Some religions promise heaven in the afterlife for loyal followers, and hell for sinners (I am specifically thinking of the biggest two, Christianity and Islam). This does get people to “stick” somewhat–but it is not the main reason why religion is so powerful and widespread.
Religions offer community, something that is very important. Going to church or mosque every week builds stability, trust, and a shared sense of destiny–all things we very much value. But still–that’s not the main source of religion’s mightiest pull.
There are scientific, rational explanations behind that fierce devotion many religious folks have–and if you can understand, you can bring much good, positive energy to a place where often there is nothing but mudslinging: the question of why we are here and what is the right way forward. The driving force of this white hot power has to do with the vital need we have for unconditional love, peace, and security, especially in such a violent, insecure world.
Bring all of your ugly, disgusting parts to Jesus and know that He still loves you, and you are welcome in His kingdom. Yes, they speak of a heaven and a hell… but really, for most Christians, it is this love of Jesus, that will be there no matter what, that gives their faith its awesome power, and empowers the believers also. Many even will agree that there is no scientific proof of a God or Jesus-as-God… but it doesn’t matter. The LOVE is real, and Christians connect with this real, boundless love through the concept of Jesus Christ.
There is another element to peaceful, benevolent existence that is often forgotten about in the day-to-day: islam, or its English translation, submission. This feeling of eternal, all-encompassing love cannot be felt unless you submit to it, letting go of control. But we so often are struggling–for a decent living, for rights, for control, against injustice–that we forget that you can’t truly feel peace and love unless you let go, let it in, and let it take you away. That’s what Muslims’ concept of submission to Allah boils down to–it lets them get in touch with this feeling of almighty love.
Both Christianity and Islam have concepts of heaven and hell. But it is not “the afterlife” that makes people cling so strongly–it is the NOW. Why would you want to resist such powerful love, that does more than any sum of money or evolutionary science could ever do for you to give you peace of mind now? This love is so beautiful it is like heaven now–and that’s where the heaven-hell metaphor gets its oomph. Especially if the only way you have felt this love is through your religion, the love of your God is heaven.
Nobody, least of all me, is saying that you must pass through a religion to find this all-encompassing love. It’s just that it can be so hard to get in touch with… and it is powerful and attractive to see how spiritual devotion to such love changes and empowers a whole group of human beings to come outside of themselves and gives them amazing strength.
And it’s true: when you get in touch with those energies science has not figured out (dancing to an awesome song, for example), you feel something extra, something that’s not normally there… like you are “in the zone.” Christians and Muslims get in touch with this powerful spiritual force through Jesus and Allah, much in the same way any of us might use a story, or a song, or a book, or theater piece to “level up.”
There is a point when science and rational thinking just doesn’t cut it–when fulfillment is more important than being rational. Fulfillment and rationality should not be played against each other–they don’t have to be. But when you feel so unfulfilled, then fulfillment becomes a huge motivator, and religion can often provide that fulfillment. When done right, religious concepts and metaphors offer a liberating power and communion that people spend their whole life thirsting for. And so they will clutch this religion even when it is perverted, because just the memory of such peace of heart and mind is to die for when your soul is wounded and lonely.
Whether you are an atheist, agnostic, or adherent of a particular faith, keep this in mind regarding all the faiths you don’t hold: they are precious to their followers. Treat these beliefs as sacred, even when people do terrible things in the name of these beliefs. Why? Because being open to other people’s beliefs will help you understand and be a source of understanding for others.
Personal case in point: I am not a Christian, and I don’t believe in Jesus Christ having any more divinity than Martin Luther King Jr. or Madonna or anyone else for that matter. But when I speak to a Christian, I’m able to draw on my knowledge of their faith and my acceptance of the validity of that faith as a way of furthering understanding: they may encourage something that I disagree with, for example, the notion of homosexuality being sinful (which not all Christians believe to be true, despite what some of them say). I’ll say that I disagree, but I’ll also say that I know the love of Jesus Christ, that I feel this love every day and how important it is–because this love is real, whether or not you look to Jesus for it, and my conversation partner simply taps into that love through Jesus Christ.
I’ll also draw on the knowledge I got from studying the Bible when I tried to become a Christian, referring to scripture when I can. This all goes to highlight how much the Christian and I have in common, which puts our dialogue on much better ground.
Finally, I’ll ask questions about what the other person believes and how they interpret the Bible. Now, I am listening. Now, this space has been created where neither of us needs to conquer the other or defend ourselves from attacks. And so I am free to hold my beliefs and disagree with my Christian friend, but all my debate with them is assured not to attack the core of their value system, respecting these values rather than demonizing them… and thus they are much more likely to listen to me, too, and understand and accept my point of view, once they see that I am not a threat and that I understand what they are talking about.
No two people believe the exact same things all the time, religious or not. But if you let yourself be open to other people’s conceptions, you can figure out what makes them tick. And then you can be a great force for positivity.