Why are people religious?

What in the world has made religion such a fixed and compelling part of human existence?

In my experience, people are religious for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Birth: They are born into it, and thus are indoctrinated to believe and obey at a very young age by their parents, extended family, and surrounding communities.
  2. Tribalism/Community:  Animals often survive and thrive in packs or tribes.  American psychologist Harry Harlow once wrote, “A lone monkey is a dead monkey.”  As a group we can more easily fight off predators, distribute work, and make advancements than we can alone. ” Religions often provide the social and moral framework for tribes/communities to thrive.
  3. Death: People fear death, and religions usually assuage this existential fear by promising their members a glorious afterlife once they die.
  4. Meaning and Purpose: People do better when their lives have a sense of meaning and purpose.  Religions provide many with a sense of meaning and purpose.
  5. Spirituality and Inspiration: Let’s face it.  Life can often be difficult, painful, and tedious.  Religion (at its best) excels at making people feel inspired and uplifted – whether through music, sermons, or service projects.  Also, certain teachings (like God and Jesus know and love you) can help people feel hopeful, unconditionally loved, and accepted – when life feels cruel and rejecting.
  6. Identity: People seem to fare better when they “know who they are.”  Religions provide identity to their members.
  7. Morality and Wisdom: Life provides so many options and dangers, such that people can easily make a mess of their lives.  Religions provide a moral structure and a set of stories/life lessons that can help to simplify and guide choices, often leading to longer, healthier lives.
  8. Fear/Answers/Explanations: Did I mention that life can be difficult, painful and tedious?  It can also be uncertain, terrifying, and violent.  These realities often lead humans to feel scared and insecure about the present and future.  Historically, religions have stepped up to provide explanations for the unknown, or for the more difficult elements of life.   “Q: How did the earth come into existence?  A: Well, God created it of course, and you are His special child.  Time to be more faithful!” “Q: Why are there floods, earthquakes, famine, holocausts, and birth defects?  A: Don’t worry.  These all happen for a reason.  God is in control, and He sends them all in His wisdom, to teach us lessons.  Or to test us.  Time to become more faithful!”
  9. Simplification/Order/Security: Most of us desire freedom, but life provides so many options that such freedom can become overly complex, and even paralyzing.  Religion can help to dramatically simplify life’s decisions – by telling you what to think/believe, how to behave, and by providing order and structure.  Ultimately, this can create a feeling of security in one’s life.
  10. Certainty/Being “Chosen”: It can feel absolutely wonderful to both “know everything” (removal of cognitive dissonance), and to feel as if you are one of God’s “chosen” children.

What would you change/add/remove?  Please share comments below!

P.S.  A video worth watching: How intelligent people believe in otherwise unbelievable things.

Comments 1

  1. Great list, very insightful. And in many ways, very sad. With few exceptions, all points made are based in emotion.

    For additional perspective, I would take it back closer to the origins of the human species, within the context of evolutionary biology.

    One thing that humans are very good at is pattern recognition. As a relatively slow and weak species, _Homo sapiens_ evolved with a brain which is strongly biased to assign a cause to every effect observed in Nature. In many respects, Animism is proto-religion. Reading _The Golden Bough_ by anthropologist Sir James George Frazer gives a vivid picture of how religions evolved. This “explanation” point is touched on in reason #8.

    Notice that the words “evidence” and “truth” are nowhere to be found in this list of 10! It’s almost as if the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment never happened!

    In our complex, highly connected modern world, are emotions sufficient for formulation of worldview, for a way of life?

    Honest truth seekers — who cannot bear to live a life of hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance, compartmentalizing, pretension and so forth — rather than resorting to reasons explicated in this list, would instead take this aphorism to heart:

    “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
    ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

    Yes, I’m obviously an ex-mo; but even when I was quite young and pretending to believe, I was REALLY bothered by the term “Saints” in the church’s name (referring to Reason #10). What made me a saint? I never felt like one, never felt special. And if I was a saint, didn’t that mean all the non-believers were demons or such? How was that even possible? I met so many good (“saintly”) people where were NOT “saints”, and so were condemned for eternity to the Terrestrial Kingdom. Wow, huge warning sign: tribalism, othering, bigotry, arrogance, exclusivity, etc. – concepts my feeble mind can barely begin to grasp now and were then almost beyond the realm of my tiny imagination.

    I’m not going to take the time now, but every one of these reasons merits a serious rebuttal from the perspective of secular humanism.


    Or at least I think it should.

    And if this is not enough provocation, to reason #5 I say:

    “Jesus is Santa Claus for children who unwillingly, reluctantly and resentfully find themselves trapped in bodies which have aged for more than 17 years.”

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but nobody does, and nobody can love you unconditionally, despite your fondest fantasies to the contrary.

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