“Why does religion exist?” is a challenging question for both the natural and the social sciences. There is a fact to be explained: a large majority (about 85%) of human beings profess religious beliefs and engage in religious practices. For evolutionary biology, the challenge is to explain why religion caught on so well. Did religions confer a competitive advantage on the members of our species who adopted them? If they once did, do they still confer a competitive advantage? Although a ‘gene for religion’ is unlikely, religious affiliation is heritable: the strongest determinant of an individual’s religion is the religion of his parents. [Dennett, 2006, p 86] Religious observance is costly, requiring the erection of places of worship and maintenance of a priesthood, and could be presumed on that account to reduce the evolutionary fitness of believers as compared to their more worldly competitors. Why, then, have religions flourished? Almost the same question confronts economic theory, which assumes human behaviour is best modelled by Homo economicus, an agent who always chooses what he believes is in his own interests. Why would such agents choose religion, which requires personal sacrifice with no clear payback, or at least without the kind of payback that motivates the same agents in their other transactions such as work for pay and pay for groceries. A parallel question faces psychology. Religions commonly advocate self-denial, which can be presumed to be psychologically repellent. Why are people attracted by institutions and practices which ask them to give up pleasures?
All the world’s major religions try to curb human selfishness. They attempt to break their followers’ obsession with their personal lives, and encourage them to care about something larger than themselves. An aim of religion is to alter human motivation: to guide thought and motivate action in directions that run counter to ‘natural’ inclinations.
I want to examine the hypothesis that religion arose as a response to the emergence of the self as a motivational centre in human psychology.
Why was a response needed? Perhaps because the self was too powerful a motivator—powerful enough to become dysfunctional to those who were possessed by it. I suggest there were at least two aspects to its dysfunction: one regarding evolutionary fitness, another regarding human happiness.
I will return to the question of evolutionary fitness in another post. Here, I will focus on the psychological aspects of religion and the self, arguing that the self—the primary locus of human motivation—is dysfunctional with respect to human happiness, and that religion arose as a partial cure.
Self-concern is an engine of discontent. Our anxieties and ambitions goad us to bend our efforts to improving our personal fortunes in the future of our imaginations, to the point of obsession. Obsession with the future comes at the expense of contentment with the present. Even the more positive emotions of self-concern have a chafing edge. Pride must be defended. ‘Looking forward’ to an anticipated pleasure can generate impatience, devaluing present experience. To a child who ‘can’t wait’ for Disneyland or Christmas, or an adult bored at work during the weeks leading up to his annual vacation, the everyday satisfactions available to him suffer by comparison.
Two Cures for Selfishness
Two fundamentally different ways of curbing the motivational power of the self have emerged from different religious traditions—one from the east and one from the west.
The Eastern way—exemplified by Buddhism—denies that there is any self worth caring about. Selfish motivation is exposed as relying on an illusion. Do you imagine that by working hard you will provide material comfort for yourself in the future? Think again—there is no essential ‘you’ that connects you, now, with yourself in the future. There are only skandhas, or ‘heaps,’ or—in neo-Lockean terms—relations of continuity and connectedness between you now and you then. But those relations are not special; you have the same kinds of relations with other people whose interests you are not so strongly inclined to pursue.
The Western approach, adopted by the ‘desert monotheisms,’ is not to cast doubt on the reality of the self, but to assert the existence of another entity, even more powerful, whose aims are opposed to the selfish aims of the individual. Do you imagine that by working hard you will provide material comfort for yourself in the future? Well, yes, you may—but remember, material comfort does not answer all your needs; and what’s more important, don’t cheat! Even if you cover your tracks, you won’t get away with breaking the rules, because there is an omniscient, omnipotent being who metes out justice to everyone sooner or later. If it appears that justice is not meted out to everyone during their biological lives, Christianity and Islam (less clearly Judaism) have a ready answer: the life of the individual does not end with biological death; there is time enough in the hereafter to mete out justice. Rather than trying to weaken the motivational force of self-concern, these Western religions actually enlist it, planting in their followers’ minds hopes of reward and fears of unending punishment in the afterlife.
Followers of Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam may criticize these comments on their respective faiths as oversimplifying. Every major religious tradition is multifacetted, containing a diversity of schools and sources which can be mined for support for either side of many an argument. My comments are intended to focus on just one aspect of religion, its relationship to the self and selfish motivation.
I cannot claim to be a scholar of Buddhism, so I will stick to basic points that I believe are uncontroversial. The doctrine of anatta (no-self) is a core tenet of Buddhism. Interpretations vary widely, but agree that there is no real entity resembling the object of people’s common selfish desires, the ‘self’ they care so much about. To be influenced by self-concern is to fall victim to an illusion. To act selfishly is to act wrongly—not in the sense of morally wrong so much as irrationally or mistakenly. In this way, the Buddhist is counselled not to heed his selfish impulses.
The desert monotheisms all promote a theme of submission of the individual will to will of God. The Arabic word “Islam” even means “submission” or “surrender”; but submission is also a dominant theme in Judaism and Christianity. All three revere the patriarch Abraham, who famously demonstrated submission to God’s command by binding his son Isaac and preparing to sacrifice him by cutting his throat. Abraham’s obedience—so reminiscent of the “just following orders” excuse that, nowadays, is considered insufficient to exculpate death-camp guards and public-company accountants—has come in for little criticism. It is traditionally held up as an example of proper respect for the ultimate authority.
The Eastern and Western approaches thus converge on common ground. Both try to weaken the effects of selfish emotion: the one by weakening belief in the self, the other by encouraging belief in another being who, being more worthy of love as well as more powerful, serves as a motivational counter-balance.
Psychology of Religious Experience
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James laid the groundwork for the branch of psychology that aims to explain the human preference for religious belief and practice. Varieties emphasizes individual experience more than the social institutions of religion. James had little interest in the “second-hand religious life” of “your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country.” [James, 1902, loc. 149] He sought to understand the “religious geniuses” who “were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct.” He mined first-hand accounts of the more articulate saints and visionaries for insight into the psychological rewards of religious life.
To focus exclusively on prophets and mystics risks leaving much unexplained. Why were these enthusiasts, possessed by visions and exaltations, not simply dismissed or ignored by more stolid, worldly citizens? The fact that such a large proportion of the human population participates in religion cries out for explanation. Perhaps these supporters, although not given to having spontaneous religious experiences while immersed in secular life, nevertheless respond with genuine religious feeling at church, mosque, temple or synagogue, when they are under the influence of inspired words, ceremony, solemn or joyous music, majestic architecture, and the example of fellow believers.
James thought religion was a door to the subconscious, which he regarded as a source of extended perception and other useful abilities.
…our normal waking consciousness…is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness altogether different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. [James, 1902, loc. 5280]
James proposed that religious feeling is an objectification of subconscious processes, which are perceived as a ‘higher power’ external to the mind. [James, 1902, loc. 7038]
Common themes emerge from his wealth of sources. Religious awakening is typically characterized by a sense of “meaning” suffusing experience; a conviction of revealed truth; lessening of anxiety, increased comfort and feelings of safety; emotional exaltation, joy; the experience of beauty; compassionate awareness and heightened sympathy for others. These are primarily emotional states. James notes apologetically that his documentary sources are awash in emotion. “In re-reading my manuscript, I am almost appalled at the amount of emotionality which I find in it.” [James, 1902, loc. 6637] Most of the emotions described are positive ones, which those who experience them seek to repeat.
Accompanying the feelings of significance, joy, serenity, beauty, in many of the accounts, is a transformed experience of self. This is sometimes described as a “union” with a higher power, or with a larger whole, the universe, or “a higher universe.” Or, more modestly, as a surrender of will, “a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.” [James, 1902, loc. 686] Sometimes the sense of one’s familiar self is lost, replaced by a feeling of being a new person. “Born again” is a well-known descriptor of religious converts; another is “being one with the universe.” In every case, there is a transfer of emotional concern from “selfish little interests” to something larger. Sometimes the individual’s usual experience of himself seems to dissolve, perhaps to be replaced by “a pure, absolute, abstract Self,” a consciousness devoid of personality.
James describes religious conversions and revelations as infusing life with “meaning.” This sense of “meaning” has nothing to do with semantics and everything to do with emotional salience. It is the sense implied by the question, “Do I mean anything to you?”
When we see all things in God, and refer all things to him, we read in common matters superior expressions of meaning. The deadness with which custom invests the familiar vanishes, and existence as a whole appears transfigured. [James, 1902, loc. 6506]
All experience becomes emotionally charged. James quotes Father Gratry’s recollection, from his youth, of hearing “a poor drummer beating the tattoo in the streets of Paris.” This ordinary auditory experience, which could easily have been boring or annoying, was transformed into something “ideally perfect.”
It was impossible to conceive more nerve or spirit, better time or measure, more clearness or richenss, than were in this drumming. … I was enchanted and consoled; the perfection of this wretched act did me good. Good is at least possible, I said, since the ideal can thus sometimes get embodied. James, 1902, loc. 6512]
What explains the extreme pleasure, the aesthetic transport, which the young Gratry felt when he heard this drum? It is something like the quality of experience seen by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran in his patient, John, who suffered epileptic seizures of the temporal lobes. In a BBC documentary, Ramachandran speaks of an
…emotional salience landscape, with hills and valleys corresponding to what’s important and what’s unimportant. Indiscriminate strengthening of the pathways –deepening of the furrows–all of this becomes imbued with deep significance. [BBC, 1999]
Ramachandran speculates that activity of the temporal lobes “may be somehow conducive to religious belief.” He adds that this propensity may have evolved because “it is conducive to the stability of society.” Yet when we consider the rapturous John, iconoclastic reformers like Martin Luther, or George Fox (founder of the Quaker movement) who was inspired by God to run barefoot in the snow on market day shouting, “Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!” [James, 1902, loc. 174] social stability is not the first thing that comes to mind. Although religious institutions often protect the status quo, extreme religious feeling frequently attacks it, prompting social upheaval—challenges to secular authority, insurrections, and war.
James notes that saints can be outraged and angry.
Nothing annihilates an inhibition as irresistibly as anger does it, for…destruction pure and simple is its essence. This is what makes it so invaluable an ally of every other passion. [James, 1902, loc. 3619]
Anger and other high emotions are powerful motivators of change.
Our conventionality, our shyness laziness, and stinginess, our demands for precedent and permission, for guarantee and surety, our small suspicions, timidities, despairs, where are they now? Severed like cobwebs, broken like bubbles in the sun— [James, 1902, loc. 3650]
“Meaning” is emotional salience is motivation. Religious experiences not infrequently motivate attacks on the status quo.
Religious believers often have what James calls a ‘faith-state,’ or ‘sense of assurance’ in religious dogmas. He quotes W.R. Inge, who describes “men of preeminent saintliness” as having arrived
…at an unshakeable conviction, not based on inference but on immediate experience, that God is a spirit with whom the human spirit can hold intercourse [James, 1902, loc. 3730. Emphasis added]
Mystical states have a noetic quality: they “seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge.” But truths revealed in religious experience are frequentl described as “ineffable”—incapable of verbal expression.
According to James, this ‘sense of assurance’ is primarily an emotional phenomenon, characterized by the lifting of worry, by ‘willingness,’ ‘acquiescence,’ and ‘admiration,’ mingled with ‘a sense of perceiving truths not known before.’ [James, 1902, loc. 3398-3406]
The ground of the specific assurance in religious dogmas is then an affective experience. The objects of faith may even be preposterous; the affective stream will float them along, and invest them with unshakeable certitude. [James, 1902, loc. 3383]
If the sense of revealed truth indeed consists mainly of emotional affect, that explains why words alone fail to capture the content. A verbal statement may always be examined in an emotionally neutral light; and if it then fails to convince its audience, the person who felt the force of the original revelation might understandably protest that the statement misses the mark—that it leaves out the important, convincing content.
Revealed truth is a powerful attractant which makes Ramachandran’s patient John reluctant to be cured of his temporal-lobe seizures, despite the hardships he knows they bring on himself and his family.
It…seems like a key, and right now I haven’t learned how to use the key without those seizures. If I was told I’d never have the chance to use that key again, I’m sorry, I’m going to hold onto that thing. [BBC, 1999]
At the emotional heart of the ‘sense of assurance’ is “loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one…even though the outer conditions should remain the same.” One of James’ sources, C.H. Hilty, describes “the disappearance of all FEAR from one’s life, the quite indescribable and inexplicable feeling of an inner SECURITY” as “compensation” for the “loss of the sense of personal independence.” The feeling of being near God, according to another source:
…is a constant security against terror and anxiety. It is not that they are at all assured of physical safety, or deem themselves protected by a love which is denied to others, but that they are in a state of mind equally ready to be safe or to meet with injury. If injury befall them, they will be content to bear it because the Lord is their keeper, and nothing can befall them without his will. If it be his will, then injury is for them a blessing and no calamity at all. [James, 1902, loc. 7376]
Religious experience may be suffused with a wild joy which becomes one of its chief attractants. Alphonse Ratisbonne, “a free-thinking French Jew,” describes the elation of his conversion to Catholicism.
I did not know where I was: I did not know whether I was Alphonse or another. I only felt myself changed and believed myself another me; I looked for myself in myself and did not find myself. In the bottom of my soul I felt an explosion of the most ardent joy. … I came out as from a sepulchre, from an abyss of darkness; and I was living, perfectly living. [James, 1902, loc. 3099]
Notice that Ratisbonne’s euphoria is involved with a catastrophic disruption of his usual sense of self. “I…believed myself another me; I looked for myself in myself and did not find myself.”
The joy may be hard to distinguish from beauty. James includes several accounts of aesthetic rapture: the ‘limitless beauty’ of a flower, the ‘ideal’ sound of the drum in Paris, and this woman’s description of her salvation at a revival meeting:
It was like entering another world, a new state of existence. Natural objects were glorified, my spiritual vision was so clarified that I saw beauty in every material object in the universe, the woods were vocal with heavenly music; my soul exulted in the love of God, and I wanted everybody to share in my joy. [James, 1902, loc. 3428]
Aesthetic responses are emotional responses. The word “aesthetic” is derived from aisthetikos meaning “esthetic, sensitive, sentient,” which comes in turn from a Greek verb meaning “perceive, sense, feel.” Hence, “anaesthetic”: “lack of feeling.” The experience of the world as thus “vivified” (James’ word) is the opposite of depression, in which everything seems emotionally flat.
Joy, truth, beauty, and meaning, ordinarily thought of as distinct, blur together in these accounts. A common emotional quality seems to prompt all these descriptors.
James’ summary of religious experience includes “a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.” [ James, 1902, loc. 6637] I wonder about this, given the widespread incidence of religious intolerance; yet James regards compassion for others as an essential component. He describes “a shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections” which brings:
…increase of charity, tenderness for fellow-creatures. The ordinary motives to antipathy, which usually set such close bounds to tenderness among human beings, are inhibited. The saint loves his enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as his brothers. [James, 1902, loc. 3769]
Escape from the Self
The hypothesis I want to examine now is that the psychological attractants of religion itemized above: the ‘meaning’ or emotional significance infusing everything, the sense of connection with a deeper truth, the euphoria, aesthetic sensibility, and heightened sympathy for others, can be explained as a result of weakening the sense of self and its hammerlock on the human motivational apparatus.
My hypothesis may not appear very promising. Why, after all, would weakening one’s sense of self infuse one’s experience with emotional salience? Wouldn’t it more likely have the opposite effect? The strongest emotions (if not the most exalted ones) are those of self-concern, which depend for their motivating power on belief in the self’s reality. The so-called ‘dissolution’ of the self is ceasing to believe in the reality of the self, not just cognitively, but at the emotional level. How could the weakening or disappearance of the self-conscious emotions result in increased emotional intensity?
The measure of an emotion’s strength is its effect on action, and most human action is self-serving. Money is stored effort; consider the relative amounts most people spend on themselves and their immediate families compared to their charitable offerings. If the motivational influence of the self were drastically weakened, we would no longer find ourselves excited by opportunities for personal gain. We would no longer be so interested in acquiring wealth and social prestige. The wellspring of much of our engagement with the future would dry up. Wouldn’t that tend to suck the significance out of life, leaving it emotionally flat?
Not necessarily. One reason it might have the opposite effect is that high emotion cannot be sustained indefinitely. Emotion uses energy. Just as a long-distance runner must eventually stop running, and an academic engaged in research will run out of ideas after some hours of mental concentration, the parts of the brain that generate emotion become fatigued after a long period of intense activity. Eventually, “emotional burnout” must occur: a collapse of mood—essentially exhaustion—and a failure of emotional readiness. The person becomes insensitive to relevant changes in circumstance, entering a state of diminished awareness of events and the passage of time. This is a state of non-motivation. Perhaps an overactive sense of self, that has conscripted most or all of the organism’s emotional resources, can cause this kind of burnout. When it happens, experience becomes emotionally flat. Life loses its meaning.
Most people, most of the time, are not at the stage of burnout. But emotional resources are always limited; and if the self, as motivational target, co-opts too much of them, little remains to enliven those features of experience which are not flagged as relevant to personal interests. Think of a battery on a trickle charge from a bank of solar panels, used to run a space heater and a light. The heater is an energy hog that drains the battery to the point that neither the heater nor the light is effective. When the heater stops working, one may as well switch it off. But that gives the battery a chance to recharge; and without all that juice going to the heater, there is soon enough to light the room. As long as you keep the space heater turned off, you will be able see everything. When the self ‘dissolves,’ emotional significance begins to suffuse everything, not just those aspects of reality deemed “I” “me” and “mine.”
But why would that happen? Our emotions are a product of evolution. What evolutionary benefit could accrue to an organism from attaching emotional significance to the whole of its experience—including the sight of a common flower, the sound of a drum in the streets of Paris?
I don’t know the answer. But the heightened emotion is a fact; and if my explanation of it falls short, I know of no competitor which comes closer to explaining it. The elevated emotional response to flowers, drums, and the like is indistinguishable from an aesthetic response. The experience of beauty is, after all, a kind of emotional experience. To find a flower, a landscape, or a woman beautiful is to enjoy looking at it, or her. And people do enjoy looking at flowers and spectacular landscapes, not only at people who are sexually attractive and plates of delicious food. Moreover, some of the emotions of self-concern are well known to dampen aesthetic response. Anxiety kills sensitivity to beauty. You are unlikely to be moved by a sunset, bird-song, or Handel if you’re fretting about losing your business. Because those things do not solve your problem, your motivational system flags them as irrelevant, i.e. meaningless.
Although I cannot explain human enjoyment of those sources of beauty which appear irrelevant to evolutionary fitness, I am confident that science will shed light on it someday. In the meantime, I rest my case on the reasonable hypothesis that the emotional resources of any organism are limited, and the bald fact that humans, when they are not preoccupied with more pressing concerns, often respond emotionally to flowers, landscapes, birdsong, and the like. If a concern that has drained a lot of emotional resources—one’s concern with oneself—stops doing so, capacity flows to other outlets.
The joy, elation, euphoria of religious experience are perhaps easier to understand. The self, as we have repeatedly observed, is a stern taskmaster. The belief that concern for oneself in the future is rationally required makes its demands impossible to ignore. They are not polite requests, but orders that must be obeyed or else there will be consequences! The self is a relentless whiner; it is aggressive, fearful, greedy, narcissistic, and a drag to be around. We chafe under this oppressive presence that natters on miserably about personal and financial security and never ceases to exhort us to take on present pain for future gain.
Where to turn for relief? Meditation. Sports. Vacations. Drugs. Religion. Religion is the preferred escape route from the tyranny of the self for the majority of the world’s population. If religion can still that voice, even for a short while, small wonder that the experience is one of blessed relief, even exultation.
Increased compassion, or concern for others, is predicted by the hypothesis that religious experience is caused by a weakening of self-concern. Recent studies of the ‘mirror neuron system’ have furnished evidence that human beings internalize the emotions of other people, and that this emotional modelling of others has a motivating effect. Such sympathetic motivation is often at odds with selfish motivation. If the latter is weakened, sympathy for others becomes relatively stronger.
What about the sense of newly revealed (though indescribable) truth? Here I am on shakier ground. The explanation could be that weakening of the motivational self opens the door to deeper self-understanding. When a person stops being jerked around by his self-model, he discovers that he can see deeper into the workings of his own emotional apparatus. When he has ceased to believe in the reality and/or importance of what he previously took to be himself, he sees his own motivational mechanism from a new viewpoint. Knowledge is power. The self-awareness required to rid himself of the trammels of self-concern may give him increased freedom to choose.
Or something like that. I am painfully aware of how speculative the above paragraph is, and how vague. It is hard to pin down to any clearly falsifiable claim. Can any sense be made of it?
Right now, I only have an image of stepping down to a lower platform from which I get a better view of how I tick. Such a shift of viewpoint might, I suppose, give me a sense of being in touch with a ‘deeper truth.’ But I have never felt the ‘sense of assurance’ James describes, so I may have got it wrong.
Eastern and Western Ways
I have tried to support the hypothesis that some of the attractants of religious experience—meaning, joy, beauty, compassion, and revealed truth—may be explained by a weakening or disappearance of the self-concerned emotions which collectively constitute the sense of self. In that light, let us examine the different approaches taken by Buddhism and the Abrahamic faiths to weaken the self.
The Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self) is almost a direct expression of my hypothesis. Derek Parfit observed that Buddhist teachings on the self are of a piece with trends in the contemporary philosophy of personal identity. Parfit stopped short of claiming that Buddha was a Reductionist about personal identity, but he did say that the Reductionist’s ‘main claims’—that persons are not “separately existing entities, distinct from our brains and bodies,” and that our existence is not “all or nothing”—are ones with which Buddha would have agreed. [Parfit, 1984, p 273] Perhaps Parfit was right. A New Yorker article reports that Reasons and Persons is required reading in at least one Tibetan monastery. [MacFarquar, 2011]
Buddha’s aim was to achieve a psychological benefit: putting an end to suffering. Suffering is a result of attachment, which depends on maintaining the illusion of self. When the illusion is shattered, attachment and suffering disappear.
Most of William James’ accounts of religious experience, including the ones I quoted here, are from the Western monotheistic tradition, not Buddhism. On the face of it, ceasing to believe in the reality of the self, as the Buddhists recommend, is quite different from maintaining that belief and balancing it with belief in an even more powerful spirit.
If there are similarities in the net psychological effects, that may be because religious experience, in the Western accounts, only comes when the self submits to the higher authority of God. In the monotheistic traditions, God is all-powerful and all-knowing. And benevolent, another key feature, because belief that God is good is necessary for a full surrender. The person who experiences a religious conversion in the monotheistic tradition devotes himself to God. He abandons his individual will, which has been used to following the dictates of self-concern; or rather, he bends his will to the service of God. He says, I will no longer listen to my own demands, but only to the demands of God. He submits.
To submit to God is to refuse to take direction from the dictates of self-concern. To achieve that is to weaken the motivational force of the self. And with that surrender, the psychological attractants begin to flow.
Whether the religious person ceases to believe in his own reality, or instead gives up all personal ambitions in order to devote his life to the service of God, his self ceases to be a motivational target. The fact that most people around the world seek to escape the self, at least part of the time, testifies to its oppressiveness.
BBC (1999) Phantoms in the Brain (documentary with V.S. Ramachandran)
Dennett, Daniel (2006) Breaking the Spell, Penguin Books, London
James, William (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience, Project Gutenberg Kindle edition (2008). (References are to location numbers.)
MacFarquar, Larissa (2011), “How to be Good,” The New Yorker. Sept. 5, 2011.
Parfit, Derek (1984) Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press.