Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why Religion May Never Disappear (Entirely)

This topic tends towards some polarization, from what I’ve seen, so I’ll try to be as balanced and concise as possible. The ideas of determinism and essentialism always present some controversy anyway, so with that in mind, onto the topic.
When one looks across the world, there isn’t as much evidence of the hypo/thesis of this conglomeration of studies as there might’ve been centuries ago. The idea from all these investigations is that any claim that the world is becoming more secular is mistaken. The reasoning behind this is that there is still a strong presence of religious tendencies across various cultures as different as Japan and America and everything in between. This is ironic, since there was a study suggesting that at least “organized” religion would die out in 9 countries across the world though some might suggest secularization applies to religion as a whole. While the presence of religion in concentrated areas suggests religion exists in some organized fashion, the personal aspects of religion are less clear. If you polled a large sample of each major continent and merely asked if the person considers themselves “religious” then the results might reflect the presence of religiosity in the world more than the less accurate methods such as checking lists at churches of people baptized, both because of potential for lapsed believers that might return and those that have basically abandoned the beliefs of the church entirely. In the first case, the individual might still be religious, but in the other case, the individual may very well not be religious at all in the traditional understandings that involve a belief in the afterlife or deities/agents behind supposedly miraculous events. Studying cultural propensity is one thing, but on a psychological level, this is more difficult to defend.

Much of this seems to hinge on a centuries old debate: whether humans naturally possess the religious drive or if that drive is developed over time through education and culture; basically the nature/nurture dichotomy. An argument can be presented for humans being essentially religious animals. One might argue from a neurological perspective that our brains are hard wired to seek out God, the so called God-shaped hole thesis one hears many times, myself included. The problem with that thesis is pretty evident, though; it dehumanizes any skeptic, disbeliever or even doubter, since any of those people can be argued to be a deficient human being when one persists in spite of religious believers all around you, even being raised in a religion as many people are in an American culture. Instead of treating us with understanding, believers unintentionally treat us with contempt and pity as if we’re lesser people. Humans being religious by nature doesn’t mean humans should always follow that primal urge; any more than we should follow our animal impulses to rape and pillage.

The other end of the spectrum is equally troubling in saying religion is part of ancient human history; and since we have advanced to a more modern and intellectually sophisticated culture, we should abandon religion entirely. Not to sound like an apologist for religious people; considering I’m not really one of them myself in the sense of believing without hard evidence in something supernatural; but religion does have a place in modern day culture, at least in a sense of studying it as a cultural phenomenon that influences people in their everyday life. This is not to say we should try to apply these religious laws to a religiously diverse populace, but only that we should try to understand religion’s historical influence on people, with obvious examples like whether the U.S. is a Christian nation and the explosion in America of Islamaphobia. If we don’t research religion as an academically pertinent subject, we risk believing in unjustified claims about religion ranging on either end of the spectrum. Believing we are destined to be religious is just as absurd as saying that being religious is equivalent to being mentally insane. Religiosity in the sense of fidelity to your fellow human is hardly a sign of mental illness, is it?
A great deal of our predilection to seeing purpose in life as well as alleged NDEs (Near Death Experiences) that popularize some kind of evidence of the afterlife, can be connected to psychology and neurology respectively. Seeing purpose, as well as patterns, in seemingly random events in life, is a result of two related tendencies humans have in their mental makeup: apophenia and pareidolia. Apophenia, seeing patterns in unrelated phenomena, exists in various religious contexts, such as people believing God protected a church from a tornado or that God protected their home from a tornado while destroying everything else around the house. A simpler example would be people seeing certain events as evidence of answers to their prayers. Pareidolia is more commonly manifest with people seeing sacred images in what are initially random arrangements; like the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or a pancake.
Any kind of apophenia people manifest, especially in a religious context, is defended on the grounds that it makes people feel secure and comfortable, even if life is by all definitions, random and inconstant. A tornado, fire, or other disaster can strike at any moment, taking people away from us; a twist of fate can make us rich and successful and another can turn all that into failure and throw us into despair. Religion can be said to potentially never go away for the same reason that people will always insist that it is not only in our nature to arrange and pattern the randomness in life, but that it is also beneficial to us. Any endeavors of great academic and public significance involve this sort of thinking; natural and social sciences, history, and even fine arts take what seem like unrelated phenomena and connect them in ways we wouldn’t originally think.

It’s ironic for me, an Aspie, to criticize this kind of thought pattern, when a thesis has been put forward, with a mountain of evidence to justify it, that Aspies are actually more prone to finding patterns than even neurotypical people. I don’t deny that you can say I’m a hypocrite or have misguided attention towards something that I have a stronger potential for. But my experience is not necessarily atypical for Aspies. As I’ve blogged over a year ago in “Aspergers and Atheism” at least one study has suggested that even if Aspies have a greater tendency to see patterns in events or data sets, it doesn’t mean that they see agency in those events. This is an important distinction to set up in a conclusion. People do have a tendency to find patterns in things and this isn’t always a negative trait. The fact that we observe patterns and laws in nature is how we grew to scientific thought. But when you begin to see conscious agency behind everything, such as when a person is “miraculously” healed from cancer or other debilitating illnesses, you not only get into the obvious category of “superstitious” but you go beyond our natural and beneficial tendency to see patterns and consistency as valuable and begin to become fixated on patterns and consistency in order to keep yourself from going insane. I may not be religious in believing that God or any supernatural force is involved in my life, but I am religious in the deeper sense that all humans can be said to have questions about life. I simply don’t take it so seriously that I feel a need to have some overarching answer to everything. Sometimes silence and ignorance are the path to fulfillment and enlightenment. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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