The Utility of Religion
The Utility of Religion
“Religion: What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!” is the title of a blog written by freelancer Shauna Krystin and recently sent to me by my Facebook friend Fred Antczak, along with the statement that he thought this is something that might interest me. Well I am interested, in a way, but perhaps not the way my friend Fred thinks.
The blog restates the well-worn atheist argument that religion has caused so much pain and grief that it is useless in the realm of human affairs, particularly given the exponential scientific advances that now explain how our world works, even if all existential questions such as “Why are we here?” still await answers. The blog gives a nod to the “few positive aspects of religion that are worth saving”, but asserts that things like the “sense of community, the spirit of generosity, and the power of like-minded individuals in large groups can be harnessed in other, more positive ways.” We are assured: “That feeling inside when you gather in your house of worship isn’t God, it’s just human connection and gratitude.”
I am an atheist and it took me a long time to admit it. Like so much else in life, my release from religion began as a slow drift that evolved into a ‘process’ punctuated by several religious relapses that had more to do with denial than anything else, then accelerated to blinding speed until one morning (I remember it was spring and the smell of the side-yard lilacs) I sat bolt upright in bed, heard the trill of the season’s first robin, and said, “Fuck it, this is who I am.” I had entered what author Richard Ford calls the Permanent Period of Life…that time when we stop becoming and accept ourselves. The entire process went something like this: At first I thought, “Okay, maybe it’s Roman Catholicism that’s the problem and I should try something else, like Protestantism or Buddhism”, so I did. But like a college student unsure of what to do in life, trying different majors, nothing seemed to make sense to the point that a religion and I could achieve a fit. Then I had a child, and like so many new parents of my generation I went back to my Catholic birth religion “for the sake of the child” only to discover that having a kid actually exacerbated nagging questions such as (setting Original Sin aside for a moment), “How can a loving God let innocent little kids die?” The cognitive dissonance was too much. Next came years of free floating religious anxiety while dealing with the thought that something was wrong with me because I couldn’t embrace what Paul Gifford, Professor Emeritus, St. Andrew’s University calls “A constantly evolving panoply of mythic invention.” I read everything I could about religion, including religious texts. I wanted to be religious, I really did; I envied those nestled within the comforts of a religious community, so sure that their living God framed their world view, willing to suspend thought and feel the ecstasy of belief. But for me going into a church is like my going into Walgreens to get a refill on a placebo prescription.
The Permanent Period arrived when I got beyond the cognitive dissonance caused by trying desperately to believe there is a God, and feeling embarrassed or even foolish in the face of no objective proof; It is the calmness that comes with the understanding that it’s okay not to believe. The Permanent Period is living in a state of earthbound grace with the accumulation of life’s experiences providing enough ballast for the sail over that final horizon.
To some people losing a religion is so imperceptibly gradual that no ‘crises of faith’ is experienced; they simply stop going to church and don’t think any more about it; or they say they believe in God or a “higher power” but not in “organized” religion; or are not religious but are still “spiritual” (whatever that means). And that ends the whole religious thing for them until their death beds when they are said by relatives to have made a perfect act of contrition and are accepted back into their childhood religion or last affiliated fold. And why not? It hurts no one and makes the survivors feel good.
But for others, such as myself, there is some crisis that causes a tenuous break or at least starts the process of questioning that ultimately snowballs and becomes permanent. This break is often experienced like the death of a friend or love one, and you go through Kubler-Ross-like stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance. And like the death experience, your movement through the stages to final resolution takes different amounts of time for different people, with some people getting stuck at a particular stage unable to move on. It is common to atheists in the anger stage, for this is the time when they are the most vocal about their coming out of the religious closet. They are fed-up and pushing back against the evil they in religious and the hypocrisy of many adherents, and they are building fortitude for the condemnation and discrimination they know will soon come.
While I agree with much in the blog, I disagree with the basic premise that religion is worthless, and think that in a very fundamental way human culture would not exist without religion. My take on Ms. Krystin (granted, the blog is all I know about her thinking) is that she is young (according to her Facebook picture) and is likely in the anger stage of atheist development. If my guess is right (and it is only a guess based on ‘been there-done that’), she needn’t be stuck forever. If she takes the time to learn more about religions, she will see that religions have several important uses, and she will be better able to help the world minimize the damage caused by religions. Let me explain:
The field of Cultural Anthropology can help us understand the functions of religion through the timid but ever brightening light it sheds on human social development. Within this discipline there are basically two schools of thought regarding religion: the first sees religion as an adjunct to human culture; and the second proposes that religion is the bedrock on which human culture developed. The first school, starting with the Victorians and continuing into the twentieth century, maintains that when the last Ice Age began losing its grip (ca. 9,600 BCE) the explosion of plant growth allowed an expansion of wild game, which in turn allowed for the domestication of plants and animals, the development of agriculture, the advent of ever increasing permanent human settlements, and finally the rise of religion to promote social cohesion.
The second school of thought, which I will call the Girardists (because they draw heavily on René Girard’s mimetic theory---more about this later), noticed that the oldest human structures, such as Göbekli Tepe (ca. 9,600 BCE, which is before the invention of pottery) in south-eastern Turkey were not dwelling settlements but instead were religious temples and sanctuaries built for the express practice of rituals and sacrifices. They also noticed that Ҫatalhöyük, 400 miles west of Göbekli Tepe, and one of the oldest human permanent settlements (ca. 7,500 BCE), not only was 2,000 years younger than Göbekli Tepe, but contained only small individual dwelling sanctuaries and nothing that could be considered a site for group religious rituals and sacrifices. Since this ‘older religious site/newer settlement site’ age relationship seems to hold true wherever we find Neolithic human ruins, it is reasonable to assume that Neolithic hunter-gatherers came together for purpose of conducting religious rituals and sacrifices before they developed permanent agricultural settlements, meaning religion appeared before any cultural development more advanced than that permitted by small bands of hunter-gatherers. But what need would these tiny widely scattered groups, with their rudimentary cultures, have for religious rituals and sacrifices? This is where René Girard’s mimetic theory comes into play.
Girard observed what so many of us who have lived long enough know---that human societies are inherently unstable. Girard hypothesizes that this instability is caused by our extraordinary capacity and drive to mimic one another. I say extraordinary because, as anyone having raised a child knows; our species’ primary method of learning is through mimicry. Simply put, we are very good at imitating each other’s behavior. Where we get into trouble, Girard maintains, is that we are also driven to mimicking each other’s desires: Not only do I want what you have, I also want what you want, and I want it mostly because it’s what you desire and not necessarily because of any intrinsic value.
Because of our unique capacity for imitation, humans are fundamentally competitive and rivalry based, and operate within social structures that are made unstable by the inevitable unequal distribution of wealth, privilege, and power. As the inequality rises, tensions within the group increase until violence erupts.
Girard posits that Neolithic humans hit on the most archaic and fundamental form of religion, that of the ritual sacrifice of an identified scapegoat, as a way to contain and defuse intra-group violence. Early humans understood that violence is one of the most imitative of human behaviors, and that if left unchecked had the potential to spread rapidly through a social group and destroy the group’s solidarity, and thus its ability to survive. By identifying a group member that had some of the group’s characteristics, but was different in other obviously identifiable ways, the group could blame the social tension on the “different” person, and ritually exorcise (kill) the scapegoat in an attempt to diffuse the social tension. If no scapegoat could be found inside the group, then one outside the group in a rival group would work just as well. In other words, religion uses the scapegoat mechanism to maintain group solidarity.
Amazingly, this violence control scapegoat mechanism has worked well for millennia, making sacrifice a core religious function even today. The problem with the scapegoat mechanism is that its effects do not last because the basic problem of social inequality has not been addressed. So what we have seen throughout human history is continuous cycles of social tension caused by mimetic desire temporarily dissipated by the activation of the scapegoat mechanism. Some have argued that salvation through a personal relationship with God is the most important function of modern religion. While there is no doubt that the concept of a personal God is powerful, the idea is, within the whole of human history, a recent development that operates on the conscious level. The scapegoat mechanism of religious ritual and sacrifice is religion’s historic reason détente and operates subconsciously.
Understanding religion’s function of maintaining group solidarity helps us understand our world today. When clerics blame homosexuals for natural disasters, they are activating the scapegoat mechanism. But the scapegoat mechanism is not just a tool for priests: When Donald Trump blames illegals and immigrants for our troubles he too is using the scapegoat mechanism to deflect the anger over political and economic inequalities. In this regard what modern politicians are doing by scapegoating is attempting to foster group solidarity; and these attempts are religious in nature and explain how someone as obviously irreligious as Trump can hold rallies where the participants share an emotional experience best described as a form of religious ecstasy.
The nut, of course, is that world societies and cultures have become so complex and interdependent, that the religious function of scapegoating, while great for maintaining intra-group solidarity, may now in our complex world with advanced weaponry, be a threat to human existence. And the easy answer…often the modern atheist wish…of getting rid of religion, is no answer at all since the basic function of religion is to control the fundamental human trait of mimetic desire. It seems to me that it is a waste of effort to focus on religion as the problem; that instead we need to focus on the social, political, and economic inequalities that feed mimetic desire and its violence. If we desire wealth, religion will serve us. If we desire power, religion will serve us. And if we desire equality and tolerance, religion will serve us. Religion, in the final analysis, is but a handmaiden of our desires.