Saturday, 19 April 2014

Why are people religious?

Religion is an important part of many millions of people's lives. For me, I agree with some of the teachings many religions praise (giving back to the community etc) but I am by no means religious. As a part of studying neuroscience I have begun to think about human nature more and more, this has led me to asking a very difficult question; Why are people religious? 
This question is not easy to answer, but I hope to lay out a few ideas that might shed some light on why many people become and stay religious. 

One of the main reasons that people are religious- aside from inherited religiosity (which is fairly obvious), is that it comes very easily to many people. It is intuitive to many people, that there is a higher being (often in a human-like shape) that is overseeing the world. This is an not a surprise when you think about it, as we humans are very social beings. We are the most social species on the planet, and we have a number of powerful mental tools that allow us to be so social. One such tool is that of so called "mentalising", that is the intuitive knowledge that other people have different experiences, emotions and history to oneself. 

Another mental tool that we have is the ability to recognise patterns among chaos, our brains constantly organise our perceptions and thoughts to fit patterns and order. Chaos is often scary for a lot of people, most of us prefer to be in an ordered and controlled environment. This mentalising and organising leads us to come to the assumption that many things in the world have a reason or intention, and that someone (or something) must have organised the world in this way, because it is intuitive to us that it would be. 

This mental machinery helps us to understand the human world in a very intuitive way, and it is deeply rooted in our brains. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that this mentalising extends to the rest of the world and universe aswell. It is very easy for many of us to imagine a conscious being in the heavens, looking down on us and this gives us a sense of security, purpose and optimism (definitely desirable feelings to have!).

This is especially prevalent in children, who exhibit much more of what is called "magical thinking" and readily believe stories that engage the imagination, and that is exactly what many religious (aswell as non-religious) stories can do. It is well known that your early childhood experiences have a massive impact on your future, and your belief system is no different. However, this is generally more important in deciding which religion you belong to, rather than whether you are religious or not in the first place, just think, how many children self identify as atheist?

The final main reason that people are religious, is that many religious groups provide a sense of community and belonging that many may not have otherwise. For many, places of worship are the same places where they get social care, food, shelter, therapy, guidance and opportunities to give back to the community. These are all things that are essential to people's well-being, so it is no wonder that people would be attracted to an institute that caters to these needs. Perhaps this explains the general trend of decreasing religiosity in countries with larger welfare systems such as the UK and Scandinavian countries as they may have these needs met by the community at large/ from the government.

It may also explain why USA has a very high level of religiosity, despite being an incredibly well developed and wealthy country; as they have relatively poor social welfare compared to western Europe. This is supported by the fact that the more people surveyed in the UK thought that evolution removes the need for God than other more religious views of evolution, whereas the opposite is true in the USA. In fact, the most religious region in the UK is Northern Ireland, where 28% thought that evolution removes the need for God (still the most common response) was only more religious than 2 regions in the USA, Vermont (34%) and New Hampshire (29%) (US survey). While slightly different questions were asked in the 2 surveys, you can still see that there is a massive disparity in religiosity between these two countries that are quite similar for the most part, except in terms of social welfare. 

I'd like to end by saying that I don't have an opinion on whether it is better to be religious or not, as it is entirely down to that person to make of religion what they will, this is merely intended to be an exploration of why people are religious, rather than the validity of any of the beliefs held by any religious group. If someone is happy as an atheist, then good for them. If someone is happy belonging to a religion, then good for them. If somebody is happy and they aren't sure whether they believe in any religion or not, then good for them too. I'll shortly be putting up another post about why people are atheists, so that I can explore the other side of this exploration.

I'd really appreciate comments on why you think people are religious, not whether it is good or bad, but why. Thanks for reading. 


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