Organized religions serve many different functions today from running charities and hospitals to generating laws and providing political organization. Yet, most of these complex social functions have nothing to do with life in the simpler subsistence societies that defined us as a species/1
When religions first arose, they must have helped our ancestors as individuals. Many scholars assume that religious individuals raised more children. Yet family size was more or less fixed by ecological factors -- such as availability of food -- and could not be arbitrarily raised or lowered by religion. Perhaps religion helped provide a sense of emotional security -- acting much like the security blanket from which a small child derives comfort when distressed.
Religion as security blanket
According to the security blanket concept of religion, supernatural belief systems provide peace of mind and help believers to cope with stressful events in their lives. This is a valuable service because chronic stress increases blood pressure leading to heart disease, clinical depression, and contributing to a number of other health problems ranging from obesity to cancers.
Although religious people tend to reject the security-blanket approach as simplistic, it is versatile and helps us understand a great deal about religious practices that are otherwise difficult to explain. It has yet to be embraced by religion scholars who prefer loftier terms such as "existential security" that mean much the same.
The security blanket idea succeeds in explaining why some situations evoke a religious response. It encompasses the known physiological effects of religious rituals and beliefs. It also helps us to understand why religion is in decline in the most developed countries where citizens enjoy an exceptionally good standard of living.2.
We are all familiar with the nervous airline passengers who break into prayer as soon as the plane encounters a spot of turbulence. The same people are less likely to pray for deliverance when they drive themselves to work, a trip that is statistically far more dangerous. So modern people pray when they feel threatened whether by a plane crash, a natural disaster, or a military attack. Anthropologists report exactly the same pattern for subsistence societies. A Trobriand Islander prayed before venturing into rough waters but never before fishing in a calm lagoon, for instance.1
Like a child's security blanket, religious ritual is a source of comfort when people are distressed. World religions generally offer peace of mind. Recent research shows that they can deliver, although the same benefits are available through secular techniques of relaxation and meditation.3
Researchers at Duke University found that religious rituals function as an anti-stress mechanism.3 They demonstrated that individual prayer, as well as attending church services, reduces blood pressure, a reliable index of reduced psychological stress. Elevated blood pressure causes heart disease and heart disease is the number one killer in many developed countries. This research provides a remarkable literal verification of Marx's political idea of religion as a calming "opiate of the people."
So prayers and rituals likely contribute directly to health and long life. Moreover, the availability of an effective stress-reduction mechanism helps people to feel more confident and optimistic about their lives -- a frame of mind that yields health dividends.
The rise of atheism in developed countries
People living in the poorest countries of the world, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa are almost universally religious. Conversely, substantial levels of atheism are found only in the most developed countries of the world, such as Japan and the countries of Western Europe.
Extensive statistical tests show that religion declines wherever the quality of life improves.1 In the most secular countries, the quality of life of ordinary people is better than it has ever been before. This is true whether one looks at health, economic well-being, political freedom and human rights, happiness, or freedom from violence and crime.2
Where living conditions are favorable, there is less need of the security blanket of religion. Residents feel less anxiety about their lives and encounter various rival feel-good products -- from psychotherapy and drugs to sports and entertainment. So the good life erodes religion.1
All told, the security-blanket perspective on religious belief, and atheism, is intuitively compelling. Moreover it explains both why a capacity for religious belief first arose amongst our ancestors and why it is in decline in developed countries. From that perspective, it has no credible rivals.
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
2. Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.
3. Paul-Labrador, M. D. et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of transcendental meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166: 1218-1224.