Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Religion as rationalization

Got into a fascinating discussion at this blog about this video:

I was fascinated by what would make this guy put this out there. Was this a deliberate lie, or does he really believe this? If he believes it, why? If this is a lie, what's his motive?

Salman Hameed of the host blog raised an interesting hypothesis -- that he is so obsessed with his anti-semitism that he really thinks this is true.

I found that explanation to be highly credible. And then I took it a step further, and hypothesized about the psychodynamics that could drive such a belief. If you are in a state of utter paranoia and panic about this perceived incredibly powerful force that you perceive as insidiously overwhelming your homeland and culture ... you might find yourself seeing symbols of this everywhere, even if it's not true.

The best analogy I could think of is an angry wife. Sometimes a wife gets mad at her husband because he deserves it for something specific he did. But other times it seems that she's already feeling angry at him, or life or the country they're in or whatever, and she projects that anger onto an object -- be it his car, his haircut, his teeth, whatever. She criticizes the object vociferously -- not because the object itself deserves it, but because it acts as a symbol for her overwhelming emotional state.

Perhaps that's what this poor sop is doing.

And then it occurred to me that perhaps much of religion (including atheistic religion) is, in practice, a rationalization and symbolism for deeply felt emotions. A jihadi feels deeply alienated from the world, yet longs for a place of peace, and he perceives that outside forces are to blame for his plight. Jihad is a religious language that matches perfectly with those emotions. It explains why he is feeling alienated, why he hates the West, and gives him hope for a better life. The answer seems intuitively, emotionally, deeply obvious. So he believes it.

I wonder how many other religious beliefs could be seen in this light. Calvinism, for instance, is the belief that we have no control over our wills -- that we are dirty, sinful, and corrupt -- and that only by submitting our will to God can we live rightly. That strikes me as fitting closely with the psychodynamics of a child who feels they lack an authentic will of their own, who worship a father figure, and who have deeply ingrained self-hatred. Perhaps the religion is simply the language that articulates the feelings which come first.

This puts a whole different light on the fact that many people follow the religion of their family -- and perceive it not as momentum, but as genuine, self-held belief. The emotional environment in which they grew up conditions them in such a way that the same beliefs that were intuitively obvious to the parents are also intuitively obvious to the children.

But it has the additional benefit of explaining why some children go a different route than their parents. Because a child has emotional drives of his own, and is not fully determined by the way he was raised. This would explain my case, in which I differ from my family on virtually every essential element of our creed. While they certainly influence me, I have an emotional environment of my own -- and the things that make sense to them do not necessarily make sense to me.

What's my emotional environment and religion? It's grounded on enlightened self-interest, and the belief that harmony with other people of high quality is a highly rewarding outcome. I am relentless in trusting no one else's judgment -- I trust only my own evaluation fo the facts. This emotional environment stems from a childhood of being lied to constantly by religious and atheistic demagogues, and told that I must sacrifice everything for what? Always some unfalsifiable ideal.

And indeed, this reflects itself in my religion. I believe that humans are designed by God to be selfish, and that with wisdom, selfishness leads us back to harmony with God and with man. I do not submit myself to any creed, because I do not trust any authority. And I believe that the road to truth comes through careful, deliberate, relentless examination of the facts.


And what could we say of the materialistic atheists? Well, I'd guess an emotional constitution that wants everything to be orderly and predictable -- that cannot tolerate ambiguity or confusion -- that struggles to hide and stifle the chaos within their own souls, and the souls of humanity, with a nice, clean, orderly explanation. Unfortunately, that explanation fails to adequately explain the facts -- but the facts are too scary to deal with. They must be suppressed in favor of clean, orderly theories.

Now, having analyzed religion in terms of the emotional biases that lead to preference of belief, does that discredit religion itself? By no means. By logical necessity, some set of facts about religious topics must be true. There either is a God or there is not. He either judges us or he does not. Etc. Some religion must be true.

This analysis merely points out that our selection and preference for religion is often guided less by a search for truth and more for a set of beliefs that confirms our preexisting emotional predisposition.

Of course, once recognized and owned, our emotional predisposition is something that can be molded. We need not always be a jihadi or a conventional atheist. We can recognize the disfunction inherent in each of those ways of looking at the world, and adjust ourselves.

And I would think, the more we adjust the lens with which we look at the world to match reality, the more accurately our religious conclusions would match Reality.

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