I don’t hate religious people like I don’t hate people with cancer.
And evangelical disease spreaders who sneeze stupidity everywhere. They remind me of an annoying guy at a house party who keeps telling me how lame this party is and the one he’s going to later is way better, he knows the doorman and can get straight in, it’s open all night, and it’s got heaps of chicks there.
I’m always left thinking: “Well off you go then! I’m actually enjoying this party, I’m having fun and I have sincere doubts that your party even exists. The only thing I don’t like about this party is the fact that you’re here!”
But they don’t rush off to their after party. Religious folk are more likely to opt for aggressive end-of-life care. I think if I were a Christian, I’d be riding bulls and eating puffer fish and sleeping under coconut trees and preaching to bikers every day of my life, desperate to be hurried out of this world and into the afterlife as soon as possible. So why aren’t they?
An overwhelming fear of being dead is caused by our biology that has a strong preference for being alive.
But why this apparent preference for religion? Why do they claim to believe in something when in deed they don’t? They endeavor to bring unborn (sinless) children to life, and kill unrepentant sinners to do so; they believe in peace but their behaviour is warlike; and preach equality yet practice discrimination. It defies logic.
So why is this contradiction so common?
Research suggests that our poorly evolved brains return some illogical results from some vestigial and logical methods of dealing with stress. Here is a list of 6 studied psychological traits that lead us towards religiosity.
1. Adaptive Preference Formation
With the command to stay alive and make more copies written into our cells, our expanding intelligence forced upon us the grim knowledge that we will all die. Now we are faced with cognitive dissonance (the driving force behind much of our irrationality), that’s the name for that uncomfortable feeling you get when you hold two opposing ideas at simultaneously, like: ‘I’m a nice guy’ and ‘I just cheated on my girlfriend’ – one of them has to go, asshole.
Similarly: ‘I don’t want to be dead’ competes with ‘I am definitely going to be dead’ and creates stress. To relieve that stress, we do a bit of adaptive preference formation and the more emotionally valuable idea wins: Whee, you now believe in eternal life!
2. Optimism Bias
Your optimism bias makes you think you aren’t going to crash your car. It makes you think that an asteroid won’t wipe out humanity, and that Yellowstone national park isn’t really an extinction-event-sized super volcano that’s about due to erupt and send us into a 50,000 year volcanic winter. It’s what makes newlyweds think their marraige will last a lifetime despite divorce statistics, and smokers underestimate their chances of cancer.
To live with a realistic idea of the likelihood of dying in a car wreck, catching a deadly disease or dying by tripping over a dog would turn you into an emotional wreck. Evolution stepped in with another illogical solution to deal with your stress.
Hurrah, now the eternal life after death is a great land of milk and honey and virgins with hymens that heal over again and again! Yay… Hang on, has anyone here ever slept with a virgin?
3. Projection Bias
As nomadic tribes, there were forces in the world we couldn’t comprehend, we gave them a name and imbued them with a sense of justice and benevolence (despite the fact that most of these anomalies seemed to do us harm) because we also suffer from a projection bias. We project humanoid desires, behaviours and thoughts to unhumanoid things.
That’s why we imagine the world to be a just place: ‘We were naughty, that’s why there was a swarm of locusts. Lets murder some virgins to appease the locust god’ because apparently with the help of this crazy bias, locusts care about dead humans who haven’t know the love of peen. What is with this obsession with unfucked women!?
The lower our level control over firestorms, earthquakes, plagues and Justin Bieber, the more likely we are to assume they’ll get better by themselves thanks to strange penances to the Flying Spaghetti Monster or some other totally factually existing deity – because we assume that deity is like us: Nice and vain (worship me!).
The funny thing about this one is that we really don’t care much about lower life forms. If a god thought like us it would see lower life forms like we see ants: Annoying. We don’t see ourselves as pointless, fragile and pathetic because we suffer from illusory superiority. So this bias gives us a habit of thinking that we were created in god’s image (what he needs fingers and teeth and hair and an appendix for is beyond me – but hey. Does god shit? Maybe God uses his waste matter to fill the skulls of his followers).
Now the land of milk and honey is guarded by a great guy who’s great because he’s just like us.
4. Illusion of Control
This psychological bias that makes you think your actions affect the world more than they really do.
Ellen Langer found that people playing craps in casinos throw the die harder when aiming for high numbers and softer when aiming for lower numbers. Other experiments have found that if you give a button to a student and two lights that say ‘Score’ and ‘No score,’ students that ‘score’ higher are likely to say that their pointless button-pressing had an effect on the outcome, even though it didn’t. Placebo buttons work the same way.
Praying is the same thing. God’s will is inflexible, the Bibles and Korans and Torah’s say so – so why bother praying? He’s already decided whether or not he’s going to send a drunk pedophile priest staggering onto the wet road in front of your speeding car, your lucky charm has no affect on his will. It was pre-ordained. [Here’s a hint: Don’t swerve, hit the gas. You’ll more likely retain control of the car, and who’d blame you? Less child rape the better IMHO]
Hurrah, so now despite The Great’s immutable will, I can pray and he’ll let me into his after party that is full of women who’ve never seen a peen! But where do the female Jihadis go?
5. Confirmation Bias
As the evidence mounts up in opposition to our crazy beliefs we rely on our confirmation bias. We discard evidence that contradicts our beliefs we search for and overstate the accuracy or importance of that which confirms it.
The funny thing is that the research into this bias is often a study of research itself: Scientists are notorious for downplaying or discarding data that refutes their hypothesis.
It’s natural – if you have a stated opinion that your team always wins when you’re wearing your lucky socks [illusion of control] then those times it doesn’t work are excused as ‘I wasn’t concentrating’ or ‘They’d been washed’ or those events are just forgotten. That’s what makes prophecies seem so accurate and gamblers so pathetic.
When Prophesy Fails looks at cults with precise end-of-the-world predictions. Leon Festinger found that even after the extinction day passed without anything happening, the followers become even more fanatical zealots, rather than discarding their ideas they came back with alacrity, spreading their craziness even more. Humans, huh? Pigeons do it too.
So when we pray for gran to not die and she doesn’t die: Hurrah, God exists! When gran dies a week later: God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he’s the neurosurgeon, other times he’s the stroke.
People are always desperate to belong to a group, that’s pretty obvious. It doesn’t matter if the idea they follow is crazy – often the crazier the better: Take a look at Mormonism or Scientology.
We don’t need to have a long diatribe about what were the Nazis thinking and how crazy people get with their in-group behaviour. We could take a look at the Stanford Prison experiment, or the rather scary Milgram Experiment or death cults, but we won’t. This is so much better described with this video:
That effect is studied more rigorously in Asch’s Conformity experiment.
Evolution equipped you with a desire to belong for rather obvious reasons: It’s easier to survive if you form a group, they’ll hunt with you and increase your chances at food, look after you if you’re sick and help you not become prey. Plus, if you go hunting with Joe you might get to screw his sister. We’re a herd animal. Even if that herd doesn’t have your same moral code, you’ll adjust your morals to fit in, because it’s (ever so slightly) better to hang out with morons than to be dead.
Could you imagine what it’d be like living with an accurate perception of the world you live in? The germs, the pandemics, the near-earth extinction-event asteroids, the super volcanoes, car crashes, cancer, murder, suffering and death, how little you can do about it, how little you matter, how alone you are, how random it all is – it’d drive you mad. You’d be suffering from depressive realism as a result of being smarter and more rational than everyone else.
Being religious is actually a perfectly normal symptom of your brain malfunctioning as it was designed to. So if you’re religious – it’s because evolution made you that way.
That doesn’t make you any less wrong. You’re just less evolved.
However, it does give you lots of angry, confuzed, well armed friends to hang out with and experience illusory superiority over folk like me; who don’t share your bizzare fantasy that permits you to mutilate children’s genitals, oppress sexy women and make things explode.
To spread atheism, we’ve got to start recognizing that these desires to believe are rationalizations of deep-rooted evolutionary biases. If we can’t offer comfort, a level of control, a cool gang to be a part of and an optimistic view of the future – then we won’t convert theists. Regardless of how illogical their beliefs, they’re far more comforting than the frankly scary and stress-inducing view of the future that rational unbiased reasoning predicts: That it’s all random and will be over soon.
Does anyone have any ideas?
Argh… After I wrote this I found this: