I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” on and off this last month. It’s given me a new perspective on religion and the religious experience that I had not sufficiently appreciated before. (Dennett’s style is different to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in that he tries less to expose the logical inconsistencies of religion and more to understand why people would carry out such devotion to a deity or deities. It’s a challenging book for religous people, but not necessarily an offensive one).
So here’s my take. Religion thrives because it fits many of our basic human desires like a custom-made glove. Our desire for understanding the world around us. Our desire for protection in an uncertain world. Our desire for hope, despite all that might happen to us. Our desire to be thought of as special. Our desire to make an impact in someone else’s life. Religion has co-evolved with us, becoming more sophisticated as our culture has developed. It provides the feedback mechanisms many of us so desperately crave for. It has a flexibility inherent in it, so that different people will find answers that suit their specific preferences, cultures and ages.
In the end, maybe it’s all about love. People are inspired to do great things because of love. Love is all about abandoning one’s critical faculties, about commitment to someone or something, about sacrifice in the face of something bigger than oneself. Viewed from the outside it makes little sense, but for the person affected it’s a wonderful, uplifting, comforting experience. Love is vulnerable to manipulation, and in the extreme, people can be motivated to carry out the most appalling acts because of love. Love is blind, as they say.
Many commentators focus on the fear factor: the “believe this or else” sentiment. The “do that and you’ll go to Hell” sentiment. They assume that this is core to the religious experience. I’m not so sure. I think it might be more peripheral. I would even go to the extent that if people believe in a god purely because they are afraid of the consequences of not believing, then they haven’t quite grasped the religious experience. They may not even be religious at all. Telling someone that there are grave consequences to a simple transgression is far too ephemeral a reason on which to base a complete belief system. Our large prison population, for example, tells us that fear of getting sent down is a poor motive in preventing crime. So why should it be more successful in the case of belief? Fear, within the religious context, seems to be something that has more to do with organisational control than with religious belief. Religion plus fear is a powerful (and potentially destructive) force, but religion itself is not about fear.
These are my thoughts on the subject for what they are worth. I’d love to hear from you on this.