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The Very Human Need for Religion

The Very Human Need for Religion
Published on Apr 28, 2023.

The thing about religions is that they’re purely in the head. They’re a construct of the human mind. This doesn’t mean it’s something frivolous or flighty. Like other mental constructs, like the personality or ego, religion is a cornerstone of our psychology and our identity.

We tend to work with a narrow definition of religion. When we think of what it is, we think of churches and prayer, old traditions of worship to some divine higher power. Most people in the world grow up exposed to some religion that fits this mold.

But this is not what religion is. Religion is a functional part of human societies. It is not just an add-on, an extra accessory that we could do without. We developed religion because we need religion. Not simply to explain the world – which is a modern scientist’s raison d'etre projected onto it – but for the purposes of social cohesion.

Over 100 years ago, there was another man who asked this very question: what is religion? He was a Frenchman, one of the people in a new domain called sociology, the study of society as an explainable system of functional parts. His name was Emile Durkheim.

He wanted to understand religion not in the theological sense in which it’d been mostly studied up to that point – not in terms of gods and beliefs, right and wrong – but as a social institution. He wanted to study religion the way aliens would if they landed on Earth. What role does religion play in society? Why have humans all over the world turned to religion? Why is it functionally important for human beings?

To track down answers, Durkheim turned to the most untouched, the most primitive tribe that had just been discovered. Working in the early 1900s, he studied the religious practices of the aboriginal peoples of the Australian Outback, who had just started to come into contact with European settlers over the last few decades. They still lived in Neolithic hunter-gatherer tribes, in small nomadic groups with no permanent settlements and little in the way of sophisticated social apparatus.

Except they had religion. It didn’t really resemble the more familiar religions that someone like Durkheim had seen before. It was nothing like Christianity. There was no Bible, there were no churches, there was not even a fully articulated concept of a god. But in its outlines, Durkheim saw the core of what religion is to a human civilization, why it exists, and how it works.

Individual human beings have a symphony going on inside them, of swirling thoughts and emotions and memories and feelings. This is an incredibly high-fidelity experience that goes on all the time. Meanwhile, the mechanism we developed to communicate with each other is a relatively low-bandwidth, lossy channel of audible sounds called language. How can I describe to you the majestic and detail of my internal life through the limited scope of 10,000 words? Even a million words wouldn’t be enough, for there are things I experience for which there are no words, just clumsy metaphors alluding to other, mechanical things that have none of the color or life of what is really going on inside me.

Language does not suffice, but experience might. There is a special bond between people who have shared an experience. This is why our closest relationships tend to be with people with whom we have sharp memories of specific experiences shared together. When we meet, we tend to tell each other stories, recreating and reinforcing those memories. “Do you remember the time…?” It’s funny, because of all the people in the world, it’s the one you’ve shared these experiences with, who already know these stories, and they’re still most often the people we have the most fun retelling the stories with.

What Durkheim found in the Australian wilderness was a religion founded on collective experiences that carried special meaning. It took him a little while to put the pieces together though, because most of the time these little nomadic groups were of on their own, spending all their time surviving in the desert with no time for something as frivolous as religion.

But they had something that puzzled him. Every individual had some kind of totem – a symbol of a plant or animal that they identified with, like a lizard or a flower. They would refer to other people who identified with the same totem as part of the same clan. The clan extended well beyond family and bloodline. In some tribes, a child could even have a different totem than their father. In others, a totem was assigned individually to each child by a shaman. Even brothers from the same womb could have different totems.

The totem governed much of a person’s outlook on life. It carved off some things as sacred, not to be defiled or eaten. In an environment as harsh for survival as the Australian Outback, not eating some food for religious reasons is a harsh handicap to suffer. Durkheim reasoned there must be a cause.

At long last, he found one. Every few months, or at least once every year, many nomadic groups would gather in one place, in a kind of tribal reunion. There, people of the same clan would meet for powerful collective experiences. They would paint the symbol of their common totem on their shields and their flags and their bodies. They would chant, and they would dance. They would work themselves up to a frenzy, each of them feeding off the energy and sounds and movements of the group around them, and feeding back into it, in a rhythmic, pulsing orgy of emotion that grew and fell, seemingly of its own accord.

It was the kind of very powerful collective experience that made the individual feel something that they otherwise did not in their day-to-day lives. Even more importantly, while they were in this heightened state of being, all the people around them were too. In fact, it felt like a spirit or energy was entering into them, from the outside, not an internal experience like that rest of their lives, but something that came from without. Something that made them act, quite literally, outside themselves.

This was the basis for their religion. These collective experiences merged with the symbolic imagery of the totem to give them an identity. These regular gatherings were literal congregations – people coming together to jointly experience something very moving and very powerful.

It wasn’t sufficient that these collective experiences were powerful. They also had to have meaning for the people who went through them. In some way, it had to be important, not a source of fleeting entertainment, but a discovery that felt real about something that exists in the world, that can’t be touched or seen, but is real nonetheless. And that is feeling like part of a group.

At the end of the day, this is what religion boils down to. It is the feeling of being part of a group, with its own beliefs, its own behaviors, its own social structures, that we, in our collective enthusiasm, imbibe uncritically and unquestioningly, for the magical experience of being connected to each other in a way that is deeper than words and reason and logic could ever get us to.

If you understand religion in this way, not by the superficial trappings that we associate it with, but as a psychological phenomenon of human groups, you will see the religion as a part of human life, is far from dead in the modern world. It’s just transformed from something we could make out easily by elaborate buildings and fancy clothes and superstitious rituals into something that we take for granted, something that is right in front of our eyes, like water is to fish.

A modern religion permeates our lives, shapes them from the time we open our eyes, tells us how to live & what to live for, and does all this through tried and true mechanisms. This invisible religion has its Temples, its gathering points of collective rejuvenation. It has its Priests, people who are considered to be closer to the sacred truths of the world. It has its Prophets who translate those truths to the common speech. It has its notion of the Sacred, and prescribed goals for living our lives that cause us existential angst about achieving them. It has Rituals we practice almost daily, without knowing it, to help us get there.

It has all the hallmarks of religion dating back to the primitive origin that Durkheim observed. Including that most classic symptom – we don’t even recognize it as a religion, but just as the normal way of life.