In the most scientific sense, life is terrible.
Even this fact, I think, needs to be addressed, because however obvious – or even clichéd – this statement may seem, it holds more truth than one would think. Just think about it for a second: putting aside all the creations of humanity and humankind, all arts and literature, cultural achievements and emotions, we’re left with nature. Nature is a real thing, one can easily imagine what nature really is since one encounters it all the time. To an average human in a modern society nature means the weather, and sometimes (quite often) it emerges in the form of natural disasters. But outside the borders of our great cities and countries, what is nature really? It is almost too obvious to point out, but it has to be done just this one time.
Nature, for most living creatures (in fact, for all of them) means danger. Not just danger, but never-ending suffering, fear and death. This cruelty of life is mostly realized by creatures at a more recent end of evolution: animals, to be precise, who have nervous systems with which they are able to sense, process and – partly – understand the outside world they’re living in. More primitive creatures, luckily for them, are spared of the truth. But for animals life is mostly the following two options: 1. You are a predator. Every time you are hungry you have to chase another creature that is most likely running for its life, so has every reason to run as fast as it can manage. Most of the time, it actually outruns you. Then you are left with nothing for days to come in the most hostile environment imaginable. And next time it won’t get easier. 2. You are running from predators on every occasion they get hungry. No further explanation needed.
And at this point we have to include those unconscious creatures as well – plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses, they all constitute to the great wholeness of life on Earth, and as soon as you enter this world (that is, when you’re born), you realize that life around you wants to devour you. It is exactly like being lowered in a huge bowl of acid – life starts to eat you from every direction, from every single point of space. Bacteria are about to digest you from the outside and if they fail to do that, they invade your body, viruses steal your cells that make up your body, plants and fungi grow around – and sometimes on – you. And we haven’t even started on the elements of nature.
Even though Earth is one of the less horrible places in the Universe (compare it to Venus with its extreme temperatures and – almost literally – mind-blowing winds, or to the vast, cold, icy emptiness of Pluto, or the suffocating, boiling hell of Mercury), one cannot deny the cruelty of earthly nature as well. Terrible storms, hurricanes, floods and drought, it really seems like that even in the absence of life, the planet itself just want to give us a hard time and maybe even kill us.
These are truths that are obvious in a way, though they seem quite distant from us, people of modern societies. Once you’ve been living in a certain environment for a long – a really long – time, everything outside that environment seems unreal. And everything inside that environment seems natural and self-explanatory. It’s just natural that people go to work every day, they suit up, leave their homes, get in their cars or get on the tube and they just ride to work or school. But how unnatural and even absurd this looks when you try to look at it from the outside? What is work really? Does it even exist? Just a few thousand years ago life and existence on Earth didn’t consist of anything that humanity now deems natural and a part of everyday life. What is money? What is a school? What are clothes? Even if just once you try, with your mind, to go back in time, really just a few ten thousand years, and look at the reality of 2015, everything seems absurd and made up. Although I wouldn’t question the legitimacy of money, or schools or workplaces, there are some things that, once I myself “went back in time” and looked at our present from a distance, I realized were annoying side-products of times gone by. Side-products that can prove to be a real burden in modern societies, although that discussion is not the point of my essay. But what I started to realize is why religions exist – and looking at religions from a distance gives you an answer far more simple than you would ever think.
The fact I will never deny is that religion gave humankind the chance to survive on a psychological level. Without religion there’s a possibility, I believe, that humanity would’ve committed some sort of a suicide, because at the dawn of human history, when we were in our infancy without any scientific understanding of the world surrounding us, life was the biggest terror that could ever happen to us. And people break easily under the stress of terror, in fact, I believe that is what people would ever do without help. Given that there is nothing but a human with a modern mind put in the raw reality of nature, that human is destined to break. Mentally or physically first, it doesn’t matter, but that poor soul will go down quickly. You either have a serious nervous breakdown and get into a grave depression thanks to the unbearable reality of life on Earth, or you wind up getting killed and/or eaten, in the cruelest way possible. (on a side note: the story of Christopher McCandless, the guy you know from ‘Into the Wild’ comes to mind, who ventured into the uncontrolled reality of nature and died a most likely painful death after just a few months)
You may point out to me: “That is fine, but if nature is that perilous to humanity, how come we ever survived in the first place?” It’s a legit question that needs to be addressed. I say that no thinking human has any chance of surviving in nature, still we clearly survived – this paradox is easily resolved if you think about natural selection. Giving a personality to evolution just for the sake of simplicity, we have to assume that nature (or evolution, or natural selection, etc.) realized the fatality of Earth and it needed to come up with a solution (well, actually, the human body had to come up with a solution). Every animal and living creature managed to come up with some sort of a solution to escape death, but they only had to deal with the physical reality of life – that is, to avoid death in a literal way. Humans are thinking creatures, and there was a new factor that no creature has ever had to face before: the mental and psychological consequences of a life on Earth. We had to come up with something otherwise we would just be horrifyingly miserable for the rest of our – presumably short – lives. And the reason of our survival so far is that we did manage to come up with a solution after all, and one of those powerful solutions was religion.
You don’t have to do great research in order to realize that every barbaric, primitive civilization that ever lived or even lives today has their own religion or set of myths. In fact, that is the stereotypical portrayal of primitive, native tribes of forgotten lands: African people with face paints jumping and dancing around a bonfire while a shaman addresses the gods in a state of trance. However stereotypical and clichéd this is, it is nevertheless most likely true that at the dawn of every civilization religion plays a huge part in the everyday life of people. Here I have to be honest: I don’t know much about primitive religions of native tribes of South America, Africa, Asia or Oceania. But I assume that the structure of those religions have a lot in common with religions closest and most familiar to us. If you think about the great religions of our time, what answers do they give to the big questions of life?
Here I would like to quote Sigmund Freud who dealt with the psychology of religions in great detail in his essay The Future of an Illusion (1927). In it, he writes that the task of religion is
a multiple one: man’s badly threatened self-esteem craves consolation, the world and life need to lose their terror, and at the same time humanity’s thirst for knowledge, which is of course driven by the strongest practical interest, craves an answer.
To sum it up, when you think of humans at the dawn of time, they had to face the following realities: 1. They did not know anything about how the world worked or why it worked and existed in the first place. In fact, they had no idea why they themselves existed. 2. They were in constant and utter fear of danger and death that nature and the outside world imposed on them. 3. Because of these, humans felt utterly lost, injured and needed some sort of a consolation. According to Freud, religions serve just the right solutions for these problems.
No wonder that, if you think of Christianity, for example, and stories and writings in the Bible, you encounter chapters and verses about the origins of the world and of life. Furthermore you find verses about how the world works so that all natural phenomena (not just the weather and disasters, but on a cosmological level as well, the passing of the days, years and time in general) are explained. You also find a huge amount of verses about the love of God, an eerily parent-like figure – or, as Freud puts it more precisely, a father-like figure – who gives you shelter and consolation when you are afraid and feel lost in this hostile world. Finally, the Bible is also prepared for harsher times, when no consolation can help, when all really is lost and you are in inescapable danger and suffering. For this occasion, the Bible delivers the promise that after death a life much better awaits you. This is the final blow that even the most miserable humans are unable to resist. The Bible even takes it further: be your earthly suffering greater, afterlife will be even nicer.
And here comes the realization: even I, a child of irreligious parents, lived my life as if religions held some universal truth to themselves. The idea of a God beyond the Big Bang was so obvious, so natural to me that I never really questioned it. Even when you grow up in a family that is totally free of religious education and attitudes, you, as part of the society, accept religions just like that. You do not only accept that they exist but you accept their legitimacy. Furthermore, you are afraid of questioning them on the off chance that there might be a God, and you just don’t want to upset him/her/it (although Christianity, Islam and Judaism clearly speaks of a male God). This is natural because, as stated in the very beginning of my essay, when you live long enough in an environment everything about it becomes obvious and true in itself. But when you start to think outside of this environment, you start to realize how the whole environment is entirely made up. And with religion as well, you cannot help but notice how utterly man-made it seems.
Man-made in the sense that it appeals to human psychological cravings just a little too much. Man-made in the sense that from this fact a lot of contradictions arise. And these contradictions have a very human nature to themselves as well. What you are destined to realize with most – among them the most “famous” – religions is that they are helplessly narcissistic and solipsistic (self-centered, self-absorbed and egotistic). A cruel point that American author Sam Harris makes in his writing Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) is that
It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs.
Although this point Harris makes can seem arrogant enough, it becomes clear and self-explanatory once you think about the psychological aspects of religions, and how the whole thing plays out in the minds of human beings. You would not deny the fact that humans are quite egotistic – as are, in fact, all creatures on Earth – in the way that without culture and societies the main goal of existence becomes their own survival. This is obvious as animals, plants and all living things in nature are demonstrating spectacular egoism all the time. There’s nothing there for animals other than their own survival (and of course the survival of their children, which is genetically half the survival of themselves – for further explanation I recommend you to read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins). This is what drives them and since we are animals ourselves, it would be a lie to deny that we are egotistic and self-absorbed by nature. And this egoism makes itself plain on the pages of holy books and in the attitude of highly religious people. They pray to the omnipotent supernatural creature beyond time and space who created the cosmos and every particle in it, every living and inanimate thing in it so that they personally can be spared of suffering. If the Christian God truly created man in his own image, one must wonder whether God evolved from animals as well so that he has the same instincts and self-absorbed attitude as one would expect from individuals of the animal kingdom.
This nature of religions becomes clear, of course, if you think of them as entirely man-made. (One other point that I would not want to elaborate on in too much detail, but deserves mentioning nevertheless, is that the big religions of our time are just painfully male-centered. As I pointed out before, God in the three most well-known religions are definitely male, the Christian God created women from the flesh of men, all the apostles and prophets of these religions are males, and you don’t have to read into the holy books of these religions too much to find out that the overall style of writing is just male-centered throughout. One could argue that God is indeed male and that is why nearly all societies in the history of humankind were extremely misogynistic, but I think it is just too obvious that it was the other way around: that misogynistic societies produced male-centered religions.)
In my opinion it is clear, if you look at it from the outside, that religions arose from one single attribution of humanity: fear. The fear of danger and, even more uncomfortably, the fear of death. As humans are most likely the only creatures so far on Earth that realize their own imminent death, no wonder we are also the only creatures to construct religions for ourselves. Fear is one of the most powerful instincts. It is a key to survival. But is religion a key to survival? I truly believe that once it was. As the most emotionally complex beings that ever walked the Earth fear could actually be more harmful to us than helpful. With the help of religion we were able to control our fear and we were able to survive in the infancy of our lifetime. But as we grew up as a civilization, I believe that religion became less and less important. To quote Freud again, a person who leaves religion behind
will be in the same situation as the child who has left the home where it had felt so warm and cosy. But surely infantilism is something that is meant to be overcome? A person cannot remain a child for ever; eventually the child must go out into what has been called ‘hostile life’.
I’m not trying to take the faith of individuals away from them – you can never do that, and I am not at all sure that you should. But I have a fear that the effects of religion on societies is becoming less and less beneficial. I believe it will, after a point, become outright harmful, and even though this is a different discussion entirely, my point in this essay is that, in my opinion, religions are too obviously man-made. And if we come to a point where religions prove to be destructive to human culture and societies (and this has already happened several times in history before), this realization can help us to put them away. As Saint Paul put it – ironically – in 1 Corinthians 13:11 (a verse that is a blunter version of the above quote from Freud):
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.