How does religion provide meaning and purpose?
Religion - Why Do People Believe?
Summary: People once established phenomena they did not understand through a divine power. Science later spread doubts among many believers. But almost two thirds of Germans still hold fast to a god. Teja Fiedler explored the question of why the search for support and the meaning of life does not stop in the modern age.
The young warrior is crying. His tears fall on the linen bag, which his hands clasp. He hides his brother's ashes. Around him in a semicircle crouch the other men of the Shabono, as the Yanomami in the Venezuelan-Brazilian border region call their tiny villages. A shaman prances up. He got drunk on the herbal drug Epena in order to gain access to the spirit realm. He puts a large pan of banana soup in the middle. He grabs the bag, opens it and lets the ashes trickle into the soup. “Brother, my brother,” sobs a sister of the dead man.
The shaman spreads the ashes with his hands until the soup looks gray and tough, like freshly mixed cement. Suddenly he jumps up, lashes out with his machete, thrashes on the clay floor around the soup pot, then drops the machete and tugs, his hands clenched in claws, at something invisible, as if he wanted to tear it loose and toss it away. "Dööi, dööi, dööi," he groans, drenched in sweat. - “Away, away, away” you evil demons, leave us and the dead in peace! Breathing heavily, he paused, scooped the gray soup out of the pan with a wooden cup and handed it to the deceased's brother. He slurps them, tears still in his eyes.
The cup goes around until the crucible is empty. Now the village has absorbed the dead, redeemed them and themselves. Because for the Yanomami, this people of Stone Age hunters on the upper reaches of the Orinoco, corpses are the dwellings of demons. These evil spirits drive game out of the forests, bring enmity among people, and bring disease and death. Only when there is nothing left of a dead person, absolutely nothing, are the demons harmless. From now on, nobody in the village is ever allowed to pronounce the dead man's name again. Otherwise the demons could come back.
The Yanomami know no more about heaven and hell than about nirvana or rebirth.
But these people are living proof that people, regardless of their culture or education, have the urge to explain the inexplicable. That it is inherent in them to find a comprehensible law in the rule of fate and the forces of nature. Because only where people have an explanation for what is happening can they possibly exert a targeted influence.
From 1994 on, the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt excavated a Stone Age cult site in Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. Around 11,000 years ago people dragged stone pillars weighing tons there without the help of draft animals, heaved them up and placed them in round temples, the walls of which were made of hewn stones. Why this drudgery? You'd had enough to do with survival, hunting and gathering. Maybe because people can't do anything else? The late Klaus Schmidt said: “We know that Homo sapiens created religious artifacts from the beginning. Man always had religious thoughts. That distinguishes him from the animal. "
Even primitive man sought an answer to the question of what "holds the world together at its core". But his search for meaning quickly reached its limits, although - or perhaps because - his cerebrum was so much more efficient than that of all other living beings. At a loss and powerless he stood before the forces of nature, before the sun and moon, lightning and thunder, drought and cold, even more helpless before suffering and death. Where did they come from? That was beyond his practical understanding, and he reverently prostrated himself to the incomprehensible in the hope of at least soothing it.
Most threatening animals such as big cats, vultures and scorpions were depicted on the pillars in Göbekli Tepe. Probably symbols or deities from a cult of the dead. You needed them. Or they were feared. Schmidt suspected that in addition to these magical animals, astral gods - such as a sun god or a moon goddess - were also worshiped.
The gigantic work required the hunters and gatherers to work in a team that was unfamiliar until then. It was this ancient religion that probably brought the Stone Age hunters together and formed larger settled communities. That in turn influenced the religions. People had to give themselves rules for their own coexistence in order to curb the latent propensity to violence in their community. In order to make these rules unchangeable, they were ascribed to the gods. Not to their own detriment: communities with a cultic cohesion coped with the struggle for survival better than a loose bunch - a selection advantage in the Darwinian sense.
The great idea of worshiping a single god instead of a multitude of gods, who has no beginning and no end, first arose in ancient Egypt under Pharaoh Akhenaten and then took it around 1000 BC In the Middle East. He is the God that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship. For the “Christian Occident”, belief in him and the redeeming death of his Son Jesus Christ became the undisputed answer to the eternal question of where the world and people are from and where they are going.
TED video: Former nun and religious scholar Karen Armstrong explains why people want to be religious, but religion itself is so unpopular:
The redemption from suffering and death in the hereafter after a godly life, the helping hand of an almighty God in this world was a fact for rich and poor like frost in winter or death in childbirth. Hell after death in sin was a gruesome certainty. Whereby the fear of eternal torture, as medieval man knew only too well from secular jurisdiction, inspired the fear of God. When the plague raged in the 14th century, donations and good works in favor of the Church increased by leaps and bounds: whether our benevolent hearts spare us, O Lord, or let us, should you call us away, go to heaven!
To fundamentally question their beliefs was simply beyond people's imagination. The split in Christianity into a Catholic-Orthodox and a Protestant branch after the Reformation did little to change this. Only very occasionally did suicidal crossheads deviate from the path that the churches pointed to God. In 1527, the Munich baker's journeyman Ambrosi Losenhammer called out during mass in the quiet of the change, during which, according to Christian doctrine, bread and wine become Jesus' body and blood: “That is nothing more than bread!” This frontal attack on the Eucharist cost him his head . He revoked his blasphemy before the execution. That at least saved him from being burned as a stubborn heretic. Nobody took offense at the death sentence. That was all once upon a time.
In the secular constitutional state, everyone can be saved according to his own style. No one is held accountable for turning away from the true faith. The number of people leaving the church increases among Catholics and Protestants alike and by far outweighs the new entrants. Church services are chronically poorly attended.
The Jehovah's Witnesses, with their literal interpretation of the Bible and their expectation of the near end of the world, are considered weird fundamentalists, at least in Europe. A Catholic confessor like the writer Martin Mosebach, who thinks “that everyone should be Catholic” and regrets that “the Western world has forgotten how to kneel”, sees himself in a “special position” today. In the Christian West, religions have lost the authority to interpret the ultimate things.
And yet, according to a survey in 2014, almost two thirds of Germans believed in a God, in the USA even 90 percent. But to which god? And why? And why today?
A good ten years ago, the American biologist Dean Hamer published a book with the ingeniously catchy title "The God Gen". A media sensation. Had microbiology of all things, usually laughing at all questions about the supernatural, found the scientific proof that humans cannot help but believe?
The DNA as the body's own guide to God? The discoverer of this "God gene" VMAT2, which is involved in the control of the brain metabolism, rowed back very soon. Hamer: "The name does not mean that there is a gene that makes people believe in God, but rather refers to the fact that people have a hereditary predisposition to the spiritual." The genes would only determine that humans believes, but not what he believes.
Modern brain research confirms the innate tendency towards the spiritual. Identical twins, who are genetically identical, show a very similar level of spirituality, according to a study by the University of Minnesota, even if they grow up in completely different living conditions, one as a married doctor in a liberal city, the other as a bachelor in one Fishing village.
The degree of spirituality is "measured" with the TCI test of the American psychologist Robert Cloninger. A comprehensive catalog of questions must be answered, which should sound out the spiritual potential of a person. Two examples: "Do you sometimes feel part of something without limits in space and time?" Or: "Are you fascinated by the numerous aspects in life that cannot be scientifically explained?"
Those who surrender to their innate inclination towards the divine can in fact have experiences that go far beyond everyday life. The neurologist Andrew Newberg examined the brains of meditating Buddhist monks in an MRI scanner and came to the conclusion that the more people immerse themselves in meditation, the more the parietal lobe of the brain, which keeps emotions and orientation under control, retracts its activities - it comes to one "Delimitation of the ego". The meditator may actually feel that he is becoming one with the supernatural power he longs for.
All religions know this phenomenon. For the Christian mystics it was the “unio mystica”, the union with God. However, this mystical experience is a very individual process and no evidence of a general “God module” in our head. Because the brain waves that cause this state create a colorful palette of emotional stimuli. They enlighten esotericists, who come to the aid of unearthly unicorns, and occur just as much during very earthly orgasms or when going through severe pain.
From a scientific point of view, man's spiritual experience is not the same as religion. Man just likes to fill it with religion. It is almost irrelevant for religious practice whether man created God in his image and likeness or whether it was the other way around. Whether God is “nothing else than the human being projected into the infinity of the sky”, as Ludwig Feuerbach, ancestor of atheism, believed he knew. Or whether, according to Christian - but also Jewish and Islamic - convictions, “everyone carries a divine spark from birth that must be preserved”.
People believe because they want to believe. The question of the big why drives them.
"Religion is despair of the world purpose," said the enlightening journalist Karl Ferdinand Gutzkow in 1835. Even today, most of them still do not want to accept that the interrelationships of the world overstrain their understanding and that the reason and purpose of human existence is nothing more than the preservation of the species Homo sapiens in the Darwinian sense. They long for a "coherent pattern of interpretation", as the Protestant theologian and religious historian Friedrich Wilhelm Graf calls this binding life compass. But of course she does not pursue the question of meaning day and night. It is just as important and formative for the life practice of most believers that they feel uplifted and uplifted in their religion.
When a peasant in the 18th century, after six days of drudgery on Sunday, emerged from a smoky, poor cottage and plunged into the baroque cheers of his parish church, he couldn't help but drop on his knees. And at a Mozart mass in the bright rococo of the Upper Bavarian Wieskirche or at the, yes, almost unearthly moving face of Mary in Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica, a gap opens up for believers even today. Even convinced atheists can sometimes not defend themselves against a hint of "divine spark".
Holy places are faith enhancers, just like rituals. The cleansing bath of millions of Hindus in the Ganges, the communal symbolic stoning of the devil near Mecca during the Islamic pilgrimage Hajj. In Catholicism, the splendid Corpus Christi processions or the ceremonial swinging of the censer on high feasts.
A childhood memory of Matthias Matussek, once an altar boy, now an author and a professed Catholic: “With every wave, delicate white clouds rose from the silver lid, up to God. Past my nose. ”For Matussek, the Catholic rite is a festival with a view of transcendence:“ For us Catholics, the liturgy is the way out of the everyday, the door to the sacred. If there is an opposite world, then it arises, it shines in these sacred functions. "
Faithful people emphasize again and again that they feel secure and strengthened in the community. You pray, sing, kneel together, and every glance over the crowd of like-minded people is a small confirmation that you are on the true path. One is raised up to holy women and men who have done extraordinary things in the name of God or have even been martyrs for their faith: a faith that gives so much strength simply cannot be a mere human invention and will also give me strength in extremely difficult situations give! Faith can move mountains, as the saying goes.
For many religious people, the family was the cradle of their faith. They experienced a safe childhood in a Christian environment that they fondly remember. And because God has always been there, He stayed with it for life as part of the feel-good package from youth.
“I had a sheltered and happy childhood. There was indeed a good God, but also a strict God who sees everything. There were guardian angels who took care of me. There was good and bad, there was the Madonna who crushed the snake's head, ”Matussek remembers. “This children's belief created a reservoir like an underground lake. It might be partially buried in the course of life, but it was always there. "
Chancellor Angela Merkel tells a little more prosaically about her path to Christianity: “Belief in God and closeness to the Church have shaped and occupied me from childhood. This was not least due to the fact that my father was an active pastor (...) So I grew up in a family in which Christianity shaped the attitude to life. "
According to the Swiss cultural critic Alain de Botton, adherence to religion today is due, among other things, to the power of habit. "Most religions benefit from the fact that they have been around for centuries."
So religion is stuck in people's minds simply because it's been around for a long time? Because people are too lazy to give up their traditions?
Of course, religions are also cultural achievements that have grown over time, says the Hamburg theologian and pastor Johann Hinrich Claussen. But that does not guarantee their survival. “Look to the east of Germany. 40 years of the GDR, 40 years of non-religious attitudes were enough to de-Christianize the country. And since the state-decreed creation of a socialist, so-called new person failed miserably, there is hardly any connection beyond the family today. "
In the East German federal states, only 25 percent of people believe in any god, and eight percent believe in a personal God. There is practically no difference between young and old in this regard. Spirituality has been able to develop freely there for a quarter of a century.Why does the “divine spark” that everyone carries within themselves, according to Christian doctrine, does not glow again, at least in the younger generation? “Basically everyone is interested in religion,” says Claussen, “but it doesn't develop on its own. It needs to be encouraged. Those who have never learned to believe find it difficult to believe. And for that there was and is hardly any impetus for the young people from their parents with the atheistic GDR past. "
The Enlightenment and natural sciences have had a hard time damaging the former certainties of the Christian religions since the 18th century. In view of the historical-critical analysis of the biblical texts or the overwhelming burden of proof of the theory of evolution, only fundamentalist fringe groups hold on to the belief in letters that the Holy Scriptures are in large parts God's direct revelation. Even if their minds object, they stick to their traditional beliefs in order to have solid ground under their feet in an increasingly confusing world.
“They fear that the whole building will collapse if a stone breaks out,” says Martin Urban, pastor's son, plasma physicist and science author. “Intellectually dishonest,” he calls this attitude. "If a child has ever seen that a false beard, cape and hood turn a man into a Santa Claus, then the belief in children is over - sad as it may be."
Most religious people today feel more drawn to a poorly defined, perhaps even only possible God, which they do not want to remove from their life as a transcendent hold. Basic theological problems - such as the mystery of the Trinity or theodicy, the reasons for suffering, death and evil in the world in the face of God's omnipotence - are of only marginal interest, if at all. Miracles, be it the awakening of the dead Lazarus, be it the blood of St. Gennaro, which rises every year in Naples, they reject in the name of reason and science as well as touching biblical stories, such as that of Noah's Ark, on which the millions of animal species of the Earth survived the Flood in a ship of rather modest dimensions. A beautiful parable, nothing more.
"With the fear of hell or the prospect of paradise you could not even lure the proverbial old woman into church", says Pastor Claussen. "And if you tell the story of creation in religion class as it is in the Bible, then a bright third grader will tell you that the dinosaurs existed 100 million years before humans."
The contours of God have become blurred, and his role has also changed. The more explainable science has made the world, the less the believers look for a finder in it. Rather, he has become a counterpart today: “People see their relationship with God as much more of a partnership than before,” says the religious psychologist and Jesuit priest Bernhard Grom. You seek dialogue with him, receive strength, consolation, and decision support from him in prayer. The deeply believing Samuel Koch, paraplegic since his accident on the TV show “Wetten, dass ..?”, Feels God's comforting closeness, especially in difficult hours: “In such lonely moments there is still someone who is there and always available. "
The Catholic theologian and development worker Josef Thalhammer and his family lived among the poor in Brazil for 18 years. He does not believe in the eternal hellfire, with theodicy he has increasing problems and the revelation content of the Bible, hm, very mixed. But he is convinced of God's protective hand in his life. "I have had this experience so often and it has strengthened my belief."
There was this morning mass in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. “The church was a poor hut with a sandy bottom. In front the priest at a roughly timbered altar, I was kneeling barefoot as the only visitor in the first bench, ”Thalhammer remembers. “The sun fell on the measuring cup through the open door. Suddenly the priest froze, the gleaming goblet raised to change, it seemed to me a wonderful sight. After a few seconds he lowered the goblet and took a deep breath. Why, I asked later: 'Right behind your right heel a rattlesnake wanted to curl up in the warm sand. If you had got up, she would have bitten you. But then she ran away. ‘“ A mão de Deus é grande - God's hand is really big, says Thalhammer, the bite of this snake would have been fatal.
The God of today is felt more than recognized by believers. Even contemporary theology - Protestant more than Catholic - no longer speaks of ultimate things in the heart of dogmatic convictions. Jesus was certainly a charismatic person. In his death on the cross, faith takes shape for the Christian, says Pastor Claussen. But as far as his divinity and the entire context of salvation history are concerned, every Christian must strive for the truth for himself. Doubts are human and appropriate. "But at some point you have to take the plunge into believing."
Fundamentalists consider a religion that doubts itself to be a religion that denies itself in the name of the zeitgeist. However, this kind of open religion suits the spirituality of most other people of our time. In the face of an ego-obsessed, achievement-driven, materialistic world, they want to believe, perhaps more than ever. But they don't want their faith to be dictated to them.
“As a craftsman of meaning, modern man builds his own private world of faith, for example combining old Christian ideas with symbols and cultic practices of other religions. Organizes yoga evenings in the Catholic parish hall or develops a willingness in inner religious dialogue groups to combine different things into a new, humanistic belief ”, observes the religious historian Graf.
In this world of patchwork belief, the established religious communities are also moving towards one another. The sole right of representation in matters of God - for which they had often fought down to the blood for centuries - they have given up. Today they largely tolerate that other religions also try to approach the unimaginable. The common goal is in the foreground, no longer the different path. Last October there was a “Peace Prayer of the World Religions” in Hamburg. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Alevis and Bahá’i united in prayer to "confront those who call for violence in the name of religion and ideology". Religious alliance against religious fanaticism.
As much as the latter seems to have fallen out of time, it is in truth a reaction to the modern age. In an essay for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Friedrich Wilhelm Graf provided a fascinating interpretation of the fundamentalist believer who wants to bomb the return of the early medieval Islamic caliphate with an explosive belt: “The pious, who knows directly about his God, means God's will much better to know than the many others. ”He felt himself to be a legitimate tool of an almighty, in whose omnipotence he practically partook. “When the given world, characterized by diffuse ambiguity, contradictions and permanent misery, is suffered as a corrupted counter-world to the true, God-willed order, he is forced to move the world as it unfortunately is towards the ideal and original order of God to overcome (...) The rules that are still in force here and now no longer develop any binding force for him, as they are considered false, sinful, revocable sets of rules that are only a courageous act of faith to be ignored. "Graf concludes his treatise with the words: "Murder as a worship service - we do not know how such brutalized piety can be civilized."
Europe's civilized piety is reassuring its belief in a final supernatural authority, of all things, in the natural sciences, which have contributed so much to the decline of Christianity - “as it is in the book” - over the past 200 years. Because God has always found prominent advocates in science. For example Charles Darwin, the founder of the theory of evolution: "The impossibility of proving and understanding that the great and exceedingly glorious universe just like man has become accidental, seems to me to be the main argument for the existence of God."
The dizzying findings of physics and chemistry about the micro and macrocosm have not diminished, but strengthened, the belief in a final, “divine” force in the universe for many scientists. Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize Winner for Physics: “The first sip from the cup of science leads to atheism. But God is waiting at the bottom of the cup. "
But should there not be a god behind the big question mark in the universe, but a completely inner-worldly explanation that only seems supernatural to our limited brain?
Atheists consider it religious arrogance to believe that just because "the crown of creation" is a phenomenon inexplicable, it must be something supernatural. The British biologist J.B.S. Haldane says of the limited cognitive ability of the human brain: "I suspect that the universe is not only stranger than we assume, but stranger than we can assume."
The Munich quantum physicist Jan Mühlstein is a liberal Jew. He lives well with the balancing act between science and religion. “God already exists for me, as an origin, as a starting point. But I don't believe in a guiding God. As a Jew, I live less in a belief than in a religion. Its rules bring structure and security, but they are also a challenge. I draw strength from the Bible. It is such a rich treasure that it would be worth looking into even if God should not give it. "
That there is God cannot be proven. That it doesn't exist, but neither does it exist. Atheists can conclusively reduce the claims and contradictions of the revealed religions to absurdity. But they cannot explain where the forces came from that led to the “Big Bang” with which the universe began. Martin Urban, the plasma physicist from the pastor's family, still sees no concrete evidence of a divine power in the universe beyond the awe of science. “But I hope the universe has something to do with God. And you never know, maybe in the future science might discover something for God for once. "
In the 19th century, Marxism believed that it had found an inner-worldly solution for man's search for meaning. His doctrine of the class struggle led to the victory of the working class in a paradise on earth in which every person can be himself. This belief was bitterly disappointed in the 20th century. And so people have to continue to struggle to give their life meaning when a “Carpe Diem!” - “Enjoy the day!” - is not enough. According to Blaise Pascal, the astute French theologian of the 17th century, believing in God is the safest way, despite all doubts. If God doesn't exist, said Pascal, believing in him hasn't done any harm. If he exists, was it right to believe in him? "What a theological sleight of hand," says Pastor Claussen with a smile.
(NG, issue 12/2015, page (s) 44 to 65)
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