What makes religion stick around in a world that should have grown out of it long ago?
People fear death, people fear opposing their friends and family, and people fear being alone and having to fend for themselves in such a big, bad world. Religion exists because in a time with very little explanation for why things were the way they were, people began making up stories to try to explain it all. As human knowledge and scientific discoveries began explaining much of the world, the need for religion should have faded away. This didn’t happen, however, because religion had also changed and evolved, and many of the current religions are structured so that they survive in the modern world. There are many religious people, that understand the new evidence and ideas about the world but they cling to religion for the sole reason that death terrifies them. They can’t imagine having to accept that after they die, they don’t get to go to heaven. They don’t live particularly religious lives, but do the bare minimum required and are able to call themselves religious. When I meet this type of religious person, however, I have serious doubts as to their genuine religious beliefs and like to think of them as an atheist in denial.
If you look at history, and at patterns with modern religious people, it becomes clear that a huge number of the people that still genuinely believe in religion are either children who don’t know any better, or adults who don’t have the knowledge or education to raise their intellect any amount above that of a child, and they therefore also don’t know any better than to believe. Thus, it can be concluded that if religious people were only given decent and secular educations, then religion couldn’t survive. But this brings us to our next problem, and one that keeps even educated people bound by a world where religion is true.
More modern approaches to religion allow even educated people to believe. This means that the rules become metaphors, and people pick and choose their favorite parts. Because of this, the morals and values that are often part of religions become center stage, and people find value in religion on moral grounds. Many believe that there can’t be morality without religion, thus, by denying religion, atheists are in their mind, denying morality. Any Christian devout enough to read the bible cover to cover will either immediately deconvert or will believe the lessons in the bible to be metaphors. Most Christians I know, while they try to read the bible regularly, most of their beliefs and ideas come from supplemental books, sermons, and bible study discussions, aka not from the bible, but from people trying to be moral and good. If you stick exclusively to the bible, there’s not much morality there…it only really comes from the fact that people have chosen to focus on the morality as they have evolved religion to fit the modern world. This fact, I think, provides a quick and easy answer to the question as to whether or not there could be morality without religion: religion is only moral because people have molded it to be so, so it easily follows that people will strive to mold a moral world, whether god is involved or not. Of course, there will always be bumps along the road as people’s darker ambitions take over, but the need for morality and good will always overwhelm the few that seek to thrive without it. Unfortunately this great human quality of striving for happiness and morality is also what gives religion such strength even among educated , intelligent, and rational people.
Most of my previous points outline how and why people come to believe religion in the first place, but it doesn’t really explain why it sticks around despite all the contrary evidence. The answer lies in understanding certain elements of religion. For simplicity, I will focus on Christianity which, as I was raised to understand it, is all about your personal relationship with God and Jesus. You read the bible, go to church, and live your life as Jesus would. You believe in the values that the bible has outlined for you, and you do your best to avoid the temptations of the world in order to remain strong in your Christian beliefs. The way Christianity is structured provides many checks on doubt, especially because being a true Christian requires faith. Faith means that even though there is no evidence, you believe anyways, and by doing so, you are proving your devotion to God. Should you find evidence of God’s existence, and only then believe, then you are not worthy of the kingdom of God. Christianity is all about trusting god’s will and accepting the life you are given. These ideas are attractive to people of any time or education as it means that we don’t need to go out and find evidence, we simply just accept it as true. There are no gray areas when it comes to morality or death, you simply believe in god and everything is taken care of. It makes it easy to counter anyone who attacks Christianity by asking for proof, and reinforces in Christians the desire to believe. If the initial seeds of religion are planted at the right moment, either childhood or a moment of vulnerability or pain, the person’s desire to avoid the ultimate temptation of doubt will keep them holding tightly to their belief. Based on our human desire for knowledge, proof, and explanations, it is no wonder that such a check has been built into the most fundamental aspect of so many religions around the world.
The condemnation of seeking or desiring proof provides the first huge safeguard on religion that has kept it alive. Another check that goes hand in hand with this is the idea of temptation and the devil. The bible claims that we have been given free will, but in a world of sin, this means we have to make the right choices in our life or we can’t go to heaven. The devil is at work in the world, tempting us to be immoral. Because doubt is placed in the same category as other sins, a person already in religion who begins to have doubts is likely to shut them out, or force them out of consciousness for fear of being tempted by evil. This idea attracts and holds onto many people who fear evil and the devil, and also people who are simply striving to be moral, and see this as the way. The illusion that Christians are good people, and non Christians are evil is created by the fact that Christianity teaches people to be good people. This makes it easy for people to hold onto their beliefs because deep down they are not holding onto god, but instead holding onto morality and being a good person, something definitely worth believing in.
With doubt tucked safely behind these checks, religion thrives and is free to continue to control its followers despite all the contradicting intelligence. Now, these checks only work on people who are already involved in religion and already believe the teachings to be true, and this is where the ignorance part comes in. Children that grow up in the church have no reason to doubt. As they get older and start having the knowledge to begin to question how true it all is, they have enough of the teachings engrained in them that they will feel their stirring suspicions and doubts as the devil tempting them. Instead of recognizing that their instincts are telling them that something is wrong, they will see it as proof that the devil tempts them and they will resist the temptations and turn to God stronger than ever in their faith. It can take a long time before the doubts can be accepted in a person’s mind, and many resist it their entire lives, as the desire to be good is stronger for them. For others, however, the desire for truth, reason, and science is stronger and they are able to break free. Those who no longer carry the burden of religion understand that no one needs it, but it doesn’t change the fact that different people think differently, and there will always be people who prefer the more spiritual mystery of religion as opposed to science and logic. These types of thinkers will give religion that last bit of fuel, but the future will hopefully be able to see a religion-free world. It is important that those who have so quickly embraced atheism, however, understand that everyone is different, and many people will want and need something more spiritual to hold onto. Hopefully nature, and the spirit of life can be enough, because organized religion and worship of all knowing gods is just too ridiculous to survive in a modern world.
Thanks to fear, ignorance, free interpretation, and built-in checks, religion survives even in a world that long ago reached the level of understanding and scientific technology at which religion is no longer practical. Because of its inappropriate survival, religion is causing more harm than good, and making people’s lives more difficult than they should be, especially in certain areas of the world where people are still persecuted for having certain beliefs and others where religious wars and violent conflict are taking place. Because of the nature of religions, people fear attacking them and are blind to all the horrors they cause. Because people refuse to attack religions directly, many issues are never properly solved, and may even get worse. The greatest obstacle in showing the world the problems with religion will be getting them to understand that atheism is not immoral, but instead leads to greater morality than any religion.