Despite my openly articulated opinion that religion is a childish, illegitimate aspect of society, I feel that its prominence in human life renders it deserving of attention. Though I generally consider it a manifestation of human weakness and ignorance, I believe that its profuse acceptance throughout our world – and more so, our country – reveals some significant characteristics of human nature that should be considered. Therefore, I pose the question: why do people buy into religion?
Accepting an all-powerful, invisible ruler that actively intervenes in nature and is capable and willing to interact with human beings (his creation), indicates that some sort of psychological need is not being fulfilled in one’s life. If our condition as humans did not render some sort of emotional void, we would have no reason to deify a socially constructed entity. Combine this unidentified psychological need with the question that has plagued human life since the dawn of consciousness – how did existence begin? – and we have the perfect recipe for God.
We have identified two basic human ailments that God fulfills: emotional despair – a feeling of hopelessness or meaninglessness that often arises when contemplating one’s life, and more so, one’s death – and intellectual curiosity – the natural impulse to question the origins of existence. In this post, I will attempt to identify more specific conditions that prescribe a god and also how we can direct our mental energy more valuably than in prayer, churches, Bible studies, etc.
The human condition, certainly from some angles, is a tragic one. We learn to cherish certain ideals that require an enormous amount of emotional investment – love, relationships, etc. – and then are removed from the world as quickly as we were born into it. We form intense attachments to our fellow humans; abandoning such attachments seems incomprehensible. However, the reality of our situation is that one day, we will perish, departing from everything that we hold close. The overwhelming anxiety that accompanies the acknowledgement of death is simply too much for many people to handle. Matthew Alper, in his book, God Part of the Brain (http://www.godpart.com/), brilliantly explores how this anxiety originated in humans and how it has manifested in modern life. Essentially, he argues that this tremendous anxiety about death necessitated a major change in how humans must evolve. In order for humans to survive this anxiety, nature, according to Alper, was forced to modify the human brain and develop a mechanism to overcome this anxiety – that mechanism was spirituality, a means by which to achieve meaning in life while accepting that life, at the physical level, will one day end. Therefore, the theory suggests that humanity’s way of alleviating the anxiety of death was to convince itself that death itself was an illusion and that better days would follow our departure from earth.
The point is that, as humans, we are prone to form deep and meaningful relationships. Given our capacity to conceive and interpret our surroundings, we must cope with the reality that one day these relationships will end. On top of that, we are encumbered by the mere strains and stresses of survival. To soften this emotional blow, God comes to the rescue, not only promising us eternal paradise, but intervening in our lives to help us through the trials and tribulations that are, of course, only temporary. This belief assists us by combating the most bitter form of despair life has to offer. And it is a despair that every human is forced to confront. Clearly, one can see the sheer emotional power that a “god” figure is capable of stirring.
So why is this bad? Why, if God induces such euphoric psychological states, is it necessary to debunk him? Well, aside from the fact that believing in a totalitarian ruler of the universe is unconscionably dangerous, as has been proven time and time again throughout history, it is not, in my opinion, a healthy way to handle our emotions and relationships. I think most of us would agree that living in lies is bad. When we accept something to be true that offers no evidence, we put our ability to reason and approach problems in a rational way into question and we skew our entire perspective on life. If you are certain of something that is grounded in no proof, you distort your approach to every aspect of life, by living by living within the narrow bounds of this untrue proposition and assuming its correctness despite any contradictory evidence. Furthermore, putting God, as most Christians do, as the first priority, even above family – as Jesus demands of his followers – encourages us to devalue our immediate relationships and deemphasize the fact that we only have access to these relationships for a limited time. The general outlook of Christian philosophy is don’t worry about your life because a better one is soon to come. This teaches us to take the awesome mysteries and experiences that the universe has to offer for granted, in favor of an imaginary realm that offers nothing but an ambiguous sense of eternal bliss. Additionally, a proposition that Christianity persistently reinforces is to concede the pleasures in this life to secure those in the next. This further detracts from our time here on earth – the only time that we know we’ve got.
Along with God’s role of providing emotional fulfillment, he so conveniently provides answers to every single question imaginable. Why are we here? How did life begin? How did the universe begin? Why did I choose to eat Sushi rather than a bologna sandwich today? While no person of faith will claim to know the details of God’s decision making – after all, God works in mysterious ways, – he will be certain to claim to know how and, to an extent, why, all of this came about. This information sure makes life a lot easier, just knowing the answers before the problem has been explored. Now, everyone can relax – the universe has been solved!
However, we know that this is a cheap way of approaching the questions that our incredible abilities of critical thinking allow us to ask. It is like claiming to know the answer to a math problem before one has begun solving it. It leaves no room for scientific exploration and, worse, provides no reason to think critically and to use reason to question our surroundings. In fact, religion blatantly encourages us to be satisfied with the knowledge at our disposal and to blindly oblige with the demands that are expected of us. Sugar-coated by the characteristics of being loving and generous, God passes as a totalitarian dictator, a figure who encourages no thought for the morrow and no progression scientifically. Even if you insist that God is loving and all-merciful, you cannot – if you are a Christian – deny that your god is a totalitarian dictator who requires that you believe in him in order to avoid enduring the worst imaginable punishment for all of eternity. What a disgusting moral proposition that is.
Although most modern religious moderates will claim that they fully support science and intellect, the very foundation they claim to build their lives on insists that they do not do so. As I hope I have made clear, claiming to know the answers with no proof whatsoever leaves no reason to go out and find the actual answers. Scientists will be the first people to tell you they don’t know something if science has not yet developed the capacity to know it. But they will keep digging, they will keep searching, and they will make steady strides in uncovering truth, a natural truth that becomes increasingly special as we keep learning. If one is certain he knows the answer, however, the curiosity that drives the motor of science runs dry.
God is cheap. He teaches us to devalue the life we live and to stop digging for the truth that makes life meaningful. Although many religious people certainly live fulfilling lives, I would contend that they are doing so despite religion, not because of it. In this modern age, isn’t it time that we free ourselves from these crippling chains that restrain us from cherishing life and love alike? Can’t we accept that our lack of knowledge about the universe is something that must be fostered and contemplated rather than blindly ignored? Isn’t it time we that we focus on achieving happiness in this life rather than procuring it in the next? I’d say yes – the role God plays in the lives of billions around the world is one of unhealthy emotional dependence and intellectual narrow-mindedness. So, I encourage all to muster up the courage to defy this imaginary, mythical, universal dictator, and to demonstrate the boldness to think independently and freely. Let us treasure, not devalue, the things that make us fully human, and let us also have the courage to not surrender our intellectual convictions, even in the face of our greatest fears.