Religion is ubiquitous, although not universal. It is so embedded in our psyche and so pervasive that explaining the reason for its existence has occupied some of the great minds in science and philosophy. There have been as many ideas as thinkers, offering possible reasons on why religion has persisted through human history. Many theories, none of them fully capable of explaining what religion is, have provided interesting insights into the nature of religion.
Sociologists point towards the utility of religion as a means of social organization, while others associate religion with the emotional needs of giving life a meaning and purpose. Freud described it as a mass neurosis, and Marx called it the “opium of the masses”. Nonetheless, among many such plausible explanations, there is one where religion exists to help people make sense of otherwise incomprehensible events. This, to me, strikes as the most elementary reason for the inception and perpetuation of religious ideas.
It’s human nature to be curious, to investigate, and to understand. Unfortunately, the human mind has evolved in the middle world i.e. we run into trouble as soon as we venture into the realm of the extremely large, or the extremely small. Think of Stars and Atoms. There are many phenomena and forces in nature where we can’t rely on our senses for understanding. Religion, at some level, has provided crude – and evidently false – explanations for such mysteries. It can be argued that Religion was our first attempt at Science, and rather a lazy one at that. The vast variety of religions that we have ‘invented’ are a natural outcome of our inability to comprehend the unseen forces of nature.
Anything and everything which was beyond our sensory understanding got ascribed to a supernatural deity. We created God(s) when confronted with the limits of our knowledge. The concept of supernatural agents was like a lifeboat in the ocean of our ignorance. Accordingly, phenomena like lightning and rain were assigned their respective gods. Earthquakes, volcanoes, and diseases were believed to be the supernatural curses. Similar concepts were invented for all ambiguous information which we were unable to process ourselves.
At its core, this is just a god-of-the-gaps argument for the existence of religion. After reaching the boundaries of our understanding, the gaps in our knowledge were filled by invoking the supernatural. Interestingly, this tendency to do imaginary somersaults is not exclusive to the less mentally astute. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in his wonderful essay – The Perimeter of Ignorance – points to a general tendency in human nature to take refuge in supernatural when faced with uncertainty. Even one of the greatest minds ever – Newton – too was guilty of invoking god when he reached his limits of comprehension. Supernatural agents and religions have always provided mankind with a cop-out from actually explaining the reasons behind the unknown.
However, since the time our ancestors decided to relate diseases with curses, science has progressed a lot. We have developed the germ theory to explain causes of almost all the ailments in the natural world. Inventions like the microscope and telescope have augmented our senses and enabled a better understanding of the universe. Scientists have provided comprehensive explanations of natural phenomena like earthquakes and storms. Technology has given the control of the environment in our own hands. Almost all the walls of ignorance have been knocked down by scientific revolutions. Today we encounter far fewer mysteries as compared to our ancestors.
And so, one would expect that scientific claims would replace the obviously incorrect religious ideas about the nature of things. Sadly, it seems, this is not the case. Those who hoped that religion would slowly fade away with progress in science were disappointed. For me, this is where the god-of-the-gaps argument breaks down. Most of the gaps in our knowledge have been filled by science but, the centuries-old religious ideas still get a lot of traction among the general public.
Why did the scientific arguments, which are obviously more rational and correct, failed to replace the incoherent and inconsistent religious claims? It is my submission that, besides other psychological factors at play, the main reason for the persistence of religious ideas is the fact that – Religion is easy, and Science is hard.
Science requires effort while a religious line of inquiry bypasses all the effort by postulating a supernatural agent. This, and that we are inherently mental sloths, has given religious ideas a life that they don’t actually deserve. We are, by nature, lazy scientists – our curiosity drives us to seek explanations of the unknown, but then the sloth inside us comes forward and settles for any silly explanation thrown at us. Moreover, we don’t even want to put efforts in understanding the already discovered facts and theories about the universe, developed over centuries by hardworking geniuses among us.
There are deeper cognitive factors at work here, which make the easy-but-wrong religious ideas more acceptable than the hard-but-true scientific explanations. Daniel Kahneman, in his seminal work – Thinking, Fast and Slow – identified two cognitive systems in our brains and labeled them rather simplistically as ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’. He documented a number of experiments to highlight the essential differences between these two systems.
According to this dual-system theory – System 1 is fast, automatic, frequent, stereotypical and operates on a subconscious level with little or no effort. We don’t have a sense of voluntary control over System 1 of thinking. On the other hand, System 2 is slow, logical and calculating. While System 2 is in operation, it’s essential that we allocate attention to concerned mental activities and it requires a lot of effort. We consciously control the operation of System 2. Simply put, whenever we concentrate on something we are using System 2 of thinking. Kahneman, and his collaborator Amos Tversky, in their decades-spanning research, explain several cognitive biases in behavioral psychology based on the dual-system theory.
According to Kahneman, we are predisposed to utilizing System 1 as the preferred mode of thinking. It is our immediate cognitive response to any new information that is presented before us. There is no sense of reflection and conscious judgment involved in this mode. So, when confronted with simple ideas we might not be very much inclined to question their validity. Most of us, especially those not trained in fields of Science, are reluctant in questioning every bit of data that is presented before us. We preferably use the more intuitive, much faster and undemanding System 1 for the majority of our cognitive tasks. The effort and concentration required in System 2, simple makes it the less preferred and less frequent choice.
This intuitive System 1 of thinking might have been the reason of proliferation of religious ideas among the general public, especially the less literate section of the population. People who are not directly involved in science have a tendency to believe the easy-on-the-mind non-scientific claims.It is more intuitive (and easy) to imagine a God and ascribe all mysteries to it, instead of collecting evidence and doing experiments to arrive at a scientifically sound argument.
On top of that, during our initial years after birth, System 1 dominates our cognitive processes. We can become a fully involved practitioner of religion by the age of 10. On the other hand, getting educated in science and developing abilities of critical thinking (basically System 2) takes time and effort. By the time a child starts grasping scientific ideas, he/she is already submerged in the sea of idiotic, but simple, religious ideas.
A small section among us who actually bother to think critically, by using System 2, overcome this bias and contribute to the development of new scientific ideas. It’s not surprising then that critical thinkers tend to lose faith. Several surveys around the world have revealed that scientific community has a disproportionately high percentage of atheists among them as compared to general population.
Although, all this might seem a bit obvious, but there is an important message here for science communicators and teachers. It is imperative for them to focus on making scientific concepts easy to understand. If validity and rationality were the only properties required for ideas to flourish, then religion would have faded away long ago.
The truth is that our evolved cognitive machinery requires ideas to be easy-to-understand for their wider acceptance. For science to win this battle of acceptance against religion, we need to make it more accessible. The current practice of writing bland and boring articles in scientific journals would simply cut no ice with the public. Lazy people lack incentives. For the lazy scientist in us, the need of the hour is to repackage science.