June 3, 2019

Religion as a Human Need

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It is hard to imagine that any atheist living today could be unaware that most humans throughout history have believed in gods. There have been plenty of notable exceptions, and we are witnessing a decline in religious belief in many Western countries today; however, one would not need to go back very far in time to find oneself surrounded by religion (as some of us still are). Moreover, the evidence of religion's historic influence surrounds us no matter where we live. It may not have ever been universal, but it was pretty damn close and not all that long ago.

Not surprisingly, the ubiquitous nature of religious belief throughout history has prompted a number of theories. Do humans have an inherent need for religion? Some have gone so far as to suggest that religion is part of what it means to be human. Is there, as some evangelical Christians have become fond of claiming, a "god-shaped hole" in our hearts or minds? Is there a "god gene" or something similar that predisposes us to create supernatural fictions?

Is Religion a Basic Human Need?

Christians (and probably at least some 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 organized religion is replaced by the broader construct of spirituality. The question of whether religion or spirituality meet core human needs is an interesting one with fairly obvious implications about the future of theism and atheism.

If religion and/or spirituality are basic human needs, how are we to understand atheists? Do atheists have a different constellation of needs from religious believers, and how might that have come about? Do atheists have similar needs as religious believers but arranged in a different order? Do atheists have similar needs in a similar order but very different ways of meeting them? If religion and/or spirituality are basic needs, it might help to explain why so much of humanity still has not progressed beyond them. But if they are basic needs, it is not clear why atheists do not seem constrained by them.

I'm not ready to concede that religion and/or spirituality are basic needs; however, it seems clear that they can (and often are) a way through which people meet other needs (e.g., community/belongingness, purpose/meaning, etc.). If atheists hope to make any progress toward encouraging our neighbors to let go of religion and become more "reality-based," we will probably have to confront the benefits many people believe they derive from religion. I do not disagree that there are benefits of religion for some, but I believe that there are equally effective and much less destructive means for obtaining many of the same benefits. And like many atheists, I also suspect that at least some of the perceived benefits may be illusory.

One Framework

There are many psychological theories that consider human needs, and they run the gamut from instinctual drives (Freud) to more aspirational models (Maslow). Influential in psychology and probably even more so in other fields, Maslow posited a hierarchy of needs in which higher-order needs become relevant only after lower-order needs are met. He believed that most people will never satisfy their higher-order needs. Starting from the bottom and moving up, these needs include (1) physiological needs (e.g., food/water, sleep, etc.); (2) safety needs (e.g., sense of security, stability, etc.); (3) love needs (e.g., belongingness to groups, family, etc.); (4) esteem needs (e.g., self-esteem and praise/recognition from others); and (5) self-actualization (i.e., reaching one's full potential).

Maslow's theory has been criticized on many grounds, but one of the more important criticisms involves may involve its limited applicability to Western, mainstream, middle-to-upper class individuals. Nevertheless, there is something intuitively appealing about the idea that once basic physiological needs are out of the way, many people appear to meet several of the remaining needs through religion.

Coherence

Religion seems to provide people with a sense of coherence, consistency, and certainty. Thus, religious belief satisfies what Maslow referred to as "safety needs" for many people. The promise of an afterlife, the notions of salvation and forgiveness, and the belief that the bible is actually the word of some sort 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 humans needed and expect people to have outgrown it. Making decisions is difficult for many people, and making important decisions can be tough for any of us. Christian extremists believe that their bible is the 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 promoted.

Perhaps any viable alternative to religious belief will need to offer some form of coherence/stability/consistency in order to meet safety needs. Can a naturalistic belief system do this? I believe it probably 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 doing so. This is part of the appeal of superstition that naturalism has difficulty matching. For science and reason to provide a viable alternative to religion, people must become more comfortable thinking and tolerating ambiguity.

How might this happen? First, people must know how to apply sound reason, critical thinking, and empiricism. In other words, they must learn how to think. Spend any time at U.S. colleges and universities, and you will find that the majority of first-year students have not yet learned these skills. This is not a good sign and one that should lead us to confront the shortcomings of our public education system. Critical thinking is too important to save for college. Instead of blaming the public schools exclusively, we must also 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 public has been moving in the opposite direction over the past decade or more, 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 should be expected to impact the other needs currently met by religion for the vast majority of people. Finding a sense of coherence elsewhere does not occur in a vacuum because many other needs will likely be impacted.

Belonging

In the U.S., loudly announcing that one is a Christian and attending church provides one with a nearly instant support system. Here in the South, religion goes way beyond Sunday morning. The fundamentalists attend church on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. During revival, they attend every evening. They rarely have friends outside their church. Joining a church provides a tremendous sense of social support...as long as you are willing to conform to church doctrine.

The need for belonging is a powerful human need, and many people meet this need through religion. This is an appealing thing about religion. A Christian moving to a new town can join a church and not be lonely. We atheists have nothing that can compare to this. Life as an atheist can be lonely, especially for those of us who live in rural areas located in predominately religious regions. We have a long way to go if we are to provide people with an alternative to religion for meeting their belongingness needs.

I wonder how many believers remain under the control of the church primarily for the social benefits. To leave one's religion, one must give up a tremendous community. Most of the ex-fundamentalists I have encountered mention the loss of support as one of the most difficult aspects of the de-conversion process. From the sound of it, things are even worse in a cult like Scientology.

Atheists are a diverse group, and many of us aren't exactly "joiners." We learn to meet our belongingness needs in other ways. This is fine except that not everyone is going to be willing or able to do this. It would be nice if we had a stronger secular community that could help to support atheists. Of course, one obstacle for forming atheist communities is that most atheists don't view themselves as primarily atheists (in the same way Christians do). While that means atheist communities may have limited appeal, the flip-side is that secular communities organized around other topics could work for some.

Esteem

It may initially seem less clear how religion could meet what Maslow referred to as "esteem needs," but I think this will quickly become evident. What better way could there be to boost one's self-esteem than to convince oneself that an all-powerful being is intimately concerned with one's welfare? For the "personal relationship with Jesus" crowd, faith is both an identity and an important source of self-esteem. These esteem-related benefits are also connected with things like belonging and community. Faith is widely regarded as virtuous, and the faithful receive praise from others within their religious community.

I am not sure how this need could be met through secular means without some fairly substantial cultural changes. As long as praiseworthy characteristics like intelligence or skepticism are devalued while something as silly as faith brings praise, this seems like an uphill battle. Over time, perhaps we could find ways to provide people with other groups (i.e., secular groups) with which they might identify and through which they might be able to meet some of their esteem needs.

Secular Ways to Meet Our Needs

In this post, I have considered the possibility that many people are currently meeting their needs through religion and shared some thoughts about what it might look like to meet the same needs through secular means. Unfortunately, religion has a massive head start, and we atheists really have our work cut out if we aim to help large numbers of religious believers meet their needs without religion. The good news is that we have an obvious place to start. There are plenty of atheists out there leading fulfilling lives and not missing anything about religion. We can start with them and learn more about how they are meeting their needs. That should give us some ideas about what we might need to do to scale it up to accommodate more people.

This post combined and re-worked four separate posts that originally appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005.