IOT: Pain, Fear, and Awe: The Human Motivations Toward Religion


Independence of Thought series: Part 3: Pain, Fear, and Awe: The Human Motivations Toward Religion

Now lets examine what factors form the primary human motivations toward religion: The most important part of it, and what really provides the susceptibility to religious thinking in general: is existential pain. Every individual has to come to terms with the reality that we all are born into–rich, poor, whatever gender or culture we may be–finding meaning to life, and the pain and struggle that we humans face on daily basis.

We can thus look at religion as a set of ideas and principles for facing pain. A universal salve. This varies widely from culture to culture. In impoverished countries, belief in the afterlife is often the only hope many people have for escaping appalling levels of suffering. Regardless of class or circumstance, however, the religious impulse is universal. We all need to find a way to come to terms with our smallness, our limitation, our humanness. We want to feel that someone is taking care of the persistent injustice we witness in the world. We need to feel that there is some sort of answer to the questions that rise up in our minds when we stare into a night sky, look into the eyes of a newborn child, or take in a sunset on the beach.

I understand the questions. I feel the sense of incredible smallness, insignificance, and limitation that we face in our short lives. I understand the temptation to conclude: There MUST be more than this. This CAN’T all just be over in 70 or 80 years. We MUST have a reason for being here that extends beyond the grave.

But then, unfortunately, finding no particular evidence of a reason beyond our day-to-day human concerns, we give up, throw our hands in the air and manufacture the reason, and call it god. And from a benign and natural impulse most of us use to resolve the unresolvable, we create heaps of trouble for ourselves. We buy into one of the most insidious mechanisms of human control ever created. And in pursuing god, our closest approach to the “infinite,” we paradoxically embrace crushing limitations on our lives.

We don’t need religion—we only think we do. And it takes a heavy toll on humanity.

We have all the tools in our own minds and our own hearts, to live very happy and productive lives on Earth and to concentrate on this one great life that we do have, instead of focusing on a dubious or non-existent afterlife. I’ve discussed at length how morality can be based on human nature, by striking a balance between self-interest and the building of close-knit social communities based on reciprocal altruism and trade.

Psychologically, there are many humanist strategies for dealing with existential pain, finding hope and strength by facing our fears and ultimately the reality and inevitability of tragedy, strife, and even our own death. This is really important to acknowledge, because a lot of people would tend to think that—well, why don’t you just leave religion alone. Why don’t you just let people have their beliefs? They insist, “You may have had a bad experience, but that doesn’t mean everyone did. Why don’t you just let the believers be, and, you know, concentrate on your own life?”

And, if it were that simple, I would think that would be good advice—for the most part. Except that, religions aren’t content to do that. They push their faith-based values and faith-based epistemology on the rest of us. They try to get us to accept their standards of culture and taste as binding on the whole world. They make war on science. They engage in rank sentimentality and guilt-tripping. And they have created laws and social customs that prevent people from being who they are–all over the world.

In short, religions aren’t by far the beneficent altruistic constructions they like to pretend they are. And since they place the highest value on the afterlife, and some even glorify martyrdom, they go a long way toward preventing people from focusing on making the most of the one great life that they actually have.

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