What Makes a Religion Successful?
I obviously don’t share that opinion. I think that science may never explain why we find a Mozart symphony so pleasant, but I don’t resent science from trying to understand the nuances of aesthetic pleasure. Not only are there practical benefits to understanding why things happen (such as giving us the ability to predict when a volcano may erupt) but often benefits shows up even where they are not expected. Perhaps understanding why we find Mozart’s music so pleasant will help diagnose autism in children or even cure it.
So when looking at religion through a lens of science, we are not so much seeking to displace religion or disprove it, but to better understand it. I believe that doing so will make us able to take a conscious, creative role in the religions we practice rather than simply being forced to accept them as they are or reject them out of hand.
So what makes a religion successful? I will build on my proposal that religions are found in all early societies because religion plays a crucial role in the ability of early societies to survive. To recap that idea, remember that science has demonstrated that cooperation among a group of creatures can greatly enhance their ability to survive. For some creatures, such as ants, this cooperation is built into their behavior. But for humans, we also enjoy the survival benefit of being able to think and choose our behavior, thus allowing us to adapt to the environment. This means we have to dispense with instinct.
But we already have certain instincts from our earlier evolution, including an instinct for personal survival and a kind of innate selfishness that runs contrary to cooperation. It is religion’s role to motivate people to cooperate by linking ethical behavior to aspects of our experience that are powerful, mysterious, and sometimes frightening. This is why we find that most religions have very similar ethical teachings, while their metaphysical and theological basis can be quite dissimilar. From the standpoint of survival, it only matters that people cooperate. If they are motivated to do this because they fear that they will suffer in the afterlife if they don’t, then society will be better able to survive. It does not matter if there is an afterlife as depicted by the religion. What matters is the cooperation.
Let’s look at a variety of religions and how they have motivated good behavior. Christianity and its close cousins Judaism and Islam, use two ideas in tandem to motivate cooperation. First, they all link success and happiness in this life to living a virtuous life. In the Hebrew Bible, whenever the society is successful and thriving, it is because they are doing what God requires. When they suffer calamity, it is because they have sinned. This idea persists to this day in these religions. People who suffer a terrible lose due to accident or illness wonder if they are being punished by God for some sin.
The second motivating tool used by all of the major Western religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, is the promise of a happy afterlife for the good people and suffering in hell for the wicked. This idea appears to have developed somewhat later in the Hebrew religion, perhaps when people began to notice that often very wicked people lived life devoid of serious suffering, while people who were very pious sometimes suffered terribly. Job is the classic example of people struggling with this, for he was described as a man of perfect virtue, yet God let Satan take everything away from Job except his life. This launches a pious attempt to understand this circumstance. Today we still see people predicting that those who are not Christian (or Moslem) will burn in hell, while the good Christian (or Moslem) will enjoy a paradise in heaven.
We are so saturated by these two perspectives that we may not realize that there are religions that have very different ideas about why people should do good for others as well as for themselves. Hinduism and Buddhism use the idea of reincarnation as a motivator to goodness. The virtuous person can be reborn into another life with better circumstances, until born into a situation in which he can achieve a state of union with the Absolute and escape the cycle of birth and death. This idea has sometimes also been used to justify a caste system that justifies inequality and prejudice, but it succeeds so long as it motivates people to accept this system and to cooperate.
In China, Confucius claimed it was not important to understand what happens in the afterlife. Living a life of virtue had its own rewards which motivated the good person. The reward for observing the golden rule and attending with respect and love to the needs of ones family and neighbors brought the benefit of a harmonious society free of war and poverty. This is perhaps a religion that has actually achieved the purest link between virtue and the broader universe. It degenerated to some extent until the afterlife came to be a place where people were happy so long as their ancestors continued to honor their memory.
So we see that successful religions are not identical. They can all preach a similar ethic without all being equally correct in their teachings about why we should behave well. Furthermore, as humans developed more complex societies, the link between survival and cooperation became less important, meaning that religions could deviate from their role of motivating good behavior. A religion can become corrupt and actually promote bad behavior or at least tolerate bad behavior by people of privilege. I believe we still see the importance of ethics in the rise and fall of great civilizations. When a society becomes so class conscious and so unjust, it may well cease to function and either fall prey to invaders or experience a religious revolt. The fall of Rome is an example of the former, the Protestant Reformation is an example of the latter.
This leads to the question of how we decide which religion, if any is actually correct in its method of motivating cooperation. This will be the topic of my next post.