Why do people in a modern and scientifically sophisticated world still practice religion?

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There has been some speculation recently that the practice of religion conferred an evolutionary advantage upon humans, and there is also some evidence to suggest that religion was responsible for civilization, rather than the other way around. If this is the case, we are hard-wired this way and might have a great deal to thank religion for.

It is difficult, of course, to know really how religion began.  I would guess it began as a means of providing explanations for that which man did not understand in an effort to exert control on the unmanageable world around him. 

But let's carry that idea a bit further. Whoever had these ideas would want to persuade those in proximity of the efficacy of these ideas.  When this persuasion was successful, there would be a group that had even closer ties than other groups, and this implies more mutual cooperation than perhaps had occurred before.  These closer ties, these commonalities, beliefs and rituals, served to offer protection to the group, since they were more likely to watch out for one another.  That would clearly provide an evolutionary advantage over hunters and gatherers who fought one another over resources. 

Some archaeological evidence in the oldest structures known to man suggests that people first built permanent communities and buildings in the name of religion, and the first buildings ever built were probably temples, not homes or palaces. So, the fact that mankind has gone on to create villages and cities and castles and skyscrapers may very well be because of religion. 

This is not to say that in today's world a lack of religion is necessarily a disadvantage. We have come a long way since our early days, and the situation is much more complex.  But it is entirely possible that within us there is a "god" gene, one that got us to where we are now, for better or worse.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do believe in a deity; I just don't think this is a requirement for an ethical life.  But when people who do believe in a deity do so in denial of all scientific knowledge or do so to the point of exclusion of respect for other people's rights or religions, I don't blame the god gene - I blame them.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I can totally see where you are coming from. But we need to keep in mind that science and sophistication are not the opposites of religion and faith. To make these into a binary is false. There is no other way to put it. Moreover, it really shows a Western bias. 

To put it another way, faith and science are not necessarily opposed to each other. Many people are scientific and they still have great faith. Moreover, some people do not care about science at all and they hate religion for other reasons.

If we look at other places in the world, we can come upon a few insights. Think of India. India is a polytheistic country, and many Indians are sophisticated and scientific. They do not necessarily see a conflict between their religious commitments and science. The same can be said for the Middle East. Devout Muslims can be scientists, and many are.  Hence, we we need recheck our assumptions and presuppositions. 

Another point worth mentioning is science is not as objective as it claims to be. Every time there is new theory that gains ascendency, it shows that the previous theory, no matter how well received, was tentative. Thomas Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions is one of the most important books on this topic.
He argues that there are paradigm shifts in science. Moreover, he likens these shifts to religious conversions. Interesting, I know. 

In conclusion, check your assumptions and consider that science is not incompatible with religion. I suspect that religious beliefs will increase as we become more scientific. The ultimate issues are still very mysterious. 

jgrodsky eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Though it can be easy to see how these two ideas can be conflicting, we must look past just the "theistic" aspects of religion in which religions believe in God, miracles, and word for word interpretation of books written long ago. Religion can be so much more than just these concepts.

For many religions, the cultural aspects and the importance of family and values are as important an aspect of religion as the idea of belief in God. Celebrating holidays, giving gifts, exploring the importance of charity and giving, friendship and love, and learning the importance of self-esteem and worth are all important aspects of religion that do not conflict with any view someone might have about science and technology in our world.

While one might have strong views about how science is the stronger factor in the creation of the world and the events that have occurred throughout the earth's history, it so very important to remember that religion is not just about God and what most people would consider the supernatural. Instead, it can be about so much more--and can even help define who we are--not just what we believe.