The Many Ways We Try to Replace Religion

By Clay Routledge, originally published at Quillette.

Some who reject both traditional and non-traditional supernatural beliefs are attracted to what I refer to as “supernatural-lite.” This label encompasses beliefs that require a leap of faith and have characteristics reminiscent of religion, but do not explicitly rely on the idea of supernatural power. And they often are superficially wrapped up in scientific or technological conceits, which make them more palatable to those who do not fancy themselves people of faith (especially men). This includes the belief that intellectually superior aliens are monitoring and even influencing, the lives of humans. Some of these believers have even embraced the idea that extraterrestrials are responsible for human civilization, and will one day welcome us into a larger cosmic community once we reach some baseline level of enlightenment.

In his 2011 book, The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer argues that alien beings are “secular gods—deities for atheists.” And while most hardcore atheists aren’t dedicated UFO conspiracy theorists, the dream of life amid a larger interplanetary community reflects the hunger for collective human meaning that transcends the pedestrian scientific view of human beings as transient organisms inhabiting an inconsequential rock hurtling through an indifferent universe. As with the other patterns described, across the Western world, at the same time as traditional religions are declining, supernatural-lite beliefs are on the rise.

Another doctrine lying within this borderland between science fiction and religion is transhumanism, whose adherents dream of transcending mortality through medicine and bioengineering. The scope of transhumanism ranges from the relatively humble goal of defeating specific terminal diseases such as cancer, to the more ambitious goal of transferring human consciousness to a machine body or uploading it into a supercomputer that would allow people to live indefinitely in cyberspace. Even though many transhumanists do not subscribe to traditional religious beliefs, such beliefs are finding their way into transhumanism. For example, there is a growing Christian transhumanism movement and a Mormon Transhumanist Association.

And if you imagine that secular ideologies and political movements now seem to exhibit faux-religious characteristics, you aren’t alone. “We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong,” wrote Andrew Sullivan recently in New York magazine. “And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”

Some critics have responded to Sullivan’s essay by pointing out that politics and religion have mixed in many ways throughout history. This is true but doesn’t undercut Sullivan’s religious-substitution argument. The more people abandon religious spaces to meet existential needs, the more likely they are to turn to extreme political tribalism, and to blur the lines between spiritual and secular pursuits. Indeed, studies find that it is people who score low on commitment to a religious faith who are most likely to invest in political ideologies to counter threats to meaning in life. Also, the more extreme secular ideologies on both the left and right often involve conspiracy theories, which are cognitively similar to paranormal and supernatural-lite religious substitutes and similarly motivated by the need for meaning.

Importantly, there are reasons to doubt that these various alternatives to religion can successfully meet people’s need for meaning. Modern religious substitutes often reflect the individualism of the West, which is in tension with our species’ inherent social nature. Traditional faiths act as a buffer against the existential threat individualism poses because they activate the social self—the part of us that feels a moral duty to others. And a large body of research indicates it is our deep and enduring connections to others, which traditional religious beliefs and practices help facilitate, that provide meaning.

Traditional religious beliefs are really social beliefs. They are about transcendent connections across space and time. The more these beliefs bind us to family and community, the more they make us feel like we are part of something more enduring and meaningful than our brief mortal lives.

This article was originally published at Quillette, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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