Why does religion exist and why does it matter?

If religion, that is to say the existence of a personal God, is a fabrication of the human mind then a logical question might be: Why does religion exist at all? I’d like to discuss a few reasons I believe, based on my own experience and observations, that religion exists and thrives.

1. The Victors of War, Justification, and The Persistence of Myth

The conquest of men by other men, by all religions and creeds, have been vast and well documented. However, justification by God is a uniquely religious invasion.

1a. Kings and Crusades

During the Crusader’s invasion of South America the Spanish called upon God to justify their pillage of native villages. Their purpose was power, greed, and glory, but their excuse was conversion. Religion has always been an excellent excuse to do evils, but ironically these evils also serve to spread and preserve the institution.

Today, for example, South America remains one of the most religious nations on Earth (90% Christian). The very religion that their conquerors practiced hundreds of years ago. There is a common phrase among historians that “the victors write the history books” and it seems no coincidence to me that powerful Christian nations have been so successful at preserving the ideology that justifies their imperialism.

1b. America: A religious colony

And it should be no surprise that the United States remains a religious country seeing as the first inhabitants fled here to escape religious persecution. It seems obvious why America is predominately protestant and not Catholic or Church of England. These traditions have been carefully handed down from generation to generation slowly perpetuation religion in our very culture.  Were they handed down because the believes are accurate or because they are part of the culture? The answer seems clear.

So perhaps it seems obvious how and why religion spreads across the world, but why does it exist in the first place?

2. Religion provides answers to hard questions.

One of the greatest comforts of religion, even today, is that it answers some of the hardest philosophical and scientific questions our human minds can devise.  Questions about the creation of the Universe, why bad things happen to good people, and so on are addressed in the form of an all powerful entity we have named God.

When early man gazed at the Sun and the Stars and were unable to fathom their existence a supernatural answer seemed logical.  Over time the supernatural answer to difficult questions became stories that village elders passed down from generation to generation. Soon those stories became modern religion.

2a. Why being settling for mythical answers to difficult questions is a weakness of religion:

My problem with accepting the mythical as fact in the modern day is a practical one: It hinders progress. Where would we be if modern man accepted the Sun as a God, or ceased to find answers to evolution, DNA, and history because they believed that all of the answers lay in the literal interpretation of the Bible or Koran? We would probably be dying of plague and accepting it as God’s will.

Furthermore, I think of all the great minds that are engulfed in Religion. I myself know more than a few intelligent people who reject good science on the grounds that it conflict with the Bible. Where would we be if all the great minds today and in the past dedicated themselves to the progress of the human condition and rid themselves of the hindrances of religious mythology?

3. Religion provides a sense of community.

One compliment I will give many practitioners of religion is their sense of community. I have seen, on more than one occasion, a man consumed by vices change his life for the better thanks to the support and love of the religious community. And isn’t everyone searching for one such place or another?

Every human being wishes to belong. To be a member of something larger than oneself, bonded by a common goal and ideology. Whether that be a sports club or a religious institution all men desire such a thing – and most churches, mosks, and temples fill that role. These institutions are free and readily available.

But why do we rely on such institutions as the primary source of community? Why do we send our most vulnerable in society (the poor and uneducated) and question why religion is such an ingrained institution? Is there a better way?

3a. Why finding community among the religious can be detrimental to progress:

The danger of utilizing religious organizations as our main source of community is the advantage such an organization has in maintaining and building a society that believe their mythologies. How can we expect great minds to abandon the very institution they were raised on, or that accepted them in their darkest hour? We can’t. How can we expect society to generate great ideas, solve complex problems, and utilize reason when we are indoctrinated by an institution that promotes feel good mythology over truth? Again, we can’t.

Rather, those of use in the community who find reason, kindness, and truth to be our only form of religion should form similar such institutions to provide alternative sources of community and human service. What good would we do society if such institution promoted values based on logic, reason, and justice rather than pretend?

4. Religion makes us okay with perceived injustices and failure.

My life has been plagued with individuals who are completely satisfied with societal injustices and personal failure. I have family members who are plagued with vices (laziness, alcoholism, drug abuse, ignorance) that will proclaim with pride that “As long as I am right with God everything will be alright in the end.” This line of thinking is illogical, even to most religious scholars, but none-the-less a favorite among the religious.

What type of society do we promote when such a number of our inhabitants believe, even if subconsciously, that ultimate justice and happiness is yet to come – in another life! How can we earnestly expect to improve upon the land of the living when so many are anxiously awaiting to die?

4a. Why accepting injustice and failure is problematic:

We cannot accept injustice and failure in this life, thus we cannot promote an organization that passively does so itself. We create a society that believes, even if they will not admit it, that their shortcomings in this life are okay because they will be resolved in the next.

This line of thinking is immoral and unjust in itself. How can we justify regression to our children, and to our children’s children, and their children? If you are a conservative, which most religious claim to be, isn’t such an ideological fallacy a liberty-stealing one for future generations?

Instead we should demand organizations that promote morality, reason, and justice. Such an organization that tolerates all ideas and creeds, but forces one to examine them reasonably. One that teaches one to think – rather than what to think.

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12 thoughts on “Why does religion exist and why does it matter?

  1. Holden

    I think you’re pretty narrow with your views of religion. You open it right off by stating that religion is synonymous with the belief in a personal God.

    The oldest religious systems in the world are not mono theistic and I don’t know that you’d consider the Gods of any of them as personal Gods really, Many of them also believe in reincarnation and worship of the earth.

    Then there are the magnitude of other forms of religion that don’t really involve a God or believe in a creator deity but are instead more philosophic (Buddhism, Toaism, Shintoism, and most other Asian religions and philosophies).

    And finally there are religions that are sort of hybrids like Mahayana Buddhism that believe Buddha ascended to some sort spiritual existence in a higher realm and is reincarnated.

    I have a good book you should read called The Book of Tea. It dives in deep into Japanese religion/philosophy and centers around ancient tea ceremonies in Japan. The same ideas also bleed over into much of south Asia where the people are predominately Tao.

    You very quickly realize that religion is ever changing and always evolving and the views you expressed in this post are extremely limited to Western (or possibly even simply American) ideals.

    Reply
    1. Atticus C. Post author

      Yes, the post is specifically regarding the popular Monotheistic religions. It does, however, leave deism on the table. It is not a critique of philosophical religions either – unless they regard miracles, revelation, or prophecy a key to their religion.

      Reply
    2. Mark Trotter

      Studies of society do indicate that there have always been mono-theists and poly-theist groups, the only difference is that this contention – one god vs many gods has been a fundamental cause for isolation of groups.

      Reply
  2. Holden

    Another interesting factoid, many of the Puritans actually came here from Holland. Apparently they left due to the overly open culture there. Many of their children started to stray and integrate into Dutch culture more than they’d like.

    Yes. Some came from Europe due to persecution, but a large part actually came for the exact opposite reason- lack of persecution!

    Alright, I’ll quit criticizing your post now. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Atticus C. Post author

      I know that some came from Holland, but due to lack of persecution? Can you site any sources that any large group actually came seeking more strict circumstance? I’d like to see the resources on that or is it just speculation?

      Reply
  3. Holden

    When I said they left Holland due to lack of persecution, I was kind of joking. But the Puritans were a sepratrist group and did leave Holland to be separate and not due to persecution.

    I was originally taught this in college when we were going over the real Thanksgiving story. Then it was re-iterated when I listened to ‘The Skeptic’ Guide to American History’.

    I think John and Adam go over it while talking about Thanksgiving on one of the No Agenda podcasts too.

    This is a good link to read up on Pilgrims/Puritans in Holland. I learned a few new things.
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/The-Pilgrims-Before-Plymouth.html

    This is a bit in line with what I learned in school. Thought not real official looking website:
    http://www.traceyourdutchroots.com/emigration/pilgrim-fathers.html

    Reply
  4. trueandreasonable

    I think you should give Ezekiel Bulver credit for part of this post. 😉

    Also the conquest of south america, is not IMO best understood as a “crusade.” The most common crusades were fought due to Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos’s request for help from the west to stem/turn the tide of Islamic conquest. Its unlikely that he could have anticipated that so many in the west would give up so much to help other persecuted Christians so far away.

    There were those who came from Spain in order to conquer and there were those who were missionaries. The atrocities were great but so was the new way of thinking about fellow man. The missionaries at this time developed the infancy of human rights.

    Reply
    1. Atticus C. Post author

      “I think you should give Ezekiel Bulver credit for part of this post.”

      I am moderately embarrassed to admit I have no idea who that is.

      Aaand I just searched wikipedia and realized it is a C.S. Lewis reference. And I assume you are referencing this:

      “Bulverism is a logical fallacy in which, rather than proving that an argument in favour of an opinion is wrong, a person instead assumes that the opinion is wrong, and then goes on to explain why the other person held it.”

      You are sending me down the rabbit hole:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem#Circumstantial
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_fallacy

      I’ll have to reexamine my argument and see if I have fallen victim to any of these failures of reason.

      Reply
      1. trueandreasonable

        In your defense you clearly start out by saying “If religion…is a fabrication….”. I think that initial “if” saves you from the charge. I am just saying lets not move too fast, or forget we are skipping ahead on assumption.

        Whether you were ultimately engaging in “Bulverism” or not is not really important to me. I have found it to be a valuable and fun concept to keep in mind. I intend my post as an attempt to share the concept with you in a somewhat glib way, as opposed to being accusatory.

        Reply
        1. Atticus C. Post author

          I appreciate the critique. I actually enjoy catching myself falling victim of philosophical or logical fallacies. It’s a learning process and forces one to examine their thought process and argument.

          Also, I inherently knew that the “Bulveric” type of argument was an inappropriate one, but never put a name to it. It’s nice to have that in my vocabulary.

          Reply

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