July 17, 2005

Needs Met by Religion: Coherence

Following up on my previous post on this topic, a good starting point would be to observe that religion provides people with a sense of coherence/consistency/certainty. Thus, religious belief satisfies what mislay referred to as "safety needs" for many people. The promise of an afterlife, the notions of salvation and forgiveness, and belief that the bible is actually the word of god all serve to provide a sense of security and predictability in a confusing world.

Don't be too quick to dismiss this as something prehistoric man needed and expect people to have outgrown it. Making decisions is difficult for many people, and making important decisions can be extremely tough for any of us. Christian extremists believe that the bible is the inherently word of their god. It can be thought of as an instruction manual for life, bringing a powerful sense of relief and strong feelings of safety. Because everyone who attends their churches uses the same instruction manual, disagreement is minimized and consistency is again promoted.

This discussion implies that a viable alternative to religious belief must offer some form of coherence/stability/consistency in order to meet safety needs. Can a naturalistic belief system do this? I believe it can but not as easily. Part of human nature appears to involve looking for shortcuts, taking the easy way out, and running from true freedom because it entails unpredictability, ambiguity, and risk. Many people do not like to think and will actively avoid it. This is part of the appeal of superstition that naturalism has difficulty matching. For science and reason to provide a viable alternative, people must be willing to think.

First, people must know how to apply sound reason, critical thinking, and empiricism. In other words, they must know how to think. Spend any time at American colleges, and you will find that the majority of first-year students have not yet learned these skills. This is not a good sign and forces us to confront the shortcomings of public education. But instead of blaming the public schools exclusively, we must take a hard look at parents and church.

Second, those who have critical thinking and reasoning skills must be willing to apply them. This is an even greater challenge because the application of these skills is time-consuming, more difficult than the application of religious devotion, and requires a commitment to the objective truth rather than the constructed "truth." For example, an individual is required to value and apply scientific empiricism at least as much as his/her own subjective experience. The American public has been moving in the opposite direction over the past several years, and we have our work cut out to reverse this trend.

Third, because the first two tasks are in direct opposition to religious faith, they will impact the other needs currently met by religion for the vast majority of people. I'll get to those other needs in later posts, but the point for now is simply that finding a sense of coherence elsewhere does not occur in a vacuum because many other needs will be impacted.