Simple faith-based answers to fundamental questions are very appealing, because the world is very complicated1. Human knowledge is broken up into so many deep specialities that it is no longer possible for anyone to attain an accurate overall picture of reality2. Least of all is it possible to grasp what it all means for us personally. Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that "man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe"3. The same psychological factor can be explained from a cynical point of view: "the contemporary persistence of religion indicates an inability or refusal on the part of many people to take on board the implications of science and rationality"4. This would appear to be a factor both amongst science-denying American Christian fundamentalism, and in Western New Religious Movements epitomized by the New Age which embraces a wide range of zany, and very unlikely, beliefs about reality.
Putting the above more fully:
Human knowledge about the world has increased in depth to such an extent that all knowledge is broken up into many specialities, each populated by its own brands of scientists and academics. It is no longer within human capabilities to grasp more than a few disciplines in depth and this causes a lack of unity of knowledge and a lack of overall clarity in what it all means. The best book on this concept is "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by E. O. Wilson (1998)5. According to the views of some academics, this complexity of human knowledge is leaving a number of people behind, and "the contemporary persistence of religion indicates an inability or refusal on the part of many people to take on board the implications of science and rationality"4 . This would appear to be a factor both amongst science-denying American Christian fundamentalism, and in Western New Religious Movements epitomized by the New Age which embraces a wide range of zany, and very unlikely, beliefs about reality.
The bewildering sciences can make simple faith-based answers very appealing, and this has been noted by psychologists such as Carl Jung. Moojan Momen, a scholar of comparative religion, writes that "for Jung, religion could play a positive role in human life: 'Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe.' Religion thus acts as a form of therapy, explaining and reconciling human beings to the pains and suffering of the world"3. This line of reasoning is given by many to be an important factor behind the appeal of religion6. Ideas that are short, easy to remember and quick to explain to others are naturally more agile than ideas that are hard to explain, complicated and require multiple layers of knowledge. The complexity of the living natural world, in particular the human body and the role of consciousness in animals, is an area that is rife for "god did it" type of arguments. The belief that the human body was designed, and not evolved, is one of the main reasons that people give for being religious7 and such arguments are explicitly made by many adherents of theistic religions8. The simplicity of religious ideas combined with the confidence in their ultimate meaning is a quick and easy way to confront those (scientists and rational thinkers) in the world who pester religionists with things like skepticism and demands for technical evidence.
Before the advent of organized skeptical thinking, it was the case that many theories could be developed in isolation from the world, without the need to take into account the many confounding factors which real-life throws our way. So, William James' following comment is no longer true:
“The theorizing mind tends always to the over-simplification of its materials. This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested.”
Only some theories are developed with an instinct to over-simplify, and crowd-sourced ideas-bashing no longer means that we can get away with voicing ideas that are too simple. Of course there are many who wilfully avoid the advantages of the academia of the modern world, and persist in promulgating simplistic rhetorical solution to mental problems. In today's world, these are still the exact types of people who James notes as dogmatically walking the road that leads to extremism.
As our knowledge increases, such people find themselves increasingly embattled. The concept of "God of the gaps" is commonly used to describe religious thinking in action.
Some theists will claim that because science cannot explain everything that God must exist. Many point out that explaining the unknown in simple terms is one of the great appeals of religion and one of the causes of its success6. Adherents plead that new facts may come to light that suggest gods exist and which will in the future bring god into the light of science. However historically the opposite has occurred. As Human understanding has increased, the role of god(s) in the world has drastically reduced. It seems that the more we understand about reality, the less there is need to talk of gods, spirits and other supernatural elements. God is that gap between imagination and knowledge, wherein we falsely detect signs of agency because we don't understand what's really going on.. This concept is explored fully here: The God of the Gaps.
By Vexen Crabtree 2016 Aug 22
Third edition 2013 Jul 30
Second edition 2011 Jul 22
Originally published 2007 Jan 08
Parent page: What Causes Religion and Superstitions?
James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Subtitled "A Study in Human Nature". From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins and from Amazon digital Kindle version of the 2015 Xist Publishing edition. [Book Review]
(2002) Religion, Science and the New Age. This essay is chapter 5 of "Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age" by Joanne Pearson (2002)1 (pages p173-224).
(2002, Ed.) Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Published by Ashgate, Aldershot, UK and The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.
Wilson, E. O.
(1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Hardback. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is one of the foremost sociobiologists.