On Human Religiosity

What does it mean to have a sense of God? What kind of sense would this be? Is it a sense, like sight or taste, that is attuned to our environs, focussed on matters of substance? Or is it like a sense of beauty, another kind of ‘taste’ – not so much a perception but a relation to a perceptual order? Is our ‘sense of God’ something that arises from our relation to the world as we find it in the content of other perceptions?

The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project at Oxford University recently completed a major study of the human disposition to believe in gods and an afterlife. At one level, the study appears to have been an exercise in spending large amounts of time and money on proving the blatantly obvious: humanity is incorrigibly religious.{{1}}

The £1.9 million project involved 57 researchers who conducted over 40 separate studies in 20 countries representing a diverse range of cultures. The studies (both analytical and empirical) conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and an afterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.

Project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg:

We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies. This suggests that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.’

worshipThis last quote is particularly telling and appears to confirm the results of the most rigorous and widespread multi-generational studies of the phenomenon of human religiosity, namely, those undertaken in the systematically atheistic societies of the USSR and China. These cases both provide remarkable data: the USSR unparalleled for geographical expanse and cultural diversity; China for sheer size of population. Both these projects in atheistic social engineering encountered remarkable resistance, and I don’t simply mean that some ‘religious’ people clung fiercely to their beliefs and chose martyrdom rather than apostasy. There were two more innate and (ultimately) more subversive forms of resistance, both of which tend to support the claim that humanity is an inherently religious species.

The first was demonstrated by the persistence of religiosity despite the destruction of its organisational forms. The natural focus for opposition to religion in both the USSR and Communist China were formal religious institutions: Churches, temples, shrines, monasteries, places for the training of the professional religious classes. Many were dealt with brutally. It seems to me that we could frame this an an experimentation upon the hypothesis, that “religiosity is propagated and sustained by religious institutions/classes of people.” The hypothesis was tested with exceptionally severe rigor. I assume that the hypothesis was generated out of the intuition that religion functioned within society as a means by which power was exercised by a few over the many (certainly, Marxist thinkers expressed their intuition in these terms). Religion was a mechanism, alongside private property, access to capital, access to education, through which societies structured their power relations. But if the essence of religion is social control, when one removes the ability of religion to provide this function (by destroying its organisational form and organising ability), religion should die, its superstitious garments simply withering away. But does religion without control implode, like the unmasked Wizard of Oz?

As stated above, this theory was tested. Rigorously. And shown conclusively to be wrong. The human impulse to religiosity is not imposed, generated or sustained by ‘external’ modes of control.{{2}} As the atheistic regimes in the USSR and China discovered, the result of the suppression of religious organisations was not the destruction of religion but the destruction of theology or its equivalents: the destruction of rationalised forms of religion. Religiosity continued, even rapidly expanded in some places, but frequently in the form of ‘folk’ religion. The atheist regimes found themselves increasingly battling against cults (and ironically, increasingly found themselves being turned into cults). It became apparent that the religious organisations that had been suppressed were primarily modes of systematisation of religious impulses, not the cause of them.{{3}} And when the various religious organisations were suppressed, the result was not the destruction of religion but its disorganisation. The conclusion appears to be that while the forms in which the religious impulse is expressed may be dependent on systematic religious organisation, and these religious organisations may function as a vehicle of social control (as was recognised with great clarity in Tudor England),  the religious organisation is not the source of general religiosity, it is the result.{{4}}

The second form of resistance that ‘religiosity’ demonstrated against atheistic attempts to destroy it has been already mentioned: it was the remarkable way in which religious forms insinuated themselves into purportedly ‘atheistic’ social structures and organisations. The more fiercely anti-religious the various Marxist reformation movements became, and the more they were successful in their destruction of organised religion, the more they began to resemble civil religions themselves. The most powerful symbol and example of this atheistic cult was perhaps the embalmed Lenin in Red Square (a source of embarrassment to many of Lenin’s more rigorously Marxist comrades, including his wife). The atheist cult extended to the canonisation and study of particular texts; the posthumous ‘deification’ of particular leaders; Communist Youth Groups (who directly lifted their organisational structures from prior Christian versions); most profoundly, ‘religious’ narratives about time and space, history and country, which were ultimately, religiously constructed narratives of identity. The more vigorously ‘Religion’ was suppressed, the more religion returned. The State increasingly found itself at the centre of popular worship.

I’d like to take some time (at some stage) to explore what this ‘sense of god/the gods’ might be: I don’t propose to leave my opening questions completely unresolved. But even if we set that investigative project to one side, there are a number of interesting implications that flow from the conclusion that humans have a disposition toward religiosity.

First, the common atheistic call for the abandonment of religious education in schools is incredibly naïve. The contemporary militant proponents of atheism routinely argue that religious education is an abuse of religious/parental power, children should not be indoctrinated with religion until their critical faculties have matured to a point where they will be able to (inevitably) reject it as superstitious foolishness. The underlying hypothesis appears to be a version of the one I mentioned above: that “religiosity is propagated through religious institutions (religious education)”, and that humans, if left to their own devices, would be irreligious. Simply put, the best science is against this position. The removal of religious education would not remove religiosity from our children, it would simply deprive them of any contact with collective, systematic, rational reflection on their religiosity. Removing religious education will not make people irreligious, just religious and uneducated.{{5}}

Secondly, the ‘decline of religion’ in contemporary Western societies is a myth. What we have witnessed is not a decline in religion, but a shift in its expression away from the organised (and sometimes enthusiastically disorganised) modes of reflection that have served our societies over the past century. Christians shouldn’t be particularly shocked by this, while human religiosity is constant, the form in which this is expressed shifts constantly.{{6}} Any reading of the Old Testament would establish this claim from the experience of Israel. What is perhaps unusual and interesting about our contemporary situation is the colossal bad faith in which our worship is undertaken. We live in a time, perhaps not unlike the period during which ‘atheistic’ Christianity rose to prominence in the Roman Empire, when the dominant forms of religiosity in our society refuse the label ‘religion’. Where that will end is a matter for others to divine.

All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever. (Micah 4:5 NIV)

[[1]]It must be said, however, that the Oxford Study was very instructive, not least for the methodology employed and the diversity of samples taken.[[1]]

[[2]]What we mean by ‘external’ at this point is questionable, but probably something along the lines of, not universally shared but imposed by a distinct (minority) group upon the society as a whole[[2]]

[[3]]I do not mean to deny by this that religious organisations can serve other purposes, including social control[[3]]

[[4]]The Chinese communist party has shown itself to be significantly wiser (and more pragmatic) by seeking to control religious organisations rather than simply banning them.[[4]]

[[5]]Those arguing against contemporary forms of religious education would be better advised to bite the bullet and own up to the fact that what they really desire is not a religiously neutral education but an atheistic one, and that atheism (at its best, which is hardly ever) is just as much a systematic, rational reflection on human religiousity as any other form of developed theology.[[5]]

[[6]]I recently came across a fascinating book entitled Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, a study of Oprah as the embodiment of ‘spiritual capitalism’.[[6]]

Image by Vicki Wolkins