Why Would an Atheist Need Religion?


Religion for Survival


  1. Why do we need religion?
  2. Religion and its origins
    1. A history of God [Karen Armstrong]
    2. Cognitive origin of religion [Steven Mithen]
    3. A rational explanation of the origin of religion
  3. Can science replace religion?
    1. Incoherence of philosophers [Abu Hamid M. Al-Ghazali]
    2. Myths about science [Russel Taylor II)
    3. Science never meant to replace religion
  4. The rationale for religion: A survival strategy


For a non-believer, the answer must address the following:

  1. Answer the questions regarding origin and destination – where have we come from and where do we go from here?
  2. Provide codes of ethics, rights, responsibilities, duties, and human conduct in general
  3. Answer the question of all round justice – for those who are completely and overwhelmingly disadvantaged in this world, as individuals, as communities, and as nations. Accountability is for all sooner or later. Fairness must be ensured, otherwise life becomes meaningless and the question becomes ‘is life worth living?’
  4. Define priorities that help and support humankind’s survival on the earth

If all of the above answers are provided by a religion in a consistent and convincing manner then such a religion we MUST follow.  But, why MUST? It may well be a worthwhile adventure if we delved into the subject and explore a little. Since we followed the route that would be taken by a non-believing person, it would be only proper to pursue our study of the subject from an atheistic point of view.



What is religion? There is no easy answer because it is difficult to define it in a way that would be agreeable to all. However, most answers and definitions would have a common thread: a set of beliefs and practices around a central idea or ideas of supernatural power(s) that is (are) considered sacred or divine. Tracing its origins would be an interesting exercise and may provide insights into understanding of human intellectual development. We may do well to look at the writings of some of the thought leaders among the contemporary authors. Here are two examples.


The celebrated author has traced the evolution of concept of God to the earliest times in the human history. History of mankind is the history of God. There has never been a civilization, which did not have a God, if not a plethora of Gods. Hindus have no less than 330 million of them, or figuratively an unimaginably large number of them. Excuse the negative connotation – the idea of a Supreme Deity seems to be a congenital affliction of human civilization.

Karen Armstrong: “In the beginning, human beings created a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth. He was not represented by images and had no temple or priests in his service. He was too exalted for an inadequate human cult. Gradually he faded from the consciousness of his people. He had become so remote that they decided that they did not want him anymore. Eventually he was said to have disappeared. That, at least, is one theory, popularised by Father Wilhelm Schmidt in The Origin of the Idea of God, first published in 1912.

 There have been many theories about the origin of religion. Yet it seems that creating gods is something that human beings have always done. When one religious idea ceases to work for them, it is simply replaced. These ideas disappear quietly, like the Sky God, with no great fanfare. In our own day, many people would say that the God worshipped for centuries by Jews, Christians and Muslims has become as remote as the Sky God … we need to see what people were doing when they began to worship this God, what he meant and how he was conceived. To do that we need to go back to the ancient world of the Middle East where the idea of our God gradually emerged about 14,000 years ago.

 In the Palaeolithic period, for example, when agriculture was developing, the cult of the Mother Goddess expressed a sense that the fertility which was transforming human life was actually sacred. Artists carved those statues depicting her as a naked, pregnant woman which archaeologists have found all over Europe, the Middle East and India. The Great Mother remained imaginatively important for centuries. Like the old Sky God, she was absorbed into later pantheons and took her place alongside the older deities. She was usually one of the most powerful of the gods, certainly more powerful than the Sky God, who remained a rather shadowy figure. She was called Inana in ancient Sumeria, Ishtar in Babylon, Anat in Canaan, Isis in Egypt and Aphrodite in Greece, and remarkably similar stories were devised in all these cultures to express her role in the spiritual lives of the people.”


An interesting account of one of the latest attempts to explain the tendency or the urge to have a Deity is explained by Professor of Archaeology Steven Mithen of University of Reading in his famous work, titled The Prehistory of the Mind – The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. Mithen’s ideas, summarized by Derek Beres, are quoted here.

From The Cognitive Origins of Religion by Derek Beres:  “To understand the human brain we often turn to neuroscientists and psychologists. Two decades ago, Professor of Archaeology Steven Mithen decided to explore the origins of our nervous system (and much more) through his field of study. Besides popularizing the term ‘cognitive fluidity,’ in his landmark book, The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science, Mithen speculated on exactly how primates evolved to the current iteration of the brain.

Mithen believes three major phases occurred to get from primate to modern humans. In Phase One, our ancestors exhibited general intelligence: I know the river floods when the sun is at that arc in the sky. I realize that deer migrate at this point of the season. Proto-humans developed specialized intelligence in Phase Two. Instead of having a general working knowledge of how to survive, I can now craft one tool for one purpose. I’m starting to manipulate my surroundings in new ways to get an advantage over my environment. 

An explosion occurs in Phase Three. Now I’m able to not only work in multiple specialized domains, I can integrate them. Mithen writes that this is where the metaphor appears—recognizing that something is ‘like’ something else thanks to neuronal cross-connections. This is where language begins: the ability to communicate ideas to another that inherently requires abstract thought. As he writes, “when thoughts originating in different domains can engage together, the result is an almost limitless capacity for imagination”.

This imagination is the heart of cognitive fluidity, seeing parallels between seemingly unrelated domains: the merging of general intelligence, social intelligence, natural history intelligence, and technical intelligence.”


The takeaway from the foregoing quotes from Armstrong and Mithen, in two words: human imagination. While it would be speculative to go into a discussion how much animals are capable of forming an idea, a picture, a situation, or an experience in their minds, it may be taken as a given that humans’ thinking ability is far superior to any other species. As much as any other ability man possesses would go into making his life’s experiences better for him, the same would be the case with the faculty of imagining – the creative ability of forming images, ideas, and sensations within one’s mind and without the need for any physical inputs.

Thus we see, as shown and confirmed by research studies in sociological sciences like psychology, sociology, history, and particularly anthropology, this imagination has enabled humans to hunt together, overcome natural obstacles and disasters combining as closely knit teams, eventually live together in groups and communities, and flourish. An essential prerequisite or more likely a parallel development along with the successful cooperation that benefited all members in the group, must have been a sense of fairness and justice. It would be necessary to guard against the harm and damage that could be brought to the social structure that supported the cooperation and the huge benefits it brought in terms of exponential capability growth of the teams cooperating together.

Expansion of justice system to cover distribution, fulfilment of promises or commitments made, and retribution, against the transgressors, who violated the norms would see the lessons learned from the application of justice as well as its denial or miscarriage lead up to morals – another word for lessons learned. Finally, morality to religion would be but a short ride – a way of living one’s life according one’s morals. All major religions, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism claim to be a ‘way of life’, not just a set of beliefs and a way of worship.



Before answering the question, I am going to quote two works by authors, who are from different periods in history separated by a span of almost a millennium, and belong to different civilizations, Abbasid Middle East in the Old World, and the US in the New World, dominant civilizations of their times.  While Al-Ghazali needs no introduction, the other, Russel Taylor II, perhaps does. Taylor is Research Professor Research Professor of Computer Science, Physics & Astronomy, and Applied Physical Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill. July 2006-January 2015. In addition, he is or has been an inventor, entrepreneur, and independent consultant.


[First] Discussion: On refuting their doctrine of the world’s past eternity

 (1) Explicating their doctrine: Philosophers have disagreed among themselves regarding the world’s past eternity. However, the view of their multitudes, both ancient and modern, has settled on upholding its past eternity: that it has never ceased to exist with God, exalted be He, to be an effect of His, to exist along with Him, not being posterior to Him in time, in the way the effect coexists along with the cause and light along with the sun; that the Creator’s priority to [the world] is like the priority of the cause to the effect, which is a priority in essence and rank, not in time.

 (2) It is related that Plato said: “The world is generated and originated in time.” But, then, some among [the philosophers] have interpreted his language as metaphor, refusing [to maintain] that the world’s temporal origination is a belief of his.

 (3) Toward the end of his life, in the book entitled What Galen Believes as Sound Judgment, Galen adopted a non-committed position on this question, [stating] that he does not know whether the world is pre-eternal or temporally originated, that perhaps he can prove that [the answer] is unknowable to him, not because of any shortcoming on his part, but because of the inherent difficulty of this to [human] minds. This, however, appears to be most unusual in their doctrine. Rather, the doctrine of all of them is that [the world] is pre-eternal and that altogether it is basically inconceivable for a temporal being to proceed from the eternal without mediation.

 (4) Presenting their proofs: If I were to go into a description of what has been transmitted of [the philosophers’ arguments] in the display of proofs and what has been said in objection to them, I would have to ink very many pages. But there is no virtue in lengthening matters. Let us, then, delete from their proofs whatever belongs to the category of the arbitrary or of that which is feeble imagining, easily resolved by any reflective examiner. Let us [instead] confine ourselves to bringing forth those [proofs] that leave an impact on the soul and that are able to arouse doubt in the best speculative thinkers. For arousing doubt in the weak is possible with the feeblest [of arguments].

 We have done great if we have actually read and followed what Sheikh Al-Ghazali is saying about the philosophers of his times and earlier. Philosophers, in his times, included what would we call mathematicians and physicists and all scientists in general. The purpose of quoting Al-Ghazali was, but, to show that the attempts by the ‘faithful of the science in Al-Ghazali’s times were plenty and so was their opposition. The argument ‘science or religion [God]’ has been raging for thousands of years. Nothing new or modern about it. By no means, science may be considered as modern and religion as old, or vice versa. Should you be interested in reading more about Al-Ghazali, especially the ‘Incoherence of Philosophers’ you would find at least three translations in English quite easily: Sabih Ahmad, Michael Marmura, and Van Den Bergh. Plus one commentary on it, by Ibn Rushd.


“The two myths I want to deal with here are really the same idea in greater and lesser forms: (1) Science has explained everything, and (2) Science can explain everything. The second actually depends on a third sub-myth (3) Every thing that is true can be proven. No scientist believes the first myth, so they can skip right to the second one.

Myth: Science can explain everything

In 1931, Kurt Gödel proved his first incompleteness theorem, which is perhaps the most celebrated result in mathematical logic. He followed it up with his second incompleteness theorem. The astounding results mean that even for very basic and abstract topics such as logical proofs about arithmetic expressions, it is not possible to form a theory that is both complete and consistent. There are statements that are true which are not provable by any consistent formal theory. This makes it quite unsurprising that it is impossible to use such a logical system to explain everything.

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg discovered the famous uncertainty principle, which is now one of the cornerstones of quantum mechanics. It states that one cannot simultaneously know both of a pair of certain physical values with arbitrary accuracy. The most familiar of these pairs is position and momentum. This means that we cannot precisely measure both the position and the velocity of an electron at the same time: the more certain we are about its position, the less certain we must be about its velocity. It isn’t merely the case that we have not yet developed sufficiently-sensitive instrumentation; the principle states that it is impossible to build instrumentation that can measure both simultaneously.

If quantum mechanics is correct (it is very likely to be because it is supported by many experiments and has correctly predicted results even stranger than those listed here), then our knowledge about the Universe is limited to (1) those things we have observed, and (2) probability statements about things that we have not recently observed. When we aren’t looking, the Universe is free to reshuffle things, so long as they all come out consistently when we look the next time.”


The message from the two excerpts is amply clear: science has a huge limitation, viz., beyond what can been observed, predicted, and verified, it is helpless. It may answer the question of how, but, never the question of why.

Having explored the origin of religion and discussed its nature, the foundations, and the purpose and function it must serve, we come to science, to see if it can come to our rescue, if it can take the place of religion in people’s lives.

Science is based on definitions, postulates, and assumptions. The fact that they cannot merge General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics is probably because these theories are not complete or may be incorrect. The reality is that theories are built to make accurate predictions not describe nature. Hence scientists might do better if they described nature correctly first than develop a theory that makes predictions.

General Relativity is based on the merger of space and time, called space-time continuum. Matter and energy curve space-time. Quantum Mechanics is based on wave functions with quantum particles being everywhere at once until you look at them. Two particle generated as entangled pair and separated as far apart as you may like, can affect each other even while they are on opposite sides of the universe – with nothing to connect them together or communicate between them. A recent article said that QM is time-dependent but GR is not. How absurd can it get?

Scientists aiming at replacing religious beliefs and practices may never succeed because of science’s own limitations and nor it is the goal of science.


Religion helps where science cannot. Survival instinct is hard wired in all life, whether we look at ourselves as product of nature or creation of God regardless. Not just in the narrow sense of the gritty struggles with the day to day tasks and challenges to find our place under the Sun, to find food, shelter, and relationships, but, in broader ways and at higher levels – as a family, society, and species too. At the lowest level, it may be only about food and protection against the predators, and as the organisms become more complex it shows itself in a multitude of ways, which run parallel and across, overlap and intertwine to make it an intricate web of increasing complexity.

Man is the most complex and most highly evolved species on the Earth. Blessed with the faculty of self-awareness, he possesses the highest level of self-consciousness. Given that all life works toward preserving itself, both in the current generation and in the future too. The never-ending and ceaseless striving toward that innate goal dictates us to give it the best of what we have and the best of what we can.  The efforts must be made while the objective may not be in sight physically, but, there is hope and positive belief that in the end the reward will be there – thus securing the survival.

In the absence of any positive expectation of favorable outcome it would be unimaginable that we would be able to bring forth the determination and vigor that life demands. A fair reward for a fair deed and a retribution for the bad seems to be hard-wired not only in humans, but, there are studies, where animals too have shown such behavior. The bottom line is that the faith, the positive belief and hope, turn into the main driving force, the prime mover of all human endeavor. The faith gives rise to religion, which becomes a great help in survival.

Despite its other-worldliness, religion is highly pragmatic. We [can] see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed – sometimes for something radically different. [Karen Armstrong].

In the end, faith, religion, worship, and prayer, all are about hope or positive expectation, without which we would not be able to bring ourselves to move forward with the business of life. Of course there is a great variety and plenty of choice, when it comes to choosing a religion. But, that is a subject for another conjecture.

[16th August, 2017]




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