An opinion I often hear from friends who are also atheists is that the reason for the continued presence of religion in western lives, despite all the pressures for it to recede at a faster rate, is down to one simple thing: fear of death. That the religious are so scared of their own demise, they cling to the myth of an afterlife at all costs. But I disagree with this analysis. For a start, I don’t think there is any one reason why religion is so ubiquitous throughout human societies. There are numerous causes of what is such a widespread phenomenon and narrowing its basis too much will yield foggy results. However, there are inducements that are more prevalent than others.
One that I do not think gets talked about enough, and I believe is one of the key roots to religious feeling in humans, is the parent complex. Put simply, when we are born we are completely and utterly reliant on our parents for absolutely everything. By parent in this context, incidentally, I mean the term in the broadest possible sense, which is not about biology but whomever actually does the caring for the child in question. We spend the first few years of our lives barely conceiving things outside of our parent’s small world. My daughter recently asked me about something, I can’t recall what, other than in the end she was completely dumbfounded by the idea that she might know something I didn’t; that she might have access to some piece of information that I was completely unaware of. It was striking how absurd she found this concept.
While as we get older we obviously come to understand that our parents are not omniscient, I believe it is very difficult for most people to ever get over this mode of thought completely. That there is someone out there who knows all and understands intrinsically what is wrong and what is right in any and all circumstances. It is what we develop from, the basis upon which we learn to become independent creatures, so it makes perfect sense that we would not want to discard it unless absolutely necessary. I suppose what I’m saying is that if human beings developed faster, either mentally or physically or both, then I think religion would play a much smaller part in our collective history as we would not require such a strong bond with a parent figure or figures. Our mental framework is so shaped by the parent complex that we struggle to emerge from its shadow.
I also think this is why more religious societies tend to be autocracies and less liberal overall. It isn’t so much the taboos outlined in the religious code itself as it is the parent complex at work. Within a structure in which there is a father figure who has created the world and everything else, the concept of a father figure (I use father as opposed to mother or something more gender unspecific intentionally here – these are patriarchies were discussing after all) who controls everything here on Earth makes perfect sense. A liberal democracy, in which the people collectively own the state and whomever has executive power at any given time has it only while maintaining the support of the people through the ballot box, is a harder thing for a committed monotheist to digest. Not impossible, obviously, just harder.
So to summarise, religion holds onto its sway amongst a certain portion of the western population because deep down these people cannot move on from a fabric in which there is a parent who sets the rules. An existential universe, one in which right and wrong is decided in some way other than through a guardian figure, is literally beyond their imagination.