Humanity’s natural religiousness: a western approach
Believing in anything, whether it be a god, a spirit, or a weekly horoscope, is sure to be alien to someone who does not share the same views. Dismissing another’s faith is easy, what is rare is to hold absolutely no personal opinion about spirituality and what lies beyond our comprehension of the world. Countless theories about the meaning and purpose of life have materialized in the cruelest and inhumane conflicts of history. What is the common element behind all the different interpretations of our world? Anthropologists have described what they call humanity’s natural religiousness; a need to be in touch with a superior force who can influence the lives of believers.
What does the existence of such a need tell us about being human?
The psychological term “animistic thinking” describes our tendency to assume that all beings share our sense of agency; the cognitive function that allows us to assess a situation from another person’s perspective. It grants human characteristics to inanimate objects, anthropomorphizing nature, giving rise to the belief that supernatural agency inhabits the world and can influence events. This is a common characteristic of all humans, not just the ones that believe in deities. We all tend to personify inanimate objects, crediting them with intent and motive. Think of it this way; Have you ever begged for the tram to arrive at your stop just a little bit faster on a rainy day? Have you ever prayed that your screen isn’t broken after dropping your phone down two flights of stairs? Have you ever gotten genuinely mad at a piece of furniture after stubbing your toe on it? No person is free of such superstitions, even the most analytical of people are bound by this type of thinking.
How does believing benefit the believer?
When faced with hardships people tend to have a stronger belief in spirituality and the afterlife. They believe they are part of a plan bigger than themselves and everything they experience in their lifetime is meant to teach them a lesson, which helps them regain some sense of control and accept the possibly harsh situation they might be faced with a lot easier. Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach argued that belief in the divine is simply a projection of the human need to believe that there is some design and deliberate order behind an otherwise painful universe.
From animistic thinking to organized religion.
How did we, as a society, go from believing in the abstract supernatural to collectively worshiping our gods in the form of organized religion? To try to better understand our connection with everything divine we firstly have to study the formation of organized religion and the reason behind it. Going back to a time when people lived in small communities of 100-150, we can understand that maintaining order wasn’t a highly demanding task since small numbers allow for familiarity and easier control. For the period when agriculture first grew to become the main source of sustenance, we note an extreme increase in population within communities slowly forming the first cities. As numbers grew it became harder and harder to maintain peace. The image of a punishing god first started to appear to keep people from harming each other by threatening them with eternal damnation, whether that came in the form of hell or of an endless cycle of death and rebirth.
The peak and decline of religion.
Entering the 21st century we record what we would later identify as the peak of religion in the Western world; the collapse of the USSR and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center left a psychological vacuum that was filled with the resurgence of religion. This is not uncommon after a catastrophic event, what is worth studying is the unexpected decline in belief in high-income countries from 2007 forward. What exactly triggered this considerable rise in secularity? To answer this question we first have to understand the historical necessity for high birth rates and the stance of religion in matters of the family in the traditional sense. For centuries, most societies assigned women the sole role of reproduction and condemned any sexual behavior that did not lead to reproduction such as divorce, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. All major world religions enforced such norms as it was necessary for the survival and prosperity of the religion itself. The ones that did not enforce this type of thinking simply disappeared. In the last fifteen years, a growing number of countries have achieved steadily high birth rates and low infant death rates, rendering these traditions and norms no longer necessary. Most religions became highly resistant to change, holding on to outdated notions that no longer fit in modern society. People started abandoning anachronistic religious beliefs and their implied societal roles, reaching a point where the equilibrium changes from a pro-fertility mentality to a more individual-choice type of thinking in almost all high-income societies.
The place of religion in modern society.
Moving from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based societies we collectively experience a growing sense of existential security which undermines the importance of religion in our lives and communities. This may seem like a logical continuation, however, it is interesting to note that the falling numbers of religious people coincide with a rise of modern forms of spirituality. So what happens to the part of our lives that used to be occupied by religion? A growing trend toward “spiritual but not religious” can be detected in groups that would traditionally reject the idea of a singular, or multiple gods. This notion seems to acknowledge the fact that there is reason and purpose in life and the universe but doesn’t accredit intelligence to single or multiple beings in the traditional concept of a god. Holding on to the positive effects of believing, while taking away the responsibility, corruption, and discrimination often present in most modern religions. It is a kind of spirituality that follows in the flow and manipulation of energy from both human beings and nature. The most distinct characteristic of modern spirituality is that there are no set rules, its beauty and appeal are hidden in its fluidity. As a spiritual person, you can pick and choose which parts you believe and what practices (if any) inspire and fulfill you. This fluidity and lack of authority are exactly what attracts (especially younger) people that may have felt trapped or restricted by the religion they were raised in.
Is believing in something bigger than ourselves just part of being human?
One can argue that our animistic thinking provides enough supportive evidence that at least biologically we are wired to look for beings who share or even surpass our level of intelligence, rendering the creation of a godly figure almost inevitable. The creation of primitive religions fulfilled our need for order, not for a higher power, removing the biological search for a superior force from organized faith. Once rules were created, believing and being part of religion became two separate things; the part that needed to be in touch with someone superior started believing and the part that needed order started building communities based on and around religion. The two are not mutually exclusive but not synonymous either. Believing was something private, being religious became a collective activity. At this moment, organized religion moves away from our innate spiritual nature and the search for a superior force finds hold in the form of modern types of belief.
So, is believing in a higher power just a side effect of the human condition?
There is no definite answer… the truth is up to everyone’s personal belief system.