The Persistence of Religion

Copyright 2002 by Paul Connelly

Related articles:
What Is Religion? A Definition
Premodern, Modern, and Postmodern Eras
Is It True?
The Old Religion

Why Do Religions Persist?

If “religion always begins in an experience that some individual has or that some small group of people shares,” what causes a new religion to persist and become elaborated more and more throughout succeeding generations? This turns out not be a question that has a simple answer (in spite of the one-liners offered by Marx and Freud, for instance), because a number of different factors come into play.

We can start by looking at the experience that triggers the initial religious response and questioning it in a rather negative fashion. If the original experience that inspired the foundation of a religion is truly exceptional, then direct personal access to that experience is all the more likely to be lost when the founding generation dies out. So why would a new religion be able to last for many generations based on what would essentially be hearsay evidence?

Beyond the foundational experience itself, what is it about the religious response of those original believers that draws in more believers over time? We know this response takes the raw experience of the founders and gives it a representational form that imposes order on it and makes it more accessible to others. But what qualities and attributes make one religion's representations and orderings of processed experience capable of recruiting others into its ongoing development while another religion may die away with its founders?

We also have to take into account that believers come to their religious affiliations for a number of different reasons. Why do individuals in later generations adhere to religious beliefs that originated long ago? Why do people convert from one religion to another?

The Nature of the Foundational Experience

The particular experience that inspires the founding generation of a religion may not always be easy to identify in later times. We should immediately be aware that the experience can be of the real (such as a volcano erupting or a lightning bolt setting a tree on fire), but it can also be of the fictive (a story that grandmother told the youngsters around the campfire after the mammoth hunt), or of what psychologists might call the pathological (an hallucination brought on by starvation or ingestion of toxic plants, a dream of a dead person interpreted as the visitation of a ghost, etc.).

The experience may never be represented in a form that can allow it to be deciphered afterwards (as in the case of a dream that is represented as an actual event). Or its representation may become submerged in the sea of further elaborations that it inspires (at this point we would be hard pressed to say whether the foundational experience for Christianity was the disciples' encounter with the risen Jesus, or the inrush of Spirit at Pentecost, or Paul's vision on the road to Damascus, or something else entirely). Or it may be purposely hidden and not included in the public message that the religion disseminates (perhaps why the famed Orphic Mysteries remain mysterious still). Or it may from the beginning be ineffable and impossible to convey meaningfully (the sudden insight afforded the mystic in an ecstatic trance).

When not only the experience but also the experiencer(s) and the situation in which the experience occurred are unusual or dramatically interesting, this can help make the experience more likely to become part of a narrative with heroic figures that can be retold in a memorable way. However, charismatic founders and dramatic narratives can be fictionalized after the fact if they are not originally present in reality. And, fictional or real, strong characters and storylines can obscure the nature of the initial experience instead of preserving it.

Even when we can identify what the foundational experience was, it may be something so singular that it can never be repeated. If we accept the story of Yahweh giving the laws to Moses on Mt. Sinai as a foundational experience, this would be the epitome of the non-repeatable type. On the other hand, it may be fairly easy to repeat. Rituals involving peyote or other psychoactive drugs seem like straightforward examples of this. Or it may be repeatable only with various degrees of difficulty. For instance, rigorous ascetic disciplines, physical exercises and meditation might be considered necessary but not necessarily sufficient in all cases.

Biologists are coming around to the belief that the brain has a built-in capacity for religious experiences, especially those that are often referred to as “oceanic” sensations, those in which the boundaries between oneself and the universe are blurred. Positron emission tomography scans have captured the activity of discrete neural circuits in the brain during spiritual experiences. Plus, we are all familiar with neurological sensations of what might be called “inappropriate” novelty and familiarity, commonly called jamais vu and deja vu. These too can readily be imagined as contributing to the perspective-altering character of experiences of the sacred. And, of course, psychopharmacologists have tied the effects of most psychoactive drugs, including the active principles in peyote and the amanita muscaria mushroom, to their actions at various neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. To recognize this is not to in any way either deny or affirm the validity of religious experiences, but rather to say that we are predisposed to apprehend such experiences and perhaps even seek them out.

To address our negative question from above, this explains in some part why religions may persist even when the foundational experience is no longer accessible to contemporary believers, since the latter may seek out and find their own triggers of religious experience in the elaborated forms that the religion presents in their own day. While the original trigger may be lost, the preconditions for new experiences can be created via (for example) the silence and loftiness of a Gothic cathedral, or the abandon of prolonged drumming/chanting/dancing, or the hysteria of mass prayers or penitence. Religions that stray from offering the appropriate preconditions, such as those that become dryly intellectual or overly stylized and ornate in ritual, usually find themselves challenged by reformers in their own ranks who want to recapture an earlier, more pristine form of the religion, i.e., one that is alleged to be closer to what the founders supposedly experienced and built upon.

Factors in the Religion Itself

The elaborated forms of a religion will have the greatest appeal if they are, first and foremost, memorable. As noted above, having a strong narrative about the religon's origin, preferably with heroic figures in the foreground, provides a very memorable starting point from which the religion can develop its message. And once it has grown beyond its initial premise or storyline, the religion should, in the jargon of the modern corporate world, have a “brand identity” (name and associated graphic symbols, e.g., mandala or cross or cave bear skull) and a “value proposition” (explanation of what this religion does for you) that can be stated very concisely (corporate types refer to it as an “elevator message” sometimes--meaning that you should be able to explain it in the time it takes to go between office building floors on an elevator). The message of a religion should prompt an emotional response of some kind (usually but not limited to: awe, fear, reverence, joy, trust or security). Being memorable is essential to any type of communication, be it poetry or narrative or doctrine, that will reach across space and time.

There are certain characteristics of a religion, both in terms of its forms (and the implicit messages conveyed by those) and of its stated or explicit messages (narratives, prophecies, doctrines, etc.), that attract believers. One characteristic is understandability. While some believers may be drawn to the cryptic and puzzling, many more will find value in a simple and understandable message (the “elevator message” mentioned above). A degree of flexibility or open-endedness is also helpful, since it allows the religion to tailor its appeal in different situations and eras. A religion that offers predictability and a sense of control over the future (“do X and good things will befall you, do Y and you will suffer greatly”) has great appeal for many people. The control offered has to be beyond (or even contrary to) the normal realm of cause and effect, however, if the religion is to provide something that cannot be obtained through other fields of human knowledge. Similarly, a religion that is explanatory of how the present situation arose from the past is more satisfying than one that omits such explanations. But the explanations must deal with questions of meaning and human behavior as well as with issues of history and cosmology. Less obviously, religions that contain secret elements (or operate almost entirely in secret and require initiation) have great appeal to a certain few individuals. In many cases religions also proclaim a hidden mechanism of fairness in the world which will correct the apparent injustices and unfair sufferings (or rewards) that humans experience (or perceive others experiencing). Sometimes our need for fairness in our dealings with each other becomes almost self-defeating (e.g., on the one hand, it allows us to let 9 criminally guilty persons go free rather than let 1 innocent person suffer unjustly, and, on the other, it motivates us to let 9 needy persons go without aid rather than let 1 cheater benefit from assistance that she or he doesn't need). This need is projected onto the world at large, and religions provide concepts such as karma or justice in an afterlife that satisfy it. Finally, religions have more success when they can serve as a source of inspiration (“there is a purpose to life and you can fulfill yours” or “there is an ultimate Truth and you can discover it yourself”).

The messages of a religion may be appropriate to specific factors in the religion's environment, particularly the complexity and prosperity of the societies in which it operates. Thus, there are “religions of abundance,” “religions of scarcity,” and religions that recognize a cycle of scarcity and abundance. Likewise some religions assume a relatively simple or isolated society while others anticipate a complex, multicultural field of operation. When a religion's outlook and assumptions are no longer consonant with its environment, it can either lose many of its believers or see them splinter off into heretical sects.

The Believer's Reasons to Believe

People who profess belief in a particular religion vary greatly in the amount of emotional involvement and mental effort that they invest in it. At one end of the spectrum are those who devote much of their lives to participating in religious practices and even to shaping the future direction of the religion. At the other are those who profess a simple belief in the religion by name and in a few of its basic tenets, and are content to leave their involvement with it at that. Along this spectrum, different reasons may be motivating the levels of commitment of different people.

To the extent that a religion is a social grouping of people, it will attract adherents for many of the same reasons that other social groupings do. For most individuals their religion is part of their heritage, i.e., it is one of the social groupings that they are born into and in which they spend most of their formative years. While a good many people turn their backs on their childhood faiths, more do not. In a way this is a special form of imitation, that most common of all motivations for human behavior. Our heritage of social identity and values is in large part the imitation of the social identity and values (religious, ethnic, political, etc.) of our family elders. Even the turning away from such a heritage by rebellious youths often adds up to no more than imitating whatever values have become fashionable among youthful peers. Imitation is not only rewarded in short term social situations, but it serves as the gateway to affiliation, whereby individuals come together as an “us” to find solidarity among the many “thems” out there.

As a vehicle for affiliation with others, religion provides a place in the social hierarchy for those who are “good at it” --in other words, as in any other social grouping that can be constructed hierarchically, individuals who are both politically astute and willing to exert the emotional and intellectual effort can rise to positions of respect and power in a religious community or organization. So, we can imagine an equivalent idealism in one person who rises to become mayor of a city and another who rises to become bishop of the city's diocese. One might be motivated by political ideals and the other by religious ideals, but in a sense these are less important to their elevation in their respective hierarchies than are political and social skills (and ambition).

But there are also individuals for whom being “good at” a particular discipline or social milieu is not enough. Their concern is not with their place in the social hierarchy but with their place in the cosmos. They may be socially well-placed or they may be examples of “The Outsider” that Colin Wilson described, but they are grappling with existential issues that make the common measures of success seem transient or shallow. Individuals of this sort are likely to have become dissatisfied (if not outright repelled) by the religious beliefs and practices of their upbringing. They are driven to seek out something more--more “real”, more “authentic”, in many cases more exotic. So while some individuals of this types may return to the church of their youth with renewed fervor, many more will become converts to a different faith.

Conversion can be motivated by more practical concerns as well. Citizens of a conquered nation who want to get ahead might consider it expedient to adopt the religion of their conquerors, just as new immigrants might want to adopt the religion of the affluent and powerful classes in their new country. In reality this seems to happen less often than one might think, indicating that the strength of either or both of religious convictions and existing social affiliations trumps more self-serving but pragmatic considerations. However, getting state sponsorship is undoubtedly a benefit to an up-and-coming religion when outright conquest is not the cause. It allows the religion to draw in converts on the basis of its worldly political success, while providing the state with a putative source of unworldly (or even otherworldly) authority. Evidence of divine favor (which both state and religion can claim in these cases) is an impressive selling point.

It is also important not to minimize the importance of individual humans in swaying potential converts over to a new belief. Charismatic individuals, from the founding generation onward, whether mystics or role models or proselytizers, can have such a disproportionate impact in bringing masses of converts to a faith that what they accomplish often seems completely inexplicable when viewed from a remove of several generations or more. While the progress of ideas is easier to follow from an historical perspective, in their immediate lives people are more strongly influenced by other people than by abstract ideas.

Some Concluding Generalities

When asking why humans perpetuate a set of religious beliefs and practices over time, we need to look at what is, in some sense, the ground in which the seed of religion is planted: human nature, both biological and social. We observe that the brain itself seems to possess some inborn faculties that make humans receptive to religious experiences and interpretations. In addition our minds are driven to systematize our interpretations and knowledge into ever more detailed and complex static structures, on the one hand, while simultaneously casting our interpretations into more emotionally resonant and time-bound forms such as narratives and stories, on the other hand. Both activities contribute to the germination and ramification of a given religion.

We generally think of religion as having a dimension accessible only to the individual and other dimensions that interact much more with social groupings. To some people, a religion with no social entities such as churches or congregations or study groups or monasteries would sound like something other than a “real” religion. The stress we tend to place upon the group nature of religious activities is caused by our powerful human desire for affiliation with others, a desire that motivates the social aspects of all human activities. Why should religion be an exception? One possible reason is that affiliation is often content-neutral, e.g., we can divide any group of volunteers into those wearing green armbands and those wearing red armbands and the two subgroups will begin self-segregating and competing against each other just as if the division were over something “real” or meaningful. But in the case of religion we want to hold onto the real, the meaningful, and recognize that in the dimension that is ultimately personal (and of personal consequence).

Religion is quite often singled out as being a unique example of a human activity based on utterly irrational beliefs. In fact this is not true: many if not most human activities are based in irrational beliefs and patterns of thought, many of them so primal that they can hardly be articulated: imitations of others, stereotypies, almost subconscious superstitions, inherited opinions, desires for affiliation, sexual attractions, needs for approval, etc.

So in some sense we can expect the growth and transmission of religious ideas and practices to proceed in a manner like the growth and transmission of social or political or artistic ideas and practices: aided by the memorability of the message, its ease of articulation, its suitability for narrative, its adaptability for systematizing in different ways based on changing circumstances; propelled forward by charismatic leaders, the developing social affiliations of its believers, the power of political recognition and sponsorship. And in fact our expectation is met for most religions that are considered widely to be successful.

Where religions differ from other social or political movements (and, to a lesser extent, from artistic movements) is that they must have meaning on a purely individual level for many of their believers. To those individual believers, their religion must deal directly with the vital existential questions and mysterious experiences that humans have had for at least as long as we have had records. A religion with the wherewithal to grow and perpetuate itself in every way except having lost its ability to link back to the real, the existential and the mysterious will nonetheless cease to grow as a religion and will either fade away or devolve into some other type of social organization.

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