Religion Is An Empirical Question –– Finally

Robyn E. Blumner

Karl Marx never wrote the phrase “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” He wrote, “[Religion] is the opium of the people.” Close enough. Marx saw religion as a fantasy that allowed people to balm their degraded lives. The quote in its fuller context is: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Marx was not promoting organized religion by any stretch. He thought religion contributed to people’s misery and supplication by encouraging them to think of themselves as unworthy. (Which brings to mind some of the lyrics to Amazing Grace: “. . . that saved a wretch like me.” A wretch? Really?) Religion helps ward off despair and a sense of powerlessness. It’s an “illusory happiness,” Marx said.

Those of us in the secular community see this clearly. Religion seems to bring comfort to people looking to make sense of their troubled lives and to provide a perception of control and meaning, delusional as that might be.

Whether religion makes people happier, and why people accept comforting notions of the supernatural no matter how far-fetched, are researchable ideas. It’s the kind of research that follows from a naturalistic view of religion, where religion is seen as a manifestation of the way the human brain operates.

This is a rich vein to mine for, say, departments of religious studies, psychology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and sociology. But beyond a handful of notable exceptions, religion has largely escaped scientific and social scientific scrutiny. Religion has occupied an elevated perch of its own design that makes an investigation into the question of why we believe in the supernatural a taboo subject.

Believers say the divine can never be understood by science. Nonbelievers aver to avoid social faux pas, offense, or, in many countries, a legal transgression of the highest order.

That’s now changing. Exploring religion as a psychological condition shaping human culture has expanded from a small group of researchers to a large and expansive cross-disciplinary community of academics. They are delving into the cognitive and evolutionary science of religion to bring rigor to the study of this intriguing aspect of human behavior.

Understanding that religion is a complicated amalgamation of various natural human impulses explains why religion exists and has existed with the same basic architecture, though in wildly varied forms, throughout the world and much of human history.

Researchers are examining the component parts of belief—things that religions have in common rather than the specifics of a particular theological tradition—which would point to commonalities in human psychology. Some religions might have one god, others have many, but religion in general will include supernatural agents, a promise of life after death, costly rites and rituals that tie people to the faith, and some form of divine judgment and justice. Evidence suggests that humans are predisposed to create such a world and then believe the fantasy of their own making.

I recently enjoyed a massive open online course (MOOC) developed by the University of British Columbia (UBC) titled The Science of Religion.1 The course, presented by Edward Slingerland of UBC and Azim Shariff, who teaches psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, looked at religion empirically.

Regular readers of Free Inquiry will be familiar with the ideas explored, such as how promiscuous agency and teleology detection explain how the mind makes gods. (See Andy Thomson’s excellent book Why We Believe in God(s) [Pitchstone, 2011].) These notions suggest that humans are predisposed toward thinking that there is design and purpose in life and the universe. Our intuitive psychology leads us to conclude that there must be an intelligent designer at work.

Evolutionary science and astrophysics should disabuse us of this. We should be able to override this impulse just as we overcome what our senses tell us about the shape of Earth and whether we are standing still or spinning at about 1,000 mph. But many people simply can’t move beyond the powerful urge to see meaning and intention where there is none, mixing at some fundamental level with their most basic view of themselves.

Religion also takes advantage of our predisposition toward mind-body dualism. There is no evidence that humans possess a soul or any consciousness outside the physical body, but people have a natural sense of a mind-body separation that leads to a strong belief in the perpetuation of the mind when the body dies. This notion should be rendered moot when a loved one suffers from dementia or a stroke. Often the physical brain damage changes him or her so profoundly that he or she becomes mentally unrecognizable. Still, people cling to the idea that their loved one has a soul that is undamaged and will occupy a spirit realm intact. This transcendent soul idea also palliates our innate fear of death.

I started with Marx’s view of religion because his thesis dovetails with research on compensatory control done by Professor Aaron Kay of Duke University. What Kay found is that humans are psychologically motivated to bring control, order, and nonrandomness to their world. They do so, according to Kay, by choosing from a limited menu of conceptual defense mechanisms: seeing or hearing patterns and adhering to superstitions and conspiracies, bolstering support for institutions that impose social control, or believing in an interventionist god. By heightening one of these, people can fool themselves into feeling safer, tamping down human anxiety.

Even if we acknowledge some psychological benefits, religion is a costly exercise for individuals and groups. People squander money and time in adherence to faith. They limit their potential by acceding to religious constraints that dictate how they may live and think. Also, religion sows social division, and, at its extremes, provokes violence. Ironically, these expenditures cement the faithful to one another. People want to protect their investments.

By understanding the cognitive components that make religion so intractable, we may develop social and psychological tools to loosen its grip. One thing is clear: religion is the ultimate hitchhiker on human psychology. How to get humans to ignore the outstretched thumb and drive on by is our ultimate challenge.




Robyn E. Blumner

Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason &, Science. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) for sixteen years.