I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently (see: Blog Rule ➜ I won’t reveal who you are unless I ask for and get your permission) about evolution and our “need” for faith. It began with a discussion about a comment I made regarding every culture having some story or fable explaining the beginnings of time, the weather and other natural phenomena, and what happens after death, and ultimately encompassed all of the components of why people hold fast to religious beliefs.
The first question is: Do humans have a psychological need to believe in religion?
I think we have a need to understand our environment. I think we see this in the subjects the myths touch on – how did we get here, what is our purpose, what happens when we die. It is astounding how similar these myths are from one culture to another. A great many have the story of a big flood (here, here, and here), and most have some description of an afterlife. I can imagine these tales being told from generation to generation, with children listening in wide-eyed wonder as each village’s best storyteller would embellish and dramatize. I think these stories brought comfort and continuity and it is completely understandable why these stories were told and retold.
The next question then is: After science explains so many of these things, why then continue to embrace the faith?
This question is a bit more complicated. For me, it helps to think of this in terms of columns, or supports that hold up the foundation of belief, the loss of any single one of which won’t bring down the structure, so to speak, but collective loss of several will.
One of those columns is the desire to be cared for and directed. Life is at times troubling, and difficult, and confusing, and unfair. The feeling I think we are seeking is that same feeling one has as a child when one sees one home and parents as protecting and complete and profoundly secure. It is not surprising that this feeling has a great deal of appeal, even to adults. This is one of the supports that is hardest to let go; it’s almost a Stockholm’s syndrome, a celestial North Korea, as the late Christopher Hitchens said. An eternal, observing, intervening, judging parent. My own experience with this was exactly that: before my deconversion, the idea of God loving and designing my life gave me comfort; afterward, the ownership and self-direction were liberating and empowering, far surpassing any grief at the loss of the Dear Leader. The thought that my life would have exactly the meaning with which I would choose to bestow it was as intense and humbling a moment as I’ve ever had.
Another of these columns is the desire for an afterlife. This is entirely understandable at first thought as well. Death is so very final, and the loss of a loved one is as painful an experience as we have as human beings. It isn’t even about “unfinished business”; we just don’t want to say a final goodbye. For me, this was the last strand that held me to my faith – stronger than my need for a God, stronger than my need need for community, stronger than my fear of the unknown. Having to say a permanent goodbye to those loved ones I had planned to see again was devastating. Letting that go, however, has had the additional effect of placing much greater value on this life, on these moments, on these people, just as we are. There is a particular boy I want to see again, who has died. I want to talk to him, to see him smile, to ask him questions. I believe I won’t have that opportunity, and that is heart-wrenching. So, instead, conversations and moments with the people I love here in this time and place become ever so much more important and precious.
Another column is the complicated issue of morality. As a believer, I used the if-you’re-not-a-Christian-you-can-just-make-things-up phrase from elementary school through my middle age, as if that were the worst statement you could cast toward an infidel. I remember, though, as an Adult Class Sunday School teacher struggling to teach the lesson of the evil of situational ethics. What were the absolutes of the faith? Don’t murder? Sure, except for the death penalty. And self-defense. And defense of others. And euthanasia. And war. Truth-telling? Again, yes, except for when you are hiding Jews in your attic or Tutsis in your hotel. Coveting? Thought crimes? Really? It’s getting messy and sticky in here. Making decisions and judgements is hard, and comes with great responsibility, and may depend upon the details. The drive to abdicate this sometimes troublesome and challenging process is another reason I think the church is so appealing to us.
Another column, that I’ve just recently blogged about, is the need to belong to a community. “Everyone I know believes the way I do” is comfortable and affirming, allows a group to pull in the same direction, focuses money and energy, and is one of the worst reasons for retaining a faith that I can imagine. We’ve just gotten through another Christmas season where, here in the south, there is a lot of conversation about the war on Christmas. Outrage on Facebook statuses, print and electronic media reports about public nativity displays, mass emails about taking a stand for Jesus by keeping Christ in Christmas — all feed this very human need to conform and be included in the in-group. Let me suggest that rather than, as a believer, looking for ways to feel oppressed and put-upon, spend a day or so looking at it upside-down: see the country through the eyes of atheism, and see how firmly entrenched in Christian language, culture, and tradition our society really is. How many visible and open non-believers are in public office? (guess first, then check here and here) How many US citizens identify as Christians? Hard to be in the minority when you’re in the majority. But these statistics are certainly revealing as we examine this primal need to be part of community.
Related to the above, and maybe particular only to me, is the verification of the faith through the test of time. When I was in college, and was beginning to question what I believed, I put a lot of stock in the fact that Christianity had been around for so long – how could that have happened were it not true? I don’t remember evaluating other long-standing religious ideas with that same criteria – Islam, Judaism, paganism, Jainism – and coming up with the same result. I now agree with Tim Minchin’s sentiment: “I don’t believe just because ideas are tenacious that means that they’re worthy”. I explain it this way: for every reason that you can ennumerate that falsify insert another religion here, those are the reasons I apply to Christianity.
You can tell that I’ve spent time with my children when my posts get philosophical and reflective – the little buggers have a way of forcing me to think and clarify my thoughts. On Friday it’s back to school (2L!) and training, and the posts will be back to the law school/working out/massage therapy world. I haven’t done a 50 Things update in ages, and I’m planning out my 2012 races that I’ll blog about soon.
Thank you for reading, especially when the words are not comfortable. I promise to always reciprocate – just bring the link!
January 2, 2012 at 11:08 pm
This is one of your best posts! You are amazing.
January 3, 2012 at 12:31 am
Brilliant Gayle. Great post. And I know life gets busy, but you should write more philosophical posts. You have a great deal of great things to say.
February 20, 2012 at 10:11 am
Re the need for myths, interestingly, it turns out that there are groups that don’t have them. I was reading an old National Geographic the other day, which had an article about the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania that is virtually unchanged over the last 10,000 years. Seems they have no religion, no deities, no rituals, no particular belief in afterlife. When asked about God, they say it is the sun. The campfire stories they tell are about memorable hunts. The result is a stable society free of war, crime and gender bias. Sadly, of course, their days are numbered as their land gets encroached upon.