Religion & Philosophy

Is religion obsolete?

It’s easy enough to see why spirituality and religion came to exist in the first place, but it’s impossible to understand why they still do.

Financial analysts often use what is called a plug. That is, they often construct complex equations where they don’t know all the variables and values, so they will simply create a variable to be named and measured later. It allows the equations to balance and the analysis to proceed. Spirituality is a plug, an unknown variable, something to allow the mysterious equations of life to balance. How did our world come to exist? How big is the night sky? Why do we have the right to take the land of the tribe in the next valley?  The belief in spirits fills both gaps in our understanding as well as our emotional need to understand “why.”

It’s not at all hard to imagine a cave woman sitting around the fire, going crazy wondering what’s beyond the night sky, and finally putting her whirling mind to rest by coming up with the idea that while she might not know the answer, that something does know, a sentient, intercessionary being that exists on another plane.

We humans can drive ourselves mad thinking. We created the idea of god as a mental pacifier. Then again, there’s that whole tunnel-of-light afterlife thing, which seems to be ubiquitous.

But why are we still spiritual? We no longer sit around the fire staring up at the night sky and wondering what those points of light are, but we’re still spiritual. Indeed, some argue we are now more spiritual than ever. Not only do many of us believe in a monotheistic God, but we also believe in “energy flows,” in karma, in good luck charms, in all manner of invisible powers and beings.

Spirituality should be receding. We don’t know everything, but we know a lot more than we used to. Science and mathematics have significantly reduced the list of things we don’t understand, from the weather to the cosmos to the sources of disease. Still, people continue to cling to the idea of unseen forces.

Perhaps it’s because spirituality allows us a direct line to the mysteries of the universe rather than having to go through intermediaries. Those of us who eschew spirituality are very reliant on other people to explain the unknown to us. I mean, I get the idea that there is a Higgs boson, but I haven’t ever really seen one. I have to take the word of some guys in Pasadena, Cambridge and Geneva that such a thing exists and is important. And it’s not like those guys have explained it (or can explain it) to me in a way I can understand. Maybe those who study the Bible have made a choice between reading the user’s manual or calling a help line in India. In trying to understand the unknowable, they prefer to read the manual (the Bible or the Koran) rather than calling the help line (taking an advanced physics course.)  Spirituality is in a way self-determination and thus empowering, and perhaps will always be with us.

Religion’s continued existence is even more puzzling. Again, it’s easy enough to see why religions emerged, likely some convergence of need and opportunism. Think about what early societies were like. People needed: medical treatment, weather forecasts, a justice system and provision of social services, including charity and income redistribution, matchmaking, counseling as well as entertainment and an excuse to get together. Entrepreneurial priests saw an opportunity to meet those needs (and become rich and powerful without having to work very hard) and voila, we have religions.

However, we have better ways to meet those needs now. We live in a highly specialized and developed culture, and we have specialists to fill most if not all of those needs. For medical treatment, very few of us go to the priest instead of the hospital (and if we do and our child dies, we go to jail). For the weather forecast, we turn to meteorologists. The government handles justice and provides for the indigent and we have much better entertainment options than having feasts and contests organized around saint’s birthdays (although Christmas seems to have stuck). Nor are we an illiterate lot that needs someone to stand upand read a book to us. And much of the other stuff—counseling, matchmaking, we have chosen to contract out to the private sector.

Indeed, the increase in spirituality, especially the individualized version of spirituality that’s now emerging is in its own way a threat to religion.

Spirituality should be obsolete, but hangs on, perhaps in response to some primordial human need. Religion is obsolete, and its current expansion into the political sphere and generally strident tone may be the death throes of an institution on its death bed.

Categories: Religion & Philosophy

15 replies »

  1. Otherwise:

    Like you, I’ve thought a lot about this issue, but perhaps unlike you (though I can’t know for sure), I’m a student of the most ancient human history. By “history,” I mean what is written. I have translations of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite prayers on my bookshelves, primary and secondary sources from the earliest years of Christianity, plus a fair number of books on the progression of religion (and especially Christianity) over the years. My take on the issue is somewhat like yours, but also somewhat different.

    I believe that the necessity of religion, or spirituality, or belief in the occult if you prefer, derives from the fact that homo sapiens is able to look to the future, and the future frightens him. People who are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and that includes most of us in one way or another, look for means to control the future. A dog doesn’t think about what to do for food if it doesn’t rain, or how he will survive a hard winter. An opossum doesn’t worry about how to have children so that there will be someone to take care of him in old age. There are no fertility rituals for him.

    As best I can make out, the earliest written prayers to gods are to tutelary (protective) gods. Mankind seems to have had a need to be safe, which is perfectly understandable. I don’t know if some woman in a cave nearly went mad trying to figure out what was beyond the night sky, but I suspect that most women, throughout the vast majority of human history, have worried about putting away enough food for hard times, living through childbirth, and protecting their children from death. I’m guessing that most cavewomen looked to the invisible world, trying to make a deal with the powers that did have control over what she did not to make everything all right. It was a way of seeking control over the uncontrollable.

    What seems clear is that religion got more complex as homo sapiens became better able to control his environment. What started out as prayers to the wind and rain and sun became prayers to personifications of the wind and rain and sun. Gods became anthropomorphic, or at least many of them did (my apologies to the lares and penates). Over time, contracts were written with the gods as guarantors. They would severely punish someone who broke a contract. Pay them enough in sacrifices, and say the words just right, and you could become prosperous in business, in love, in fertility, or anything else you desire. If you want to know the future, or want permission for some action you’d like to take, you do an oracle. And if you didn’t get the answer you want, you’d keep asking by saying, “Well, what if I anointed your image in Arinna? Would it be OK then?”

    Then came monotheism, which simplified things a great deal. A sort of one-god-fits-all approach to religion is very practical, but it also brought about religions wars. (Note that I have not found an instance in pre-monotheistic societies of the gods demanding a war against others — just sanction if humans decided to do it, anyway). Monotheism also came with comparisons to family, the god as the sky father (at least in Indo-European and Semitic cultures), being both stern and punishing and loving enough to grant eternal life if you just obeyed. And, of course, there were rules to follow, and if you did, you couldn’t be guaranteed a great life, but you could be guaranteed a great afterlife.

    Only at times and places where people got a cushion between themselves and disaster did the effect of religion wane. Many Romans were only mouth-religious. The same for many Greeks of the Classical Age, it would seem. But in all cases, I believe, rural folk,were more religious than city folk, and that makes sense. There was very little cushion for them. Bad weather meant hard times, or even worse.

    So, why do we have this growing chasm in the US between the religious and agnostics/atheists? Well, it’s speculation, of course, but the first place I’d look is in the somewhat thin, US social safety net. And it’s not just the safety net, but the enormous stigma of falling into it that exists in US culture. Then add in the fact that society in the US and other highly developed nations is becoming increasingly split between haves and have-nots — and that split falls largely along the lines of education and, perhaps, intelligence. Our world is becoming more and more complex. People who can design software and machines do well. People whose jobs are forfeit to software and machines do poorly. And, naturally, those losing out to automation feel powerless. When you feel powerless, you seek help from something much more powerful than you.

    God. Or tarot. Or energy. Karma. Whatever.

    As usual, this phenomenon is far more pronounced in rural areas than urban ones, I think. I recently took a couple of trips through rural America, and the depopulation numbers don’t do justice to the empty buildings and ghost towns I saw. Rural Americans know that many of their communities are dying, and they feel mostly helpless to stop it, let alone reverse it. But maybe God can.


    Nice post. Thanks.

    • Great comment.

      Nope, you’re right, I’m pretty thin in this area–many Sunday Schools, one course in college and a little research I did for a book a few years ago. When I volunteered to do a post to kick off religion week, it was more intellectual bravado than domain competence. 🙂

      I suspect you’re exactly right, the question that drove the advent of spirituality wasn’t “why,” but “what next.” I’ve made that argument before in different forums and Russ has a great post coming that implicitly makes the same argument. Whatever the driving force, belief in spirits is here to stay. And I also agree with your takeaway, as some of us become less spiritual, others (the disadvantaged) seem to be doubling down on religion (although as you point out, it’s religion defined as “something that will happen to make everything OK.”)

      For some reason, this reminds me of the old joke. Q: “Do you believe in baptism?” A: “Why yes, I’ve seen it done.” I don’t believe in spirituality in the sense I don’t believe in God or karma or luck or whatever, but I do believe in spirituality because I observe it in others.

      • Oh, one more thing I forgot. Homo sapiens, being able to look ahead, can foresee the inevitability of his own death. As religion became more refined, it came to define “meaning” in life as tied to the divine and occult. In other words, if you’re going to die anyway, what’s the meaning of life? Religion has answered that question for at least two millennia in the West, and a bit longer in other places. As long as that question remains, I suspect religion will be around.

  2. RELIGON. How many millions have died from this word. I see spiritually as the native Americans see. We don’t have to belong to a group or religion or faith to be accepted by the great spirit. We don’t go to a building someone says is the house of gods.
    We do not follow the book called a bible as it is false and filled with hate and makes our father look like a pagan monster. We do not use the word (CHRISTAN ) as this word has been used to murder millions and millions.
    God is as human as we want god to be. I walk with him and we talk and we disagree but in the end god is right. I have seen god or his messengers and blessing given to me before my eyes.
    I see mother earth and feel her. she has to watch as we destroy a beautiful place god gave us to live.
    People today want to be led and too weak to stand up to god one on one Preachers still preach that god is a punishing god. Who wants to sit in a building and listen to a preacher talk for 45 mins on something we really could care less about then ask for money for GODS church.
    churches condemn the homosexuals yet they hid and cover up the ones of their own people who are suppose to be holy.
    People condemns the coran yet the words are much more loving than in the bible.. Religions spend millions for everything but let our own people suffer and die.
    Today people by the thousands are leavening religions and seeking the true god on their own and finding out how they all have been misled

  3. What occurs to me is that the forces driving religion and spirituality now are the same as they have always been but in a different context.

    We no longer wonder what is beyond the night sky but beyond the next universe or beyond the last universe. Yeah but who made the laws of physics? We know about atoms but what makes atoms, okay then, what makes neutron, protons and electron, okay then what makes … As Jon Voight laments in National Treasure, another clue, which will lead to another clue, which will lead to another clue. There is no treasure. Or, perhaps, Hydra, for every question we answer there are two more created. And we turn to spirituality to attain some understanding of, or at least peace with, all these incredibly complicated mysteries — far more complex and just as daunting to the woman in the cave. There isn’t time to figure it all out; maybe there is another way.

    Religion is another matter altogether. I am beginning to think modern American Christianity is more of a self-organizing tribalism than anything else — when it’s not just a social club.

  4. My own approach bears similarity to jstephenobrien’s in his excellent comment, which is not to disparage you own, Otherwise. Your post is a well done take on the issue, even if I don’t happen to agree. I think there’s also two other significant drivers to the perpetuation of religion/spirituality…neuropsychology and natural selection. For reasons I’ll leave to someone better versed in the science to address, there seems to be a positive and/or desirable reaction of our brains and bodies to floods of neurochemicals triggered by “spiritual” behaviors, e.g., prayer, meditation, ritual, etc.

    I’m not convinced that the particular words and forms matter all that much. Couple controlled breathing, mindfulness, and drama, for instance, and I’m fairly certain that the object of one’s devotion matters little. The “names of power” could be Jesus, Jawheh, Avalokitesvara, or a made up word with lots of M’s, N’s, L’s, and Z’s. I think the biological effect is going to be much the same.

    As for natural selection, I think it’s possible that over the million or so years we’ve been evolving to our current state, that kind of neurobiological response is one of the traits that won out in the evolutionary lottery. Whether or not this has been good for the species in the long term is another question, but then again, so is the value of our development of human intelligence. If intellect drives nuclear annihilation, well, that was pretty much a bad move. Same could be said for our brains’ capacity to dope us up on dopamine because we mumble and gesticulate just so.

    I’m struck by a connection hinted at in jstephenobrien’s comment I’d not have arrived at otherwise, perhaps…bad weather being a driver of religiosity. I think there’s much to that observation, and it doesn’t bode well for us. Why? Industrial climate disruption…stimulus of much worse weather patterns to come. The more our consumption drives ICD, the more irrational about the matter religious-minded folks are likely to become in light of their increasingly powerless state to do something about it (never mind all that awful science that might help), and the more reactionary religious handwaving and handwringing there’s likely to be.

    Pity that. The spirituality thing need not be so damaging. There’s something positive to be said for self-regulated releases of dopamine and endorphins that help with stress, adversity, grief, and the host of other trials of being alive.

    • Frank, I once wrote a parody for this site about an alien race doing a report on homo sapiens, and in that report, the fictional writer made the point that all self-aware species known in the universe had adapted some form of religion to stave off the despair of impending death. So, yeah, we agree on this.

      I believe you are correct that both neuropsychology and regular psychology (not to mention physiology) recognize the benefits of spirituality. At one time, there was some evidence that there is a “God spot”in the brain, but subsequent publications have thrown a great deal of doubt on this, suggesting that spirituality isn’t localized that much.

      Personally, I believe that the fundamental driver of behavior is fear. It is not the only driver, but it is the one probably most highly related to survival (though I suppose you could make a case that drivers like “hunger” or “the need to breathe” come first). To the degree that we can overcome fear, we can often increase our odds of survival by finding better places to forage, ways to acquire so much wealth that we form a large cushion between ourselves and starvation, and the like. Spirituality has a calming effect, and may well be that (at least in part) that has allowed many humans to flourish and reproduce often instead of merely hide and eke out an existence, reproducing far less often. (I’m oversimplifying here, as some will recognize, but leaving out the innate curiosity of mammals that separates their behavior from, say, reptiles, but I’m not writing a book 😉 ).

      As for the weather, here’s piece of trivia that might interest you if you don’t already know it. The word “pagan” comes from the Latin “paganus,” which means, simply, “rural person.” I believe that to be rural is to have, generally, a higher level of generalized fear, and that means a rejection of progressive ideas, whether they be in religion (like the new Christianity in the Roman Empire) or other sectors of life. And the rural lifestyle and economy is highly dependent on the unpredictable weather, so a higher level of generalized fear seems appropriate.

      Will changes in the weather help drive American religiosity to even greater heights? I would think so. That, among many other things that currently separate urban and rural Americans.

      Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comment.

  5. It’s an easy, lazy solution to a complex question.

    What, in your experience of human beings, would argue that it wouldn’t be widely adopted??

  6. Outstanding thread, but let’s not be too patronizing of those who are “spiritual.” Years down in the trenches of, say, a meditation practice, can’t help but change one’s perspective based on one’s experiences.

    • That’s very hard for me. I just don’t get the spiritual thing. At all, and pretty much never have. In part that’s the concept itself. I agree with William Gibbons. But it’s also the people. For every sane spiritual person I know (you) there are nine blithering idiots babbling about everything from aliens to the zodiac. (Note the fool in this thread.) As a spiritual person, you travel with a bad crowd.

      Still, I shouldn’t patronize the spiritual, the smart ones or the fools. Being a fool doesn’t make you wrong, and being smart doesn’t make you right. Mengele was brilliant, but he wasn’t right.

  7. Russ, I in no way meant to be patronizing. What I didn’t add to what I wrote is that I know that spirituality provides a better life to many, many people. And I understand that even during the worst depredations of the most oppressive, monotheistic regimes, the average individual may have enjoyed a full and rich spiritual life that could well be called “a life well lived.”

    Perhaps where we might differ (and I don’t know this for a fact) is that my best guess is that spirituality, whether through meditation or some other means, is something one can create out of whole cloth within oneself, and not something that connects one with the hidden and supernatural. So, I tend to cast a skeptical eye on the experience of others, understanding that they believe what they say and that they gain much benefit from it, but not believing that what they are tapping into is something other than their own brains’ capacity.

    Now, when I say I “don’t believe,” this belief is based on probability. I readily admit that I could be wrong, but see no credible evidence that I am. Given credible evidence, I will happily, joyfully, and eagerly change my mind.


    • Occasionally the comment thread is better than the post and this is one of those times, in large part due to the leadership of JS. Lovely thought, lovely language. Terrific comment.

      By the way, I feel some shared pride here on the quality of this thread, but if I want to bring my self back to earth, I can always read my Tebow threads, which pretty much all follow the same format: “You suck and die. Him great man. Heap better than real football players. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. I hope you die with boils!!!!! Peace and god bless”

  8. Otherwise, you have my apologies for not limboing far below the bar as I’m wont to do 😉 I’m glad you managed to drop my usual quota of f-bombs for me, though, lol. Other than that, I second what you said about JS’s leadership on comments. It’s not that I couldn’t or wouldn’t parry with your post directly. It’s just that the disconnect between my own experience and your reasoning is so complete all I’d be able to contribute otherwise is a simple, “awesome post” comment.

    In that vein, JS strikes again!

    “…my best guess is that spirituality, whether through meditation or some other means, is something one can create out of whole cloth within oneself, and not something that connects one with the hidden and supernatural.”

    Your observation accords entirely with my experience. As an agnostic, I’ve left quite a bit of wiggle room for myself when it comes to dabbling in matters arcane over the last 20+ years. One stream of thought and praxis to which I return with some regularity falls under the rubric of “chaos magick,” which is, essentially, an anything goes approach to magick, replete with the usual amounts of hand waving, incanting, etc. one might expect from such a field. One of its salient features is the option, even the encouragement, to hop from one “paradigm” to the next (ugh, I know, I hate the usage of the word in that context).

    So I, being the dutifully chaotic and eclectic sort that I am, have, over the years, played around with the practices in the context of Western Hermetic traditions, voudou, Buddhism, bakhti yoga, ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Sumerian pantheons, etc., and what I discovered is this. Confirmation bias is an awesomely powerful force when it comes to spirituality. Done your tyro cap, read a few books on Buddhism like a typical Buddhist-curious Westerner, and engage in praxis in a manner that co-opts cherry-picked elements in an entirely cavalier manner and…the whole universe suddenly looks like that makes absolutely perfectly good sense!

    Ground for a bit, shake off the bits of that reading and experience that cling, and play at tuning into Christ consciousness. Voila! The whole universe suddenly looks like that makes absolutely perfectly good sense. Do that with Warner Bros cartoons. Yup. Sense. Hindu deities? Sense. Lovecraft mythos? Sense. Ad nauseam.

    That’s why, especially when vindicated by cherry-picked and serendipitously discovered confirmation bias reinforcing news of studies, I think it just doesn’t matter what themes and motifs one chooses. The only common denominator I can find is the bag of meat behind my forehead. So, aside from just not having enough evidence to firmly come down in favor of any kind of deity-belief, I’m completely unsold on the necessity of it for so-called “spirituality” to work.

    So why do it? For me, it’s partly a search for meaning. Mostly, though, it’s so that I can change the filters through which I view an apparently random and chaotic existence. It allows me to play connect-the-dots in a way that just isn’t open to most folks (for lack of trying). Sometimes I find useful connections. Sometimes the connections are just of the “ooh, shiny” variety. Sometimes they’re akin to the ideas one has when under any of a variety of influences, ideas best left, perhaps, in the bowl one smoked ’em from. I’ve gotten better (but by no means perfect or even masterful) at distinguishing the different types but the times I’ve found sufficient meaning, beauty, or ecstasy have made such an approach well worth the effort for me. Added bonus: I’m generally averse to drinking someone else’s Kool-Aid. Now if only I could stop drinking my own 😉

    • >>That’s why, especially when vindicated by cherry-picked and serendipitously discovered confirmation bias reinforcing news of studies, I think it just doesn’t matter what themes and motifs one chooses.

      When everything is equal, nothing is essential. Dispense with the distorting filters and struggle to see clearly.

  9. @rushmc: Ah, but which distorting filter are you using that leads that that prescription? The 21st Century filter? As reckoned by what starting point? Common Era? Anno Domini? The national filter of your residence? Or the national filter of your heritage? Your gender filter? Your species filter? The filter of your education? Of your faith or the lack of one? Of your relationship status? Of parentage? Of profession? Of ideology?

    Show me a person without a distortion filter, and I’ll show you a headstone 🙂