hook them up, observe their brainwaves, but that wouldn’t tell us whether their scientific theories are true. Truth is based on different kinds of evidence, whether for scientists or religious believers.”
A Christian and a scientist, Alexander agrees that the methods of science can analyze the activities of religion, but disagrees that the findings of science can adjudicate the reality of religion.
As for me, I respect the clarity of categories, differentiating religious behaviors from transcendent truths. But this internal consistency, which generally I like, here shields religion from any assault, making religion impossible to challenge. That I don’t like. Anything impervious to scrutiny troubles me. So in my anxiety, I turn to my favorite skeptic.
Michael Shermer is an expert on belief systems. “Religion is a social institution,” he says. “It can be explained like any other social institution, political institution, or economic institution. It’s just in that same category. You can believe that and still believe in God.”
He continues: “Where it gets interesting is to examine the reason for religion. What purpose does it serve? Here’s where we begin to see human construction, not only of religion, but of gods. To me, there’s just overwhelming evidence that humans constructed all of this, religion and God, as a belief system. Humans have what I call a ‘belief engine’—modules in the brain whose function it is to find causal connections between things in the environment. It’s called learning. Everybody does it. You have to do it to survive. All animals do it. We do it spectacularly well.”
But, he says, “not perfectly well. We are pattern-seeking animals; for example, keeping track of when migrating herds were going to return next year and when the fruit was going to be ripe. Those are patterns that help us survive. However, we also sometimes find patterns that don’t really exist. These are sort of false positives, superstitions. Maybe I believe that if I twirl around three times clockwise and twice counterclockwise, the rain gods will spare us the lightning. So a tendency toward superstition—‘magical thinking,’ we call it—is part of the baggage of being a pattern-seeking animal.”
I ask Shermer why, as science expands and religion contracts in their respective capacities to explain the world, the power of religion is still strong.
“Because the primary function of religion is not to explain the natural world,” he answers. “It is mainly a social institution. People don’t go to churches, temples, or mosques to hear a lecture about the big bang. They go for some other reason—for family, society, social group, often to hear a message of inspiration about helping other people, doing the right thing, avoiding sin, and so on.”
As for the future of religion, Shermer worries about “the negative side of religion and its intermixing with politics and social policy.” He says: “I don’t care what gods people believe in. I’m happy for them if that makes them happy.”
“In a patronizing way?” I ask my friend.
“No. In a respectful way,” he answers. “Because, ultimately, I can’t prove that my beliefs are absolutely true either. So, hey, you believe what you believe, I believe what I believe, let’s go our separate ways, and can’t we all get along.”
Go 10,000 years into the future, or 100,000 years. Assuming humans are reasonably similar, does Shermer see religion still existing in something akin to its current form?
“Yes, probably so,” he responds. “My secular humanist friends would disagree with me and say, ‘Oh, no! Someday we’ll move beyond religion.’ Yeah, well, maybe. But it sure doesn’t look that way. The trend is going in the opposite direction.”
Here’s my take. Religion, all of it, can be explained without God; nothing supernatural is needed. I’ve not much doubt about this. To account for religious beliefs and behaviors, even those who believe in God should accept this demonstrable truth.
While arguments about God are philosophical and cosmological, those about religion are biological, psychological, and sociological. Thus, the methods of science can analyze religion.
But is there residue? After doing all the science, does anything religious remain? This is the ultimate crux of the matter.
Frankly, I can hope but I don’t know. But this I do know: Even after explaining religionwithout God, nothing follows regarding the potential existence of an actual God. No analysis of human religion can ever disconfirm a supreme being.
Conversely, anyone hoping to convince me that God exists should not hold up “religions of the world” as an affirmative argument. For me, institutional religion offers scant help for coming closer to truth.