The Anatomy of Belief
“Conflict over belief is as worthwhile as conflict over a favourite colour.”
There are many systems of belief in the world. Most beliefs are propagated by the innate compulsion of their subscribers to derive purpose from the world around them. As such, religion is effectively a moderate transmutation of mythology, philosophy and science. It attempts to be the silver bullet that is the catch-all solution for all of life’s problems. That’s why religion is the most conspicuous of all systems of belief. It attempts to explicitly fill the gaps science and philosophy do not. However, there are some dark, disturbing characteristics about religious belief that a lot of religious people are either unaware of or seem to ignore altogether. Growing up in an environment that catered to the far Christian right taught me a lot of highly valuable lessons about these characteristics. This post details the top ten most valuable lessons I’ve learned about religious cognition. Most of these I learned after intense debate and oftentimes, vicious confrontation:
“Religion doesn’t change people. Religion merely changes their priorities.”
They told me that Jesus can save anybody. But Jesus doesn’t change anybody. I thought it was rather precarious that Romans 12:1 says that one should “…become transformed by the renewing of their mind…”. It doesn’t say that “Jesus renews your mind”. The use of the verb “become” insinuates a reflexive action. This seems eerily similar to the doctrine of the Buddhists and Zen philosophers, who advocate self renewal and enlightenment. Interestingly enough, those doctrines don’t use a God of any sort to propagate the idea of change – yet they achieve the same results. In fact, those doctrines are predominantly peaceful movements – even more so than the most popular ones today. What this means is that the church was wrong about suggesting that Jesus changes people. This effectively relegates Jesus to being just a placebo for providing people with the motivation to change. People make the change themselves – or more specifically, their priorities. Allow me to explain:
If you are an asshole, you will still be an asshole even after becoming religious. You will just now become a religious asshole. Instead of being an asshole about who is getting promoted over you at work, you are now an asshole about who gets to lead a Prayer Meeting at church. Instead of being a bully in the workplace, now prefer you bully people at church – using the Bible no less. The religion part only changes your philosophy on life and your focus. It doesn’t change your personality. That part of you is (for the most part) genetically predetermined. This is why no matter which church you go to, you will always find assholes, con-artists, zealots, bullies, and undesirables of every type and description – just like you would find anywhere else in the world. This is also why murderers can claim Islam as their own.
There’s nothing that Jesus or Allah or anybody else will do to change people’s instinctive nature. If that were the case, then it would be pointless to ask Jesus for forgiveness of sins. Again, the idea of asking God for forgiveness is a psychological placebo. The idea that one can be freed of guilt by assuming that some entity outside of themselves has freed one of their guilt absolves that person of any responsibility for their own actions. Now they have this new lease on life to go out there and sin again (this is how the placebo works). If you can forgive yourself, then you don’t need to ask an imaginary friend for forgiveness and the same effect will be achieved. The act of repentance is an act of changing priorities, not personality.
“You are either naturally religious or naturally secular.”
You are more likely to be religious if you have an average IQ, accept most of the things you are told, prefer to be diplomatic than counter-aggressive, value loyalty over truth, are emotionally driven and prefer to be told what to think, rather than to think for yourself. You’re also inclined to be religious if you think complexity is unwarranted and are seeking some reason to justify your incapacity to follow philosophical discussions. You are most CERTAINLY more likely to be religious if you have an irrational fear of uncertainty or failure. People with this complex are easily frightened. This is why they tend to subscribe to old wives’ tales, urban legends and religion (among other things).
Religion is not for people who like to think for themselves. It is not for people who like to be 100% certain about most things that can be certified. It is not for people who are naturally curious. Religion is not for people who like to have rational answers for irrational questions, and not irrational answers to rational questions. Religion is not for people who embrace complexity or for people who prefer an interactive discussion instead of a one sided one. Finally, religion is most certainly not for people who embrace failure, obscurity or uncertainty.
Depending on your personality characteristics, you have already been predetermined as a possible candidate for religious assemblies or not. You don’t become converted to a religious cause. You either identify with that kind of circle or you don’t. The conversion process is actually a process of capitulation (usually out of fear or guilt) and in some cases, matriculation (religious by association). Similarly, people don’t become atheists. They are just born with a mind that doesn’t provide them with the capacity to certify uncertainty with uncertainty. This is the reason why people who are secular tend to have a specific type of thought process and people who are religious tend to have another. This is the source of the expression that “reason is the enemy of faith”. This is because either way, belief is not driven by proof – but a will to believe.
“People balance religious and secular activities to satisfy their emotional needs”
When a person goes to a very intense worship session on Sunday morning (complete with tears of joy, waving hands in the air, screaming & shouting at the top of one’s lungs etc. etc.) they are experiencing exactly the same pyschological manifestation as people who attend a really great party at a local night club. The two environments are virtually identical. It’s lots of great people, great music, and the energy from all the patrons of the event has an overwhelmingly positive effect on any participating individual. However, irrespective of how a person gets their emotional kick, What most people don’t realise is that Christians use church services for all the same reasons that sinners use nightclubs. The scene is different, but the purpose is exactly the same: emotional gratification through social fellowship. It has nothing to do with belief, faith or dogma.
Religious circles, just like secular ones, have rules, roles, expectations and opportunities. If you break those rules you are excommunicated. If you do not assume any of the predefined roles, you are treated as an outcast. If you don’t meet the expectations, your membership is questioned and if you fail to seize an opportunity, someone else will. That’s why just as how a poorly dressed man is ignored in a club, you will find Christians who treat fellow members of the congregation differentl based on socio-economic background. For as I said before, religion doesn’t change people. It only changes their priorities.
Another phenomenon worth noting is that people use secular and religious circles interchangeably to fulfill two co-dependent psychological propensities: The need to satiate their ID (the raw, basic, sinful, animal) and their Super-Ego (the self righting conscience). Throughout the week, people indulge their ID. On the weekend, they indulge their Super-Ego. This yin/yang operation creates a disparity in each psychological proponent, such that as one is satiated, it creates desire in the other. It’s an emotional pendulum that most people wantonly and indiscriminately enjoy. Ask any standard issue church-goer and they will tell you: Jesus died for your sins so that you can commit them.
“Religious propensity is inversely co-relational to virtuosity”
There is a very good reason why you’ll primarily find older, unremarkable people at church. The older one becomes, the more cognisant they are of issues of mortality. The less attractive one is, the more likely they will be to seek a place where they will not be judged for that deficit. For those who fear uncertainty or do not understand the world they live in, this is also a key motivator. People who have won the genetic lottery tend to become involved in fields of interest that are traditionally frowned upon by the church. People who are particularly musically talented rarely remain with their congregation of members, especially if it is a conservative one as it limits their scope of success. Everyone else who does not fit into this category, faithfully goes to church.
This disparity can be explained by the phenomenon discussed in lesson 3. It’s the same way how a particularly gifted person doesn’t need to spend a great deal of time in college. The whole point of life is survival. If you are gifted, then you can make money from that. If not, you have to go to school to pick up skills to do the same. Similarly, if you are particularly gifted, most of the emotional needs you have can be satisfied by the reward of fame. If you have no particularly discerning natural gifts, it is highly probable you would seek to satiate those emotional needs in religion.
For example, consider the raw talent that many people are naturally born with. Many music and movie stars began demonstrating their talents while in church. However, as they got older, they started to develop a desire to take their craft further and further. Sooner or later, they will hit a glass ceiling and will have to decide between their faith and a full time career. Most people choose the latter out of frustration. Some, like Jessica Simpson, were quite literally pushed to the latter by their respective religious community. Jessica was turned down by one Christian record label simply because she had rather large breasts and thus did not have enough of that “conservative” appeal they were looking for. Needless to say, she took the “high” road to fame and riches. She still maintains the friendship with her less talented colleagues though – who are still going to church.
“Proximity dictates what you believe.”
Where you are born is a key determinant of what you believe. If you were born in the west, then it is highly probable that you will be staunchly christian. If you were born in the north east, you will be inclined to be either christian or agnostic. If you were born anywhere in the middle east or the south east you will be inclined to be Muslim. If you were born in the far east, you will be inclined to be Buddhist, Zen or a related philosophy. Either way, nurture dictates to a great deal the ideals you firmly hold on to as you grow and mature into an adult. You will be staunchly inclined to the religion that you were born in, irrespective of external factors as an adult. Just as how you are as deeply convicted in your religion of choice, people born in other parts of the world who subscribe to other religions are just as convicted. For that reason, most religious people didn’t choose to become Christian or Muslim. The brain washing process begins at birth. So even if you didn’t explicitly subscribe to any particular religion until some later stage in your life, the fact that you picked the religion most dominant to where you live (and not another from some exotic location) quite explicitly reinforces this fact.
The reason for this phenomenon is that every human mind is born as a blank slate. For reasons of survival, every young mind is designed to grasp onto the first ideas to enter the mind. This causes the brain to be wired in a very specific way. Between the age of 1 and 6, 85% of a child’s personality is wired up. This includes all of their deep seated preferences, which includes their affinity to family, tastes, smells, sounds and yes, even beliefs. This is why it is almost impossible to convert a Christian to Islam or vice-versa, particularly if they were born and raised in that faith. Their brains are already wired to prefer one religion over another, so it would be like trying to convert a Honda to a Mercedes Benz. This is the only key determinant between competing faiths. It has nothing to do with the accuracy of one faith over another or the age of one faith versus another.
Furthermore, the mere fact that religions are faith based tosses the whole concept of ‘proof’ and ‘accuracy’ out the window. It also has nothing to do with the archaeological evidence supporting one faith or another. Every religion has supporting archaeological proof. It has nothing to do with the age of a religion. Hinduism is older than Judaism, which is older than Buddhism, which is older than Christianity, which is older than Islam – even though Christianity claims to be the dominant faith. Once an individual has become wired to support one faith or another, it is natural for that person to find every possible evidence to support its validity.
“The popularity of a faith says nothing about its truth or accuracy as religion is spread through (often violent) indoctrination.”
If it weren’t for the marauding activities of the ancient Roman empire and the subsequent Crusaders of the kingdoms born out of its demise, Christianity would probably already have been replaced by a competing faith nearly a thousand years ago. In a way, that makes it hypocritical for Christians to assail Muslims for channeling a religion of violence. Islam is today where Christianity was 900 years ago. It’s just a process of evolution. Every new religion goes through this phase. It was the same with the Egyptian empire and the Babylonian empire and every subsequent kingdom. Never-the-less, at some age during world history, there was always a dominant religion which consumed world populations. Speaking against that religion at that time would have been treated with similar levels of disdain as they are today. Such is the nature of religious faith.
If you were born during the hey day of the Egyptian empire, speaking against a Pharaoh or cursing a Babylonian god would be greeted with the same reaction as doing so against Allah or Jesus today. This is an inextricable part of the process of indoctrination – which is a conspicuous characteristic of most dominant religions. Religion propagates itself by indoctrination – either through compelling others to subscribe or by force. History has shown that the latter is the preferred and more effective method. The chant of “Islam or death” by many extremist Muslims today is only a reminder of the fact that once every few hundred years, the cycle begins anew. It wasn’t so long ago that Catholics and Protestants were locked in a bloody battle to the death over more or less the same thing.
“Religion propagates grave intolerance for any other views on life.”
Each of today’s two major religions assert themselves as the only right religion. Christianity has a number of spin off doctrines which also assert themselves as the only right religion (and so does Islam). What this shows is that while a religion doesn’t mobilize itself without violence, (lesson #6), this characteristic shows a great deal of intolerance for any other philosophical view on life. Interestingly enough, each of today’s major religions purport that they are religions of peace (and they do in fact have teachings that support this). However, the mere fact that they teach intolerance for other ideas, automatically makes room for conflict. This is an especially remarkable observation where culture clashes with religion. From the stoning of news journalists who walk the streets of Jerusalem on the Sabbath, to the violent protests of Muslims over a (poorly drawn) Danish cartoon, religion propagates grave intolerance not only for other competing faiths, but also for other cultures and ways of life.
With that said, there have been more wars fought over or through religion than for any other purpose. The incessant unrest in the middle east which has been going on for thousands of years is a testament to this reality. This is one of the key selling points of atheists, who (surreptitiously) believe that religion tends to do more harm than good. The problem is that as individuals, humans will be inclined to think differently. Until they agree to disagree, there will be religious war. This becomes exacerbated when those wars become a vicious cycle of revenge, especially where physical possessions and life are concerned. It often treads the boiling point when religion and politics become intertwined, since both concepts are not unlike each other.
“Religious proof is meaningless since belief is entirely subjective.”
Even if all things could be rationally explained, religion would continue to exist. People don’t subscribe to religion because it makes sense. They subscribe to it because of the hope it gives them. Hope is not something that can be objectively rationalised. The sense of Hope that people feel because of religion is a purely psychological effect that can be produced by things other than religion. Therefore the people who subscribe to religion do so simply because they have willed themselves to believe. This will is almost always based on nurture – i.e. it is highly contingent on the environment where individuals were raised. This is why you cannot rationally explain or prove why you believe in this religion or that, because any proof for belief can be interpreted in a multiplicity of ways.
A very good example is the on-going debate about the historicity of Christ – part of which is being purported by now famous author Acharya S. who wrote “The Christ Conspiracy”. The evidence appears to suggest that Christ didn’t exist, that he was an astro-heliological hybrid concocted from previous religions. That is the unbiased archaeological interpretation of the data – or is it? There are many atheists who agree with her – and many more who flatly disagree. Mind you, the evidence is the same for both sets of people. It’s just that they interpret the same information differently. However, if you are compelled to be Christian, you may be inclined to interpret the same information as God predestining the coming of Christ in the elements and the cultures of other races. Theoretically, both sets of interpretations can work, depending on which side of the fence one chooses to sit.
Another good example is the conflict between Seventh Day Adventists and Sunday worshiping Christians. The SDA’s interpret the Bible as saying that Saturday is the day of worship by the use of the Hebrew word Shabbat (for seventh). The Sunday worshipers contend that the seventh day was previously Sunday before the Roman Empire moved Sunday to being the first day of the week (to honour the Pope). Both sides of the argument are both right and wrong, given all the evidence. However, each side only sticks to their respective positions because of an unrelenting emotional commitment to their decision. Neither side considers the evidence that proves their position wrong for simply that reason. As such, the debate rages on to this very day.
Many of the philosophical conflicts contained in religions and between religions are of exactly the same nature. If you have developed an emotional attachment to an idea, you will interpret any evidence for that idea, even if the evidence can be objectively placed as being against it. This is one of the reasons why Religious debate is effectively pointless (aside from having fun pitting wits against each other). Two schools of thought which clash will never have a resolve to agree on anything. This is because all the contenders come to the discussion to prove that their interpretation is right, but have simultaneously resolved within themselves to not concede any possibility that they are wrong. This is also why it is pointless to argue with people who have attached religious significance to politics. Once there is an unrelenting commitment to an idea, the discussion (and any proof associated with it) becomes moot. The will to believe always trumps the evidence to believe.
“Hope is simultaneously the greatest human strength and the greatest human delusion.”
Hope gives people faith and faith gives people purpose. Purpose gives people focus and, focus provides direction. What better way to live your life than when you have a sense of direction? Purpose gives people the sense of “what they are here to do.” So if someone comes along to impose a different faith upon these people, this potentially changes the whole game altogether. It threatens their way of life based on their chosen religious path. This is a major part of the reason why there is religious warfare. Two competing factions are often caught up arguing about which sense of purpose and direction is philosophically better than the other. It’s not very different from arguing about the political philosophies of Democrats and Republicans – but I digress.
Many turn to Religion to grant them that peace of mind that helps them cope with an otherwise rough life – although we all know why (see lesson #3). Can you imagine if someone were to infuse lies into a school of thought that doesn’t require proof for viability? This is what allows evil men to manipulate the mindless masses vis-a-vis religion to accomplish greater nefarious objectives. They are quite literally exploiting a gaping flaw in religion (i.e. faith) to manipulate the hope of millions to drive imperial objectives. This is why there are right wing Christians supporting illegal wars. That is why there are deadly cults like those of Jim Jones and David Koresh. This is why there are Muslims who’ve been manipulated by extremist agendas to commit horrifying acts of suicidal terrorism. How did something as benign as Islam and Christianity become so caught up in the cause of warfare? The answer is simple: In the absence of proof, truth becomes relative. When truth becomes relative, then anything becomes justifiable in the name of religion.
How about deviant sects of religion? Christians have many. Muslims have many. In many of these cases, dogmatic extremism (as is found in the Jehovah’s Witnesses) and abusive bigotry (as is found in the Islamic Taliban – which although is technically a political movement and not such much an Islamic sect) are rampant. Because people are compelled to believe in something that requires no proof, it is easy for them to become caught up in strange congregations with very odd practices and beliefs. The often times militant Seventh Day Adventists come to mind, who (in my experience) have only stopped short of an outright physical scuffle to promote their attempts at indoctrination. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of Muslims, who’ve killed and maimed over something as trivial as a harmless cartoon depiction.
There’s an expression that goes “Belief kills and belief cures”. The hope of humanity is one of the most poignant aspects of our being that differentiates us from lower animals. Our capacity to possess anticipation for things which we have not yet seen, but have willed ourselves to receive, has medically proven to be a life saver and a motivator for change in our lives. Yet, because of its implicitly simplistic nature, hope is so easily manipulated, that it can transform people who believe in peace, to become violent, monstrous beings. A great many of the wars fought or atrocities committed in the history of mankind have been religiously motivated or fired up by religion. The most conspicuous of these dark acts include:
- Elements of the war in Iraq (which is really a modern war between extremist Christianity and extremist Islam)
- The Sunni / Shiite conflict within the Iraqi war
- 911 in New York
- 7/7 in London
- The mass killing of Kurds
- The incessant Palestinian / Israeli conflict
- The on-going Islamic Jihad
- The recurring Catholic / Protestant skirmishes in Northern Ireland
- The Serb / Croat / Muslim massacres
- The Crusades
- The witch hunts
- The thirty years war
- The French Wars
…just to name a few. When you really think about it, why do we even bother with Religion at all? There are so many people in the world killing each other over make belief. It’s like I said in a previous post: The one thing we’ve learned from history is that we don’t learn.
“Yesterday’s religions are today’s mythologies. Today’s religions are tomorrow’s mythologies.”
Just as how people go to museums to view relics from a dead religion thousands of years ago, the same will happen for the religions of today thousands of years from now. Even though scholars agree that Hinduism is the oldest persisting religion today, it is now only a shadow of its former glory and is predated by many others. Such is the nature of belief systems. There is a very good explanation for this phenomenon: Cognitive evolution. Religions are concocted as a way for mankind to put his universe in a box he can understand. The more man understands, the less mythology is needed in the religion. After a while, the more mythological religion is replaced by another which is less so. Religions which possess a more scientific or philosophic mythology are also driven by more powerful empires. The sophistication of those religions are a representation of the technological maturity of the kingdom and thus, it’s capacity to conquer and expand.
As mankind ages, so does the knowledge he derives from his world. With each age, a religion arises that explains the world better than the religion of the previous age. Each subsequent religion is more scientifically or philosophically accurate than the previous. After a period of turbulent indoctrination, the known world eventually adapts to the newer, more rational religion.
This is what happened between Judaism (more mythological, less philosophical) and Christianity (which is less mythological and more philosophical). This is because from a rational perspective, philosophy trumps mythology and as such, eventually, Christianity overtook Judaism. The same disparity can be seen today between Christianity (more philosophical, less scientific) and Islam (more scientific, less philosophical). This is partly the reason why even though Christianity has the largest subscription, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. I’m not suggesting that Islam will replace Christianity. Rather, Christianity today is considerably more philosophically and scientifically succinct than it was 900 years ago when it was little more than another tall tale.
This cycle will continue to repeat itself for centuries to come until science completely replaces religion altogether. This correlation is ostensible, because religion is pseudo-science and science is pseudo-religion. With cognitive evolution, one school of thought merely evolves into (or replaces) another. There is always a period of violence, but that is human nature’s natural reaction to change. We are now on the cusp of the age of reason. One day, our great descendants will look back at our age with pitiful disdain as they consider the cycle of ignorant bloodshed we have propagated in the name of mythology.
It’s interesting how man’s attempt at understanding his world has become something worth fighting for. Even in the scientific community, there is conflict on theories of the universe (e.g. Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, String Theory vs Quantum Gravity, and others). But scientific conflict rarely amounts to more than intense debate. There is also conflict in political views which regularly moves from nasty to outright violence. However, it’s the conflict in Religion that almost always certifies ground for warfare. Some religions even provide justifiable grounds within their writ upon which war can be waged.
Wouldn’t the world would be a much simpler place if men simply loved one another as much as they loved themselves? Unfortunately, such hope is unfounded. While a flock of birds in the east would never attack a flock from the west, men are not so simplistic. This is because unlike lower animals, men have the capacity for individual thought defined by culturally disparate groups. So long as men have the capacity for individualistic reasoning, there will always be ideological conflict, whether it be religious, philosophical or political.
A belief is an unrelenting commitment to an idea. It is nothing more than an over glorified preference. Debating that commitment is almost always contentious since this will ultimately lead to provocation. The debate is provocative because like a preference, a belief is deep seated in man’s cognitive wiring and thus needs no justification. Upsetting that belief upsets the comfort zone that comes with the belief, along with the way of life and everything else which man has defined around it. This is almost always grounds for conflict, since no man is comfortable with having his life purpose uprooted by someone else’s.
Ultimately, conflict over belief is almost always pointless – especially if neither side is open to being wrong. The only time conflict based on belief is justified is if one’s belief will seriously infract upon the life of another. But even this is subjective, since that justification is also subject to being rooted in belief. This means that belief is intrinsically a double-edged sword. This is why I am now convicted, more than ever before, that conflict over belief is as worthwhile as conflict over a favourite colour.