Why does religion work?

The very first time I got an email saying there was a rich African prince who wanted to give me some huge sum of money, I didn't need anyone to tell me it was a bunch of baloney.  I didn't need to research online and see whether this claim was correct.  I just knew I couldn't trust it.  And I was probably a teenager (or perhaps just barely over 21) at the time it happened.  Stories that are so extremely far-fetched really aren't believed by anyone other than perhaps the most gullible or naive among us.  So, I wonder why similarly incredible stories are taken seriously when they are wrapped in a religious context.  I've come up with a few ideas on why this is so.  Let's examine some of the key aspects that are part of (almost) every religion.

1. A creation story.
Most religions have some teaching about "how it all began".  Why is this a key aspect of a religion?  Because we, as humans, are curious.  We like to know things.  More importantly, we like to think that we know things--that we have all of the answers.  When there's a question that we don't have the answer to--such as, "How did the universe begin?" (or perhaps more appropriately, "Was there a beginning to the universe?") we have a couple options in front of us.  We can do the honest thing and admit that we really don't know the answer.  But this is dejecting.  It's disappointing.  So, the more creative ones among us come up with stories about how it happened and then pretend that it's true.

I imagine that with nearly every religion, the stories all came about much like the way stories of Santa came about--namely, bit by bit, always adding a slightly more exciting part, making the story less credible but more fantastic.

  • Abrahamic religions claim that in 6 days God created the Heavens and the Earth.  
  • In Greek mythology, Hesiod writes about how all that we know in the universe sort of popped into being from some amorphous blob called "chaos".  
  • Hinduism claims that existence is a sort of infinite ebb and flow--when a universe is destroyed, it becomes simply an ocean, and then Lord Brahma comes along, splits himself into two (male and female) and starts creating things.  And the cycle keeps repeating.  
  • Buddhism is rather similar--not claiming a definite beginning, but rather a cyclic order.
  • Egyptian Mythology claims that originally there was just an ocean, and that eventually Ra (the Sun) appeared as an egg on the water.  

What I find interesting about all of these creation stories is that they show that we as humans really do have a hard time comprehending "nothing".  In fact, the invention of 0 as an actual number to be used in mathematics was (relatively) recent.  You'll notice that in all of these creation stories, there was something in existence prior to the creation.  There was no real beginning.  (At least some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism admit this.)  With Christianity, there was a God even before there was anything else.  This kind of creation story begs the question "Where did God come from?" Or, in the case of the Greeks "Where did Chaos come from?" or Egyptians "Where did this ocean come from?"  And the question could be continued ad infinitum.

Was there an original cause?  Was there a point in time that called legitimately be called the "beginning"?  If so, what existed at that point in time?  How did the universe come into being?  Perhaps one day we will know the answer to that question.  But, the fact of the matter is, at the current time, no one has any such answers, and our knowledge and logic is simply too imperfect to address the question.  But, people are wont to have answers to their questions, so rather than accept this fact, they embrace stories such as those presented by religions.  We want to know where we came from.  We want to have a definite answer concerning our origins and creation.

2. Past catastrophic events
Catastrophic events are a major part of our existence--particularly in earlier times, when a major earthquake or flood could wipe out an entire civilization without any warning.  So, it seems reasonable that such stories would be part of a tribe's folklore.  It is also quite reasonable that these stories, while they may have begun in reality, over generations morph into more and more fantastical tales.  Each religion may have several such stories.  I'll list a few here.

  • Noah's ark--the tale of a flood that wipes out all of humanity, most likely based on a real flood that simply wasn't as drastic as is claimed by the Bible.  It should be noted that similar flood stories have been told in different cultures in every continent of the world.  
  • The Tower of Babel--a story about how many different languages suddenly appeared where before everyone spoke the same language.  While not a natural disaster, it has similar effects as a catastrophe.
  • Plato wrote of recurring fires that would destroy everything on the Earth.  

3. Prophesies of catastrophic/apocalyptic events
I can see how the existence of natural disasters, and other catastrophes, in the past would naturally lead one to believe that such things will happen in the future.  In fact, this line of reasoning is called "inductive reasoning", which has its place among the sciences.  And so, since religions claim there were worldwide catastrophic events in the past, they also claim that there will be similar ones in the future.  

I believe that part of what fuels these kinds of prophesies are the fear of death.  We, as a species (as any species), want to survive.  We want to perpetuate our existence, and ensure that we have progeny.  So, we invent these stories out of our nightmares--we fear that our species will be wiped out, so we talk of stories where that is precisely what happens.  
  • Christianity claims that around the time of the Second Coming, there will be all sorts of natural disasters and wars all over the world.  
  • Norse mythology claims that there will be an event called Ragnarok, wherein the world will be destroyed by similar wars and natural disasters and then the whole Earth will be covered in water.
  • One of the Native America legends is that Soyuknang destroyed the Earth by fire--by volcano and lava.  
4. A savior
People don't want to be susceptible to all of these disasters and horrors that they're talking about, so they create figures who will protect them and keep them safe.  We all want security.  We can't go around our whole lives being paranoid of everyone and everything.  We need peace of mind.  So, we invent saviors.  
  • Christ saves us from sin and from Armageddon--he takes all the righteous up into Heaven during the Rapture.
  • Krishna comes to save the Earth again and again.
5. An afterlife
Again, along the lines of fearing death, we want to think that we will live forever.  We can't bear the thought of ceasing to exist.  In fact, we may not even be capable of comprehending that thought, as we have difficulty comprehending "nothing".  So, we invent stories about what happens after we die--whether it be reincarnating as another life form or becoming immortal or in some other way joining an eternal existence somewhere.  

6. Justice
We, as humans, have this sense of "justice".  We feel that there are "good" and "bad" things, and that a person who does "bad" should be punished and someone who does "good" should be rewarded.  It is therefore quite natural that stories of mythology would include a way to do so.  We want to think that the "bad guy" won't "get away with it".  We want to think that even though our justice systems here on the Earth are imperfect, that there will be absolute justice for people who transgress.  
  • Christians believe that there is a judgement day, where God will exact rewards and punishments based on people's actions in this life.
  • Osiris has a very similar role to the Christian God, as far as judgement day is concerned.  He exacts punishment upon people as they arrive in the afterlife.
At any rate, I think there are many reasons why we believe in religions, and why religions can so easily take hold in a society, and perpetuate for so many generations, in spite of evidence to indicate their errors.  Religions appeal to our sense of curiosity, of justice, and our fear of the unknown.  We want to think that we have all of the answers, that our future will be safe and secure, and that we will continue on forever.  And religions deliver all of this to us.  We have all of the answers about creation and the future by someone telling us how the universe was created and what will happen to us after we die.  We have our sense of justice gratified by an all-knowing being who delivers ultimate reward/punishment for our acts in this life.  

Personally, I would rather believe in something because it is true, than because it is appealing to my psyche.  As masterful as a story may be, and as much as I may want (or not want) it to be true, I can only justify belief in things that truly are, and skepticism in anything that cannot be surely established as truth.  If there's a question we cannot answer, let us be honest and admit it.  Let us not invent stories to tell our children, pretending that they are real.