Human beings have a natural tendency to enjoy myths, stories, epic tales, supernatural wonder and other fascinating elements from the worlds of our imaginations. Karen Armstrong writes that “Human beings have always been mythmakers”1. We love creating, and telling these stories. Over time they are altered, embellished, made more amazing and told with greater confidence2. Every culture has a central creation myth3. Such epic stories are exciting, they give life meaning, and feed our egos by making us think we’re the concern of the creator of billions of galaxies. For some people it goes further; the stories become the basis for ceremonial retellings, ritualistic behaviour and strict dogmatic beliefs. And they find themselves compelling other people to adhere to the same principles in order to respect the great story.
Classic sociologists such as Weber and Geertz taught us that religions allow people to deal with existential anxieties “about how to understand the natural and social environment” by developing world-view cosmologies; modern sociologists have not found reason to disagree4. Although modern science and knowledge have eroded most of the influence of religion in many countries, mythic answers are simpler and make it easier to understand the universe (and are easier to tell) than the dry and complicated evidence-based stories that come from science.
“Myths can be debased and uprooted. All that happens is that modern myths and rituals replace the traditional ones, for myths and archetypes are an inherent part of the human psyche. Human beings appear to need a religious underpinning both to their personal and to their social lives. At the personal level, human beings need a mythology within which to frame their identities and the meaning of their lives.”
As traditional Abrahamic religions are fading away in the modern world, a suite of new movements have arisen to (partially) take their place including the New Age and Pagan religions. New stories are replacing old ones.
“People have always longed to know why there is a world, and why the world is the way it is, but for most of history such knowledge was hopelessly beyond human reach. Storytellers sat around the fire spinning imaginative tales to account for the world and the unseen forces that control our lives. Creation myths sought to explain where humans came from. The most compelling of these stories were passed on to subsequent generations. With every retelling and every embellishment, these myths must have seemed more natural – even obvious. For 160,000 years, superstition held Homo sapiens captive. Today, every culture still has a central creation myth.”
Some authors have concluded that religious-like behaviour is an expression of humanity that will not go away, and that the instinct towards symbolism is a result of our evolution through a pre-literate phase of development both in history and as an infant.
The existence of a base, emotional and primitive instinctive connection to strange symbols and otherworldly ideas is admitted not only by the New Age movement and esoteric religious writers, but mainstream religious scholars have come to this conclusion too. Needless to say, such religious writers mostly “realize” that mankind has in innate need for their particular religion (how lucky!) but occasionally they appear more friendly towards the idea that such a Human inclination has a basis in the general Human psyche. As a result of this inclination, the Anglican academic Monica Furlong, in her book on the Church of England (2000), explains how the reformation, that reformed Christianity and placed a heavy emphasis on text, caused a backlash:
“Behind the repudiation of the ceremonial by the reformers lay a radically different conceptual world, a world in which text was everything, sign nothing. […] It would take centuries for the Church of England to acknowledge and try to recover what it had lost […]. In its place text (‘the word’) became in its own way a different sort of worshipped image, one which sometimes excluded feeling and the deep movements of the unconscious mind which ritual had faithfully fed. It is not, of course, that poetry or powerful preaching cannot express feeling, but that part of our human consciousness is pre-literate, both historically and in our personal childhood experience, and the whole of our experience cannot necessarily be captured by words. It may be important to lay wordless experiences alongside the wordy ones, as in music, colour, form, movement and smell.”
This is recognition that our need for such things is based not on God-given instinct, but a subconscious biologically-based leftover from our preliterate days, and our preliterate youth. A time when symbols, as in early religion, were much more powerful and imposing because we had no words. Symbolism and ritual form part of our development, and part of our needs, in life. Furlong may not have meant to highlight such a fundamental way in which the non-religious look upon religion – as a misguided answer to some biological impulse. Science and humanism don’t satisfy this impulse for some people, because of the lack of symbolism and ritual.
“Myths can be debased and uprooted. All that happens is that modern myths and rituals replace the traditional ones, for myths and archetypes are an inherent part of the human psyche. Human beings appear to need a religious underpinning both to their personal and to their social lives. At the personal level, human beings need a mythology within which to frame their identities and the meaning of their lives. At the social level, some ideology is needed to give people a vision of their history, their present place in the world and their future direction, to act as a focal point of unity, an agreed framework for public policy and a justification for the public rituals that affirm social cohesion. Where formal religion no longer provides this underpinning, various alternatives have evolved. At the social level, ‘pseudo-religions’ such as Marxism and nationalism have been successful partly because they do provide an alternative picture – a myth of history and a direction for the future.”
Despite all the arguments that some people need and seek out religion, it also happens to be the case the large parts of the world do without religion. It is common sense in non-religious countries such as the UK that the purpose of our lives is connected only to personal aims and personal values, such as love or happiness, or the socially-focused “to do good“. People simply like things that take their minds off the mundanity of life. Religion, football, hobbies and interests all serve similar functions.
We humans have a set of instinctive behaviours when it comes to telling stories; we naturally embellish, exaggerate, cover up doubts about the story and add dramatic and cliff-edge moments. We do this because we are genetically programmed to try to tell good stories. These subconscious side-effects of our social instincts have a downside: we are poor at accurately transmitting stories even when we want to.7. All the major world religions went through periods of oral transmission of their founding stories, and the longer this state persisted the more variant the stories became8. Hundreds of years of oral tradition in Buddhism led to communities in different regions thinking that the Buddha gained enlightenment in the 5th century BCE, the 8th, the 9th or even in the 11th century BCE and each community thinks it has received the correct information through its oral transmission9. A scientific study of Balkan bards who have memorized “traditional epics rivaling the Iliad in length show that they do not in fact retain and repeat the same material verbatim but rather create a new version each time they perform it” based around a limited number of memorized elements10. A sign of untrustworthiness is that as stories spread they often become marvellous, more sure of themselves, more fantastic and, more detailed rather than less11.”
“Simple faith-based answers to fundamental questions are very appealing, because the world is very complicated12. Human knowledge is broken up into so many deep specialities that it is no longer possible for anyone to attain an accurate overall picture of reality13. Least of all is it possible to grasp what it all means for us personally. Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that “man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe“14. The same psychological factor can be explained from a cynical point of view: “the contemporary persistence of religion indicates an inability or refusal on the part of many people to take on board the implications of science and rationality“15. This would appear to be a factor both amongst science-denying American Christian fundamentalism, and in Western New Religious Movements epitomized by the New Age which embraces a wide range of zany, and very unlikely, beliefs about reality.”
- Arbitrarily Inherited
- Biological Psychology
- The Subconscious
- Life Experiences
- Simple Dogmatic Answers in a Complex World
- The Anthropic Coincidences
- Experiencing God
- The Stars and the Sun, Resurrection and Rebirth
- Desperate Times: Religious Experiments Including Conversion, Superstitions and Lucky Charms
- National Under-Development and Poor Social Stability
- The Lack of Justice in the World (the Appeal of Heaven)
- Intelligence and Suggestibility
- The Causes of New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualities
Current edition: 2017 Jan 12
Parent page: What Causes Religion and Superstitions?
- Human Story Telling: The Poor Accuracy of Oral Transmission
- Simple Answers in a Complex World: What Causes Religion?
- What Causes Religion and Superstitions?
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