Friday, September 11, 2009

The Origin of Religion

A former student of mine sent me an interesting article from The Sunday Times of London (

The premise of the piece is that people are hardwired for religion, and that no matter how rational we get we will always create religions for ourselves.

Two reasons are given for this. One, religion offers evolutionary benefits: People with similar beliefs banded together more cohesively, and that added to their survivability. Skeptics were eaten by saber¬–toothed tigers.

The second reason for religion is that it stems from the magical thinking of early childhood. God is just an infinitely large and all–powerful Imaginary Friend, and Satan is just the monster under the bed. No matter how much we mature, this type of thinking remains with us. One interesting study cited in the article noted how “ardent atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in their organs.”

Does this settle the matter, then? Is religion just a carry-over from our primitive past or a remnant of magical thinking common to little children? Jesus did say we were to be as little children, so maybe he was thinking along the lines of the second proposition, but I’m not so sure.

I think (which is another way of saying that I don’t really know) that the religious impulse arises from something a bit more sophisticated. At the heart of the religious impulse is a drive to answer key existential questions such as Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here?

The answers to these questions differ over time, among cultures, and between individuals. While I understand that I have the capacity for imaginary friends (in fact most of my friends seem imaginary to me, especially when I ask to borrow money), as I grow older these childhood friends no longer convincingly answer my questions.

In fact, the older I get, the less interested in answers I become. It is the questions that matter most. The answers we invent give rise to religions, and religions do their best to put an end to questions, but in the end religions change and die while the questions persist and compel us to think again.

We may never outgrow the need for community and imaginary friends, but both might become more sophisticated, ultimately pointing beyond themselves to the great “?” at the heart of human genius. The inevitable mistake religions make is to focus on selling us the answers they own, rather than inviting us more deeply into questions that own us.

1 comment:

Constance McClain said...

Spot on maestro!