It would be difficult, I think, to argue that humans are simply biological machines, although certainly many have tried. There are things about being human that aren’t easily reducible; we seem to be more than the sum of our parts. Some call this extra something the spirit or the soul. Similarly, life itself seems to either be run by rules that are so complicated as to be incomprehensible or else filled with inexplicable things: chance encounters, falling in love, the beginning and end of life. Human existence also suggests the great mysteries: Is there a God? Why are we here? Is there a purpose to all this? There may not be an answer to any of these, but the questions remain.
We don’t tend to think of religions as products, as things created by humans. In fact, to those who believe their religion is divinely created or inspired, this is probably heresy. But I think this is the case: that religions are, along with some other human products, interfaces to the spiritual or mystical part of human existence.
We need ways of comprehending and reasoning about the unknown. We seem to be wired for this; our brains try to grasp the unknown by comparing it to the known and making a pattern. Cognitive scientists call this schemas, linguists “cross-domain mapping.” We use metaphor to take the abstract (time) and make it concrete (money, thus Time is Money). We take the difficult and abstract digital computer and put a desktop on it so that we can use and think about it.
We do the same thing with the otherwise mystical part of life: we use interfaces to try to comprehend them. Religion is one such interface, although there are many others certainly: music, art, literature, dance, gardening, storytelling, theatre, to name a few. And yes, maybe even design. What are Christian crosses or Jewish stars of Davids or the Unitarian flaming chalices except icons?
All those things are ways of making the ineffable tangible, through things our senses can deal with: sights, sounds, action, words. It is hard to think about death, but it is easier to go to a funeral. It is hard to describe loneliness, but looking at one of Hopper’s lighthouses connects you to it. A few bars of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will give you a language to talk about terror and despair. A visit to your church, mosque, temple, or synagogue will give you a way to think about the divine and/or the sublime. Or to think about thinking about the divine. It’s what we humans do.