God Everlasting: Religion’s Changing Purpose in a Scientific World
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend where she brought up her deep belief in manifestation. I didn’t know very much about manifestation other than that it was some sort of spirituality mechanism where you “think things into existence” and that it had recently become very popular.
With further research, I found that manifesting is more of a collaborative process — an individual asks something of the universe and works towards it while believing the universe is helping them. At its core, manifestation motivates people by consistently reminding them of their goals and encouraging them to actually take steps to get there. Furthermore, individuals feel more supported when they believe the universe is on their side, making them more likely to work towards their goals.
While I personally don’t believe in manifesting, I can see why people do — it reaffirms one’s faith in themselves and their hope for the future.
How did Religion Come to Be?
Belief in an all-powerful figure — whether it is the general universe or God — has always been an important aspect of human society.
Religion has existed since the birth of civilization, born of human desire to make the world around them make sense. Many stories are still well-known today: the Christian parable of how Eve eating the forbidden fruit in Eden led to lust, shame, and the desire to wear clothing, the ancient Greek myth of Athena and Arachne explaining how spiders came to be. These tales became the basis of humanity’s understanding of the world around them. After all, in a world where the scientific pursuit of knowledge and understanding did not exist, humans needed these explanations to make the confusing and awe-inspiring world around them predictable.
But then, science was born.
How Science Affected Religion
With the advent of science came fears of loss in religious power, as what many religions believed to be true of the physical world was directly contradicted by scientific observations.
Take, for example, the Roman Catholic Church’s conflict with Galileo’s support of the Copernican heliocentric worldview during the mid-15th century. At the time, the church believed that Earth was the center of the universe, and that all other celestial objects rotated Earth. When Galileo supported a clearly anti-doctrine scientific observation, the church labelled him a heretic and put him under house arrest for the rest of his life in fear that his ideas would cause Catholics to doubt them.
The heliocentric solar system, long largely accepted by the scientific community, was only revisited by the church in 1983 and finally accepted as correct in 1992. And yet, despite the way the church treated him and his ideas, Galileo remained a devout Catholic until he died.
Even now, despite science being widely accepted as truth, billions of people continue to practice a religion today. Science, which seemed to take away religion’s job of explaining the world, is not the antithesis to religion after all.
But why is that the case? What makes people want to continue believing in religion?
The Purpose of Religion Today
Today, religion’s role is as an explanation of the spiritual realm. The things science cannot explain, religion knows.
This is clearest in how religion discusses death and the afterlife. Science does not know what happens after you die. For all we know, you may just not exist anymore. However, this is a possible reality that many find difficult to face, so they find comfort and hope in other possible afterlives — karma and reincarnation, Heaven or Hell, how the way you live your life today can affect you once you die.
Religion also provides a sense of culture and belonging for people. I was raised in a Hindu family. The stories, festivals, and prayers I learned and took part in were a big part of my life growing up. The little things about Hinduism became a part of my identity — a prayer song my grandmother would sing to me as a lullaby, the smell of incense at the temple, the Hindu mythology my parents told me before bed. My family would celebrate Hindu festivals with the local Hindu Indian diaspora, among which we met people who would eventually become our close family friends. While I now consider myself agnostic, I will always call Hinduism my culture.
The final, most important role of religion is as a basis for faith in a higher power. This belief provides support, relief, and hope in a better future. Praying and performing rituals to gain a god’s favor is a common aspect of religion. When you believe that someone powerful is listening to and helping you, you feel more motivated and tend to have a higher resilience when it comes to encountering obstacles.
As a result, religion gives people a way to be happy and hopeful even during the most difficult times. It is what people turn to when they fear they don’t have control over a situation or when they believe they need more support to stay positive.
If religion maintains such a clear and multifaceted purpose in our modern world, why do I (and other agnostics and atheists) choose not to believe? Read more about how I experience spirituality through science in the second blog in this mini-series, dropping on February 15, 2021.