Is Religion JUST a response to fear?

Beware of generalizations that start with "every" or "all", as they are almost always wrong.

A recent article on io9 stated that climate change may make the human population more religious. Why? Because when droughts and famines begin to affect global society, people will turn to propitiate their "gods" to make the suffering and privation go away. This article was greeted by usual comments from folks who are non-religious or post-religious that this trend was a bad thing, that the world needs less religion (not more), and that hopefully the suffering allowed by their "gods" would turn more people away from religion until there was no more religion, and we finally enter into the secular utopia long prophesied by the secular prophets of the Western Enlightenment.

OK, I may have added a little flourish there. But that was the gist. And if you dig past the veneer of "just the facts ma'am" on the surface of anti-religious claims about the good that can be brought about by secularism, you soon find a robust religious faith in an ideology that has borne little fruit in making the world a better moral place, despite all our technological advances. For instance, John Lennon wrote the secular Hymn "Imagine" which prophesied secular world peace and prosperity at a time when various secular regimes that "imagined no heaven" (such as China, Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia) were also engaged in various atrocities.

But my real problem is that this article assumes that the major (or only) reason to be religious is out of fear: To get a divine being to protect you from something you are afraid of, or to change something that is threatening you.

There are lots of other reasons why religions start and why religions grow. Religion serves several human needs (some better than others). It can be a response to an experience of awe or beauty or transcendence that relativizes lesser experiences. It offers a community of support. It gives a moral framework for life. It offers peace and comfort in death. And yes, it gives people something to resort to when they are afraid and have no remaining agency to change their environment.

But perhaps the most noble reason for becoming religious is, in the words of Victor Frankl, "man's search for meaning". People want to find an overarching meaning, purpose, narrative or thread that ties together the myriad experiences of human life.

Some people will find that meaning-- or ignore that search for meaning-- in merely empirical, physical terms: More pleasure, more power, more exploration, more knowledge, more distraction, etc. But many people will find that meaning by positing (or experiencing) transcendent values or entities. And it would be a bit Orwellian to demand that people can find meaning anywhere EXCEPT in transcendental realities.

And where you find people asserting transcendent answers to questions of ultimate meaning and ultimate reality, you will find beliefs, rituals, ethics, and communities that form around such answers. In short you will find religion. Humans are incurably religious because we inherently ask "why". And all of this without resort to any such thing as an intervening "God" who will save us from life's problems.

It seems like many people have some kind of neo-Marxian hope that when humanity "comes of age" it will grow out of religion, and we won't have to worry about it anymore. And I'm not dissing Marx: In many ways his diagnosis of our socio-economic disease was prophetic, even if the cure he prescribed was problematic. But Marx's view rested on the idea that all religion was reducible to fear and pain avoidance (an "opiate" of the masses), and that is simply a simplistic view of the religious phenomenon. In reality, religion won't go away for many (perhaps most) people because the needs it meets are simply not material and therefore not touched by material prosperity or technological enhancements.

The truth is that one's religiosity (or lack thereof) is much more akin to one's relationship with a parent than it is some kind of pseudo-scientific solution to material problems. When some people become adults they break contact with their parents. They no longer need them, and they realize their relationship was toxic enough they need a clean break. But for many people their relationship with their parents transforms into something deeper. Their relationship remains healthy and life-giving, even as it changes into something more like peer-to-peer than like elder-to-child.

Now that humanity is becoming godlike (something hinted at even by Jesus and the prophets, cf. John 10.34), it is natural that some will break contact with God, just like some break contact with their parents. And I don't blame them because some parents and some gods are so toxic they deserve to be broken with. But it is also natural that others-- even with godlike knowledge and technology and a full acceptance of the best science we have-- will simply deepen their relationship with God into something that is not based on fear and power, but on meaning and love.

After all, it is not a new critique that it is insincere, and even morally reprehensible, to be religious only because of the material prosperity and safety offered by "god". In the Bible, Job and the Prophets, Jesus and Paul all launched such critiques. In fact every major religion I know of has taught for millennia that the desire for wealth and safety is at best the basest of reasons to be religious, and at worst a denial of true spirituality altogether.

Rather than hoping all humans will grow out of religion, perhaps a more satisfying and life-affirming strategy is to encourage religious believers to "grow up" and embrace a mature religion based on meaning and love instead of on fear and power. Perhaps such kinds of religion could become a powerful ally in creating a tolerant, compassionate, pluralist society which strives for full human flourishing and sustainable economics. That is my prayer.


A corollary of the idea that "religion is merely a response to fear" is the idea that religion is merely a pseudo-scientific or pre-scientific way to explain and control natural phenomena. The idea goes like this: Are you scared of tornados? Then invent gods who cause tornadoes because they are angry at humans, and then develop a ritual to propitiate that anger, and thus protect yourself and your people from tornadoes.

The power of that idea is that it is partially true and it is exemplified in modern religious fundamentalists such as six day creationists who use ancient religious texts to develop intricate pseudo-science to explain creation (cf. canopy theory). Yet the "religion as pseudo-science" is old anthropology developed in the 1800's by folks like EB Tylor and James Frazier, which has since been replaced by robust multi-causal theories of the origin of religion.

Many older polytheistic religions-- Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, Greek, Roman, and early Hebrew beliefs-- posit the god(s) as explanations of natural phenomena such as floods, weather, plagues, etc. But after the Axial Age (ca. 700-400) these pseudo-scientific myths were largely jettisoned (as in the worldwide rejection of the great polytheisms by the 400's CE) or reinterpreted (as in how monotheistic Hebrews re-interpreted and re-deployed the ancient creation narratives as symbolic rather than literal stories).

The main problem with the theory of "religion as merely pseudo-scientific explanation" is that it fails to explain the origin and content of most of the living religions. For instance, read Isaiah, Philo, Jesus' sermons in the Gospels, Buddha's Dhammapada, Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, or the Bhagavad Gita. I think it is safe to say that nearly 0% of these texts deals with pseudo-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. They are all concerned with moral duty, spiritual practice, existential experience, and transcendent meaning.

So if the essence of religion is merely pseudo-science, how come the most conspicuous examples of actual living religions have little or nothing to do with pseudo-science? It's not a tenable theory.

However, thanks to fundamentalist religious groups who want to revert to literalist pseudo science circa 1000 BCE, we've seen a huge resurgence of non-sense in the past two centuries that was not central to religions for the previous 2000 years. Trust me, atheists are not the only ones to critique religious literalists. That movement is the worst thing to happen to religion in centuries.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.