Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 3
by Ervin Taylor
This is part 3 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments they will follow in regular type. I will comment on the quotation from Heraclitus in Part 4.
Summary for Chapter 2: Religion’s Usefulness: The Human Refuge
Religion is a disease, but it is a noble disease.
This chapter opens with a discussion of alternate perspectives for looking at usefulness. This may include the concerns of clergy, aristocracy and the typical layman. Alternatively one may look at the different aspects of human culture that seem to get support from religion such as exclusivity, hierarchy and nihilism about the everyday world. For our presentation we will however focus on a series of aspects of religious practice/function that seem to be highly valued by many devotees.
Social cohesion: That We May Love and Care for Each Other. The sociologist Emile Durkheim was convinced that the primary explanation for religion was its social function and my own personal observations support this. Our greatest happiness seems to come from our interactions with other people. Our primary evolutionary heritage is probably in the context of small hunter gatherer groups. A religion becomes for many people a safe refuge in the midst of a larger impersonal world—a return to a village home.
Power Satisfaction: That Some Men May Be God. The claim that you know the mind of a God and represent His interests in the world may allow you to act with arrogant disregard for the interests of those who disagree with you—or with a selfless concern for others.
Existential Relief: That Men May Never Die. Most religions promise some form of life beyond existence in this world. This is a great relief for those who fear an eternal dissolution or simply hope for greater accomplishments or reconciliation with the universe in a second or future life.
Meaning Making: That We Might Know Our Importance in the Universe. Most religious people feel that their religion tells them where they came from, why they are here and where they should be going. The Abrahamic religions say all believers are made in God’s image and important to him thus certifying their individual value.
Personal Validation: Our Parental Substitute. Many or even most of us have a lifelong need for parental approval. Religions acting for a “divine parent” are usually eager to fill this role in exchange for devotion especially gifts to the organization.
Comfort in Distress: That We May Know That We Are Not Alone. A significant number of religious people, especially within the Abrahamic religions, trust that there is some divine power in charge of the world and responsive to their needs and hopes. Thus they attempt to relieve their anxieties by putting things in “God’s Hands.”
Acculturation of the Young: That Our Children May Be Good Like Us. Almost every religious group seeks to indoctrinate its children in its belief system both within the family and in a formal schooling if possible. It is considered the most important way of teaching the values of the community—often along with claims that other groups or religions are inferior.
Identification of Cooperators: That We May Avoid Being Cheated. Religious groups with their social interconnections are often considered by members as relatively safe places to search for non-cheating providers—of everything from dental care to car repairs.
Prayer, Meditation and Problem Solving. Reviewing our problems and attempting to clearly explain them to someone else, even to an imaginary interlocutor, may lead us to understand them better and thus to make better decisions.
Religions get power from the illusion of being founded by some divine act or acts reaching the human world. Their continuing success however comes not from supernatural action but from the helpful ways they fill many human needs. Some would say a religion is a way of framing a human life; of giving it context and meaning.