You would think that with scientific knowledge expanding ever so exponentially, and literalist interpretations of traditional scriptures undermined east and west by it, you would see a great popular surge away from the old religions, and to the new one. Of course, the “new one” antedates the Buddha; the ancient Sanskrit term for today’s “new atheists” is the Lokayatika sect, also known as the Charvaka, which means, literally, “well-spoken” (and how well-spoken they are!). Yet we see, worldwide, the reverse; the American Evangelical movement alone has made massive inroads for Christianity in Africa and elsewhere, and Islam continues to expand as well. (Other religions like Hinduism or traditional Chinese religions seem to be expanding more by birth rate alone, lacking as they do an ingrained proselytizing tradition). Why is this? Most people might answer comfort: The modern world is scary and confusing, so people are going for emotional-slash-spiritual solace to those terribles simplificateurs of human existence, the priests and mullahs. And that may play into it. But the fact remains that materialism has been around for millennia, and it’s never been very successful in converting the benighted masses.
It seems to me that the answer isn’t that religion gives comfort. In fact, looking at the whole sweep of religious experience, most faiths at some point or another have: hectored people about self-restraint; indulged gleefully in threats and fearmongering; denied people sensory pleasures; and categorically refused to acknowledge the importance of individual desire. All things that are supposed to be terribly unpopular. The last one, in particular, is no way to sell someone something, as any 21st century ad exec will tell you.
I think it’s something else that makes religion the drug of choice of the masses (if it’s an opiate, it’s heroin for sure, terrifically addictive; and to those with a certain fanatical bent it is, alas, phencyclidine). Religion’s ace in the hole is that it gives context and purpose to individual human lives. And it gives people these things by telling them a good story.
In Hinduism, this life of mine is one of thousands of lives I have lived; how I conduct myself determines my future birth; everything I do matters and contributes toward my spiritual progress or regression; my wished-for endpoint is moksha. In the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), this life of mine is the only life I have; how I conduct myself determines my afterlife; everything I do matters and contributes toward my moral progress or regression; my wished-for endpoint is heaven, though I am always at risk of hell.
When it comes to existential questions, storytelling matters. It is no coincidence that the largest religion on earth is Christianity; it has, in the Crucifixion, the most efficient story of all the religions: Its meaning and its protagonist are one. India’s proselytizing religion was Buddhism, where Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation and enlightenment embodies, parable-like, the teachings of Buddhism. But there is slightly less narrative efficiency; what he realized must be taught in list form, shortly after the scene under the Bodhi tree. The stories about Krishna are numerous and beautiful, but most are not metaphysical teaching moments; that great moment is the Bhagavad Gita, which essentially presses “pause” on the epic Mahabharata for an extended course of instruction, in profound and hypnotic quatrains. The Hadith are similarly numerous, but the metaphysical distillation of Islam is the Bismillah, or even the phrase Allahu akbar; not so much the events in the Prophet life themselves.
The Charvaka and their modern-day descendants are better are stating facts than they are at fictioneering; in fact the facts almost force them to tell a less compelling story. At my most basic level, I am atoms in a universe made of atoms; what I do “matters” in an earthly context, but goes more or less unnoticed by the universe; after I die, the story does not go on, not even unhappily ever after; there is no wished-for endpoint because, in a sense, there is no story.
That absence of any story at all ends up field-testing worse than a story that potentially ends with you in eternal torment. Who’d have guessed? It may be this story-loving tendency in people, and the related love of a sense of purpose, which has kept well-spoken atheistic materialism a minority tradition throughout history, even after the rise of modern science.