In this era of rationality and scientific thinking, which emerged only in the last 300 years of man’s 200,000-year history, it is, if you think about it, astonishing that most of humanity still believe in an invisible God, or gods. Anomalies attributed to Him (thunder as Thor throwing his hammer) or to his purported representatives (Christian faith healers) in the past have been exposed by science as either explainable by laws of nature or as hoaxes.
One could claim cavalierly that belief in God persists because God does exist. But that goes along the same line of thinking as that which claims Santa Claus does exist as he appears every December without fail.
Three major reasons for such belief have been advanced:
One is fear of death, as a Deity — in all religions in all cultures — offers an eternal life of pleasure and happiness after death, as long as one pays obeisance to Him (or Her).
A second reason is that such belief makes a miserable life bearable. World Bank data shows that half of the world today, or 3 billion humans, are poor, their lives a total misery. For many of these, only a belief in a hunger-free afterlife awarded to the faithful believers of a merciful, generous God of bounty makes their lives tolerable.
This explains why, according to the Gallup polls, the importance of religion for people diminishes in developed egalitarian nations such as the Scandinavian countries, while such need for religion is extremely important to the poorest places like Bangladesh and Somalia.
Even the rich, of course, lust for an afterlife, perhaps wondering, what is the use of having billions of pesos on earth if, one way or another, they can’t take their wealth with them when they die? Many of them talk about the afterlife in the twilight of their years as simply migrating to a different, better place, their visas secured by donating to their favorite Church.
A third reason is that the ruling classes, for thousands of years, have made sure that their subjects believed the religions they professed, which is the only factor, other than sheer military strength, that allowed them to rule. Kings or queens were not just rulers; they were God’s representatives on earth.
Just a few centuries ago, either you believed in Christianity or Islam — depending on where you lived — or you were burned at the stake, or beheaded, or deported. Subjects internalized these imposed beliefs, the easiest way to live their lives in peace. Indeed, the largest religions on earth — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism — were state religions of the most powerful empires on earth.
But these reasons fall short of explaining the intense belief of even the most intelligent people in the existence of God.
“Ineffable” – too great to be expressed in words – has been the widespread description of their purported experience that God exists, that they have seen Jesus himself with his crown of thorns and bloody body. I know even former Marxists become “born-again” Christians, defying all their intellectual training in scientific, rational thinking.
One explanation for such deep religious experience that has become a breakthrough of sorts among students of religion has been the book, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing, by a renowned neuroscientist, John Wathey, who got his Ph.D. at the University of California in San Diego.
Presenting mountains of information on neuroscience and evolutionary ethology, Wathey’s thesis can be simplified as follows: A man’s experience with a “god” is a remnant — he even locates the precise area of the brain where this is lodged — of his time as a fetus in and as an infant thrown out from, the mother’s womb, during which evolution had hard-wired him to believe on a “higher power” (the mother), as a mechanism for survival.
“Even if she [the mother] cannot be immediately seen, heard, tasted, or felt, the mother still exists. Even if she takes what seems an eternity to respond to the infant’s cries, she still exists. This knowledge would give an infant separated from its mother the persistence to keep crying for her, even if hunger and exhaustion would otherwise compel silence and rest to conserve energy. This hardwired, innate sense of certainty of the mother’s existence is, by definition, certainty in the absence of evidence. The infant is certain because certainty confers a survival advantage.”
In times of stress (“there are no atheists in foxholes,” the saying goes), this hard-wiring in the brain is activated, giving the person an unshakeable belief that a higher power he cannot see cares for him and will save him. No wonder many people report their return to the
“Lord” after learning they or a loved one had a malignant, fatal cancer.
Whatey’s thesis does explain a lot of things.
Every human being in whatever culture and era spent some nine months in a mother’s womb and then was cared for by a mother for at least a year. So every single culture in every era believed in a Deity. I suspect that the smaller mystic cults in most religions were simply espousing mental exercises to relive the experience of “oneness,” which is one’s state of mind in the womb.
Nearly all pre-historic religions worshiped a Supreme Goddess or a Mother Earth, instead of a Male Deity. It was only after patriarchal societies, especially those that needed war gods, became the dominant form of human organization did a male Supreme God emerge, a mechanism for denying matriarchy. Even so, the Goddess has always been lurking around most religions: the Egyptian Isis, the Hebrew Astarte, the Hindu Saraswati and Kali.
C’mon, no amount of scholastic contortions can deny the fact that Christianity’s Mother Mary is really a goddess, even a more sympathetic one than Jesus or the Father Almighty. Even some biblical scholars claim that it was Mary Magdalene and not Peter nor Paul who led the first Jesus movements.
An infant’s belief in the existence of the unseen mother who would save him from hunger was a survival mechanism that helped humanity survive as a species. The hard-wiring in the brain that evolution created for this mechanism was transformed into a belief in an invisible god.
Nothing really wrong with that, if the belief that God exists helps a man living in misery or hunger survive, or if it makes life a bit more bearable.
The tragedy of humanity is that belief in God has been used to make up the core of organized religions, which helped exploitative and even ruthless ruling classes to oppress most of humanity. Worse, religion has become an excuse for waging wars that kill millions of men.