Why is religion a universal human trait?

Expert Answers
caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Religion is in fact not a universal trait; regardless of semantics, some atheists may consider themselves to be nonreligious, and some people do not follow any religion at all. However, religion can definitely be said to be more prevalent than nonreligious practices, and to be consistent and present throughout human history, and in all cultures. We are also the only creatures with religious beliefs, perhaps due to our brains.

First, we should recognize that the term "religion" is, itself, not universally defined. For example, what distinguishes a religion from a personal belief or a cult? Why is the Christian church recognized as a religion? Why is Scientology, a belief system manufactured in America in the 1950s, considered a religion by some, a cult by others, and a business by others yet? The reason for these factors are too diverse and numerous to describe in detail, and they ultimately serve to distract us from our purpose in investigating this question. For this reason, I will consider this question from the perspective of "spiritual beliefs" being a universal human trait. This allows us a broader range of qualifying practices.

There are several commonly proposed explanations for the prevalence of belief systems, particularly regarding their perpetuation despite their more mythical aspects being confronted with scientific contradictions in recent times. Perhaps most significantly to our question, these proposals are relevant or possible in nearly all human cultures. Some possible explanations include;

  • There really are one or more supernatural or nonhuman entities which have been observed in some way by humans.
  • The human brain is "hardwired" to construct supernatural beliefs
  • Religion is a facet of "pareidolia"  - the mistaking of irrelevant or random phenomena for significant ones. This is the term used to describe seeing shapes in clouds, for example.
  • Early humans, lacking scientific inquiry, created religion as a means of explaining natural phenomena.
  • People feel that only a superior being can give humans moral directions, just as the superior parent gives moral directions to their children.
  • Religion was devised as a means to gain power. This is evidenced throughout history in the form of a religious elite being afforded certain social privileges and rights (e.g. churches in America are not subject to taxation).

A number of other explanations exist, but the key problem is recognizing the difference between observing modern religion, and ancient religion. For example, we cannot go back in time to observe how religion originated, nor can we raise a child or children without any knowledge of religious beliefs, simply to see if they contrive them on their own. On the other hand, religion today exists as a product of centuries of political, social and economic alterations to its structure and relationship with the rest of society; consider that Crusades were condoned by Popes, whereas today the most common message from the Vatican is one of peace.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While religion is not truly universal since there are cultures that worship nature or follow philosophies such as Buddism or Confuscianism. However, even though people do not practice religion, there does seem to be some need in humans to believe in something larger than themselves. In Why We Believe: Religion as a Human Universal, Ara Norenzayan quotes others as holding that,

Others maintain that religion’s adaptive value springs from its capacity to provide hope and immortality in the face of debilitating existential anxieties, in particular the terror of contemplating one’s own death.

Norenzayan argues that these are social, rather than genetically evolved, functions of religion that have been culturally selected. In fact, some theorize that religion has become part of a psychological adaptive design as certain aspects of religion become part of cultures: supernatural agents, sacrifice, and rituals such as communion. Indeed, religion is cohesive to a culture. For example, in one study, religious members of a kibbutz were found to be more cooperative in a public goods game than secular members, and religious attendance "predicted cooperative design" (Sosis and Ruffle 2003). That is, the idea of belonging to a common religion effected co-operation, and social group living affords people a certain protection. In addition, belief in a supernatural power that can punish wrongdoers affords a solution to the problem of those who will not comply with the cultural group in providing moral norms. Religion also fulfills the need in humans for comfort from the terror of death. If there is an eternal reward, or a spiritual life in the hereafter, humans need fear death as a final end.

Chantelm | Student

Religion gives hope to people and it gives them a root to grow out off. Religions like Christianity are simply having faith and believing in Jesus Christ. Hindus pray to their Gods to heal them and help them in different areas of their lives. Some religions are controlling and limiting for people it just depends what it is  A divine presence does exist among us the thing is people take it upon themselves to start their own religion just because they disagree with what the other religions for example Christianity started off with just having an apostolic church and people have tried to deceive others by making different denominations as for: Lutheran, baptist and so forth. I believe in God and in Jesus Christ for the simple fact that I have studied about different religions and they don't make sense. It is a proven fact that Jesus Christ was on this planet and a lot of religions recognize that he was powerful but they try to bring him down from his position even though he came to this word proclaiming he was the son of God and he showed Israel at the time by performing miracles. He died on a cross to save humanity and if you believe in  him by faith you shall be saved because we all die there is no doubt about it but he came to save us and to lead us to a better place.

anzheng | Student

Even though not everyone is religious, studies have shown that a lot of humans are naturally more likely to believe in a god. Due to human nature, people need religion or god to answer the unknown. It may answer questions like how do we exist or how are we here?

capima | Student

 Why do supernatural beliefs exist in all human societies?
To explain what we don't understand?
To control people?
To replicate a nurturing parent?
Because humans are hard-wired to construct meaning?
Because a divine presence exists and makes itself known to all of us?
How do you see it? What makes sense to you?
Give examples to support your opinion.

Religion in my opinion is there to give people something to believe in when something unexplainable occurs. Different people deal with it differently hence the different religions. It allows living for some people to be made easier because they know that if they follow certain rules then they will be in a good place