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Why Is Religion Ubiquitous?

Updated on November 21, 2016
Sam Wickstrom profile image

Sam was a Christian for 15 years and was motivated by fear of hell-fire to be certain of whether or not God exists.

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Thesis

Religion is ubiquitous because of six essential factors which appeal to our fundamental psychological nature: trust, indoctrination, fear, and a desire for social acceptance, eternal life in paradise, and a sense of purpose.

Thousands of Muslims gathered
Thousands of Muslims gathered

Conformity

As I have, I'm sure you've long pondered the reasons behind the normality of religion across human lives. I would argue that to understand religion we should first understand the primary motivator behind it's proliferation. I've wondered about the many reasons behind religion and it's seemingly invincible popularity, and I've come to realize that the primary incentive for religious commitment is the unrelenting desire for social acceptance.

Tribalism and the psychological mechanisms which preserve it have kept humans alive for hundreds of thousands of years. MRI scans have shown that the brain lights up to social ostracism in the same way it would to physical torture. Being ostracized is incredibly painful. Outsiders and social rejects are generally physically and mentally of worse health than their conformist counterparts. The fear of this immense discomfort could likely be the primary motivator behind religion's seemingly unstoppable commonality.

To give in to the pressure of religion and join in can feel very satisfying. Being a part of something bigger than yourself is a commonplace incentive. When people have a tribe, a community, a larger group, it can significantly increase their happiness, overall health, and well-being. It doesn't matter whether or not the religion is true, what matters is that the members of that religion feel safe, accepted, and part of a force, power, or belief that is greater than themselves.

Hell
Hell

Fear Of Death

It's quite normal to have a deep fear of death. That's essentially what's kept us alive all this time. Many people are incredibly anxious on their death bed, unsure of what to expect. The notion of an afterlife is unmistakably ordinary.

Many religions have proliferated through the spreading of fear. Take for example a village in the south of France, long before public education, the internet, libraries and so on. What the people around you believed was the only reality available to you. The only person who could read the Latin bible were the priests or monks. These men would be the mediator between you and God. Your only way of understanding what comes after death would be to ask them. These men would tell you that if you pay your tithes, obey the commandments, and follow the given rituals, you could enter into the kingdom of heaven. If not, it was fiery torment for you, and for all of eternity. This idea would have you working hard in this life to assure you would avoid the dark pits of hell in the next.

Many other religions have spread their ideas through means of fear. Fear is a curious human emotion, because it actually reduces our ability for critical thought. Imagine having a conversation about God with a very devout believer, upon crossing the line of reverence you may both begin to feel an intense anxiety and the conversation will stop there. Anxiety and fear exponentially reduce your willingness to participate in open dialogue about your beliefs and ideas about life and reality. The fear of death, and of social rejection, monumentally increase religions ability to spread over society like warm butter on a slice of fresh toast.

Heaven
Heaven

Immortality

This one is obvious. Who doesn't want to live in paradise? While some may argue that living for eternity is not something they would like, what if they were perfectly content, happy, and at peace?

One of the main promises of just about every religion is an eternity in paradise. No more pain, suffering, tears, worry, stress, sadness, or any of that. In heaven you'll have perfect peace and absolute happiness with no come down, ever! Everybody is susceptible to this promise, its an appeal to our most primal desire for emotional and physical security. Like being a child again, you'll have nothing to worry about, but enjoyment of the moment.

You'll see your loved ones who passed away, you'll be able to spend as much time as you want with them! You will have perfect happiness, an undeniable gratitude in every moment. You could eat all your favorite foods for as long as you want. You could hang out with your best friend for hundreds of years and never feel like you've got to rush off to do something else. You'd be able to do what you're always wanting to do, without ever having to stop. There'll be rivers of milk and honey, and your dog from when you were seven years old. Well maybe, maybe not, but you get the point.

This appeal plays our heart strings better than any other. With the promise of everlasting paradise, and the avoidance of hell and social rejection, religion makes itself at home in our minds and it's quite difficult to find any reason to consider getting rid of it.

A family praying together
A family praying together

Indoctrination And Trust

Almost all religions continue on through the indoctrination of children. My first favorite book was the bible, before I even learned how to read. I loved the idea of heaven, going to Sunday school with my friends, and the potlucks at church. Religion was associated with friends, family, food, and overall happiness. To me, religion meant community and a sense of unity, and it almost always left me feeling fulfilled and at ease with life.

Children are the easiest targets for religious indoctrination because they trust the adults around them. How else could they survive? Trust is an essential quality to civilization, and so most people never doubt their religion's verisimilitude. Most people wouldn't as much as entertain the idea that their parents and community would lie to them from their earliest years on. It's just too dark of a thought, that kind of idea brings up to much stress and anxiety. As I pointed out earlier in the article, anxiety and fear are like blockades in the brain that stop certain thoughts or ideas from developing, because they're simply to horrible to think of.


The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF) is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, containing an estimated 10,000 galaxies.
The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF) is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, containing an estimated 10,000 galaxies.

A Purposeful Existence

Religion gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, a kind of unstoppable feeling of fulfillment. With religion you have an objective direction to your life, a definite motive to wake up for each morning.

Without religion you wake up and look out at your home planet. One of eight others orbiting a run of the mill yellow dwarf star. That star being one of roughly a hundred billion others swirling about the center of a typical spiral galaxy. That galaxy is one of at least twenty trillion others, each with their own innumerable star systems with planets like our own. You wonder if it's even a reasonable question to ask if their is meaning to life. Without religion you are but star dust, the universe experiencing itself, and what is the meaning of it? The meaning is to survive and reproduce. The daunting task of finding or creating meaning, purpose, and fulfillment is on your shoulders.

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