Monday, December 2, 2013

Why Religion?

Why Religion?

I have been using a rosary[1] as a thought aid for the past few weeks.

I use it for two reasons:
  1. Using it helps me focus by giving me something to do with my hands that I can relate to my thoughts, especially when thinking about the future.
  2. I have always liked rosaries. Before I ever touched one, I imagined what using one would feel like. My mirror neurons were excited by watching the ritual in movies [2]. 
I will use this essay to explain these two experiences.

The first is universal, I think. I have a coworker whom I have never seen reading without a toy in his hand. He is an incessant fiddler. I think most people have the impulse, and I think the reason more people don't engage in the behavior is because of their primary education [3].

One variety of thinking I engage in is a hybridization of sport psychology pep talk, mantras and, affirmations. I repeat lists of characteristics that I strive to embody. I recite declarations of how I will spend my time [4].

Another variety is more applied and specific: I walk through the steps of a project, using the beads, as if  they were trees to reach out and touch, or a cane to plant before each step, to propel my vision forward.

Prior to using the rosary, I rarely was able to do any kind of planning without pen and paper. But I realized that I did not need to record each thought. I just needed to relieve the anxiety that I felt when a I had to set one down in order to pick up another. I never trusted myself to remember it [5].

A difficulty in thinking about the future is that each thought I have is essentially an imperative. If I am reflecting on a movie I watched, or thinking about a subject I enjoy, such as electrical theory or having sex, the images flow one from another spontaneously. Even if I am thinking about something difficult to imagine, as long as it exists outside of the context of what I must do, then as I proceed from one thought to the next, I can focus mostly on the thought at hand, with only peripheral attention on what thought I just had and what thought is upcoming. Of course, some things are harder to think about than others. For example, math[6]. However, when I am thinking about the future, each thought is a step, and each step is one I must take. 

Writing down the steps as I go, of course, helps alleviate this anxiety. Putting the scruple on the paper takes it out of my shoe. But often the steps are fairly obvious. There is no need to worry that I won’t recall it easily when needed. Yet, I do anyway.

Here the rosary helps. I use the rosary because each thought is a bead, and something about having it physically recognized by moving my thumb and index finger over that wooden bead comforts the part of my brain that wants to keep its commitments. For that instant, the bead has taken responsibility for that thought, and I can move to the next one. Also, envisioning actions I will engage in because of what  the result while be, while I am moving my hands for no reason other than to improve the vision, alleviates some of the self-consciousness of my physical actions. I feel after using the rosary as if I am my intentions, and my self-consciousness is dissipated. 

That was an explanation of the first part. Now for the second:

I believe religious thought is largely based on the problems of thinking about the future, keeping our commitments, and experiencing relief from the feeling that our thoughts exist only in our head.

Religion answers a lot of questions, especially questions pertaining to the future. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be attractive to people. While I think that it answers many of those questions poorly, we take what we can get [7]. Some questions it answers are,  What happens to me when I die?Why should I do what I feel is right?, and How can I induce others to do what I feel is right? 

Humans don’t need religion for the present. We’re great at instant gratification. And if that’s not working for us, we will even delay gratification for a little bit, if it seems promising that we will get to eat or have sex as a result of our patience and labor.

But, for the extremes of delayed gratification and self-restraint, the kind that we would call self-sacrifice, civic-mindedness, and ambition, most people need a strategy for handling the future in their mind. While some are particularly talented at this, most require mental tricks. Religion is such a trick [8].

 I am not talented at thinking. I strive to be reasonable and to employ effort and critical thinking, but I am mediocre, and I require tricks.

Prayer, and having one god or many take responsibility for the outcomes of your actions, is a very common trick.

Ask a friend who has gone through AA and is sober how they accomplished the amazing feat of beating their addiction, and they will tell you, “I didn’t do it; god did.” The peace of mind of refusing to accept the responsibility of such a task allows one to creatively and energetically go about the business of seeing that task through. The certainty that one’s god will deliver the result that is best for them, if only they show proper diligence, is an amazing mental trick.

And individuals who don’t use a deity have tricks that are similar [9].

What this kind of thinking accomplishes is to alleviate anxiety about the outcome of one's actions by removing the responsibility for the outcome from the actor. Another way to alleviate this anxiety is to be confident that one's actions will have the desired result, or that, because one is engaging in effortful, mindful, and useful activities, then they will be able to salvage some meaningful and interesting outcome, even if they don't accomplish their goal.

By using this traditionally religious aid, I arouse in myself feelings of religiosity. Even though I do not have any god that I worship, I do have a feeling that is almost indistinguishable from what I felt when I was a Christian. It is a feeling of devoutness, of seriousness, and of sincerity. It is not quite worshipful, but it is a combination of humility and gratitude. And it gives me a feeling of comfort when I am thinking about the future. 

[1] I don’t actually use a rosary: I use a 27 bead mala, which is of Hindu and Buddhist tradition, but it’s essentially the same thing: beads on a string.

[2] I also liked watching people cross themselves.

[3] I think we evolved primarily to manipulate physical objects. Our ability to reflect on past events and fantasize about potential future events is remarkable; our ability to rationally invent and commit to goals, and systematically plan and strategize how we will achieve those goals, is amazing. But these abilities take a lot of energy and, for me, can be very stressful. As you might know if you’ve read a little about the prefrontal cortex, it is a glucose-guzzler, and when strained, prone to (figuratively) over-heating and shutting down. Our brains much prefer to rely on their older, more efficient areas. When we use those areas, we feel our actions are more intuitive and natural, requiring less effort.

[4] Such as being diligent at work, conversing thoughtfully with my girlfriend, or doing homework.

[5] This is essentially what David Allen would call an open loop. It is a commitment left open, a loose end. The mind hates them and recursively reminds us about them.

[6] For those of us who think about mathematics as numerals, and calculations as the manipulation of those numerals, doing mental arithmetic can be difficult and stressful. It seems for people who have more of a feel for numbers, especially if they have synesthetic traits, the experience can be relaxing. I occasionally enjoy thinking about certain mathematical relationships, if I can put my finger on a spatial quality to them. Numerous authors have explained why numbers can be difficult to remember: they're abstract; they are all representations of essentially the same concept, only in different quantities; arabic numerous are arbitrary symbols, and so on.

[7] See David Sloan Wilson's The Neighborhood Project, in which he discusses the idea that individuals and communities will hold beliefs if doing so is advantageous to them, especially if it promotes salubrious actions. To quote his book, "Reflecting is the processing of the information to give it meaning. Meaning results in sustaining action. All creatures have evolved to listen and reflect in ways that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. The cycle of listening and reflecting leading to sustaining action has been perfected by countless generations of natural selection."

[8] An argument I see frequently is that humans are hardwired with excellent morals. The argument seems to go, We have empathy, and we know right from wrong, therefore religion must be what's wrong with the world. This is magical thinking. Religion is our contrivance, and it was apparently independently invented over and over again throughout history; otherwise there is an unbroken chain of it. In either case, the idea that this one aspect of human culture is the ultimate corruptor and that, sans that, we would not have greed, callousness, and bloodlust, is, from what I can tell, without evidence. The motivations to invent and perpetuate religion are our motives. The evil that is in religion, is in us. While religion certainly has evolved, ratcheting up its effectiveness in some areas, just like any corporation will, what fuels it is us. Maybe if all religion were abolished tomorrow, it might have a harder time starting over, given our improved education, and maybe in its absence, people would have a great chance of being virtuous. But, religion is not what causes us to be selfish, short-sighted, afraid, hateful, callous, or petty.

[9] See Lanny Bassham’s With Winning in Mind, in which he describes a precise and thorough recipe of commitment, vision, and planning to accomplish goals in defined periods of time, or Rhonda Byrne’s mythmaking in The Secret, or a plan similar to Bassham’s in Moran and Lennington’s The 12 Week Year, or even, in a different vein, Betty Edward’s classic, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. All describe planning, commitment, and vision. And perhaps what David Allen stresses more than anything is the use of artifacts to create external representations of your thoughts. These books are secular, but we can have them because we already have answers for where we came from and what happens to us when we die (compost). When those questions were answered by the person with the most vivid imagination, coherent story, and authoritative presence, then every other technique for living had to fit into the framework of those larger answers. Having children also serves multiple purposes along these lines: increasing our arousal and sense of purpose, and externalizing some of our future thoughts and commitments onto another person who can keep them, to name two.