Explaining Religion’s Survival

One challenge to atheism is: if belief in God is so wrong, why has religion survived for as long as it has? Why have humans been religious, for as long as we know? I have a Hayekian theory. If you are religious, and my theory offends you, assume it applies to every other religion except yours.

I was thinking of a situation where the morally dubious option is very attractive, but something external to me makes it unattractive. For the record, I am for all intents and purposes an atheist. Also, your moral intuitions may differ from mine, but to interpret my point try to step into my shoes. Suppose you are given two options,

  1. You can continue with your current life, but you will not fulfill your most valued dreams. Your current life includes a healthy, loving relationship with your wife.
  2. You can re-start your life, with the guarantee that you will be able to fulfill your most valued dreams. For you, let’s assume, that means being a famous football player, able to sleep with the most beautiful women in the world.

What would make me say “no?” I find it morally dubious to abandon my wife, even if it turns out that she would never be aware of anything. I have a commitment to my wife (or, I would, if I were married), and it just seems wrong for me to abandon her — even if she would be ignorant to it (her alternative life would exist without me ever being in it) — so that I can sleep with dozens of beautiful women in my alternative dream life.1 But, when I was thinking about it, this wasn’t the intuition that made me choose option (1). Rather, I had a feeling that I would be judged, and that I would pay in some way for choosing (2). I am an atheist, but I felt that I would be judged by God. I have never been religious, but that feeling of being judged by some spiritual being did not evolve endogenously; it had to be imparted to me culturally.

“Don’t cheat on your wife” is not the only value religion imparts on believers. In fact, there were probably many religions that did not stress monogamy, and there were probably even religions that valued polygamy. But, most religions do try to instill certain values, and most religions ask for peace between members. The religions that have survived — the most popular and most robust religions — tend to require strict adherence to some set of values. Greek mythology, for example, is partly designed to teach people certain moral rules. These rules might not have religious origins, but rules without religion usually don’t have an omnipotent, omniscient enforcer.

The belief that you are being judged by someone who you can’t evade, who knows your motivations, and will unflinchingly apply the rules by which He commands you to live your life is very powerful. It makes getting away with morally dubious behavior impossible. To get around this constraint, you have to have a very strong belief that there is no spiritual enforcer. I am very skeptical of the existence of God.2 Yet, for whatever reason, having a sense of an omniscient, omnipotent enforcer strongly weighs on my moral intuitions.

Let’s take a step back and move in another direction, that will loop back to the question of why religion has survived. In Rules and Order, Hayek lays out the foundations for a theory of spontaneous order. The set of rules that govern entire societies/communities aren’t designed by a single mind, rather they emerge over time and are selected based on their survival value. It’s easiest to explain Hayek’s argument through an example. Suppose we live in world where there are various communities, each with its own set of rules. Over time, one community develops the heuristic “do not murder,” probably because they notice how much more well-off they all are if they can trust that their neighbors will not murder them. That’s the thing: this rule makes this community better off relative to others, so the probability of the rule being adopted by others is high. Alternatively, a rule that promotes disorder is likely to be abandoned, because societies that employ it will be relatively less successful than societies that don’t (all else equal).

Religion can impart rules that promote disorder, such as a willingness to wage war against non-believers, but these rules usually guide inter-, not intra-, community relations. Rules that do promote intra-community disorder usually die out over time. Implicit antisemitic rules in Christianity, for instance, have mostly died out, because communities that promote religious tolerance and cosmopolitanism are typically more successful than those that do not.

Order-inducing rules can emerge without religion. In fact, most rules that religion codifies probably emerged independently. They were adopted, because they make sense and are order-promoting. But, there is an advantage that religious rules have over non-religious rules, and it’s that religion promotes a kind of self-regulation. Non-religious rules can be enforced by secular institutions of governance, but this is easier today than it was 200+ years ago. If it wasn’t for self-enforcing rules, society may not have advanced to the point where it’s at today. A fear of God (or, the gods) is a powerful enforcement mechanism. So is the vaguer, but related, notion that there is a spiritual enforcer that will make us pay for our morally dubious decisions, even if everyone else is ignorant of our choice.

There is a strong impulse to spread religious values (although, not in all religions — Judaism is remarkably insular). If religious values promote peace, and if these values are “self-enforced,” it will be good for society to spread religion to non-believers, so that they too will be constrained in the same way. There are other motivations behind spreading religion, of course. But, a religion that relies entirely on conquest will not be very successful. Roman and Greek religion, for example, did spread through conquest, but the strongest reasons for accepting certain deities were probably cultural. And, Roman and Greek religion did not survive for long when superior alternatives were made available, even when these alternatives were oppressed (as was the case during the Roman Empire).

If there is no God (or no gods), why has religion survived for as long as it has? Or, if there is a God (or gods), why have false religions survived? Because religions impart order-promoting values, and the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient God that judges all of our choices is a powerful mechanism of self-enforcement. Religious societies were probably simply more successful than non-religious societies, which is most likely the reason why non-religious societies did not exist (or were very rare) prior to the growing secularist movement. Even in increasingly secular societies, there is still an implicit notion of a final judge that we can’t avoid — this is still the same mechanism of self-regulation. One thing that does seem to follow from my theory — and this might make some uncomfortable — is that as superior alternative processes of enforcement arise, religion will become less relevant.



1. There is the additional fact that I would rather be with my wife than with any other woman, but this isn’t a particularly strong feeling for many men, and it was even weaker historically.

2. But, it’s important to me that I cannot be certain of God’s non-existence.

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