Now and then, I run across someone who wishes to ban all religion. Yet, as many people know, that’s impossible. It doesn’t matter how bad it gets. Even if religion were identified as the sole cause of a thousand wars, a hundred thousand famines, a billion murders and a zillion cruelties — and even if everyone knew religion was the sole cause of those horrible things — religion would never be rejected by the vast majority of people.
At best, people would soundly reject the use of religion to justify wars, famines, murders, and cruelties. But the large majority would not reject religion itself. And that’s not because people are stupid. Instead, it’s because there are at least two reasons why most of the world’s population is religious, and neither reason has much to do with people being stupid.
To understand those two reasons, let’s imagine for a moment that some future world wide society idealistically decides to do away with all religion. And to make this a little bit interesting, let’s say everyone in the world — without exception — agrees that religion should be done away with. Furthermore, they agree the best first step to doing away with all religion is to abolish the core belief of so many religions: God.
Everyone fully cooperates in this program to abolish god. They quite talking about god. Then they zealously search out every reference to deity in the world’s literature and censor those references out of existence. They tear down all the holy houses around the world. They burn and blow up all the holy art. Finally, there is not a single reference to a deity in all the world, and moreover, not even one person in all the world is left who will talk about deity.
If all that could happen, the notion of god would still be reborn within the next generation.
The first and most powerful reason that would happen is humans are innately wired with the basic concept of deity. God is in our genes. That’s not to say any particular god is in our genes. We certainly are not genetically programed to believe in the god of the Bible. Nor the god of the Gita. Nor the god of the Qur’an. But, as Scott Atran points out, we are genetically programed to view the world in certain ways — ways which easily predispose us to a belief in deity. Unless we humans genetically engineer that way of viewing the world out of our nature, the concept of deity will be reborn with each generation.
While the first reason affects nearly all of us, the second reason affects only some of us. It seems some people experience god. More precisely, they have experiences they interpret as experiences of a god. Quite often, people who “experience god” come to believe their experience is proof that deity exists. So, even if you eliminated in a single generation all references to deity, there would still be in the next generation some people who experienced deity and concluded that deity exists.
There will always be people who wish to ban religion, but if only for those two reasons, the task is impossible, unless people somehow change human nature.
Are there any lessons to be drawn from this?
Perhaps the single most important lesson that might be drawn from the above is that trying to convert believers into non-believers is probably less likely to succeed than trying to convert irresponsible believers into responsible believers. You need not abolish religion to ameliorate all or most of its negative effects. So far as I know, there is little evidence the European Enlightenment significantly reduced the number of people who believed in deity. But it certainly reduced the number of people who believed in burning heretics at the stake.
What other lessons, if any, might be drawn from all this?