Considering Four Factors to Explain the Staying Power of Religion

Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I found the issues raised by Richard Dawkins on The Root of All Evil and the critique by Madeline Bunting published in The Guardian to be quite thought-provoking when I encountered them back in 2006. At the time, I had little doubt that the influence of religion would eventually decline; however, I wrote that I suspected this decline may be temporary and religious belief would likely rise again (at least in the U.S. where it seems to have such a foothold). In other words, I predicted that we may continue to experience a cyclic rising and falling of religious influence just as we have throughout much of 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 its staying 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. I imagine we have all known plenty of people like this. Many are not interested in asking questions because resulting uncertainty is something they find unpleasant. They'll gladly accept definitive sounding answers without sufficient basis to alleviate this uncertainty.

Second, tradition is very important to many people. It isn't that they believe something solely because their parents did, but they often have a preference toward familiar beliefs. Familiar beliefs often feel right in a way that other beliefs do not. Beliefs that feel right are far less likely to be questioned. Thus, belief systems are slow to change, and change will often be resisted (e.g., "But that's how we've always done it").

Third, people fear death and crave immortality. This is so obvious that it needs no justification, and yet it probably 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. Even atheists are susceptible to the allure of getting to reconnect with a recently departed loved one. We may recognize that this is not the world we inhabit but most of us can relate to the wish that it was.

Fourth, people believe because almost everyone else does. Never underestimate the power of popularity, not to mention the sense of belonging one feels as a member of a religious group. Some of us have had the experience of being so thoroughly immersed in religious societies that we were unaware there were people who did not believe in the predominant religion. That was a powerful antidote to questioning, one which keeps many religious believers trapped in their belief system.

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.

I think 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 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 given up on humanity. For others, it can be a daily struggle to figure out whether humanity is worth the effort. There are no easy answers here, but I do think we'd all 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. In any case, denying the power of religion leaves us poorly equipped to move our society is a more secular direction.

An early version of this post initially appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006. It was revised and expanded in 2021.