Why are supernatural beliefs so important to religion?


The latest instalment of our "Big Questions" series was answered by the author Jared Diamond, who released the influential Guns, Germs and Steel in 1997, and whose new book, The World Until Yesterday, has just been published. A section from Diamond's latest offering addresses an old topic - why do so many supernatural beliefs persist in religion? - and has been excerpted in left wing online magazine Salon, with the provocative title "It's irrational to be religious". Intrigued?

First, Diamond compares the Hindu belief in a monkey god who can travel thousands of kilometres in a single somersault with the Catholic dogma of a woman made pregnant without having intercourse, and the ascension of her child to a place in the sky called 'heaven'.

The grand question here is: what purpose do these serve? Diamond sets out the interesting theory that religious beliefs were initially supernatural so that believers had to show their commitment to the faith by taking on - and not questioning - core ideas that went beyond anything they had ever seen before, or would ever see in their lifetime. As a bonus, somebody who has made a show of their belief in a virgin birth for decades is less likely to jump ship when times get tough.

But he goes further. Supernatural religious beliefs, to Diamond's eyes, are surprisingly similar to human, animal or other natural objects "except for having superior powers". They become like a form of wish-fulfilment, and take on the comforts inherent to it. "[gods'] powers surpassing human powers are projections of our own personal power fantasies", they're harder, better, faster, stronger. "Thus", according to Diamond, "religious supernatural beliefs are irrational, but emotionally plausible and satisfying." Hence why they've hung around so long.