Religion Has No Earthly Purpose, So Why Do We Cling to It? | Reza Aslan

Religion Has No Earthly Purpose, So Why Do We Cling to It? | Reza Aslan


Studies of children have shown that we are
born with this instinct for what’s called “substance dualism,” the idea that the
body and the mind or soul, however you want to think of the psyche, are separate. Children who as young as three or four years
old, who have not grown up with any kind of religious instruction, naturally assume that
they have a soul. And so I think a lot of theorists believe
that this belief in the soul is universal, that it can be traced back deep into our evolution. Why? There’s a whole host of reasons for that:
I mean I suppose that if you’re an “unbeliever” you think that it’s just some kind of evolutionary
accident—It’s a trick of the mind, as it were, that makes you think that you are
an immaterial being inside a material body. If you’re a believer you think that it’s
probably because there is a soul and maybe perhaps that we were intentionally created
in such a way as to think that there is more to us than just the material realm. It’s really a choice, but what cannot be
denied is that belief in the soul is a belief that all peoples share regardless of their
culture or their religion. And it’s a belief that goes back as far
back in time as we can possibly trace it. And if these psychological studies that I
was talking about are right, it’s a belief that we’re born with. Over the last couple of hundred years, there’s
been an enormous amount of thought that’s gone into the question of “why religion?” You know the one thing that we all agree on
is that religion has been a part of the human experience from the beginning. In fact, we can trace the origin of religious
experience to before homo sapiens. We can trace it with some measure of confidence
to Neanderthals. We can measure it with a little less confidence
all the way to Homo Erectus. So we’re talking hundreds of thousands of
years before our species even existed. So the question is why? If religion is a universal phenomenon—or
rather I should say religious experience—If religious experience is a universal phenomenon,
if it can be traced in all peoples, all cultures and throughout all time, then there must be
some evolutionary reason for it. There must be a reason. Some adaptive advantage to having a religious
experience or faith experience. Otherwise, it wouldn’t exist. And so there have been over the last couple
of centuries numerous attempts to figure out exactly what that adaptive advantage would
be. The most popular explanation, of course, is
the sociological one: that religion creates a sense of cohesion amongst a group. And that sense of cohesion, the idea that
we could come together and create a collective identity based on shared symbols or shared
metaphors gave an adaptive advantage to believing communities that non-believing communities
did not have. That’s a pretty good answer. The problem is that religion is as much a
divisive issue as it is a cohesive one. It’s as good at creating outgroups as it
is in groups. And more importantly, the problem with the
social cohesion theory is that kinship was a much more powerful and much more dominant
form of social cohesion than religion was. Our ancestors lived in small communities that
were bound together by blood, by relationship, by kinship long before they created symbols
and mythologies in order to unify them. So it’s a pretty good answer, but it doesn’t
really explain what adaptive advantage religion would have had. Others have said well, it’s about giving
us answers to the unanswerable questions of the world, that what it did was create a sense
of knowledge about the universe that lessened anxiety in some way, and that was an adaptive
advantage. Well even if that were true—and there’s
truly no reason scientifically to think that it was—it’s really hard to make an argument
about why that would necessarily be an adaptive advantage, particularly because religion actually
causes far more anxiety than it lessens. In fact, to put it in evolutionary terms,
the cost of religious expression is enormous. It’s enormous in terms of time, it’s enormous
in terms of the cognitive processes that are involved in it. It sort of creates greater anxiety when you
feel as though your actions have cosmic significance. All of this is to say that the countless different
answers that have been given for “Why religion?” fail primarily because they’re functionalist
answers. What they primarily say is what religion does,
not why religion exists. And so a group of cognitive scientists, particularly
cognitive scientists who focus on religion, have tried to look to a different way of answering
this question of “why religion?” And what they discovered is that number one,
there is, in the end, no adaptive advantage to religious faith. And number two, that the reason that religion
exists is because it is an accidental byproduct of some other adaptive advantage. And here we get into very complicated conversations
about cognitive theory and the development of our frontal lobes and things like that. But to put it in its simplest way, religious
thinking is embedded in our cognitive processes. It is a mode of knowing. We’re born with it. It’s part of our DNA. The question then becomes why? One answer is that there is no why. It’s just simply an accident of other much
more important, much more necessary cognitive adaptions—adaptations, I should say. Or if you’re a believer you would say because
we were made that way. Because we are designed to believe that there
is more to this world than the material realm. That that mode of knowing that exists in our
brain is there for a reason. Either answer is fine. There are some people who say well, what religion
really does and the reason that it exists is that it creates some morality, right? That if we imagine that there’s this absolute
moral lawgiver then we’re less likely to kill our neighbor, and that creates some sort
of adaptive advantage. The problem with that theory, of course, is
that the concept of a moral lawgiver is barely 5,000 years old, and religious expression
goes hundreds of thousands of years. I mean if you even think about the Mesopotamian
gods or the Egyptian gods—and this is again 7,000 or 8,000 years ago—these were not
moral beings. On the contrary, they were amoral and often
immoral beings! So the idea that religion is about morality
is a very new idea. Others say that religion is about authority. It’s a way of maintaining control and power
over a group, and perhaps those groups that were religiously inclined had an adaptive
advantage because that notion of an authority structure allowed them to survive better. Again, that’s a pretty good answer. The problem is that you’re talking about
institutionalized religious expression, which maybe, maybe is 12,000 to 14,000 years old. That’s as far back as we can trace anything
that looks like an institutional religious authority. And again that does not explain why religion
existed hundreds of thousands of years before that. The truth of the matter is we just don’t
know. But what is a fact is that there is something
in the way that our brains work that compels us to believe that we are more than just the
sum of our material parts. That thing is either an echo or an accident,
or it’s deliberate and purposeful. And which you decide is purely a matter of
choice because there is no proof either way.

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100 Comments

  1. If wanna try to explain something related to spiritual wisdom, please go through the summaries of ancient Indian texts like vedas and upanishads. Your big thoughts are our ancestors common sense knowledges.

  2. Q: why do people cling to religion
    A: life is hard and bad things will happen, those bad things will hurt, some things will hurt so much ( losing a child, parent, etc.) the pain will be almost unbearable. Religion and belief in an afterlife make hard things easier and make people feel better when horrible and sad things happen to them.
    Did we need an entire video about this very obvious question?

  3. Why these hateful comments? Do they all come from religious people? If so, could you explain me why? I thought religion was about love and insights. Does religion nowadays just mean hatred, intolerance, inability to understand another view point, and imbecility?

  4. As far as I remember when i was little I remember thinking about what it was like to be dead and when I thought of that I though of blackness with no thoughts, until my religious indoctrination kicked in and I started thinking about being in a perfect heaven with everything I wanted. I think children are exposed to a lot of religious thinking in society which may lead them to thinking they have a soul, I’m very skeptical of your claim that you’ve somehow figured out that a three year old thinks it has a souls when they haven’t yet coginitivly developed the ability of abstract though which happens in preteen early teen years

  5. Pretty sure it's just ignorance. I was born in a buddhist family, everybody goes to temples, make their wishes and whatnot. Fast forward to me in college learning about the human body and a little introduction to chemistry (not even the basics). I can tell you that there are 0 traces of any beliefs I once held in souls, reincarnation, gods, magic, etc… So this claim that religion is what in my genes? well I must've rewrote part of my genome by learning how things actually work.

    edit: not that I heavily indulged in the buddhist culture in the first place. I was forced to follow along as a kid though.

  6. But what about those of us who weren't born believing in a soul, higher power, or that there is more to life than what we do while we're on this earth? People don't seem to realize faith isn't something a person can force themselves to have. If god wanted me to believe why do I have the following nagging questions?

    If god created every human being that has ever existed why has he only shown himself to some, and not all? Why would an all powerful god even create a non believer in the first place?

    I would think an all powerful and all knowing deity would give us non believers more to work with than blind faith. Are coincidences, like someone praying a hurricane will miss their house and the hurricane then missing their house and "god of the gaps" arguments really the best an all powerful god can do to change a non-believers mind?

    why does anyone worship a god that would choose to not answer the prayers of a desperate mother who's child is dying of cancer, and who is willing to try anything she can think to do to save her child from a slow and painful death simply because the women does not genuinely believe in her heart something for which she has been shown no evidence that would allow her to truly believe? Couldn't god touch that woman's heart, make her believe in him, and save her child's life? Or extend grace, save the child's life and by doing so give that woman the proof she needs to 100% believe in him? If so then how can a person rationalize that god so often appears to refuse to do so?

    If god finds belief in himself to be of utmost importance then I'm not sure why he doesn't he get off his ass and do something about it instead of relying on a few mere mortal human beings to explain things for him like why shitty, horrific things, like mass shootings in America , keep happening no matter how hard and often people pray for them to stop ?

    it seems like people who claim faith is necessary if one expects to know god and have their prayers answered are really saying that not one of the millions and millions of people who promise to pray for all these terrible things to stop happening every single day are really just fraudulent non-believers deep down.

    all the mental gymnastics it takes people to come up with answers to any of these questions must get exhausting.

  7. I hate how this guy shakes his head side to side when he is saying something he wants us to think is true. Then shakes his head up and down when he is saying something he wants us to think is not true.

  8. Hmm, good talk. However, is it not our experience that compels us to believe?

    Science can examine and measure all the parts of the body and explain how they function and what their purpose is. However, science has yet to explain why or how those parts are experiencing life. Yet, it is our experience of life that is our guide in everything we think and do.

  9. No, studies have not shown that we are born with an instinct for substance dualism.
    The fool displays his ignorance and dishonesty from the first sentence.

  10. kids think that there is a "soul" so adults should???

    however, this is one of the more meaningful and thought out essays by this self aggrandizer

  11. Humans have been accidentally hurting themselves for hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore there must be an evolutionary reason for accidentally hurting yourself. Infection has been around for millions of years, therefore there must be an evolutionary benefit to getting an infection. Parasites have infested humans for millions of years, therefore there must be an evolution benefit to being infested with parasites. Humans and other animals have been ignorant of the world around them for millions of years. Therefore there must be an evolutionary benefit to being ignorant. Moron.

  12. religion does have purose where do we get ethics – morals – respect for human rights – awareness of human rights abuse – philosophy – history – anthropology etc. if you dont have fields grounded in the language history when abuses come up and they do how do you know how to recognize and write about such matters. look how many ppl are embracing ignorance. drug behavior – addiction to money – etc then engage in aggressive or mob behavior and dont know how to recognize the dynamic in a way to self correct and then resent ppl that do speak on it aggressively

  13. I think it can easily pinned down to fear. A self aware human learns about death from a very early age and they naturally hope that there is a way around it or a place to go after your body dies. Just takes one guy selling the snake oil to gather them into a group and start asking their god for rain on the crops so they can eat and won't die!

  14. Oh I get to decide? It's because I'm the creator made flesh and you all have to do what I say. Ever feel spiritual? That's proof of my godhood. You know it's true gimme money.

  15. Wait so religion can be traced back 100,000 years and still there in no one true religion that gets results. What a fucking joke.

  16. I'm not going to watch this because the Title of the Video makes no sense. Of Course Religion Has an Earthly Purpose, Without Jehovah God None of Us Would Be Here point blank & if you're going to say something negative don't bother commenting, save some time I'll just mark it as spam or as hate speech. The Truth is the truth regardless of who believes it or not.

  17. Probably would have been a good idea to start with a quick explanation of Ad Hominem.
    It would have prevented 80 percent of the comments under this video.

  18. As an agnostic, I'll believe in whatever can provide evidence of truth. But I've always hoped it's something yet undiscovered, something more interesting than Christianity, Islam, etc. There's all kinds of ideas about religion/the afterlife in science fiction and fantasy that are really cool and I would much rather be true. Hopefully within my lifetime we'll figure out what the truth is, would suck to have to wait until I die (unless the truth happens to be somehow undesirable). Although, I can't even begin to imagine what sort of chaos the scientific proof of an alternate-to-popular-belief afterlife (or even one of the current theories) would bring to the world. Part of my X Files loving self wouldn't be surprised if someone already knows, and is keeping it under wraps precisely to prevent such chaos but the more rational part of me is pretty certain that living humans won't know the truth for probably a long, long time.

  19. Berean Study Bible James 1:27
    Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
    Love one another, do good to one another, love the neighbor as they self.

  20. Science tells us that feelings drive our beliefs much more than rational arguments. This is why personal attacks are not good for scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, Reza Aslan and Sam Harris engaged in personal attacks to the extent that created lots of negative feelings. It is sad that many people on this list are driven by that. It requires some conscious effort to manage this desire to retaliate. It is not easy, frankly, but worth the effort. This is important to advance scientific knowledge if we care about that.

  21. Bottom line is, we know the history of it and now that we know how to behave, we dont need it anymore and go on living our primitive lives

  22. There must be some fundie cult that has successfully programmed people to monitor their feeds for anything Aslan posts in order to discredit him. Or to share it so they can attack en masse. They clearly have not spent even two minutes listening to this video. Idiots. I shudder to think what these jerks would do to Joseph Campbell were he alive today.

  23. Ew…… his argument is pretty bad. He uses a fixed way of looking at things while things are constantly changing.
    Religion in ancient time is not the same as religion in recent. He tries to use the one concept to explain different things and claim it's embed in out gene, that's a joke.
    Religion in ancient time, I don't know how it starts, may have its reason. When the human societies/tribes develop, and the authority need more power, those people in the religion are just in the right position, which make the religion become an institutional thing. Later the human society develop more, because religion already in power, then there are more things will be include. What it's originally for doesn't matter anymore.
    In East Asian culture, religion has never play a big role as important as it's in other areas in the world. They adapt religion as fast as they abandon religions. They don't even talk or give fuck that much as so many "important" people in here do.
    Religion is Not that important, and not necessary. Human society can develop without it.
    Mr. Aslan, you should really read some philosophy books, or if you can gain social respect or financial support from talk about religion like this, never mind, keep doing what you do.
    There are too many errors, lies, bad models in the world, cutting this one will not make any differences anyway.

    I just thought Big Thinks is targeting people who think, this video is disappointing.

  24. I'm surprised he's actually attempting to provide reasons and not just telling people to listen to him because he's a religious scholar like he does with Sam Harris.

  25. Good to see religion is making a omeback. time to dispose of atheism as a communist marxist ideology. long live ethno nationalist christian conservatism!

  26. The "soul" doesn't exist, it's just a combination of mind and emotions that conform our "self". You can't possibly ask a 3-4 year-old about this without giving them context and they will end up nodding and that's it. Congratulations, you now have your theory confirmed -.-
    Watch how fandoms work: lots of people loving, admiring and going crazy about another person/thing they find unbelievable and superior to every other. Remind you of anything else?
    Religions are just tales with such these figures, which happened to fill in the blanks for the illiterates, so they believed them and passed them to their descendants, so they grew into them. Great… bullshit -.-

  27. This guy has apparently not done his research. There are over 8,000,000 Jehovah's Witnesses who don't believe in duality of body and soul and many more atheists. 3 or 4 year olds have not lived in a bubble. Questioning 3 years olds about anything is a questionable way to gather evidence because they are so vulnerable to suggestion. This is dumb.

  28. Only a fool will think there is no God. You can see the God's Power and Beauty even in a little flower. The choice is yours

  29. This is the worst Big Think video I've seen to date. The person who greenlit this primitivistic demagogic monologue should be fired. The guy here simply uses a couple of simple manipulative tricks to push his viewpoint. The main one is to say that we don't have a sure-fire explanation of >insert any questionable matter<, therefore the explanation >insert any explanation< is not only likely, but also legit. I'm not even talking about him repeating over and over again the same questionable "facts" about our DNA.

  30. There is actually proof in “God” or the Divine. You have to be willing to experiment with yourself and follow the teachings that lead one to God Consciousness.
    The fundamental idea of God is in everyone bc God is everywhere and fills all things. One must learn to perceive this Higher Mind.

  31. This guy is so disingenuous, all he is doing is creating his own reality distortion field ala, Steve Jobs and believes that people will take him for an actual expert

  32. Very interesting. I think I disagree though that religion causes more anxiety than non-religion. The existential dread associated with a meaningless/nihilistic outlook can easily cause suicidal thoughts (ESPECIALLY to those genetically predisposed). The lower end of the IQ spectrum especially is prone to being absolutely destroyed by nihilism (possibly because they are unable to make their own meaning). The loss of life purpose is an extremely typical "trigger" for mood disorders. Religion is an easy fix, and I don't think the time it takes to go to religious practice causes anxiety like you mentioned, and I don't think having faith is cognitively difficult at all like you mentioned. What's truly difficult is living in reality and answering questions scientifically instead of spiritually.

  33. Question for the audience: Are those who aren't believers different on a cognitive level? Why isn't something that is apparently so ingrained in our cognitive process completely absent in so many individuals, especially young people? (I am one of them)

  34. I think Religion is just wishfull thinking that there's more to the world than our misserable little lives. But there's just this one that youre in. enjoy i tas much as you can as long as you can. Not everybody believes in souls, thats bullshit. I certainly don't! I believe we're 100% pure Matter based.

  35. Religion is the expression of fear. A prey fear its predator, and ran away when it faces one, that is because the predator means potentially death for the animal. Human beings have eliminated all their predators fear after the neolithic revolution. Since then the "only" death menace the conscious that knows that the time itself leads to death. Religion solves this problems, projecting our life beyond its real length and keeping our mind away from the death fear.

  36. So guys to save you the 10 mins waste here is a short summary :
    infants naturally assume they have a soul, [BLABLABLA], we don't why religion is here, [BLABLABLA], we don't know why religion is here, [BLABLABLA], Religious thinking is part of DNA, and there is smthing hidden inside us that compels us we're more that matter."

    Pretty convincing huh ?! What a clown.

  37. Wait, so your basis for someone acknowledging that they have a soul is that they have a sense of the mind being separate from the body? I think there's room for improvement and just tone it down to 'people that have a sense that there a mind' and you can get 90% if not all of them ^^

  38. The second explanation of why religion exists, namely that it takes away the fears, which arise from unanswered questions, is absolutely sufficient. It is not the case that religion objectively has so much costs at least the believers do not see it as costs. There is no evidence that religion is embedded in DNA, it only exists in children when they reach a certain age, which depends on their environment and experiences. In other words, if it's in the DNA, why am I not affected? An accident of an accident?

  39. Please stop saying "…we all can agree…".

    These are massive overgeneralizations, and you are, quite frankly, incorrect.

  40. first Big Think I must say is full of shit. Everyone doesn't believe they have a "soul", and how do you know we are born believing we have one? I have NEVER heard a 2 year old talking about their soul, without being indoctrinated, and neither has he.

  41. This guy barely understand how evolution works. He constantly thinks in terms of group selection. The argument "religion waste resources" by his logic could be turned into "fancy male tails waste resources", while second statement is perfectly explained by Richard Dawkins "The Selfish Gene".

  42. People believe in supernatural shit because they don't have an easily understood answer to the question of why? Also, this "scholar" is a lieing piece of shit and a dangerous Islamic apologist.

  43. Wow…18 seconds in, and he's already proven himself to be an idiot. Kids aren't born with a belief in "the soul"…they're born with a sense of "identity". There's a BIG difference between basic self-awareness and religious ideology.

  44. I have had children and now grandchildren and at no time did the express a belief in a soul so I don't know what evidence he has to back that claim. The reality is very young children are exposed to religion at a very early age starting from baptism etc and are indoctrinated into religious belief. I am very confident that all children are born without belief.

  45. Lol this guy!! Theists take the easy way out, using none of their brain to understand, learn and comprehend the true nature of the universe via science. Science is not just the study of the "material realm", but the forces of nature that influence our life. Instead of millions of hours of useless worship, read a science textbook and you'll learn something substantial; contribute to the cause of exploring our environment so that our lives could be improved. This guy tries to explore the duality of religion and science, but there is none, religion is useless and provides nothing other than self-satisfaction and gratification.

  46. Religion can give comfort.
    Humans are an intelligent species,
    but we get stressed if our questions are not answered.
    Religion gives for certain people acceptable answers.
    And so linders the stress.
    And a lot of people fear death, scared people do not have a Free mind.
    So riligions promise : a New Life (reincarnation), Heaven, Paradise (with or without a bunch of virgins).
    The idea makes Life less frightning.

  47. 200 years ago, the German philosopher Goethe said "belief is not the beginning, but the end of all knowledge". Religions all require unquestioning acceptance of dogma as tautology; which is not proof. The scientific method is merely a tool for the purpose of systematic empirical exploration of the physical world. It is not a belief system; I. e., a religion. Materialism is a belief system, and the defacto religion of today. Science itself is unqualified to determine the source of consciousness, and materialists simply pretend that it is only an epiphenomenon of brain activity. This is disingenuous. Belief itself is the problem.

  48. if you erase all knowledge of religion and science today, suppress all books, wait a 1000 years, science will come back the exact same ways, gravitation will be discovered again, 1 + 1 will be 2… But religious book will not be the same at all. How does religious book is any different from other books ? Since the beginning of the history of modern man we count around 3000 gods all religion together, in what is yours the "real" and not the others ? How can you prove religion was not created by the king and his adviser to unite and have a better control of its population ?

  49. "Children naturally assume that they have a soul". No, they do not, not until they are told that the soul is something people have.

  50. In every age, the purpose is heavenly & earthly… "The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men." ~ Baha’u’llah

  51. Messenger after Messenger come to build higher unities, from clan, tribe, kingdom, city state, nationhood, world government.. "The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity or dissension." ~ Baha'u'llah

  52. We can trace religion among all people because we are all afraid of death.
    Until now, no evidence was found that proves that there is a spiritual world or anything at all after death, therefore the majority of us are scared of the unknown.
    Religion is nothing more than a tool of control.

  53. I am a non theist and don't feel like you that we need a religion to be happy or the need of structure in our lives. Thumbs up to you Reza Aslan!! I would like to hear more from you!!

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