The plain dismissal of religion as barbaric, as primitive credulity, or as childish superstition—even if at times it exhibits all of the above symptoms, and even if its claims are ridiculous—impedes the acquisition of important insights into its varied nature and uses.
Why have most members of our species, for most of our history, been religious?
In the absence of direct evidence of the gods, some among the ancient Epicurean philosophers argued for their existence based on human nature. Polystratus, the third Scholarch (or head) of the Epicurean Garden in Athens, argued that we have anticipations of the gods (that is, we are psychologically pre-programmed to imagine them and to make them part of our reality.) I've argued elsewhere that, in contemporary terms, Polystratus's view is that this inherited instinct is a dispositional or relational property of human nature. This means that our religious instinct is triggered by certain things that exist in our environment or in our nature, just as a magnet reacts to iron, just as a moon orbits a planet, just as our bodies change at puberty and through time.
Furthermore, Epicurean masters teach that nature guides us through pleasure, so that the blissful activities that we see in the various religious traditions may be natural behavior meant to be didactic, a rehearsal for important and necessary skills. Might there be a relation between the play that social animals engage in to develop social and hunting skills and when man plays at religion, to develop social and psychological skills, perhaps growing better able to cope with difficulties?
From this perspective, nature may be giving humans useful knowledge that is both natural and necessary, via religious behavior, just as lion cubs at play learn important ambush, hunting and social skills; just as dogs and apes learn about their place in the hierarchy; just as baby chimps stretch and get their physical education, etc. Play behavior in general has a purpose: it’s not necessarily meant to be an idle waste of time. Crucial skills are frequently gained through it.
These behaviors involve bonding between the members of the social group, in addition to learning skills that help survival. It may be that the tendency to personify divine powers is a vestige of the social instinct, the same one by which infants recognize facial features from very early on; and it may also be the case that prayer and piety are ways to act out the needed social instinct for persons who are isolated or alone.
In a recent post on my blog, I discussed a papyrus where a man is saved from committing suicide by his ba, or double, a sort of guardian spirit that ancient Egyptians believed in. Let that be a case study on techniques for coping with stress in our evaluation of religion as a specialized type of natural play behavior that helps to develop coping skills, which may be required by our own nature and by our own psychological complexity.
In a series of articles at the Society of Epicurus website, I explored the Epicurean conception of piety, particularly as found in Philodemus's treatise "On Piety." In that discussion, it became clear that Epicurean teachers believed that gods—if they do exist—do not need our worship, do not answer our prayers, and are imperturbable and in bliss, entirely oblivious to our existence. I concluded that piety is an act of self-expression and nothing more, that it’s part of our art of living, a way of articulating who we are in relation to life and its difficulties, to the virtues, to nature, to fate, etc. A naturalist understanding of religion as play that has been favored through natural selection reinforces this view.
Further Reading: Reasonings on Philodemus’s “On Piety” Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.
Hiram Crespo is the founder of societyofepicurus.com and the author of Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014). An earlier version of this post appeared on his blog The Autarkist.
Tracy Crook says
Ah yes, yet another defense of theism as ‘A meaningless but yet useful’ phenominon’.
I’m still waiting for an honest debate in either the scientific or philosophical communities on the non metaphysical grounds for postulating the existence of God. And I don’t mean those pathetic encounters so far with the likes of Dawkins or Mr Nye the ‘Science Guy’ when he debated people like the founder of the Creation Museam.
I haven’t heard a debate where the theist involved was not totally incompetent to make the case or the atheist didn’t retreat into mere assertion that we already know the answer to the origin of the universe or life but was unable to cite the proof. I am reminded of Hawking stating that “because of gravity, the universe is perfectly capable of creating itself from nothing'”. Nye and his urgent plea that we must “inoculate young children with Evolutionary theory because they are susceptible to the idea that there is a god” was priceless.
On the philosophical side of things, I have yet to hear of a philosopher or philosophy that started with a hypothesis that there was a God who could and wanted to be understood by man and then attempted to postulate a philosophy that fit the existence around us as well as human nature.
Wondering if such a thing existed was the main reason I came here to PEL. Have not heard all the podcasts so far but havent heard one yet where the philosophy didn’t have major holes in it. As much as Ayn Rand is criticized, I gotta give her credit for cutting through the crap and accepting that the evidence of our senses can be trusted to be real. Got really tired of hearing proofs in the podcasts that the chair I’m sitting on is really there 🙂
What would a non-metaphysical case for the divine even look like?
Hiram Crespo says
Epicurus, Polystratus, and the others argued that gods were beings from other planets who lived in perfect, imperturbable bliss. They did not concern themselves with humans, with governing the universe, or any other petty concern. They did not answer prayer, and they were NOT supernatural, their bodies being made of atoms just like ours, they were physical.
This definition of gods as natural beings, however, is not prominent (as far as I know) in any other religion or philosophy, ALTHOUGH some Mahayana Buddhists believe that there are innumerable Buddhas and Buddhalands in the Universe, and Hindus do believe that the Gods are in other planetary systems. For instance, Vaishnavas say that Krishna and the gopis dwell in the Vaikuntha planetary systems. So maybe with Eastern mythology, as we enter deeper into the age of science, their myths will evolve into science fiction just like happened with superhero folklore.
Alan Cook says
I’d say that the whole distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” beings doesn’t really apply to Indian religious traditions. I don’t think you can equate the distinctipn, either in India or the premodern West, with that between the material and the nonmaterial. Our contemporary notions of what’s supernatural depend on the concept of regularities in nature, which really only developed with the advent of modern science.
Erik Weissengruber says
Huizinga’s Homo Ludens remarks on the partly earnest/partly playful attitude which many participants in religious rituals take. Adorno picks up on Huizinga and points out the value of his remarks for theories of art. Absorption and hypnotism and mind control are poor metaphors for the half-in, half-out or fluctuating states of involvement and distancing. Contemporary cognitive scientists point out that religion involves “belief in and behavior stemming from a minimally counter intuitive agent” with an emphasis on the “minimally” (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/does-the-atheist-have-a-theory-of-mind). There is no overwhelming and total suspension of awareness or consciousness, or elaborate discursive thoughts. Thanks for providing.