(About an 11 minute read)
When I was growing up, there were arguably few good fantasy novels. Lord of the Rings was yet to become popular in my home town, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything because science fiction attracted me like no other genre. Hardcore science fiction.
No unicorns, no dragons — and usually no gods. Just stuff based on the science or scientific speculations of the day. Issac Asimov and Author C. Clark. In fact, I believe it might have been in Clarke’s book, The Deep Range, where I for the first time came across the notion that rational science was replacing irrational religion in the hearts and minds of all the world’s peoples.
I simply assumed Clarke had a point. After all, he surely knew more about it than me. A few years later, I carried the idea with me to university, where I signed up for my first course in comparative religious studies at least half convince religion would be taught as part of the history department within twenty years or so.
I have since then been thoroughly disabused of that notion. I was actually a bit surprised the other day when someone brought it up again.
Granted, there are plenty of reasons to believe that religion is on the decline in the industrialized world. Numerous surveys seem to demonstrate that beyond doubt. For instance, a 2016 Norwegian study found that 39% of Norwegians “do not believe in God”, while a 2015 Dutch Government survey found that 50.1% of the population were “non-religious”. And even in the US, which remains the most religious industrialized nation, younger people are notably less religious than their elders.
Yet, to me these studies are very difficult to interpret for at least two reasons. They don’t always seem to have clear enough categories, and they often seem to have too few categories.
I’m out of my league in any language but English, so I haven’t studied the non-English language studies, but I’m suspicious of categories that get translated as “non-religious” or are based on questions that get translated as, “Do you believe in God?”
“Non-religious” can mean so many different things to different people. I would describe myself as “non-religious” meaning not an adherent of any organized religion, but I’m also a bit of a mystic, and to some people, that’s quite religious.
Beyond that, there are usually not enough categories to these surveys to satisfy my insatiable appetite to categorize things. Don’t believe in god? Fine, but do you consider yourself, an atheist, an agnostic, someone who believes in spirits, ghosts, etc, a Christian atheist (big in the Netherlands), a believer in a “transcendent reality”, or do you perhaps feel “there just must be something out there”, etc.
But putting aside my uniformed suspicions about the studies I’ve seen, I think there are at least two compelling reasons to suppose religion will survive rational science so long as we’re Homo sapiens. Both reasons are rooted in the origin and nature of religions.
Now, anytime you speak about the origin and nature of religions some folks are bound to bring up the traditional ideas about that. Religions began as proto-sciences that tried to explain nature, such as thunder, in terms of supernatural beings. Thunder becomes a thunder god, in that view.
Freud thought religions began as a desire for a father figure that turned into a god. Feuerbach, following some ancient Greeks, thought religion began as an idealization of a great man, such as a notable leader, following his death. Others have argued that religion was begun by people seeking a sense of purpose or meaning in life. And so on.
I myself would not actually argue against any of those traditional notions. For all I know, they and many other such notions at least played some role in getting religion off to a start. But I do think there are two more influential candidates.
There is general agreement these days among cognitive scientists that religion involves the architecture of the brain. That is, religion is based in our genes, and most likely evolved early in our history. Beyond that, there is much debate and a handful of theories about exactly what our brain’s architecture has to do with religion.
For reasons of space, I’ll stick to the one theory I favor. According to its view, we evolved functional brain modules, such as modules allowing us to think of others as having beliefs, desires, and intentions (Theory of Mind), organize events into stories or narratives (Etiology), or that predispose us to respond to danger signs in ways that might save our lives if the danger is actually real (Agent Detection). Depending upon who you consult, there are up to two dozen or so such modules.
One way these modules might come together is this: You’re sitting around a campfire one night, partying over an antelope carcass, when you hear a rustle in the bushes and perhaps even an indistinct growl that you might only be imagining. You startle, the hair on your neck rises, and chills run down your spine. “Something is out there!”
That’s Agent Detection speaking. The rustle could be from a breeze or a harmless small animal. The growl might only be imagined. But the key thing here is that you react with fright just as you would if it were known to be a lion.
A few minutes later, you and your buddies pick up your spears to investigate. Can’t very well get to sleep with a possible lion that close in. But you find nothing.
This is repeated a few times during the night. Each time you find nothing, but then it happens the next night, and so on. Sooner or later, your best story-teller cooks up a narrative (Etiology) in which a malevolent spirit is “out there”, prowling around your camp, perhaps waiting for the moment to strike. But your sense of Agent Detection predisposes you think there must be something there. Being a spirit, you cannot see him, but you don’t need to — what else could explain something making noises that have no body behind them?
Last, as time goes on, you start ascribing more and more beliefs, desires, and intentions to the spirit (Theory of Mind), until one day you have perhaps a god. Or maybe not, maybe you and your buddies are devout spiritualists without any recognizable deities. Whatever the case, you’ve now got something “religious”, in at least some sense of the word.
If the above is true, then we now have one deep root of human religiosity. A root so firmly grounded in our brain’s architecture that it must be genetically based. A clear implication is that, having evolved it, we would need to evolve out of it to be entirely free of its influence on us. Until or unless we do that, we will be born with a predisposition to some kind of religiosity.
But is there another root, as equally well grounded? It seems curious to me that a second root of human religiosity seems so often ignored. Even if one dismisses mystical experiences as “rare hallucinations”, that would not actually demonstrate they were of little or no influence on the world’s religions. Indeed, they seem core to at least Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, and a significant theme in others, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Now, there seem to be about 12-16 different kinds of experiences that are commonly called, “mystical”, so I should take special care here to clearly distinguish what I mean by the word. I mean only one quite specific kind of experience, which I call “the mystical experience”, for lack of being inspired to come up with any other name for it.
The problem here is that, while it is easy to come up with words to describe the content of that experience, it is impossible to come up with words capable of communicating that content to anyone but people who have had the experience.
Buddhists sometimes describe nirvana as a “cessation of suffering”, and Christian mystics describe their experiences as “experiences of God”, but neither phrase is able to communicate what those things mean to anyone other than the people who use them. The problem is the nature of words themselves. Words are symbols that ultimately depend on shared experiences to communicate much of anything. If you had a barn, and I had never seen anything like it, you would be reduced to describing your barn in terms of what I had seen. “It’s like your mud hut, Paul, only much, much bigger.”
However, I have had some luck describing mystical experiences as involving a dissolution of subject/object perception, replaced by a perception of all things being in some sense one. The key is to grasp that subject/object perception is perceiving the world in such a way that you divide the things you perceive into self and non-self.
That is, I not only see the tree in my yard, but I see the tree as “not me”. That’s the normal, everyday mode of waking consciousness. But if and when that breaks down and you perceive — if only for a moment or two — the tree and you as unified by some sense of oneness, then you’re having a mystical experience. The sine qua non of those experiences is that breakdown into oneness.
In addition to that, there is much other content typical of a mystical experience, but it’s much harder for most us to understand how mundane joy differs from mystical bliss, than it is for us to understand we have suddenly lost or abandoned our sense of things being either “me” or “not me”.
Hence, I am only concerned with that one kind of mystical experience, but that’s not to say there are no other kinds — most of them probably more interesting than the mystical experience.
As I said, Christian mystics tend to interpret their experiences as experiences of the Christian God, but so too do most people around the world, and through-out the ages (except they aren’t usually talking about the Christian god). Not the Buddha, of course, nor Lao Tzu, but so many others use “god” or virtual synonyms for god. So, although there are an appreciable number of atheists and agnostics who have had mystical experiences, it’s easy to see how the experience could create a sense of deity.
Mystical experiences seem to be as deeply rooted in our genes as the other kind of experiences. The neural sciences have revealed that they are associated with at the very least changes in the activity levels of the parietal lobe and the thalamus. There seems to be evidence that they might also have something to do with “brain chemicals” like dopamine. So, I think despite our understand of them is still quite limited we do now know enough to safely say they are genetically rooted in us.
Of course, the implication is that “god won’t go away anytime soon”. But I think that can be more clearly seen when we consider that the sciences have no means for disproving the notion god might be behind, or the ultimate cause of, such experiences.
Even if we knew everything about their natural causes, we would have no means of knowing anything about whether or not there were supernatural causes to them also.
Now, if all of the above is true enough, then I think its safe to say the imminent death of all religions is not exactly “around the next corner”. We would most likely need to evolve so far as to become a new species — with a new kind of brain — for that to happen. So, while people may shift from one form of religiosity to another, I think most of us will retain some kind of religiosity.
I hope the future brings us ever more benign forms of religiosity.