I was inspired to write this article after having a conversation with friends regarding why some people are religious and others aren’t. This piece is designed to look at the purpose of religion in general from a social and anthropological point of view and is not a criticism of any individual beliefs or practices. What is religion? Why do we need religion? Why is there a sudden rise in atheism?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, religion is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power.” Religion is the moral standard and the method of spiritual expression of a culture. As cultures change, religion changes. Religion is a human perception of what is holy. A disagreement with the doctrine of a religion should not be considered an attack on the divinities being worshipped.
Every known society, whether present or past, has had some type of dogma that it abides by. But why do we as people feel inclined to create such a complete culture around our faith? Why couldn’t we simply pray without ceremony or just believe without even praying or even believe at all? Why is atheism on the rise? To start this analysis I would like to quote Charles I. Jones, the author of my Macroeconomics textbook. “One of the most important facts of economic growth is that sustained increases in standards of living are a remarkably recent phenomenon.” He writes, “For most of history, standards of living were extremely low, not much different from Ethiopia today…It is only in the past two or three centuries that modern economic growth emerges…”
Empirically speaking, most people throughout history lived at subsistence levels with little food, short life spans, rampant death, disease, and overall social injustice; lives that many of us cannot even begin to imagine today. So what does a woman who has lost all her children to sickness do? Or an innocent man imprisoned as a result of a failed justice system? The only way for many people to bear life is to believe in a higher power; to believe in some higher level of love unmatched by anyone on earth and that somewhere beyond here all will be well. Culture then manifests itself in this expression of faith and the various religions are born. I personally believe that irrespective of the actual teachings of a dogma, the sheer fact that someone can sacrifice and do good in the name of their faith is admirable. Here is where martyrs are created. Those who are without such tragedies may eventually find religion excessive and unnecessary.
Religion has also been known as not only an emotional comfort but also an answer to an inquisitive mind to how the world functions; why the sun rises and sets, why the seasons change. This is why in modern times we experience the standoff between religion and science when actually science is a more evolved form of religion or magic.
Even though this may be argued, religion may be the essence that tamed mankind. It may not be obvious since the social laws we experience today are faulty and open to change, but law may be the most important thing there is. Without law and order there will be chaos. The sun may not rise when it must; hearts may stop beating without reason and earth may swing off orbit unpredictably. Law is important no matter what it type it is. It is the basis on which science and mathematics are built; the indisputable something. Going back at how savage the first people must have been, something had to put them in place. If we cannot fear each other, then let us fear a higher power and law that would persuade us to conduct ourselves better.
Religion is beautiful. It is as diverse as people go and it captures wisdom and knowledge from across time in a way few other institutions have. It is an exciting study that can be looked at in different ways; historically, culturally, psychologically, anthropologically or even as it is, spiritually.