One can understand the desperately poor and uneducated submitting to the lure of religion, but for the millions of educated, intelligent, and otherwise rational people to continue to 'believe' is a puzzle, as is the paradox of the constitutionally secular US, and its high levels of belief in religion and irrationality.
Most Human beings have a basic need for security, we are social animals. We need psychological security and physical security. Keeping people always in sight of social isolation or poverty, dependent upon goodwill and charity, rather than building self confidence and creating rights, keeps them in a state of immaturity and tension that makes them vulnerable to manipulation and willing to surrender to superstitious beliefs. I believe it applies to populations as much as to individuals, countries and communities as well as families, all are made up of individuals.
As well as taking a look at religion from a new perspective, this view of why people believe explains not only the induction processes used to instil belief, but the paradox of the religiosity of the American Secular State as well as the domination of many poor African countries by the religions imported by proselytising missionaries. It keeps people believing in priests and makes religion a ready tool for political ideologies that want to keep people in their place, subservient, at the bottom of the ladder always fearful of falling off! 'The poor man at the gate' is as much a symbol of right wing political ideology as it is of religion.
How people are inducted into 'belief'
Understanding people's underlying needs, can show how the methods used by the religions to instil 'belief' and keep people believing work. The techniques by which they are induced are based on it. Paradoxically this may be done by using 'awe' that makes people feel small and accentuates their need for security, or by the softer tactic of lulling of people into the trusting of 'parent' figures. In hypnosis these techniques are called induction, conditioning and reinforcement. Children and older people at times of vulnerability are particularly susceptible. In this article, I take a similar lateral view of the way religions exploit the human need for physical as well as emotional security. In answer to both, they invent problems, proffer solutions... and punishments for not complying with their solutions, and they collude with other power structures that undermine the security they purport to serve, and from which they benefit. It is this latter connection with physical security that explains the link between right wing political and religious ideology. One of the main strategies used by most religions to keep a hold on their 'followers', is and always has been to make themselves indispensable - playing to people's need for security - not just for personal salvation and the promise of an afterlife, but for the provision of services such as education & welfare - for inclusion and acceptance in the social and community fabric of society - and for offering the 'safety of belonging'. That may indeed have been the reason for the invention of religion and it's original allure in the first place- as an organisation for mutual support in a hostile world.
The 'positive' offerings of religions are backed up with punishment for refusing the offers, most notably exclusion from the 'club'. Throughout the centuries, and today in some religions, the punishments for not believing in the dominant religion are cruelty, imprisonment, exile and even death. There are people today who are in prison waiting to be killed for apostasy or blasphemy in countries where one is not allow to leave the religion one was born into, or who have disobeyed religious doctrines and sexual mores. Women and girls are treated particularly harshly for not conforming to totally unfair laws based on religious doctrine in which they are treated as chattels, subservient to the male members of their families and communities, being exiled from their families, maimed or killed in the name of 'family honour' or by have their freedom curtailed. Freedom to go out in public, drive, be educated and have any control over their own health and reproductive rights.
As well as offering security, backed up with punishments they also collude with other power structures that also undermine people's emotional and physical security. Fear and insecurity creates problems to which the religions offer the 'solution' of joining them for the comfort they crave .
The Personal Perspective & Emotional Security
The promise of an afterlife in which one meets up with ones nearest and dearest, or are a reward for suicide- bombing is an alluring prospect for some, but it is based on myth and legend. The nature of religious indoctrination, and its state of belief in the irrational, allows people to sustain these fantasies, long after they have rejected Santa, tooth fairies fairly godmothers, dragons and hobgoblins, and the other comforting and frightening fantasies of childhood. Human beings love mystery and stories of all kinds. They love myths and legends but should not as adults believe them to be true.
Another tactic used by the religions to undermine people's self confidence is to instil guilt. If one cannot change oneself, or ones learning, and environment, and most people can't - then they offer personal salvation in exchange for repentance and submission!
They teach that we have a need for "something bigger" 'a god shaped hole' - and they have the answer - a God to fit it.
They tell us we need unconditional love - and if we are obedient they will provide it!
They tell us that we want immortality - and offer eternal life. They know how people suffer when they lose their loved ones so they invent heaven in which they can meet - an after-life.
They tell us that we fear death - so they tell us that suffering is good and fight to prevent voluntary euthanasia!
One of the last resorts of defenders of religion is that it is 'a comfort'. But this offer of religion as the security of a comfort blanket, is a cruel deception because not only is it likely to let one down when it is most needed, but it prevents the development of the greater security of self confidence in human coping mechanisms, and the inclusive support and comfort that can and should be built up in the secular community.
The religions undermine emotional security, by threatening to exclude non-believers from community, even from their families in some cases, depriving them of emotional support that is vital to their well-being.
Physical well-being and Social Security
In the same way that the church has exploited people's psychological needs it also exploits their social needs - community activities, health and education - quite deliberately, as a way of binding people to it's organisation. It knows that if people have to rely on being a member of a church in order to be included in the social life and support systems, even if they do not really believe in the doctrine, they will stay 'within the fold' paying lip service to the religion and defending it in order not to feel excluded. Non-believers who live in places dominated by religion frequently express their feelings of exclusion.
In countries that have developed secular services, health, welfare, leisure and other community services, that do not depend on religious affiliation and charity, people do not need to fear being excluded and consequent lack of support. If they do not have to join a religion in order to fulfil these basic human needs, they are free of this particular pressure.
With secularisation - health and welfare services, education, and all manner of sports, leisure and social clubs free of ideology, comes freedom from fear of social isolation. Which is why religion is on the wane in countries in which people feel relatively safe and secure, physically and psychologically, as in secular welfare states such as those of Western Europe. Were it not for the strong traditional privileges, indoctrination in childhood, human propensity to go with the crowd, and the continued suppression of atheist opinion there would I believe be an even greater move towards secularism.
The experience of socialism in ex-communist countries, despite the totalitarian way it was implemented, did produce higher numbers of atheists, even with continued indoctrination of children by parents, but the security of having enough to eat, somewhere to live and free health and education and welfare services did have an effect. This was most apparent in East Germany one of the most atheistic countries still.
It also explains why here in the UK the churches are so desperate to hang onto 'faith schools', increase 'faith based welfare', and sustain their ownership of premises that are used for community activities even when rational and financial consideration would lead them to close them as church premises - when they could hand them over to the community and for use by everyone. They are rightly afraid that if they lose that social glue the drain from their beliefs will continue.
The Political Connection
It is not difficult to see that political policies that take a progressive, liberal and humanitarian approach to human life and eschew the harsh punitive attitudes that are common to both the religious traditionalists and right wing politicians, will not attract religious authoritarians. Conversely the competitive, individualistic, 'nose to the grindstone', 'stand on your own two feet', 'you made your bed you lie on it' attitudes are attractive to the sanctimonious religious right - who accuse the left of being soft on asylum seekers, the poor, unemployed and wrecking the country with welfare spending, overseas aid and calls for arms reduction. Not to mention their scant regard for the rights of women, gays and other minorities.
This is one reason for the higher number of non-believers in some countries that had experience of communism, and is one reason for the fanatical opposition to that system by the religious/right wing political nexus in the US. It explains why it has not only tolerated but colluded with and promoted the many undemocratic regimes in Catholic South America and Muslim countries, against revolutionary opposition seeking political and economic rights. The willingness of the US to support Muslim backwoodsmen with their hateful oppression of women, in states in Central Asia such as Afghanistan against any left of centre influence, has already caused huge problems including the rise of the Taliban from the support for the Mujahadine against the elected communist government in Kabul, before the last Afghan war.
Because of the economic sanctions against these countries during the cold war it is impossible to compare the systems. It may in time be possible for the people who lived under communism to compare their lives under capitalist or democracy that delivers elected dictatorships or theocracies, and undemocratic socialism, and wonder what life might be like under democratic socialism!
It is not easy however to 'prove' the connection between politics and religion. For a start there are very few figures on which to base assertions that seem obvious from observation and experience. The suppression of atheism and dissent from or opposition to religion has been severe over recorded history.
However, in an article in 'USA Today', Susan Page describes research findings that show that "Voters who say they go to church every week usually vote for Republicans. Those who go to church less often or not at all tend to vote Democratic." See full details on USStats.htm
The almost total control of education up to the beginning of the last century has also prevented the atheist challenge to religion that is now possible, though still difficult, because most of the media, print and publishing is still not open to atheist, secularist and secular humanist opinion. Common sense leads one to know that people who are confident in themselves, unafraid and secure are in a position to reject religion, whereas those who are fearful and insecure are likely to need the crutch of superstition and those who sustain their comforting if irrational beliefs.
It will no doubt be pointed out that in the UK at least "Catholics vote Labour" and that the Methodists were prominent in starting the Labour movement. Both are true, but for a reason. Catholics were worse off, relative to the better off Protestants, for one thing, the former had less children - and better housing, health and education that goes with higher income and fewer children. Nor were the Catholics the dominant religion in England. Similarly with the Methodists, nonconformists - the dissidents of their day were able to organise themselves to promote change against the entrenched interests of the established church. It has never been possible for non-believers to assert themselves in this way because they have no traditional 'establishment' in which to organise.
Explaining the Paradox
It is this political/religious nexus that explains to a large extent the apparent paradox of the USA, a nominally secular state which is also highly religious.
The personal and social insecurity of many if not most of its citizens, as a result of their lack of welfare and community services makes them feel vulnerable and unvalued. This is partly a result of their history, the settling of a new land (at least to them), belief in individualism and competition likely to be found in highly motivated immigrants with a wide range of established patterns of belief. The love of the Protestant work ethic and the go-getting entrepreneurial culture that is so much part of the American way - to be seen in the way it favours competition over co-operation, private over public, an ethos that has prevented the development of comprehensive health and welfare services. In America, we see the worlds richest country that has millions of people who live in poverty and deprivation. Particularly in the southern bible belt states with their particular history of oppressed slaves and poor 'white trash'. This in stark contrast to other large secular countries like Canada where there is a high gun ownership, but which does not have the horrendous homicide rate of the US.
Unbridled capitalism threatens to overwhelm individuals, makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, and takes away the freedom to reject paternalism and the power of the market, global financial institutions and international industry and commerce.
That the better off in these societies also adhere to the religions does not contradict my explanation, since it is in their best interests that they are not called upon to pay for communally provided services. They have the best of both worlds. They can afford to pay for their own services, and do not have to pay for services and support for those who can not. So there is not only no incentive for them to change anything that makes the lot of the poor and disadvantaged easier, but from their advantaged point of view it makes sense for them to continue to support the institutions of the church.
Physical and emotional insecurity apply most harshly to people who live in desperately poor and developing countries, and makes them ripe material for the supposed safety net of religions that offer them services and the feeling that they matter, if only to Jesus! - that they belong, have feelings of worth, not gained from the poverty stricken states or communities in which they live. Much of their traditional infrastructure of family and community support was destroyed by combined missionary and colonialist activities, and supplanted by Christianity and Islam. Were these countries as poor before their conversion by the missionaries that offered their bribes of health and education services? Were they as over-populated, unable to feed expanding populations and are prey now to the mass epidemic of HIV/AIDS unable to stop its catastrophic spread because doctrinaire refusal of their religions to allow condom use.
One must also wonder at the effect that the unfettered influence of Evangelicals, Catholics and Muslims and 100% religious affiliation is having on these countries. Evidence leads one to think that their approach is not proving effective and that presumably the populations are not in a position to compare their lot with what is possible with rational evidence-based solutions to their problems.
Out of the 20 'Most Livable Countries' as designated annually by the UN Human Development Index on a number of criteria such as adjusted real income, infant mortality, life expectancy and educational attainment, 13 are countries that have significant minorities of people who assert no religion, and the rest are developed countries for which figures are not available, including France, Denmark and Japan.
Of the 20 'Least Livable Countries' all of which are in sub- Saharan Africa, 17 have 100% religious affiliation, The remaining 3 being Chad with 93%, Cote d'Ivoire with unreliable figures (ranging between 80 and 110%!, and Rwanda with 99.1%
Whilst the religions can maintain their privileged position in society, and be subsidised into the bargain, they will continue to pray on people's needs. And whilst people do not recognise their motives the tactic will continue to be effective, but with the rise of secular society, the need to rely on churches, would diminish, and people would continue to feel able to leave the dependence on religions.
I think this explains why the poorest countries in terms of social security, and welfare, whether due to economics or ideology, are also the most religious. This also explains religion's choice of 'charity' rather than politics, equality and rights as method of choice in dealing with deprivation - even though this has been shown to be ineffective to all but a limited extent and in the short term.
There are other ways of understanding religion, but this in my view goes further in explaining the very basic level at which religion fastens onto human beings, and how difficult it is for them to break the personal and social hold that it has on them. If the churches tactics were more widely understood, it would in my view lead to the support for us, not to compete with their tactics as some suggest but, to develop a full secular infrastructure and oppose the religious privileges that allow the religions to compete to all our disadvantage,
In the above I suggest how religious belief and right wing political ideology thrive in conditions of physical insecurity fear and dependency; in the associated article on workshop3 - 'Understanding Belief' I show how religions use psychological techniques - induction, conditioning and reinforcement that similarly take advantage of the human need for psychological security.