What's Religion's Role?
Baumeister (1991), in an impressive psychological and historical analysis, says that four basic needs push us to find meaning in our lives. If all four are satisfied, we feel life is meaningful; otherwise, we feel somewhat dissatisfied. These needs are (1) to have purpose-- striving for something in the future. You may seek goals (good job, children, retirement) or fulfillment (happiness, pride, how we imagine we will feel when we reach our worthy goals). (2) A need to have value --wanting to be seen as good and justified in our actions. Moral systems, like the Golden Rule, originally enabled us to live together with some degree of harmony. (3) A need for efficacy --feeling effective, capable, in control, and that we have made or will make a difference. Humans even need and strive for illusions of control; a myth reduces distress. (4) A need for self-worth-- finding a basis for feeling positive about their lives. The more of these sources of self-esteem we have, the more secure we are. (But, excessive demands on the "self" for meaning causes depression.) Unfortunately, self-worth often involves trying to feel superior to someone or groups of others, thus, for example, the poor southern white male in 1860 felt superior to the black slave and fought, in part, to maintain his status (see chapters 7 and 9 for many examples of chauvinism). These four needs (and their causes) combine with our life experiences (our culture, our family rules, our religion, and our friends' views) to produce our personal value system and the meaning attached to our life.
Baumeister contends that humans, pushed by these four needs and aided by an enormously imaginative brain, have for thousands of years created beliefs (myths) in a "higher power" which will protect and provide for us, make sense of natural events, and give purpose or meaning to our lives. That is, human needs and fears motivated the development of religions which embodied and reinforced our values. Moreover, he says that many of the promises religions have made, such as lasting marriages (with the male in charge), help avoiding or handling misfortunes, the answering of prayers, eternal salvation, etc. are very comforting ideas but pretty much illusory. He and many other scholars (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, & Tipton, 1985; Lasch, 1984) think the decline of explicit moral teachings by the church in the last 50 to 75 years has left individuals with a "values gap," without a moral base on which to build a philosophy of life. Since a complete set of values is no longer handed down to us by family, culture, or church, we now must construct our own value system (or avoid the task). Unfortunately, all of us, especially the young, are rather unprepared for this difficult and important task. Without guidance, we usually adopt just bits and pieces of values and goals from others, then to a large extent we use personal satisfaction as our guiding light: having fun, looking good, loving, working, and being successful and happy. Those aren't bad values but, surely, they aren't humans' noblest efforts either.
The remainder of Baumeister's book deals with psychological explanations of how our species got to this point, namely, moving from having to know God (an authority) in order to be moral to today having to know ourselves (self-reliance) in order to self-actualize and achieve our purposes. This psycho-history of morals (and such things as religion's treatment of women and sex) is fascinating; I recommend his book strongly. The insights provided should encourage you to re-consider the wisdom of several religions and then formulate your own meanings of life. If a person neither accepts the values and morals of his/her family/community/church nor develops his/her own value system, the rest of us may suffer in the form of crime, abuse, violence, inconsiderateness, and selfishness. Thus, I believe we all have a grave responsibility to decide upon and live by our own (but an acceptable) set of morals.
It may be that religions have not given us nearly as many morals and values as commonly believed (although religion has obviously given believers some meaning, in the sense that, for Christians, believing in Christ and following "God's word" is thought to lead to everlasting life). There is evidence that religions gradually incorporate a society's morals and ambitions into what is proclaimed to be God's will (rather than correcting society's wicked ways). Thus, a pacifist religion--"turn the other cheek"--founded by the "Prince of Peace" has repeatedly supported religious crusades, wars for economic gain, and "just wars" wanted by leaders or the people. Even though it appears that religions did not "invent" good morals, religions remain very strong, far from dead. In fact, for believers, religion amply satisfies the four powerful needs for meaning, e.g. purpose, directing many lives and promising salvation and less fear; values, telling us what is right and wrong; efficacy, offering the power of prayer and some feeling of control over life and death, and self-worth, including feeling superior to others and being loved, favored, and chosen by God. Religion helps people handle life's misfortunes and our enormous fear of death. For a brilliant analysis of religion's crucial role in denying death, read Becker (1974). Religion also provides a sense of belonging and a social support system. The payoffs of religion are so fantastic that if you believe in a religion, it is extremely threatening to even question it, let alone give up its alleged advantages.
God is a delicate issue because some people need religion but others do not. The realist must ask: Did an omnipotent God create man or did insecure, frightened people create Gods? Most people might give a knee-jerk answer but thoughtful consideration of this question takes months or years. How you answer that question will influence your behavior somewhat, particularly in terms of church attendance, reliance on prayer, contributions to church activities and buildings, and perhaps other ways. But your basic value system may not change at all: People are just as honest, caring, gentle, good, etc. when they no longer believe in God as when they did. Religion is not the only basis for being considerate of others, being faithful, unprejudiced, and living in harmony. These values are simply reasonable and beneficial. With or without a religion, we all have the same four needs to meet and most of the same moral choices to make. We can find meaning for our lives without religion. We won't all arrive at the same meaning, but we can, with effort, all be good and do good in our own way. There is no one true meaning of life. Perhaps, as Baumeister says, "the quest for meaning, not the answer, is the real miracle of life."
In the last analysis it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us.
In chapter 14 under "helpful attitudes," I discuss the psychological benefits of a deep religious faith. For some people, the benefits are great and difficult to replace. However, because belief in a God is an emotional matter, not a rational process, it is not an issue we can decide by just "using our head." It is a conflict within each of us between the solace of total faith vs. the satisfaction of facing reality. In our culture, we can't openly debate the existence of God with most people; it is too emotional an issue. Many people can't even privately consider the pros and cons of believing in God; doubts are thought to offend God. Therefore, if religion and God are deeply established parts of your life's meaning, count your blessings but be tolerant of people who chose a slightly different life path. They are not evil.
On the other hand, if your thoughts lead you to question God's existence, do not despair but ask yourself: what are the implications for how I would live my life? Among many other things, I would suggest this--if God isn't ruling the world, seeing that justice is done, taking care of needy people, guiding our priests and leaders, answering prayers, rewarding the good, etc., then each of us shoulders more of the responsibility for those things. In short, without God, the meaning of life may shift slightly but our lives could become more meaningful because without an omnipotent God each individual must assume more responsibility for what happens. Therefore, the development of your own philosophy of life is even more important because only humans can learn to save the environment, live in peace, love one another, help the poor and disadvantaged, help ourselves, etc. It will not be easy to do all that we morally should.