Why are People Attracted to Religion?

John Dehlin Understanding Mormonism 5 Comments

Q: Dear John – Why are people attracted to religion?

A:  Critics of religion often make the mistake of characterizing religious people as being unintelligent, foolish, and naive, In my view/experience, this is not only insulting…..it is both wrong and completely counterproductive.

In my experience, people are not religious because they are foolish or naive.  People are religious for one very clear and indisputable reason — religion has been successful over the past several millennia at meeting many of our most essential needs as a species.

THAT is why people of all types – including the highly intelligent – are attracted to religion.

In my view, people are usually religious for a combination of the following reasons:

  1. Birth: They are born into it, and thus are indoctrinated to believe and obey at a very young age by their parents, extended family, and surrounding communities.  It does not require particularly keen observations skills to realize that devout Catholic parents most often create devout Catholic children, devout Mormon parents most often create devout Mormon children, etc.  Over time, a high birthrate usually becomes the primary source of any global religion’s adherents.  This is certainly true for Mormonism in 2020.
  2. Tribalism/Community:  Animals often survive and thrive in packs or tribes.  Humans are no different.  American psychologist Harry Harlow once wrote, “A lone monkey is a dead monkey.”  As a “tribe” we can more easily fight off predators, distribute work, and make advancements than we can alone. ” Religions often provide the social and moral framework for tribes/communities to thrive.
  3. Identity: People seem to fare better when they “know who they are.”  Religions provide identity to their members.
  4. Meaning and Purpose: People do better when their lives have a sense of meaning and purpose.  Religions provide many with a very clear sense of meaning and purpose.
  5. Spirituality and Inspiration: Let’s face it.  Life can often be difficult, painful, and tedious.  Religion (at its best) excels at making people feel inspired and uplifted – whether through music, sermons, or service projects.  Also, certain teachings (like “God and Jesus know and love you!”) can help people feel hopeful, unconditionally loved, and accepted – especially when life feels cruel and rejecting.
  6. Morality and Wisdom: Life provides so many options and dangers, such that people can easily make a mess of their lives.  Religions provide a moral structure and a set of stories/life lessons that can help to simplify and guide choices, often leading to longer, healthier lives.
  7. Fear/Answers/Explanations: Did I mention that life can be difficult, painful and tedious?  It can also be uncertain, terrifying, and violent.  These realities often lead humans to feel scared and insecure about the present and future.  Historically, religions have stepped up to provide explanations for the unknown, or for the more difficult elements of life.
    “Q: How did the earth come into existence?  A: Well, God created it of course, and you are His special child.  Time to be more faithful!”
    “Q: Why are there floods, earthquakes, famine, holocausts, and birth defects?  A: Don’t worry.  These all happen for a reason.  God is in control, and He sends them all in His wisdom, to teach us lessons.  Or to test us.  Time to become more faithful!”
  8. Simplification/Order/Security: Most of us desire freedom, but life provides so many options that such freedom can become overly complex, and even paralyzing.  Religion can help to dramatically simplify life’s decisions – by telling you what to think/believe, how to behave, and by providing order and structure.  Ultimately, this can create a feeling of security in one’s life.
  9. Certainty, and the Belief of Being “Chosen” or Special: It can feel absolutely wonderful to both “know everything” (removal of cognitive dissonance), and to feel as if you are one of God’s “chosen” children.
  10. Death: As conscious creatures we fear death – our own death, and the death of our loved ones.  Religions usually assuage this existential fear by promising their members a glorious afterlife with their beloved family and friends. once they die.

After having counseled with literally tens of thousands of religious people at this point (mostly Mormon of course), it is my personal belief that religions like Mormonism, in spite of all their flaws, provide a TREMENDOUS amount of value to their membership.

And this is why most people — including super intelligent people — are attracted to religion.   Some hate it when I say this, but I honestly believe that humans and society (overall) have greatly benefited from the religions/churches that have existed – in spite of all the problems/flaws.

And so I have a secret to tell all my friends who would like to see religions, and particularly Mormonism, disappear from the face of the earth; if you truly want your loved ones to leave their religion, you will not likely be successful by insulting their religion – especially when it is providing them real value.  People will often not “let go” of their religious beliefs and participation unless they are confident that they can “cling to” something better.  So that is your best hope – to model a “better way,” if you can find one.

Finally, it is my belief that if someone happens to hate organized religion, and wants to see it disappear from the face of the earth, they will most likely have to either wait for, or help create, a replacement for religion that provides equal or greater value than religion does.  And as someone who as attempted to help provide humans with a replacement for churches/religion, this is one of the most difficult endeavors I can imagine in the 21st century.  Ex-religious people can be EXTREMELY difficult to motivate/organize.

It is mainly for this reason that I am sincerely not anti-church, anti-religion, or anti-Mormon.  I do not believe that we, as a species, have yet created a “better way” for the masses.

Not yet, anyway.  Maybe some day!

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Do you agree or disagree?  What would you change/add/remove?

Please share comments below!

Comments 5

  1. OK, John.

    Then WHY do exMormons virtually UNANIMOUSLY agree that LEAVING the Mormon Church is the single most significantly healthy and beneficial decision they ever made in their entire lives?

    I am sure you are more qualified than most to follow each of your POSITIVE effects with a responsible, balanced, counterpoint perspective.

    There is another list that would include how many millions of humans have been exterminated in the name of someone’s god.

    Seems to me that Religion is healthy only the extent it teaches something approximating Truth and behaviors approximating unconditional Love.

    If survival is a priority, then I agree with your points about conformity with your Tribe being a survival behavior. Truth is not very useful if you are dead and discarded. Have we not been counseled that not all that is true … is useful?

    I love you, Brother John. You are truly a Pearl of Great Price … genuine, not synthetic.

  2. For a community… childhood conditioning….being contacted by missionaries…to get answers to life questions.

  3. Dostoevsky, Nietzsche , Camus and Sartre provide a better religion but it takes effort to understand it. As Nietzsche said, “I hate lazy readers.” It’s up to us to discover our own purpose in life, and “avoid bad faith.” We do so by becoming who we really are. We alone are responsible for our lives which is to create a masterpiece. That is a very simple condensed version. There’s so much more.

  4. John, I like the outline of why people cling to religion. It is helpful to answer the question I have of “how do they not know, or see the harm” in believing as they do. I honestly struggle to be civil regarding the choice to believe in God and to be religious. . I try to be respectful of the choice to cling to the lies, superstition, fear inherent in all religions. I recognize that there is no way to have a dialogue without these elements, but I also recognize that there may never be a dialogue without expressing opposing opinions. A difficult place to be.

    p.s.
    I smiled when I read this line above: “in spite of tall the problems/flaws….” because it feels like a freudian slip. The first time I read it my brain read it as you intended– “in spite of all the problems/flaws.” But the second time I read it, I was amused because I do feel like there are very “tall” problems and flaws.

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