It was Karl Marx that famously uttered the line “religion is the opium of the people”. The founder of socialist philosophy himself believed that religion was contemptible and marked the deplorable weakness of the masses in their pursuit of “illusory happiness”. Marx, of course, detested religious sentiments in favor of an overarching economic explanation of the world. His words, though a very extreme example, bear testament to the perceived value of religion in the modern world.
It’s true that on American soil religiosity has never been scarce and even today, our nation is home to very devout peoples. However, in the centers of media, entertainment, and those metropolitan areas generally on the cultural fore, religion has had a deteriorating reputation for some time now. Research indicates that religiosity is usually associated with negative affect. Interestingly, “spirituality” enjoys far more positive associations.
If religion is actually fading into the background as an antiquated idea, this should rightly be a cultural concern. Religions have a considerable influence in helping to moor cultures, for one thing. Religion also — by supplying a worldview and often usually involving a community aspect and a humanitarian impulse — tends to handily sop up a lot of citizen discontent. And by that I mean, people absent of any religious threads tend to compensate by shoveling more of their energies, and perhaps disaffection, into outlets like politics.
Religion has a purpose in modern life and contrary to the thoughts of many secularist thinkers, will never go out of fashion. There are some that view religion as a primitive, stubbornly persistent feature attached to human societies. It is commonly associated with a lack of reason or intelligence, a slavish dogmatism, and even an ill-advised capitulation to the vague, sloppy definition of “faith”.
Surprisingly early in America’s history emerged an age of reason — otherwise known as The Enlightenment. Similar to the European movement of the same name, this philosophical chapter furnished the New World with a slew of impressive contributions: the ideas of individualism, liberalism, universal ethics, objectivity, rationalism, fair government, capitalism, and free markets, all trace their roots back to the Age of Reason.
And yet one very vital, initially overlooked casualty of the Enlightenment was that of religion — which died a partial, messy death at the hands of the movement’s prominent thinkers. Of course, it wasn’t blotted out entirely — far from it — but it did suffer a historically unprecedented loss of credibility for the time. Atheism sprung out of the radicalism of Enlightenment movements, inspired by the supposed futility of reason to supply an explanation for God and later, to support the merits of organized religion.
And yet, religion never disappeared, despite its nudging into a dark corner. It still retains a hold on segments of most populations and it’s worth wondering why. Religion offers a structure unto which we map the phenomena of our lives. It provides meaning and a grounding sense of objectivity. Religion places our human selves somewhere on the line of continuity. It also offers a blueprint for how to act in the world, satisfies a longing for justice, and supplies a certain order to people in their lives which can feel emotionally consoling and intellectually secure. None of this is insignificant.
The elements just alluded to — order, ritual, and justice — all align themselves on a left-brain continuum. But this is not the extent of religion. And too often peoples suspicious and cynical about institutional religion fall prey to the idea that it is little but dogmatic doctrine, little but organized madness, in a sense. Religion, to them, appears to have an unsavory oppressive and obsessive influence in people’s lives.
And yet, religiosity is not this stunted, pessimistic definition. It imparts a respectful humility to our human insufficiency to know all that there is know about the universe. It exists, not only to provide the stabilizing and often healing structure previously mentioned, but also to provide a framework within which we can contend with our own limitations.
Mystery, divinity, and the awe of religious experience, then, exist on the right-brain continuum. The human soul, after all, hungers for something beyond intellect to supply itself with answers to the world, probably because it knows intellect is actually hopelessly ill-equipped for such a formidable task. Religions’s secret is that it knows this — and so it makes room for the sacred, the numinous, and the transcendent.
Religion, then, is both comforting and vast. As a worldview, one must admit, religion itself is a stunning integration of right-and-left brain features. It is both the doctrine of scripture and the allusion to heaven. It is both commandments scrawled in stone and misty notions of forgiveness — of redemptive absolution.
Religion is both the hush of prayer and the fervency of song. It is both reverence and exaltation. It is both ultimate helplessness before divinity and responsibility for one’s actions. It is both pardon and penance.
The Evolution of Religion
Religion is as old as time itself. With the ancient inceptions of the first gods and goddesses, religion and “higher powers” became rooted in fear. But also: benevolence. Fear of incurring the wrath of the gods was widespread and a rampant anxiety concerning unseen forces that kept tabs on mortals took hold. People lived in fear of agricultural curses, for instance, and would thus sacrifice to ancient fertility goddesses. Coupled with the notion that divine figures could bring the world to its knees was an interesting juxtaposition of a belief in their equal potential for beneficence or goodwill.
And so, religion evolved as blessing bound up with curse, wrath with benevolence, fear with love. From a psychological perspective, a gathering of all this data would suggest that people wanted to believe in something larger than themselves. And it would also appear that people wanted to believe they could atone for their imperfection. And it would also appear that people wanted to believe in a world that operated on justice, and by implication, was a world incurably fused by both the presence of light and the presence of shadow.
Even though we have long been removed from prehistoric centuries and our current culture is infused by science and rationalism, religion never died. Religion was never completely jettisoned by reason, contrary to some earlier grim prognostications. Human society did not transcend religion and it wasn’t seamlessly co-opted into a streamlined, merely philosophic code of morals, either. Tellingly, we still cling to the grand, sweeping feel of traditional religion.
Religion, I think, is a means we’ve historically evolved to compensate for our inescapable fate of earthly imperfection. It is a coping mechanism for existence. It is the psycho-philosophical infrastructure for large swaths of humanity that requires both a respect for order on one hand, and a respect for mysticism on the other.
This can be otherwise explained as an adherence to doctrine and rules coupled with a reliance on faith, or all that is frustratingly unexplainable. Thus, there is a satisfying duality to religion, a melding of archetypal “order” and “chaos”.
The Conflict Between Reason and Religion
This is where ‘reason’ falls short. Reason is completely the domain of the left-brain. And it’s an admirable conqueror, a quick and piercing contender, a heroic weapon — but importantly, respective to its domain.
Because, in viewing the whole picture, it becomes evident that we simply don’t know all that there is to know about the world. And we certainly can’t gain control over the world even if we tried. After all, if we did know everything and we knew that we did (or at least that we knew that we could know it), then why would we not think ourselves gods? And yet, most atheists and proponents of absolute reason would appear to be subconsciously aware of the futility of this endeavor and it is why they do not actually think themselves “gods” or masters of the universe.
In addition, reason sits on the smooth, brightly lit plane of consciousness. It divorces itself from the murky, nebulous contents of the unconscious. It severs itself from the “chaos” representative of the right-brain and detaches itself from symbolism.
Religion, in a way, lays bare the limitations of language in explaining one’s relationship to existence, the world, and a higher power.
The ‘leap of faith’ intrinsic to religion is often criticized as irrational and something like ‘a leap from intellect’. But how often do we consider the simple speculation that perhaps not all noumena can be deduced in language, distilled down into words? (Which, as we know, is the principle mode of communication of the left-brain.)
Myths in primitive eras were tellingly threaded through with themes of morality. They weren’t dry, scientific depictions of the world. Instead, they were concerned with value, with what mattered — not with what was. This is some indication that from our very beginnings, it was intrinsically unnatural to see the world only by the cold light of reason. In addition, it should be very revealing that all major religions are based on a narrative, a story, wherein there can be found a beginning and an end to existence (represented differently in Eastern religions, surely).
Religion, then, is not some ridiculous byproduct of our crude beginnings that stubbornly clings (irrationally!) to the minds of the masses. It’s an evolved coping mechanism for existence. It is symbolism and metaphysics and ethics, all in one.
The Endurance of Religion
We must ask why things persist, after all. Why has religion never truly died? (Granted, overall cultural respect for it is probably waning in today’s world.) We should never rush, I think, to eradicate something as old and everlasting as religion for perhaps its longevity itself is an indication of its merit — even (and maybe especially if) we don’t know precisely what that is and we cannot strangle it to pin it down in words.
Besides all of the diverse conduits of value hitherto mentioned, religion can act as a counterweight to human disorder, tyranny, and the degradation of ethics in society.
Note the fact that slavery was abolished on the grounds of religious convictions and ethical considerations, on the idea “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” The American nation has a lot to owe religion in light of the observation that Judeo-Christian ethical notions formed the bedrock of the country and its revolutionary (for the era), Enlightenment-esque mode of government.
Theology will likely never be completely supplanted by science and the mystery of the world and existence cannot ever be truly eradicated by the adept hands of empirical knowledge.
Religion will continue to persist in our human societies as it should. It will persist because it supplies us with things that we cannot receive elsewhere. It gives us a story. (After all, there is something consoling about the vast world narrative that it purveys.)
And it bravely attempts to grapple with basic, universal truths about human existence. And it gives us rules to live by, encourages self-examination, and invokes the balance of justice — retribution on one side, reward on the other.
Religion grants us purpose and a moral compass and a feeling of continuity. And on the other side of that: our minds are pinpricked by ideas of heavenly grandeur and the wonder of Nature and the awe-inducing miracle of life. We are proffered also an appreciation for sublimity and a way of contending with the unexplainable phenomena of existence.
Religion, then, constitutes an emotionally bolstering perspective on life that compensates for the left-brain, right-brain duality of human experience. As a warning: cultural contempt for religion can not only be psychologically deadening, but can strip cultures of valuable elements and thus, contribute to its demise.
Religion has been lingering since the dawn of time and seems synonymous with, and vital to, life, which makes me wonder — if religion, in all its vast glory and constituent meanings died, maybe a part of us would die too?