The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Is Religion Just a Downer?

Religion evolved to cope with anxiety

In widely read earlier posts, I argued that the basic function of religion is coping with anxiety. More specifically, it helps people to deal with the stress of uncertainty from third-world living conditions (even if these happen to affect affluent people in countries like the U.S.). In countries with a better standard of living, existential anxieties recede and religion fades along with them.

If this is true then, religion has a primary soothing function rather like the security blanket from which a small child derives comfort. We now have good scientific evidence that religious rituals and prayer work in just this way. Each produces a slowing of heart rate and other signs of physiological calming.

This implies that the psychological effects of religious rituals are analogous to those of anti-anxiety drugs like tranquillizers or alcohol. Religion is thus a downer in terms of effects on the brain.

The security-blanket idea is particularly good at accounting for the decline in religious belief in developed countries. Yet, that approach is often discounted by religious people because of what it leaves out. They argue that far from being a spiritual pacifier, supernatural beliefs supply the faithful with a sense of meaning, purpose, and optimism that is otherwise unavailable.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Yet, it is a mistake to assume such benefits are peculiar to religion. Virtually any social activity has the same potential from being a sports fan, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, an artist, or a scientist. Such passions give people a reason for getting up in the morning and inspire them to work hard and surmount challenges. Indeed, I have met many sports fans who were a lot more enthused by their sport than the faithful are by their religion.

The insanity plea?
When backed into a corner by being reminded that the psychological benefits ascribed to religion are also available through many secular channels, some religious people resort to playing what they see as their ultimate trump card. They confide that they know religion directly, that God has revealed himself to them, that they have been spiritually reborn, or that Jesus has touched their heart (as George Bush II liked to say).

Such subjective unverifiable claims certainly cannot be refuted, and may be sincerely believed. Yet, they are the weakest possible sort of evidence. Enter any locked ward and you will find one person who believes he (or she) can eavesdrop on other people's thoughts, another can fly to distant stars, broadcast thoughts directly on the radio, or cause the earth to be destroyed. Hearing the voice of God is a paltry side show by comparison.

Bertrand Russell argued that if a person has a delusion alone they are judged insane whereas if they share the delusion with others they are considered religious. The revealed religion camp seems dangerously close to insanity.

Religion as an institution
Apart from their subjective chemical and hallucinatory implications, formal religions may have important legal, social, and political functions in daily life. Churches used to wield monopoly control over marriages and funerals as well as baptisms. They owned property, ran charities, acted as political blocks and exerted influence over rulers and legislators.

Such worldly aspects of religion may be important around the world today but they are not the reason that religion evolved. Indeed many pious people see worldly involvement as a threat to the true mission of their religion.

That religion may serve many different functions, or that it can be perceived very differently by insiders and outsiders does not in any way shake the conclusion that its central, and original function is likely reducing existential anxieties.

Religion may be many different things. Yet, at its core, it serves the same function as tranquillizers. It is a downer.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

more...

Subscribe to The Human Beast

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?