What do we lose when we leave religion? I was asked to respond to this question by a friend and, to be honest, it’s not easily answered. For us atheists, it’s obvious to mention all the terrible things we abandoned when we left religion: A fundamentalist dedication to barbaric texts and practices; the racism, homophobia, and misogyny of its most literalist believers; and superstitions hindering scientific and moral progress. All of these are good reasons to leave religion on the “ash heap of history.” Nevertheless, many still yearn for something “transcendent,” something to confide in when times are tough. There is also a longing for community that keeps droves within the fold. Both of these latter components are much harder to lose.
One of the biggest insights I’ve gained over the last few months, especially after reading the work of Jonathan Haidt and Emile Durkheim, is that religion is more than the sum of its beliefs. Sure, abandoning the supernatural and all of its problematic baggage is an important first step towards a better world, but it is not the only thing we lose. As mentioned earlier, countless people stay within religion for its community, the songs, or the emotional connection they have with their church. Religion is a system of life, not a mere reflection of it. In the case of Christianity, it is a religion with over 2,000 years of traditions, beliefs, and cultural contextualizations. When someone spends their entire life committed to a system so totalizing, it is often jarring when they leave. I spoke to and read of former believers whom felt an intense sadness when they lost their faith. It was as if a part of them died when they left it behind. This isn’t without reason.
Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book, The Righteous Mind, devotes an entire chapter to the social character and benevolence of religion. Using his background in evolutionary psychology, Haidt illustrates that religion is not a “parasite” or “virus,” as many contemporary secular scholars believe, but a product of group selection that benefitted early humans. “If the gods evolve (culturally) to condemn selfish and divisive behaviors, they can then be used to promote cooperation and trust within the group,” Haidt notes. Human group dynamics see this play out routinely, especially in the United States. In America, the religious tend to be more social, more cooperative, and more charitable than their secular counterparts. Citing the work of Robert Putnam and David Campbell, Haidt also hits on something profoundly relevant to the socializing character of religion: specific beliefs matter far less than the charitable, community-oriented practices. Haidt concluded:
The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people.
Haidt’s insights are even more compelling for me since they come from a fellow atheist. He doesn’t dismiss some of the problematic beliefs and practices of religion, but he gives credit where credit is due. This completely reshaped how I viewed religion. Until Haidt, I obsessed over specific beliefs and traditions which I saw as irrational and harmful, and I assumed the world would improve if religion went away all together. Now, I think abandoning the social utility of religion, without a secular alternative, seems like an impossible task.
A reading of Durkheim also reinforces Haidt’s findings. Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, astutely explained the communal aspect of religion. As such, he focused less on a religion’s specific beliefs and more on its social constitution. “A religion,” wrote Durkheim, “is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden– beliefs and practices which unite a single moral community, called a ‘church,’ and all those who adhere to them.” This framework turns religious beliefs away from being ends-in-themselves and into means of communal binding. In this respect, the beliefs themselves are less ontological and more normative. Durkheim emphasizes this point in another passage: “Thus, among the cosmic forces, only those are accorded divinity which have a collective interest. In other words, it is inter-social factors which have given birth to the religious sentiment.” Losing organized religion unravels social orders and obligations and a secular alternative must, therefore, satisfy both the ontological and normative aspects of human social flourishing.
Alongside the social benefits of religion, individuals also seek experiences that tie them to something bigger than themselves, which is a key component to group selection in evolution. While individual selection is the primary driver of natural selection, group selection plays an important, complementary role. Haidt further elucidates this point by stressing the importance of religion as a binding moral agent that facilitated group level selections. “Gods and religions,” writes Haidt, “are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust. Like maypoles and beehives, they are created by the members of the group, and then then organize the activity of the group.” Again, this takes religion from the ontological pedestal many atheists place it on and into the pragmatic, normative plane of human existence.
But this is the group; what about individual religious experiences? From Paul’s road to Damascus and Muhammad’s revelations from the angel Gibreel to Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-fueled “perennial philosophy,” personal religious experiences abound in human history. Yet, one of their drawbacks, at least in a discussion of losing religion, is that these experiences are “necessarily first person” and not easily identifiable with the scientific method. However, the growing field of neuroscience is helping us understand the nature of religious experiences from a naturalistic perspective. Dr. Michael Persinger’s research, and his well-known “God Helmet,” have provided initial findings into the connection between brain function and religious experiences. By stimulating the temporal lobe via electric pulsations, nearly 80% of his subjects said they experienced what they called “religious experiences.” Furthermore, Dr. Andrew Newberg’s research suggests some of our religious or transcendent experiences derive from multi-layered neural processes. No “God Helmet” needed.
While neuroscience shows a causal link between brain states and personal religious experiences, losing religion wouldn’t necessarily end these experiences. As Newberg rightly points out:
. . . the brain has two primary functions that can be considered from either a biological or evolutionary perspective. These two functions are self-maintenance and self-transcendence. The brain performs both of these functions throughout our lives. It turns out that religion also performs these two same functions. So, from the brain’s perspective, religion is a wonderful tool because religion helps the brain perform its primary functions. Unless the human brain undergoes some fundamental change in its function, religion and God will be here for a very long time.
Since our lives are intimately connected to how our brains function, experiences deemed “transcendent” or “religious” occur whether or not the beliefs of a religion are demonstrably true. William James said it best when he stated, “religion doesn’t work because it’s true; it’s true because it works.” Thus, losing organized religion will likely never negate the individual experience of the “transcendent” or the group dynamics resulting from natural selection.
So, what do we lose when we lose religion? In short, we lose some of the supernatural and mystical beliefs that crumble under the light of reason, but we will not lose the experiential or communal desires inherent in the human condition. These two components cannot be replaced by science and reason alone; we desire more than what we can test and independently verify. While we appeal to reason and evidence, we are also complicated, messy, and constantly irrational; this is what makes us human. The goal of an examined life is to try to mitigate the irrational and harmful while encouraging the reasonable and beneficial. In this regard, the experiential and communal aspects of religion will never be lost; they will simply take on a new form, as they have in the past. In the developed world, organized religion is taking on new forms or finding itself irrelevant. The largest growing religious demographic in the US is “none,” which isn’t necessarily atheist but not explicitly religious either. The loss of our traditionally religious life doesn’t spell the end of the numinous all together. Rather, it represents the gain of an intellectually vibrant and diverse culture that isn’t afraid to be different.
Featured image “Exit” by Stuart Cunningham, used under Creative Commons.