It is no secret to my students that I am an atheist. It usually comes up early in my classes when I have to talk about cultural universals like religion, or when I have to explain why I don’t teach intelligent design (the secret code name for Christian creationism). I am also quick to reassure them that I have no interest in turning them into atheists; however, I do nurture a secret hope that by helping them become better critical thinkers, they may come to embrace agnosticism, if not outright atheism, on their own. But, I do not want to browbeat them – dare I say convert them? – into atheism. When I give my lecture on religion, I’m trying to explain it to them from an anthropological perspective. Religion is a cultural universal – every culture has one – so my students need to know the basic outlines of what constitutes religion.
I teach the concepts mostly from a functionalist perspective. Anthropologically, religion can be simply defined as beliefs or rituals that revolve around or involve supernatural beings or forces. What is the function of religion in society? First and foremost, it serves to answer unanswerable questions: WHY are we here? WHAT happens after we die? WHERE do we go? WHY do bad things happen to good people? WHY isn’t God a Charger fan? And so on. These questions cannot be answered by science. God/the supernatural, as encompassed in the myriad religious practices of the world, serve to help people answer the unanswerable, and explain the unexplainable. Of course, in the earliest religions, many of the unanswerable questions were things that science has now explained: why does the sun rise and set? What are stars? What makes a volcano erupt? Yet, as long as we have existential questions such as why are we here, then we will still have religion.
Religion also provides comfort during anxious times. When a person has suffered a devastating loss, they can turn to their religious beliefs for solace. I think for many people, it is much easier to believe that God has a plan for them than it is to believe that bad things happen for no reason at all. It is terrible to imagine that, say, losing your child to cancer has no greater meaning. So, people pray, or talk about God’s plan, or say that little Junior is with the angels in Heaven. Of course, suffering great pain or loss can also make people question their faith, but that anxiety-reducing function of religion keeps people returning to their supernatural or spiritual beliefs. As an atheist, I am comfortable with the knowledge that there is no greater purpose to life; it doesn’t make my life any less meaningful, and in fact in some ways makes it more meaningful, because I’m convinced that this is the only chance I’ll get and I’m going to make the most of it (the multiple fallacies that people hold about atheists, such as the idea that people who don’t believe in God eat babies because without God you can’t be moral, is a subject for another post).
Along with the comfort and anxiety reduction functions, religion has an important role to play in educating people about correct behavior and what the consequences will be if they step out of line. Having a religion that offers rewards or threatens punishment is a very useful tool for regulating individual and group behavior. It’s even better if people believe that God is always watching them; even if you are alone, God sees you masturbating! So you’ll follow the rules even when no one else is around. Religion also provides the rules themselves. For the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – yes, I tell my often surprised students, Yahweh, God, and Allah are all the same guy), those rules are codified in holy texts such as the Talmud, Torah, Bible, and Koran. All three of these religions share the Old Testament, but their theologies are differentiated in their independent holy books. The Bible is filled with rules of conduct and stories with examples of the consequences if you don’t comply – just look at Lot’s poor wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt because she disobeyed God by looking back as she and Lot fled Sodom and Gomorrah (aside – if I was Lot, I’d be thrilled that my wife got turned into a woman-sized salt block. Salt was extremely valuable in those days!).
One of the things I find to be the most interesting about religion is that religions always reflect the cultures from which they are derived. This is an obvious statement, but it’s not one that is often scrutinized. Religion provides an orderly model of the universe in that it gives a supernatural origin story for why the world is the way it is. Where did we come from? God made us from clay and breathed life into us. Why do we suffer? Because first Eve, then Adam, disobeyed God by eating the apple. Why do we follow the rules we follow? Because God told Moses the rules and bade him share those teachings with his followers. Think about what this does for the people following the rules of their culture, as codified in their religion: it provides a supernatural mandate for doing things a certain way. It removes from groups and individuals the burden of being responsible and puts the burden on God. It allows people to say, “Hey, I didn’t make the rules. God did.”
I have been using mostly Christian examples here for convenience, because it is the religion with which my readers will be the most familiar, but these ideas apply to all religions, from the simplest animatism to New Age spiritualism to the most complex polytheism to the mainstream, widespread Abrahamic religions and all their different denominations and sects. And every one of these religions is a proxy for the culture they come from.
I have heard some people argue that religion is the root of all evil. I don’t entirely disagree, but I don’t think that’s really the problem. It makes sense to say that religion is the root cause of many of the world’s conflicts, both past and present; many people have gone to war in the name of their religion. Obviously a deeply fundamentalist interpretation of Islam drives groups like the Islamic State today, just as a particular interpretation of Christianity drove the Crusades. People fight and kill and destroy and die for their beliefs, so you could argue that if there were no religions there would be no war. But I think that is completely wrong. The fact that religion is a proxy for culture is the reason why I believe we will never be free of conflicts that people are willing to die for. Religion is just the supernatural explanation for culture. That’s why I can say I’m an atheist, yet I live by the largely Judeo-Christian morals of my culture. I don’t have to believe in God to be a good person; I’m a good person because my parents, my family, and my culture have taught me to be. If my way of life was threatened to the degree that I felt the need to take up arms to defend it, I would, but God would have nothing to do with it.
The conflicts we are experiencing around the world may seem to be based on religion, but really, they’re based on ideology. Many people in the United States believe our way of life is the best way and the right way, and many US Christians will say it’s because we are a country based on the Bible (the fact that this is not historically accurate does not change the fact that our overall ethics and morality generally derive from Judeo-Christian principles). The terrorists of ISIS explicitly attribute their motivations to Islam, but they are also fighting for a way of life. The Sunni and Shiite conflicts that rage throughout the Middle East, or the Israel-Palestine division that seems impossible to bridge, or the Hindus in India fighting with Muslims in Pakistan; these are all fights for culture and ideology. Even if you took religion completely out of it and made all these people atheists, they would still believe that their way of life was the right way, and they would fight. Religion isn’t the root of all evil. People are.