Updated: Sep 26, 2019
We all want to belong. The unprecedented popularity of social media provides irrefutable proof. In fact, we now know that having a sense of belonging promotes happiness and brings meaningfulness to life.[i] But what is it we want to belong to, and why?
Tens of thousands of years ago in hunter-gatherer societies, living as an individual would not have been an option. The world was just too dangerous. Life was lived communally and everything was shared, including a common belief in the supernatural and the ability of a shaman to connect with the spirit world. Religion and spirituality were one and the same. Individuals needed to belong to such a community because it was quite simply a matter of life and death.
This early form of communal religion was the beginning of a fascinating trajectory that religion has taken over the centuries. This trajectory has had three important aspects to it. The first is the evolving relationship between religious and political leadership, the second is how humans use and require religion, and the third is the continuing desire of humans to make spiritual connections in order to feel a sense of belonging.
A Brief Look at the Evolution of Political and Religious Leadership
Anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, in his famous book The Golden Bough, theorized that religious and political leaders broadly evolved as follows. Initially, what was our shaman or medicine man in the hunter-gatherer societies at some point divided responsibilities into disease healers and others like rain-makers who dealt with the natural world. The one considered as the most powerful member of the order went on to take over roles as chief and eventually sacred king, who ruled within the well-known concept of “divine right of kings.” Still later, according to Frazer, this job further subdivided into a civil power (e.g. king or political leader) and a spiritual power (i.e. religious leader). Meanwhile, the remaining “magicians” eventually abandoned sorcery in favour of science.[ii]
What were the consequences of this evolution of leadership? The over-riding consequence for most of human history was the complex “marriage” between state and religion, which, until relatively recently, meant that political leaders (e.g. kings, emperors) only ruled because either they were believed to be gods or they had been given the right to do so by gods. Examples of this include Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, Chinese emperors, Mayan kings, and the ancient Israelites, who conquered the Canaanites because they were “told” to do so by God. Today, the divine right is still sputtering along with such institutions as the British monarchy. Even democracies have incorporated a semblance of this in their formation, the United States being the most obvious example with their official motto, “In God We Trust.”
A Brief Look at How Humans Use and Require Religion
With such a complex relationship between religion and politics, it was only a matter of time before the disparate ways in which humans use and require religion in their societies would be questioned. It started in earnest during the Reformation of the 16th century. At that time, the field of religious studies emerged, which allowed scholars to look at religion from a more objective, secular point of view, debating the origins of the phenomenon, and why it had arisen in the first place.[iii]
The distilled conclusions of the early scholars (e.g. Bernard Fontenelle, Giambattista Vico, David Hume, Auguste Comte and others) went something like this. Religion was a social phenomenon, necessary to motivate people through its rituals and to hold societies together. Primitive peoples used religion as an early form of science in order to explain the natural world, and therefore the advancement of human knowledge and science would eventually be accompanied by a decline in religion.
Today we know that this is indeed what has happened, at least in most of the western world. However, it has also been recognized that the complex marriage between religion and politics cannot be undone so easily. Huston Smith has summarized the dilemma very well.
“Governments require of constituents what they cannot themselves provide: meaning and motivation, including motivation that is directed toward the public good. It used to be taken for granted that religion was an important custodian of such motivation…What has become evident, though, is that since the disestablishment of religion, the West has been unable to come up with a convincing theory of political responsibility …A regime which has to pacify a populace that is seeking fulfillment in the wrong place, will find its problems insuperable.”[iv]
In other words, earlier societies (i.e. prior to the Reformation) understood that they needed to be grounded in religion to function effectively. In the 21st century most western governments do not realize this; instead they try to supplement traditional religion with liberal humanism as the de facto state religion. As pointed out by Peter Berger, this move to secularization has been thanks to the educated global elites (self-labelled “progressives”) who control the media, education, and legal systems.[v] Countless scholars have been quick to dismiss religion as non-essential and irrational starting with some of those very same early Reformation thinkers and continuing right up to the present with people like Marcel Gauchet, Steven Englund, and AC Grayling who are wont to proudly announce that moral misdemeanours (i.e. sin) have no consequences, which is no doubt the main reason why secularism is so popular.[vi][vii] Indeed, much of western civilization today identifies itself as SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious), pretty well akin to trying to have your cake and eat it too.[viii]
What has really happened? As author John Gray so clearly points out,
“The need for religion appears to be hard-wired in the human animal. Certainly the behaviour of secular humanists supports this hypothesis. Atheists are usually just as emotionally engaged as believers. Quite commonly, they are more intellectually rigid. One cannot engage in dialogue with religious thinkers in Britain today without quickly discovering that they are, on the whole, more intelligent, better educated and strikingly more free-thinking than unbelievers (as evangelical atheists still incongruously describe themselves). No doubt there are many reasons for this state of affairs, but I suspect it is the repression of the religious impulse that explains the obsessive rigidity of secular thought…
“Liberal humanists repress religious experience—in themselves and others—in much the way that sexuality was repressed in the strait-laced societies of the past. When I refer to repression here, I mean it in precisely the Freudian sense. In secular cultures, religion is buried in the unconscious, only to reappear—as sex did among the Victorians—in grotesque and illicit forms. If, as some claim, the Victorians covered piano legs in a vain effort to exorcise sex from their lives, secular humanists behave similarly when they condemn religion as irrational. It seems not to have occurred to them to ask where it comes from. History and anthropology show it to be a species-wide phenomenon. There is no more reason to think that we will cease to be religious animals than there is to think we will some day be asexual.”[ix]
What has still to be answered is why. Specifically, why do humans continue to seek God and spiritual connections? The answer comes neither from a purely secular viewpoint nor a religious one, but a combination of the two.
The Human Desire for God and Spiritual Connections
In the 18th century, philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed that all humans have aesthetic, transcendental experiences—fleeting moments of “disinterested pleasure” as he called them—of beauty and the sublime [e.g. a feeling of awe at observing a sunset, a feeling of connection with others at a rave, tears welling up in the eyes watching an emotional concert or play – author], but he did not attach any connection between the experiences and religion. Building on Kant’s theories, philosophers Jakob Friedrich Fries and Rudolf Otto suggested that these were in fact transcendent, “holy” experiences of communication with a divine reality.[x] Finally, 20th century anthropologist Victor Turner attached the term spontaneous communitas to such experiences, noting that they could occur either within or without a religious context, with the trigger often being ritual. As he so succinctly put it,
“Is there any one of us who has not known this moment when compatible people—friends, congeners—obtain a flash of lucid mutual understanding on the existential level, when they feel that all problems, not just their problems, could be resolved?”[xi][xii]
Arguing from a purely religious standpoint, one of today’s foremost scholars, Bishop Robert Barron, channels the thought of the great 13th century Catholic apologist Saint Thomas Aquinas. Barron states that humans desire God because of two inherent qualities. The first is the intellectus agens as it was called by Aquinas, or the restless searching of the human mind for greater knowledge, the end point being God. The second is the constant seeking of unconditional, ultimate happiness or beatitudo, by the human will. This search for beatitudo is frustrated because humans misinterpret happiness as being one or more of wealth, honours, power, and pleasure. They cannot be satisfied until they come to recognize that God is love and the ultimate goal of their search. When their lives are ordered to make God the focus of the quest, then they will experience beatitudo. To do so, they must cease seeking the four false gods.[xiii]
Let’s summarize what this all means. What we have first, then, is an agreement of sorts from both secular and religious points of view, that humans have aesthetic or transcendental experiences, or more correctly, that they possess the innate ability to have these experiences. Such experiences cannot be programmed but can occur at certain times and as a result of certain triggers, one being some sort of ritual. Secondly, for the most part these experiences are pleasing and if not—as in perhaps being in the midst of a hurricane—at the very least they lead to an appreciation that one is in the presence of something or some power much greater than themselves.
Humans crave these experiences, these “spiritual connections,” because they approach what Barron/Aquinas have declared is beatitudo, the ultimate outpouring of love from oneself to God and often to the community as a whole. I believe that these and Turner’s spontaneous communitas are one and the same and they are why people seek to belong. In other words, the quest to belong - like it or not - comes from God.
[i]Pogosyan, M. (2017, April 11). On Belonging: What is behind our psychological need to belong? Psychology Today. Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/between-cultures/201704/belonging.
[ii]Frazer, J.G. (1996). The Illustrated Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.United Kingdom: Labyrinth Publishing (UK) Ltd. p. 87.
[iii]Jones, C.B. (2007a). Introduction to the Study of Religion, Part 1 of 2.Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company. pp. 18-19.
[iv]Smith, H. (1987). Introduction. In Rubenstein, R. (Ed.). Spirit Matters: The Worldwide Impact of Religion on Contemporary Politics. NY: Paragon House Publishers. pp. ix-xxvii.
[v]Berger, P.L. (1999). The Descularization of the World: A Global Overview. In Berger, P.L. (Ed.) The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. pp. 1-18.
[vi]Englund, S. (1999, Spring). The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. Cross Currents. Volume: 49. Issue: 1. p. 103+.
[vii]Rée, J. (2013, March 7). The God Argument: the Case Against Religion and For Humanism by AC Grayling – review. The Guardian. Retrieved May 7, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/07/god-argument-humanism-grayling-review
[viii]Lark, D. (2017, November 13). Spiritual but Not Religious: The Movement. Reflector Magazine. Retrieved May 20, 2019, from http://reflectorgsu.com/spiritual-but-not-religious-the-movement/.
[ix]Gray, J. (2002, December 16). The Myth of Secularism: Religion Is a Natural Human Impulse, Which Our Society Tries to Repress Just as the Victorians Did Sex. That Is Why Atheists Are So Rancorous and Intolerant. New Statesman. Volume: 131. Issue: 4618.p. 69+.
[x]Jones, C.B. (2007b). Introduction to the Study of Religion, Part 2 of 2.Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.
[xi]Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. pp. 44-48.
[xii]Schechner, R. (2002). Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge. pp. 62-63.