I recently read an article that caused me to pause. It is an essay in Quillette that tries to explain how and why people seem to be drawn to the spiritual even as we leave traditional religion behind. I don’t disagree that yes, more and more people are leaving the traditions of their parents and grandparents behind, and yes, there are people that want to believe in something, and gravitate to other forms of what I refer to as mumbo-jumbo, but it was one paragraph that specifically caught my attention.
The paragraph begins with explaining what most scholars believe about religion, that we all start with a blank slate, and that religion is a cultural and social influence:
Scholars have proposed a wide range of theories to explain the persistence of religious faith in all human societies. Many of these theories involve a heavy dose of what may be described as “blank slate” thinking—by which human interests and beliefs are shaped entirely by social influence. Yet such top-down, culturally-driven explanations ignore the possibility that religious faith originates in bottom-up brain-driven cognitive and motivational processes.
The emphasis of the last sentence is mine. It’s that last sentence that caught my attention and had me continue to read the essay to see what the author meant about this bottom-up process. It didn’t take long. It’s an interesting method of writing: draw the reader in with statements they would agree with, in that religion is in decline, then slowly, but perceptively, show what the essay is really all about, that what most scholars believe about religious faith may be completely wrong. But we’re not at the real thesis of this essay yet as the author goes on to explain his hypothesis.
Ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning. This need is inherent, not learned. It is a fundamental component of the human condition.
And there’s the crux, or thesis of this essay, that religion provides us a meaning for life, which is inherent.
Yep, he’s saying it’s built into us to need to find a meaning for life and that, of course leads directly to religious belief. So, we’re programmed to need to know something about life that only, as far as the author can determine, that some sort of spiritual belief may satisfy.
Well, as you can guess, I disagree with that hypothesis, having been an evangelical myself. A a small child, I was taken to church, never forced, was there to be introduced to belief, something had I never been there, I would never have known about, I think. Most others I know would say the same and that kind of throws a wrench into the idea that we’re born with a need. I’m not sure how he can prove any of this, but he attempts to later in the article by showing how people who have left organized religion tend to move to other forms of spirituality.
That’s not good enough. There’s no reason to believe that just because people leave organized religion that they have given up any or all of their supernatural beliefs. But those beliefs were taught to them. They’re inherited over generations. There’s no indication whatsoever that people are born with the need to find a meaning for life.
Whether it’s belief in ghosts, or tarot cards or anything else mentioned in the linked essay, nothing indicates that any of this behavior is inherent. It’s learned. It can be unlearned.