July 13, 2005

Religion as a Basic Human Need?

Christians (and I suppose theists of other persuasions) are fond of arguing that religion meets a basic human need. This perspective is shared by many social scientists, especially when religion (i.e., organized religion) is replaced by the broader construct of spirituality. The question of whether religion or spirituality meet core human needs is an important one with fairly obvious implications about the future of theism and atheism.

If religion/spirituality are basic human needs, how are we to understand atheists? Do we have a different constellation of needs, similar needs but arranged in a different priority, or different ways of meeting similar needs? If religion/spirituality are basic needs, it is unlikely that humans will ever evolve beyond these delusions. If this is the case, maybe we atheists need to modify our expectations.

I'm not quite ready to concede that religion/spirituality are basic needs per se. However, it is fairly clear that they can (and often are) a way through which people meet other basic needs (e.g., community/belongingness, purpose/meaning, etc.). If we hope to make any progress toward helping society let go of religion and become more "reality-based," we will have to confront the benefits that many people believe they derive from religion. I do not disagree that there are benefits, but I believe that there are equally effective and much less destructive means for obtaining the same benefits.