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A Religion By Any Other Name

A Religion By Any Other Name
Published on Mar 25, 2024.

Religion is a collective experience. That’s what makes it different than faith. Faith is a leap of the imagination, a belief in something that cannot be proven, for which there is not conclusive evidence, but which you believe to be true anyway. Faith is an individual choice, grounded in personal experience. I have faith, but I do not have religion. Not anymore at least.

You can’t have religion without a group. It is a collective activity. Naively speaking, from the outside, it just looks like a bunch of individual people who coincidentally have faith in the same thing. That faith then brings them together, which they celebrate jointly in prayer and worship.

But that’s not really how religion works. It does not arise from personal faith, but exists somewhat independent of it. It has the same relationship to faith that a group does to any single one of its members. A group is more than just the sum of the people who make it up. It has an identity above and beyond them, in a way that transcends them, exists independently of them, and actually shapes the individual in its image, more than any single individual shapes it.

For a long time, religion — as a social phenomenon, separate from the faith it represents — was a little understood feature of human life. The only thing obvious about it was its prevalence. Nearly every civilization has had some form of a collective worldview, grounded in a metaphysical construct. These don’t always look like the religions we’re most familiar with — there might not even be something like a god in that faith — but we would recognize it immediately as a religion. Whether they worshipped the spirits of nature bound in objects like rocks and trees, like Native Americans did, or they prayed to the ghosts of dead ancestors, like the Chinese, nearly every human civilization we know of has had a religion. They have believed in things you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Around this shared belief, they developed a system of rules and rituals that governed very specific parts of its people’s lives.

Religion, as a feature of human life, was a given, no matter where you went or what people you visited, for the vast majority of human history. Even if it took on a form alien to what you were used to wherever you came from, there was still something anywhere you went that you’d readily identify as a religion.

But for a long time, no one considered religion from a strictly objective point of view. No one asked the question “what role does religion play in human society?” Religion, for most of human history, was inseparable from faith, and everyone looked at it through their own subjective beliefs.

It was only in the last few hundred years, in certain pockets of the industrialized West, that there emerged some thinkers who looked at human society the way a visiting Martian might. That movement was science, and for the first time, a group of people somewhere in the world took on the phenomenon of religion as something to be studied objectively.

At first, their explanation of religion was crude. Their first theory was that it was a crutch for more ignorant times, one that did not have the tools and techniques of science to explain the natural world. Without science, previous peoples had to rely on the voodoo magic of religion to explain all these things that they couldn’t otherwise understand. Like storms and floods.

This remained the prevailing argument for many people opposed to religion. But this line of thinking doesn’t do justice to religion as a complex social institution. It doesn’t answer what role it played in human society. It only looks at religion through the narrow scope of science, and analyzes it in terms of the things science is good at.

But there were some thinkers who pushed further. There was a Frenchman named Emile Durkheim, who became consumed with the question of why religion exists at all. Where does it come from?, he asked. Why is it so prevalent in humanity?

Writing at the turn of the 20th century, he had the benefit of living at the tail end of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. European explorers had crisscrossed the world for centuries, and they had come across various civilizations tucked away in undiscovered corners of the world. Durkheim had in his library volumes upon volumes by early anthropologists who had traveled to these faraway civilizations and written about how these people lived, what they ate, how they survived, and most importantly for Durkheim, how and what they worshiped.

To answer his burning question about the universality of religion, Durkheim picked what he considered the most “primitive” religion anyone had found. This was the one practiced by the untouched indigenous tribes of Australia, who still lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and on their remote island, had remained wholly untouched by the bustling industrialization happening in their midst. They were the closest to what humanity may have been like in its infancy, he reasoned. And most importantly, they had religion.

Religion, Durkheim realized, does not arise from a need to explain the world. Nor does it emerge from a desire to know where people go after they die, or where dreams come from. Religion arises from that special state of consciousness that a human being enters when they are surrounded by a group of people they identify with — when they are surrounded by their tribe. Religion is the psychological manifestation of our biological destiny as a social species. Religion is groupthink.

While many species are surprisingly social, like ants and bees, no form of life we have ever encountered exhibits anything even approaching the complexity of human civilization. When it comes to social complexity — the degree to which our species organizes and operates in groups with distinct rules and patterns — we are in a league all of our own.

A simple explanation is our capacity for language. It lets us communicate ideas in enough detail that we can coordinate around them, eventually leading to complex social structures. But language is much too crude a device to effect the psychological cohesion that a group needs. We can articulate ideas, but we cannot implant states of consciousness in other people through words alone. The struggle of the writer comes from this exact tension, and the uncertainty of whether his words will give rise to the desired state of mind in his audience. He never knows if the words he’s picked so carefully, crafted together, actually give rise to the same feelings and the same sensations in the people their talking to, as it does in them. No matter how masterful our control of language, it’s not enough for us to be sure that they feel the same way we do. Which is what we need if we are to throw our identity in with them, and bind our lives with theirs.

If it’s not language, what is it? Durkheim pointed to the power of shared experience in creating strongly-knit human groups. The strongest bonds we have are with people who we share memories with. Looking closely at Australian societies, what Durkheim found was that their group identities were also the product of shared experience.

If you were an indigenous Australian, there were multiple groups you belonged to. Your family was the smallest, and the one you spent the most time with. But it wasn’t the one you identified with. If someone asked you who you are, you didn’t refer to your family. You referred to your tribe. The tribe was a social abstraction that extended well beyond familial lines. In some cases, mothers could have different tribal affiliations than their children. Different tribes had different ways of figuring out what the identity was for new members, but what was common is that the tribal identity mattered, and it mattered more than anything else.

Being handed an identity doesn’t make people feel it. For that they need to go through experiences that give them a sense that the identity really matters.

Once or twice a year, people in the same tribe gathered together for regular ceremonies. This was a sacred moment, with strong psychological effects. They would chant and dance and work themselves into a frenzy — a frenzy of belonging. And everywhere around them, they would see people had symbols of their tribe. People painted them on their bodies and shields and drums. It was in this heightened moment, all amped up, that they felt suddenly alive, suddenly connected to those around them, in a way that language could not do. It was the experience of being in a heightened state of mind, surrounded by other people who are also visibly in that heightened state, that led to the foundation on which religion exists.

From this seed of shared experience, a full-fledged religion emerges, Durkheim argues. He goes on to describe the emergence of rituals and rites, or rules and prohibitions that govern the tribe. But it all starts here, in a shared experience, an altered state of consciousness amid music and chants, in the sensation of the individual swept away by the feeling of being part of a group.

Durkheim and his fellow sociologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the first to understand religion as the social phenomenon that it is. But they made a critical error. They believed that the advent of science had freed mankind from the grips of religion. That the individual — living in a democracy, with access to what he needed through the impersonal mechanism of the marketplace — no longer had the same need and dependence for the group. The core concept of humanism — the sanctity of individual freedom — should have made religion an antiquated feature of human life. Even as large swaths of humanity held on to the traditions of their ancestors, larger and larger numbers of the educated classes embraced the freedoms of modernity and freed themselves from the shackles of religion. These “enlightened” folks had supposedly reached escape velocity out of the gravitational pull that religion had exerted on the human mind all these years.

Except they hadn’t. Their religion just transmuted. It just underwent a transformation that changed its look and feel, but not its role. We still have a Religion, one that it took me decades of my life to figure out. One that I was enthralled with as a young man. I had religion, and I didn’t even know it. I thought religion was for people who went to church, who talked about some guy named God, who believed that cosmic destiny was written in some old book. I didn’t realize religion is a fact of human psychology, and that all we’d done was swapped out our old religion for a new one.