Is Religion Necessary?


a dialogue between


Adam Nell-Millard & James Soderholm

ANM: Religious faith surely arose from some innate desire for meaning, formed in an attempt to explain the presence of human life and consciousness. What, however, if science had already offered an explanation? Would humanity simply have accepted their position as purposeless cellular masses, or would the unanswerable questions (the origin of the origin) have provoked some form of religious, or at least spiritual, thinking? Is religion an inherent part of the human psyche, or is it merely the result of an ignorant people attempting to explain their existence over hundreds of years? Either answer breeds further questions. If religion, or the tendency to worship or spiritualise the world in someway, is innate, then the presence of atheism, and even agnosticism, in the modern world must be explained. Is atheism merely the rebellious child of its ideological father; is the complete rejection of religion simply part of humanity acting out against the oppressive nature of organised faith over human history? If religion is not innate, and is in fact the rushed conclusion of a species craving existential wisdom, then why is so much of the world, despite scientific development, so devoutly religious? It is bizarre, upon reflection, that atheism and orthodox religion coexist in the same society.

In summary, if other explanations for the existence of the universe were available, and understood, would religious faith ever have entered the world? Why did it enter the world in the first place? And in both cases, in what nature does it, or would it, exist?


JS: But where does the desire for meaning come from? Other animals do not seek aims or purposes. Why are human animals so teleologically obsessed? Why did we even think to invent eschatology? Can you imagine a shark or an elephant inventing a mythology that accreted into a religion? Sharks don’t need to worship anything. I think if science had caught on early, as you suggest, then the need for religion would never have gotten beyond fairly childish polytheism, the kind of belief that you don’t run out and die for. Can you imagine a young gazelle strapping on a suicide vest to die for its religion? Freud argued that human animals invent religion to give them a sense of an all-protective and all-powerful Father who tends to his little creatures. That is, religion is the result of infantile helplessness. But we are meant to outgrow that helplessness and stand on our own two feet. Religion is just fairy tales for adults, right? There is no Santa Claus and there is not god. Shouldn’t the persistent belief in the latter into adulthood be a source of embarrassment for our species? Or is Freud missing something about belief by reducing it simply to psychological need?


ANM: Fear, perhaps: an unexplainable situation is a threatening one. To the early human, a life in which pain and suffering was ultimately arbitrary would surely have been terrifying. Although the dependence on religious faith has become infinitely complex over time, is it possible that it stemmed from an attempt to rationalise suffering? Perhaps the only way to do this was to find some way of explaining our purpose, and conclude that suffering resulted from some deviation from out natural path. The death of others, which in turn results in the understanding of one’s own fate, is part of this suffering. Once it became clear that dying was unavoidable, I would propose that musings on the nature and purpose of death became part of this attempt to rationalise suffering, and in time, this became religion.

Had science offered explanations to these questions (why we feel pain, why we die etc.), then perhaps, as you suggest, dependence on religion would not be as great. However, while science can explain what happens when we suffer, it cannot explain why. The cause of our existence, therefore, is still a mystery. However, if we, as a species, had been able to explain our existence, would we have been so desperate to know the cause?


JS: In a universe expanding at an accelerating pace, there is perhaps even less meaning to our pain and suffering. Indeed, there is no meaning at all, beyond the simple race of dark energy to keep creating more space until in a thousand trillion years (or so) the universe dies its heat-death. You would think we need religion now more than ever to deal with this fact.

To divert from our meaningless lives, entertainment is slowly taking the place of religion, given how most people act on Sundays. No church, a nice wander, a bit of gardening and a good carvery roast at the pub with a few friends. I wonder if more and more human beings are simply—and helplessly—not asking the ‘why’ question. And yet I hear alarming statistic world-wise about the rise of religion, particularly Islam.

According to a recent Pew study, by 2050 Muslims will make up nearly one-third of the world's total projected population of about 9 billion people. That will put it in very close to the projected number of Christians. So perhaps I am wrong and loads of human animals still need their comforting fairy tales to get through the day—and the night. I find it both shocking and amusing (depending on the mood I am in) that as a species we are so pathetically needy and so capable of self-delusion. Can you imagine circumstances under which religion will no longer be necessary? Is it something to be hoped for? Is religious belief and self-delusion the price we pay for religious art, which is often magnificent (all of Bach’s works, for example)?


ANM: This brings up an awkward question; is it not better to ‘self deluded’ but happy? Is the quality of life of an existentially lost intellectual in any way better than that of a dedicated religious believer? Perhaps not, and yet, it feels so counter-intuitive to wish for less knowledge, and it feels as though this would be necessary to embrace wholeheartedly any religion (though perhaps this is a trifle arrogant). Does this prove that the desire for knowledge is more powerful than the desire for happiness? If so, why are there, as you suggest, so many who remain religious? Perhaps the consciousness of others is simply different, and religious faith feels an undoubtable constant in their lives. This is quite alien to me. I cannot imagine religion as a staple of everyday life, yet for so much of the world it is, increasingly so, as you suggest. It is difficult to see this ever changing; is it possible that anything will ever be as threatening to religious identity as the scientific breakthroughs of the last few centuries? Breakthroughs which, crucially, religious identity has, on a world-wide scale, survived.

Is there any problem with this? Is religious belief, as Freud would suggest, a physiological flaw to be overcome? Perhaps it is wrong to suggest this from a non-religious perspective. I have no concept of the ways in which the complexities of religious faith may enhance life. I think the oppressive nature of religious infrastructure over the course of history ‘muddies the waters’ here. The limitation of various freedoms in the name of religion is certainly something to be overcome. If religious faith were free of these negative connotations, would there be any problem with its practice? Is there any problem with its practice? In itself perhaps, and yet it feels bizarre that so much of the world is enveloped by a belief that seems so irrational.


JS: Jonathan Swift defined happiness as ‘the capacity for being perpetually well self-deceived”. I don’t mind if people are happily self-deceived so long as they keep their noses out of my business and—for heaven’s sake—do not try to stab me in the pub because of an insane interpretation of an outmoded religion. So long as religion can ‘do no harm’ I don’t really have a problem with it. Killing in the name of god is what set off Christopher Hitchens and made him write a book about how ‘religion poisons everything”. So I return the question to you: can religion every disentangle itself from forms of irrationality that sometimes license murder? If not, then I’m with Hitchens.


ANM: Perhaps the problem is the level of dedication to religious faith that many feel. Is it possible to maintain some religious faith without its becoming the sole driving force of life, without it becoming something that one might die, or kill for? If so, then this is surely the best path. I think the idea that a God could ever demand a murder (one that many across the world clearly have) can only result from an unhealthy relationship with the given religious doctrine. Belief in the existence in God is one that, while perhaps disagreed with, should be respected and not discouraged. Perhaps, however, the belief that God is sentient and deliberate to the extent that he could demand murder, celibacy, or hatred of a certain group etc. something that should be condemned in the modern age? Should our education systems discourage ardent belief in a personified god? For it is surely this brand of belief that caused the problems.


JS: To get down to cases (and they are too easy to find), as of this writing (19 June 2017) there have been three terrorist attacks in London in as many months. All of them are connected to Islamic fundamentalism and jihad, it appears. Certain passages in the Koran license these acts of martyrdom, and the terrorists are not burning in Christian hell but each is enjoying 72 virgins (houri) in Islamic heaven. Look at this tangle of thorns. The bible licensed the imperial and rapacious crusades of the middle ages and the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Now, it’s a nice question how we pull apart the uses from the abuses of religious texts. Is it a question of ‘levels of dedication’? Perhaps. But I would rather live in a world, as we have discussed, where science has simply steamrolled over the need for superstition and religious fervor.

Any God or Allah or Whomever who for heaven knows what reason wants us to blow our DNA into the DNA of the person next to us is a God who deserves to die from a thousand cuts of skepticism and rationality. Perhaps all the terrorism in the UK finally hit a nerve. And Western education is not serving the Enlightenment. It is mostly running scared.

ANM: Perhaps a world without religion is preferable; a society governed by science and rationality would surely, in theory, function better than one governed by infantile faith. But is this a realistic notion? With so much of the world still utterly dependent on, and impassioned by, religious faith, the notion of weaning the masses away from belief is an unrealistic one. Is it not productive to attempt to develop religious faith, through education perhaps, in order to achieve a peaceful coexistence between believes and non believers?

The relationship with terrorism complicates things, of course. It seems an unanswerable question; it seems innately wrong to condemn an entire faith, and yet it feels natural to condemn the source of such acts. (they are not the same thing, of course, and yet they cannot be entirely separated). It is a moral paradox for the conscientious citizen. Is it possible to tackle the roots of terrorism sensitively? With careful and considered education, perhaps. But what would this education entail? Can western education redeem itself from this point?


JS: To tackle something sensitively sounds good but also sounds oxymoronic. I would rather lay bare the roots of terrorism and extremism in all religions in such a way as to shame and then finally to enlighten those who subscribe to forms of extremism. It may be that the ‘de-radicalising’ movement in schools in the UK is an attempt to use education and vigilance to short-circuit extremism, but the Internet and loneliness and a lack of jobs and a secret hatred of women, etc. are all far stronger than a handful of bureaucrats on the lookout for students who start taking the Koran with deadly seriousness. Some journalists are now arguing that the West has not only lost its appetite for defending Enlightenment values, but has in fact developed in the last six decades a peculiar talent for critiquing those values in the service of a new illiberalism (that is, an ill liberalism). So I think the goose is almost cooked. If only live and let live was the only creed people had, the world would calm down and dangerous zealots would clam up, overnight. But like rapacious colonial governments, imperialist, proselytizing religionists must shove their beliefs and values down our throats, or stab us as we eat a nice meal in London, to make the world into a better place. What then must we do?


ANM: Would any attempt to attack the roots of terrorism, whatever we judged these to be, not inevitably lead to more conflict? It would perhaps satisfy our desire to feel as though we are doing something, (and by ‘we’ I mean the nation, or the collective ‘West’?, the conglomerate of developed and fairly forward thinking citizens, I suppose.), but would it really save lives? Surely any attack would provoke something worse, especially given the fact that the moral boundaries of the other side seem to be so much less restrictive. As uncomfortable as it is to consider, is the best course of action perhaps simply to try to continue to ‘live and let live’, and to counter the threat in more subtle ways? Evil exists in the world, and I can’t see any way of confronting it actively without simply spreading its impacts. 

Lack of morality is a weapon too powerful to fight against. An enemy that sees mass murder not only as a viable means to their end, but as the end itself, is near impossible to fight against? Is this a fight that we can possibly engage in? can we possibly not engage? Another unanswerable moral question posed by the fact that, however far we seem to progress, evil continues to exist in parts of society. It feels terrible to say this but, must we simply accept that there will always be a certain number of casualties to this presence? 


JS: I think this dialogue is going to end with more questions than we had at its beginning. There is a Socratic justice in that. If only world religions really did affirm the idea of ‘live and let live’ but they don’t. And in fact religious imperialism—whether it’s expanding Catholicism or a grasping caliphate—militates against allowing people to live and believe in any way they see fit. I think, to respond to your last question, that the price of doing business in most religions is indeed a certain number of casualties. I don’t know how to deal with religious terrorists who want to stab or annihilate me because I do not believe in their prophet. Nor do I know how to respond to all the Roman Catholics or fundamentalist Baptists out there who still ban books. I am having a harder and harder time not agreeing with Christopher Hitchens’ outrageous claim that religions poison everything. Like most history, most religious are a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.


ANM: It is an impossible situation. It is quite clear in our thought that religion is necessary, even harmful, to humanity, yet is is a vital part of life for most of the population. Any attempt to enforce one point of view or belief would stray into the type of tyranny against which we are so opposed. Perhaps we missed our chance to live free of the binds of religion thousands of years ago. The religious nature of humanity, aggressive and absolute as it so often is, does not seem remotely reversible at this point. Religion is not necessary, nor conducive, to the functioning of human society, but it is present. A poison without an antidote? A perpetual nightmare? Perhaps, but nonetheless an aspect of life that we must continue to respect, to work with and somehow to influence from a distance in the ultimate pursuit of peace and humane development.