The necessity of religion can really be quite succinctly summed up in a single word: fuck. Now, this might confuse and even anger some people, but we’ll get back to it in a moment.

Let’s look at some of the issues most people discard as irrelevant when they think about religion: mythology, ritual, and symbols.

Why would we need mythology when we have scientific evidence for the way things are? Why would we need ritual when “just doing the damn thing” yields the same result as participating in the ritual? Why use symbols when a thing cannot exist outside the material universe, and so anything but a direct representation would be an unnecessary obfuscation?

But these things do tend to crop up in our secular world as well. We have rituals and symbols in our court of law. The judge, sitting higher than anyone else in the room, becomes a symbol of justice. Rising when he or she enters is a ritual giving further credibility to that symbol. The banging of the gavel, the call for order, both could be achieved by simply yelling, “Hey! Everybody shut the fuck up!” but there is authority and order that come from the ritual.

The doctor’s office is another example. First we sit and wait in the waiting area. Then we are brought in to another room to wait. This process gives airs of meeting someone important, as if for royalty. The mythology behind the doctor is that they are infallible, god-like beings that will be able to save us if we let them. However, a doctor making a diagnosis is just somebody making a guess based on whatever evidence they have. There is just as much art to it as actual science, but we need this mythology to trust them. Our lives are in their hands, and that trust is necessary in order for the doctor/patient relationship to function properly.

Which brings us back to “fuck.” There was a study done where participants would place their hand in a tub of ice water, and they would see how long they could last. It was a test of pain tolerance, basically. There were some who were told to swear, and there were some who were told to say random, non-swear words. The pain tolerance of those who swore was found to be greater than those who didn’t get to cuss.

So, fuck. All words are symbols, really, and fuck is a symbol of an abstract, negative concept. Sure it has sexual connotations too, but more often than not, fuck is a symbol of negativity. Fuck also has a mythology. As it is, in essence, nothing more than a harsh, guttural sound, any meaning behind it would be its mythos. There is also the ritual of cursing aloud when pain sharply makes itself known; a negative event associated with a negative word.

Interestingly, those who had embraced the mythology of this essentially meaningless sound, who had ritualized it to a greater degree, had a higher pain tolerance than those who swore more frequently, where meaning had become diluted through overuse.

It seems that symbols, myths, and rituals can have a distinct physiological effect on human beings. Huh.

Maybe that’s a little too crass for you, so let’s look at love. I will describe love by quoting an internet forum user nicknamed 666:

“Realize that falling in love with someone is just the results of a series of generic events that can occur between you and basically anyone who meets your standards of attractiveness. It’s just an emotional manifestation of a handfull of chemicals bouncing back and forth. It’s not the holy grail of living, it’s not your reason to exist and it’s definitely not something reserved for “that one person.” Accept that you are just an animal with a big brain that allows him to fret over what only amounts to a game of hormone pool. What you’re feeling is not your soul dying a gurgling, ugly death, but withdrawal. All the happy chemicals that saturated your body when you were with him are kicking out cold turkey, and your body is screaming bloody murder, where are my fucking endorphins? It’s just chocolate. Find a new bar.”

This absurdly nerdy description is most likely given by someone who has never actually experienced love. However, in a strictly material universe, he would be absolutely correct. Love would necessarily be caused by a chemical reaction in our brain. I don’t know which chemicals; I’m not a doctor. Maybe you believe that love is a force that transcends the material universe that binds everything together, and that is totally fine, but in doing so you’re already believing in a form of god, so I don’t think I need to convince you about the necessity of religion anyway.

If love is only chemicals, then the person of our affection becomes a symbol. They represent the joy, the contentment, the solace and comfort associated with being in love. The stories of love, of eternity, of union, of partnership becomes mythologies. Holding hands, rubbing shoulders, dancing under the stars; these become rituals. I don’t mean to degrade the nature of love to lowly symbols and myths, but to illustrate the sacred nature that these allegedly “useless” ideals truly possess.

The most formal ritual of love, marriage, functions better when the ritual is emphasized. One study tells us that the more people who attend a wedding, the more likely that wedding will succeed. The greater the ritual, the greater the chance of success. The study also shows that the cheaper the expense, the greater the chance of success as well, and this tells us that an emphasis on spending is less genuine than an emphasis on the ritual itself: to create a spectacle is to ignore the purpose of the ritual in the first place.

Another study illustrates that the young and immature are less likely to have successful marriages than those who are older and wiser. I believe that with age and wisdom comes solemnity, and with that solemnity comes awareness. If we jump into a ritual without regard for its consequences, and do not truly take it seriously, it loses its power. Remember, if one swears with reckless abandon through childish immaturity, the pain tolerance is lessened.

So we’ve established that symbols, myths, and rituals are powerful structures in human consciousness. So why religion? Why not just content ourselves with them in secular realms?

Symbols speak to and reinforce ideals. Probably the most internationally recognized symbol today is the Golden Arches (Maybe it’s the Facebook F symbol, but I’ll use McDonalds as my example because it really doesn’t make a difference). Advertisers use symbols to not only market their business, but hopefully to associate their brand with the desire for that product. The Golden Arches doesn’t just represent McDonalds, it represents hunger. If the symbol is powerful enough, just seeing the big yellow M is enough to make a person’s stomach rumble.

Myths socialize us. They teach us the truths of our society and the way to behave. Movies and television are our myths today, and it is the characters we hear stories about that we emulate. However, our myths today are not created to socialize us, despite the unintended consequence, but to entertain us. This cheapens our myths, and offers poorer heroes than a myth created for the purpose of socialization.

Rituals create a connection between the participants and the act itself. I would think the most prevalent ritual in our contemporary culture is the exchange of money for goods. If you don’t believe in the importance of this ritual, try to leave a store with something and not pay for it.

What if there were symbols for hope? Would there be as many suicides? Or a ritual to give meaning to our lives? Would there be as many addicts seeking to fill the void in their lives with drugs? Or myths that socialized us into creative, compassionate people? Would there be as much bullying?

What we have today turns us into complacent consumers, built on myths of might-makes-right independence. We are creating empty values that perpetuate nihilistic attitudes. We need religion to counteract this tailspin of degradation; to bring valid meaning back into our culture; to establish a guiding light of hope for the future.

Of course, there are no religions out there today that actually offer a valid solution with this formula. Religion today is a broken concept, felled by many of the same issues that we need it to overcome. Its symbols have lost their potency through the commercialization of its ideals. Its myths have become “facts” to be proven, rather than listened to. And its rituals have become mere habit, repetitive and mindless.

I am not saying that we should all convert. I have just taken a good, hard look at the world and seen that it is damaged. I am merely pointing out what I believe needs to happen in order to create positive change in our society. It’s not my fault that that solution looks an awful lot like religion.

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