The language of traditional religion is as steeped in hierarchy as it is in history.
According to most doctrines, God is the shepherd and we the flock. Humans are controlled from the heavens by the deity or deities we serve.
But advances in neuroscience and psychology present a very different story, one in which the human brain is hardwired for spiritual thought and where religious beliefs and practices come and go over time, depending on our real-world needs and fears.
It could help explain many of the fundamental shifts occurring in religious observance and belief, from the return of European paganism to a growing interest in individualistic forms of spirituality.
Reassessing the rise of atheism
When people assess the future of religion, an initial observation is that Western societies are becoming less religious, but religious scholar Linda Woodhead takes issue with this popular idea.
When people tick “no religion” on a census form that doesn’t mean they’ve turned away from all belief, she told ABC RN’s Future Tense.
Instead it often just indicates that they no longer want to be identified with an established faith.
“People in many cases are still spiritual, they still want lots of the goods that religion can offer, but in a way that’s more personally meaningful for them,” she says.
And in a consumerist world where personal choice is prioritised, Professor Woodhead argues more and more people are opting to craft their own form of religious belief.
“Young people are very concerned about their identities. They want to find a spiritual, moral and communal life that is personally meaningful for them, and they want to have much more authority in their quest and in their spiritual development,” she says.
Professor Woodhead points to a revival of pre-Christian traditions, including the pagan faith Rodnovery in modern day Russia, and the official state recognition of Germanic Heathenism in Norway.
She says such developments are partly a yearning for culture, meaning and symbolism, and are more than mere appropriation.
“At the heart of it, all religion is about people wanting a deeper connection with some greater power or powers.
“Religions that don’t deliver that, [where] people feel they are not getting that kind of spiritual sustenance, they are the religions that fall away and die. I think that is what has happened to the [traditional] churches,” she says.
Nothing is written in stone
Connor Wood, a research associate with the Centre for Mind and Culture in Boston, agrees that formalised religion is giving way to more individualistic, even “idiosyncratic” spiritual beliefs.
But, he says it’s important to remember that religions have always come and gone – that faith is dynamic.
“There are countless small-scale societies whose religious, spiritual and ritual traditions have disappeared without ever having been recorded,” Dr Wood says.
He says even enduring religions like Christianity have reinvented themselves many times over centuries, and argues belief structures that survive are those that best meet individual or societal needs, or both.
Islam, for example, spread quickly along the trading routes of the Middle East and North Africa, because it offered a system of trust verification for traders.
“[The traders] might have never seen each other before, but you see that this guy is doing the Salat prayer, midday prayer to Allah, and you say, okay, I know that this guy, he’s in the same sort of world as I am and I can trust him,” Dr Wood says.
Similarly, the Roman Emperor Constantine’s embrace of the relatively minor cult of Christianity served Rome’s rulers well because it brought a sense of cohesion to their far-flung empire.
“If you have a religion that gets people to cooperate in very large-scale, pretty predictable ways over the long-term, you might have a keeper,” Dr Wood says.
All in the mind
According to psychologist Justin Barrett, spiritual belief evolved because it fulfills a particular human need, and people are “hyper-sensitive” to the idea of human-like agency when looking for meaning and purpose in the world.
“It seems that the conceptual path of least resistance for us is to think in terms of whodunnit as opposed to what are the mechanisms by which this came about,” he says.
Professor Barrett, a former head of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project at Oxford University, says God concepts and ancestor spirits therefore make sense to us because they fit neatly into that “cognitive gap”.
“We quickly figure out from early childhood that humans won’t do the job for a lot of these whodunnit problems, and so we seem to find something a little bit bigger and mightier, more knowledgeable and more powerful than human beings, much more satisfying,” he says.
A conspiratorial alignment
Prof. Barrett argues our instinctive desire to ascribe human-like agency to external sources also helps explain why people join celebrity cults, populist political causes and even conspiracy groups like QAnon.
He says what we typically recognise as the tenets of religion, for example the belief in a higher order and the acceptance of unquestioned faith, are similar to those shared by many social and political movements.
“It’s sort of mixing and matching different kinds of psychological triggers, if you will,” Prof. Barrett says.
“What it lays bare is that the kinds of psychological dynamics that undergird religious systems can show up in other kinds of ‘almost’ religious behaviour.”
He says this demonstrates religious thinking isn’t unique, and that it’s part of human culture and the way we try to make sense of what’s happening around us.
Prof. Barrett also argues that, whether centred in the brain or in the heavens, spirituality is here to stay.
He says the demise of religion has been regularly predicted for at least the last 150 years, and despite their best efforts both Stalin and Mao failed to stamp it out.
“So, I think we should immediately be a little bit hesitant before we declare the death of religion. In part because it seems to have very deep evolutionary and psychological roots,” Prof. Barrett says.
“We may see religions change in their form. We may see them serving slightly different social [or] meaning-making roles, but they sure don’t seem to be going away any time soon.”
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