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Questions: Bruce, Why are Humans Religious?


I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

William asked:

History is replete with different types of religious beliefs, why is this do you think? Are humans programmed to believe in a superior deity(ies)? Is the mind hardwired to explain things through magical ways? Are rituals to please a God(s) just another form of gambling, hoping to strike it lucky? Or is it just a throwback to our heightened imagination pre-agriculture as a defense mechanism when we really had to be afraid of the dark?

I am an atheist. I have not, as of today, seen any evidence for the existence of a deity or deities. I am convinced that the supernatural claims of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, along with the claims of the other major religions of the world, are false. That said, most humans are, to some degree or the other, religious. While atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist numbers are increasing, as is the number of people indifferent towards religions, there’s no doubt that we live in a religious world.

This fact can be explained in several ways. First, humans are likely religious because being so gives us some biological/ evolutionary advantage. Second, sociologists and other scientists tell us that personal religious beliefs are determined by geography, parental training, cultural influence, church indoctrination, and personal experiences. Third, most people don’t choose a religion. Instead, they adopt the religion of their parents and culture. One need only look at a religion dispersion map to see how the aforementioned reasons determine with which religion people self-identify.

Will we ever have a post-religion world? Maybe. We are generations away from such a world, and who knows, another religion may arise in the future that captivates millions and millions of people. Until we take skepticism, reason, and intellectual inquiry seriously, religion will continue to infect our minds. Perhaps the best we can hope for is neutering religious fundamentalism — the most dangerous force in the world.

My editor, Carolyn, wonders if I understood William’s question correctly.

Carolyn writes:

Oddly enough, I read the question in a very different way. I thought he was asking why, from the beginning of religion, humans developed such religions. I figure that it was basically fear of the unknown, and the unknown was HUGE!! Will the sun still come up tomorrow? Perhaps we should worship it or pray to it. The rain is pouring down and the creek is rising toward our shelter. Maybe we should pray to a god to keep the creek from rising more and our shelter from washing away. The bear is mighty and fierce. Perhaps we should pray to him to protect us from other animals. Etc., etc., etc.

Perhaps it took Bruce AND Carolyn to answer William’s question. 🙂 I can expand on Carolyn’s addition if needed, but I think she adequately adds yets another reason humans were/are religious. Thanks!


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Bruce Gerencser