Where Does Religion Come From?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the ex-Muslim critic of Islamic fundamentalism and longtime champion of Enlightenment liberalism, has announced that she now calls herself a Christian — a conversion that she attributes to a twofold realization.

First, that atheist materialism is too weak a base upon which to ground Western liberalism in a world where it’s increasingly beset, and the biblical tradition from which the liberal West emerged offers a surer foundation for her values. Second, that despite the sense of liberation from punitive religion that atheism once offered her, in the longer run she found “life without any spiritual solace unendurable.”

Her essay, not surprisingly, attracted a lot of criticism. Some of it came from Christians disappointed in the ideological and instrumental way that Hirsi Ali framed her conversion, the absence of a clear statement that Christian claims are not merely useful or necessary but true. The rest came from atheists baffled that Hirsi Ali had failed to internalize all the supposedly brilliant atheistic rebuttals to her stated reasons for belief.

I have no criticisms to offer myself. Some sort of religious attitude is essentially demanded, in my view, by what we know about the universe and the human place within it, but every sincere searcher is likely to follow their own idiosyncratic path. And to set out to practice Christianity because you love the civilization that sprang from it and feel some kind of spiritual response to its teachings seems much more reasonable than hovering forever in agnosticism while you wait to achieve perfect theological certainty about the divinity of Christ.

But as I read some of the critiques it struck me that the Hirsi Ali path as she describes it is actually unusually legible to atheists, in the sense that it matches well with how a lot of smart secular analysts assume that religions take shape and sustain themselves.

In these assumptions, the personal need for religion reflects the fear of death or the desire for cosmic meaning (illustrated by Hirsi Ali’s yearning for “solace”), while the rise of organized religion mostly reflects the societal need for a unifying moral-metaphysical structure, a shared narrative, a glue to bind a complex society together (illustrated by her desire for a religious system to undergird her political worldview).

For instance, in Ara Norenzayan’s 2015 book “Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict,” the great world religions are portrayed as technologies of social trust, encouraging pro-social behavior (“Watched people are nice people” is one of Norenzayan’s formulations, with moralistic gods as the ultimate guarantor of good behavior) as societies scale up from hunter-gatherer bands to urbanized states. At a certain point, the social and governmental order becomes sufficiently trustworthy itself that people begin to kick away the ladder of supernatural belief; hence secularization in the developed world. But it would make sense, on Norenzayan’s premises, that when a developed society seems to be destabilizing, threatened by enemies outside and increasingly divided within, the need for a “Big God” would return — and so people would reach back, like Hirsi Ali, to the traditions that gave rise to the social order in the first place.

What’s missing from this account, though, is an explanation of how you get from the desire for meaning or the fear of death to the specific content of religious belief — the content that’s obviously quite important to a lot of people, insofar as its absence in Hirsi Ali’s account frustrated many of her readers.

Even if belief in invisible watchers has its social uses, if such beings don’t exist it’s a pretty odd thing that societies the world over have converged on the belief that we share the cosmos with them. To say nothing of the specific doctrines and miraculous claims associated with that belief: For instance, if Christianity disappeared from everyone’s memory tomorrow, it would be odd indeed for a modern Western thinker seeking meaning amid disillusionment to declare, “what we need here is the doctrine of the Trinity and a resurrected messiah with some angels at the tomb.”

One of the strongest attempts to explain the substance and content of supernatural belief comes from psychological theorists like Pascal Boyer and Paul Bloom, who argue that humans naturally believe in invisible minds and impossible beings because of the same cognitive features that let us understand other human minds and their intentions. Such understanding is essential to human socialization, but as Bloom puts it, our theory of mind also “overshoots”: Because “we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds,” it’s easy for us “to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife.” And because we look for intentionality in human beings and human systems, we slide easily into “inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.”

Boyer, for his part, argues that our theories about these imagined invisible beings tend to fall into their own cognitively convenient categories. We love supernatural beings and scenarios that combine something familiar and something alien, from ghosts (what if there were a mind — but without a body!) to angels (what if there were a person — but with wings and powers of flight!) to the Virgin Birth (what if there were a pregnancy — without sex!).

With these arguments you can close the circle. People want meaning, societies need order, our minds naturally invent invisible beings, and that’s why the intelligent, rational, liberal Ayaan Hirsi Ali is suddenly and strangely joining a religion that asks her to accept the miraculous conception of a first-century Jewish holy man.

But here’s what this closed circle leaves out: The nature of actual religious experience, which is just much weirder, unexpected and destabilizing than psychological and evolutionary arguments for its utility would suggest, while also clearly being a generative force behind the religious traditions that these theories are trying to explain.

One way to get at this weirdness is to look at situations where there’s a supernatural experience without a pre-existing tradition that makes sense of people’s experiences and shapes their interpretations. By this I mean that if you have a mystical experience in the context of, say, a Pentecostalist faith-healing service or a Roman Catholic Mass, you are likely to interpret it in light of existing Christian theology. But if you have a religious experience “in the wild,” as it were, the sheer strangeness is more likely to come through.

I’ve written about how you can get at this strangeness by reading the Christian Gospels without the structuring expectations of Christian doctrine. Just as first-person reports of the Jesus phenomenon, their mysteries can’t be adequately explained by an overactive theory of mind among Jesus’ disciples and the advantages of Christianity for social control thereafter.

But another path, which I’ve been following lately, is to read about U.F.O. encounters — because clearly the Pentagon wants us to! — and consider them as a form of religious experience, even as the basis for a new half-formed 21st-century religion. This is the line taken by Diana Walsh Pasulka, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, in her two books on the subject, “American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology,” and its recently published sequel, “Encounters: Experiences With Nonhuman Intelligences.” It’s also a sub-theme in Matthew Bowman’s “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America,” which focuses on one of the more notable early U.F.O. encounters, involving an interracial couple in 1960s New Hampshire.

In both the Hill story and the larger array of narratives discussed by Pasulka, you see people having largely unlooked-for encounters with entities that defy easy categorization and explanation. Some aspects of these encounters fit a Spielbergian science-fiction template, and since this is a secular and scientific age, the wider society embraces that template and argues about whether we could really be visited by extraterrestrials from Alpha Centauri or Vulcan or wherever. But when you go deeper into the narratives, many of their details and consequences resemble not some “Star Trek”-style first contact, but the supernatural experiences of early modern and pre-modern societies, from fairy abductions to saintly and demonic encounters to brushes with the gods.

And what you see in the communities that have grown up around these experiences is not a ratification of existing religious structures (even if some people interpret them in line with Christianity or some other faith), nor a set of pat stories that supply meaning and purpose and ratify a moral order. Rather it’s a landscape of destabilized agnosticism, filled with competing theories about what’s actually going on, half-formed theologies and metaphysical pictures blurring together with scientific and pseudoscientific narratives, with would-be gurus rushing to embrace specific visions and skeptics cautioning about the potentially malign intentions of the visitors, whatever or whoever they may be.

Far from being a landscape created by the human desire for sense-making, by our tendency to impose purpose and intentionality where none exists, the realm of U.F.O. experience is a landscape waiting for someone to make sense of it, filled with people who wish they had a simple, cognitively convenient explanation for what’s going on.

In that sense the U.F.O. phenomenon may be revealing some of the raw material of religion, the real place where all the ladders start — which is with revelation crying out for interpretation, personal encounter awaiting a coherent intellectual response.

And if that is where religion really comes from, all the evolutionary and sociological explanations are likely to remain interesting but insufficient, covering aspects of why particular religions take the shape they do, but missing the heart of the matter.

Given the existence and influence of Christianity, it makes sense that some intellectuals in a decadent post-Christian society would be drawn back toward its consolations. But why were we given Christianity in the first place? Why are we being given whatever we’re being given in the U.F.O. phenomenon?

The only definite answer is that the world is much stranger than the secular imagination thinks.

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