Is Worship a Human Invention?

1. Let us assume that the Church Fathers (or the Apostles or whoever else) planned to introduce an eschatological doctrine and some mode of worship. (Let us further assume that their reasoning or their strategy was something analogous to your impressions: their intention was to induce a sense of urgency and guilt.) Our problem is not to explain their possible motives but to explain the success of these strategies. Our questions are: why do all the Semitic religions (this reference to the Semitic religions is meant only keep the discussion simple) follow these strategies? Why are these strategies successful? (You can also go further and raise questions about their relative lack of success today in the western world, but we will ignore all such complications.)

2. In the process of answering these questions, you will inevitably be forced to appeal to the nature of human psychology. This appeal will, in its turn, make assumptions about human psychology: such is human psychology that these strategies are successful. If this assumption is made, you face a very serious problem with the fact that these strategies do not seem to work with a lot of human beings (atheists, heathens …). In other words, you cannot explain the success of this strategy by appealing to human psychology. If you were to restrict it to the psychology of the believers alone, you will end up providing a circular explanation: such is the psychology of the believers that they are susceptible to this strategy. (Instead, you might as well say that the strategy works with some people because it works with some people.)

3. Suppose you take the following route: religion ‘works’ only for those people who have a specific kind of psychology, you face the almost impossible task of providing some kind of empirical data across cultures and time. [You will be assuming too (a) that at least some ‘aspects’ of human psychology  like guilt etc. are invariant across time, space and culture; (b) and that such is the case with some part of the human species.] Further, you will also have to explain why people who were (and are) prone to guilt cease being believers. As though this is not enough, you will also have to explain why only some guilt-prone individuals become believers and some others do not. In short, this is an almost impossible exercise given our state of knowledge today.

4. As though these problems are not enough, any psychological assumption will have to answer two other important questions.

4.1. One is the presence of a manifest denial of these psychological assumptions in the theologies of these religions. Worship expresses your love for God. Even if the Apostles (or whoever else) was a scoundrel (and the greatest genius that mankind has ever known) who used this claim as a palliative, why do people continue to accept and believe in it? Again, you will be forced to invent another psychological explanation: the believers are mentally deficient (in some appropriate sense of the term), whereas non-believers are intelligent enough to see through the strategies. Needless to say, this is simply an ad hoc explanation without any kind of warrant or plausibility.

4.2. The second question is about the fact that the believers genuinely love their God. One will have to deny this. One has to insist that the believers mistakenly identify their feelings of guilt with love. Needless to say, the explanatory task here is of mind-boggling complexity.

5. There is a different kind of problem concealed in your difficulty, as soon as we realise that we need to explain the success of the strategies (to induce urgency and guilt). The intention of the apostles is not sufficient to guarantee its success: something called ‘the world’ intervenes in between. It is not sufficient that I intend doing something to reach some goal in the world. I need to take the nature of the world into account as well, if I have to succeed. In short, the worry you express is a still-born child, if the goal is to understand what religion is.

6.  Worship and eschatology (for instance) are not necessary properties of an EI account. They are contingent, i.e. given assumptions about our make-up, our capacities, and so on, we need to explain why all religions have such properties. In short, what I suggest is that, if we assume the existence of religion among human beings, all empirical religions will exhibit these properties. That is to say, if we come across a religion in some part of the earth that does not speak of worshipping God, does not have an eschatology, then my hypothesis is false.

7. One final point. I am not saying that everything that happened in history is necessary. What I do say is that given the structure of religion, some kinds of events had to happen. All religions are compelled to speak of worship, eschatology and so on.