Many years ago I met in Budapest a bright socialist young man with whom I interacted for only six days. His vast culture, unaltered balance and impeccable Spanish opened up space for pleasant conversations. This lucky encounter occurred during the Christian Holy Week, so the dialogue with such special character inevitably had to go through the intricacies of faith and disbelief.
-Do you believe in God? –I asked him when the opportunity arose.
-Your curiosity about ‘my beliefs’ is misconceived – he calmly replied. The proper question should address ‘my need’.
-Do you have need for God? – I insisted then, adjusting my question to his format.
-No, I do not – my ephemeral friend responded displaying an equanimity that I have rarely seen in devout believers answering similar questions.
Do we have need for God? The answer would be ‘yes’ for the vast majority of devotees, and negative for all the non-affiliated people. Although smaller than the huge mass of believers, the non-affiliated group, around one billion people, is large enough to assert that religious inclination is a discretionary feature in humans with no genetic roots whatsoever.
For our inquisitive nature, we, humans, invariably demand answers, and we often accept them even when they are not reasonable enough. ‘God’ is the simplest explanation for all incomprehensible phenomena. Divine intervention will always be easier to ‘understand’ than the big bang theory, the workings of genetic selection, or the initial formation of the basic cells in complex organisms (eukaryotes) that occurred about two billion years ago.
Unlike religiousness, the quality of being religious, which is personal, religion is cultural. As physical traits are transmitted by genes, behaviors are passed by memes, a word coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins to refer to the ‘genes’ of social groups. Like genes, although in a different way, memes also ‘struggle’ for survival and rely to propagate on human predispositions and conditionings with much help from the media and advertising. The influence of memes in a group is as powerful as the genes in an individual. This is particularly true in the propagation and maintenance of the memes of religion. According to American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, “religions themselves are extremely well designed cultural phenomena that have evolved to survive”.
Many scholars argue that, with the growing understanding of matter, life and the universe, religions are in the way to extinction. They are wrong. Religious participation in most countries remains very high, Western Europe being the major geographic exception, and Muslim and Christian countries, as well as India, the strongest confirmations of the trend.
Neither government actions, whether scorn, prohibition or persecution, nor do the developments of science and technology seem to alter religious fervor. Long periods of ‘spiritual abstinence’ enforced by totalitarian regimes, as it happened in Communist societies under the tutelage of Moscow, have failed to put out the flames of faith. In the community of nations, United States is simultaneously the leading country in application of technology (with the consequent material progress) and the second in religious participation.
According to the ‘Pew Research Center’, a think tank based in Washington, by 2050 there will be 2,920 million Christians, 2,760 million Muslims, and 1,380 million adherents to Hinduism, with respective growths of 34.6%, 72.5% and 34.0% compared to 2010. Non-affiliates will reach by the middle of the century 1,230 million people with a modest increase of 25.2% over the same period.
Consequently, the question at the beginning of this note shall remain appropriate for many decades. Which group do you belong to, dear reader? To the overwhelming religious majority that faithfully believes in God, Allah or Brahman? Or, do you follow the dissidents of that majority who, due to scientific logic, defiance or indifference, do not believe in metaphysical entities? Or, perhaps, are you part of the ‘huge’ minority which, as my thoughtful friend from Budapest, has no need for God at all?
Atlanta, May 18, 2015