January 14, 2006

The Power of Religion

Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I continue to think about the issues raised by Richard Dawkins on The Root of All Evil and the critique by Madeline Bunting published in The Guardian. I have no doubt that the influence of religion will eventually decline; however, I suspect that this future decline may be temporary and that it will rise again (at least in the U.S.). In other words, we will continue to experience a cyclic rising and falling of religious influence just as we have throughout history. Unless a secular system of meaning can be developed which meets all the human desires as well as religion, humanity will not outgrow religion anytime soon.

Religion derives power from numerous sources, too many to discuss in one post. In this limited space, I'd like to highlight four that have been on my mind lately. First, people do not tolerate ambiguity well. They want definitive answers, and many will take false certainty over accurate uncertainty without hesitation. Second, tradition is very important to many people. It isn't that they believe something solely because their parents did, but they will often have a preference toward familiar beliefs. Thus, belief systems are slow to change, and change will often be resisted. Third, people fear death and crave immortality. This is so obvious that it needs no justification, and yet it serves as the primary selling point for all mainstream religions. People believe because belief consoles their fears, the grief of losing loved ones, and promises everlasting life. Fourth, people believe because almost everyone else does. Never underestimate the power of conformity or the sense of belonging one feels as a member of a religious group.

According to Bunting,
So the atheist humanists have been betrayed by the irrational, credulous nature of human beings; a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers. 
This statement contains a great deal of truth. Our hopes that humankind would outgrow religion quickly seem to have been misplaced. We have underestimated the power of religion and how well it provides exactly what so many crave. Misanthropy is something with which some atheists struggle, including this one. We wonder how anyone can believe what Pat Robertson tells them and what this must say about humanity. We look at what is happening in the world and are baffled that anyone could believe it is the work of a higher morality.

Some atheists have indeed given up on humanity. For others, it is a daily struggle. No easy answers here, but I do think we'd be better served by making genuine efforts to understand the appeal of religion before we label it as irrational, delusional, etc. Through deeper understanding, maybe we will be better equipped to develop alternatives or to help others move beyond it.