A Unitarian friend of mine wondered recently: is there a way to get the good stuff from religion without being religious? This article – on the positive placebo effect some superstitions deliver – made me think about it again. Are there positive benefits to faith that we miss out on when we insist on being only rational?
Part of me thinks that while a non-religious rationalist can easily dominate any argument about truth, perhaps when it comes to meaning, (s)he can only assert that it’s perfectly possible to live a meaningful life without faith, somewhat sweeping the issue of having-to-stare-a-soulless-universe-in-the-face under the carpet.
Faith is a mixed bag, of course. Superstitions can motivate or demotivate us; they can encourage us or scare us. Religion, too, can comfort us and make us feel that everything happens for a reason and a benevolent engineer is in control; or it can torment us with fears of hell and make taxing demands on us. We need a healthy amount of skepticism to protect us from the worst effects of credulity (think suicide cults, witch-drowning, conflict over claims to “holy” land based on divine will etc). But even for a credulous person, it isn’t just pot luck; no-one accepts ideas willy-nilly without evaluating them in some way. In a subjective reasoning process, I guess the quality of our automatic thought patterns – what CBT calls the “core beliefs” powerfully influencing our mood – is what determines which flavour of ideas we are more inclined to accept.
So I think it’s people who are already pretty happy-go-lucky that naturally home in on the good stuff in religion. Such people are probably also the least likely to join extreme cults and become a danger to others. Perhaps they benefit from that good stuff, or perhaps they’d feel just as good about life without the belief; I really don’t know, but faith is something a lot of people cling to tenaciously – even people who are not motivated to do so by a threat of hellfire(!) – and so clearly it is something they feel gives them benefits that they would lose if they didn’t have it.
Maybe some skeptical minds intuit automatically in ways that produce some of the same positive feelings and motivations people get from faith. I imagine even some of the most rational people unconsciously exercise faith that “I can totally do this” or “it’ll be fine” or “good things always happen in my life” – mental shortcuts based on mere habit. We live by stories (see Graham’s compelling post) and not by facts. If the stories work for us, and don’t interfere with our ability to be objective whenever we decide to be, then there’s no cause for challenging them.
And if they don’t work for us, we can challenge them, of course. CBT is a therapy that is about consciously choosing those stories, those inner automatic thought programs, replacing them with rationally-acceptable ones that are better for us.
Would it be possible for skeptics to replace them with helpful or motivating things that we can’t even rationally believe – like “everything works together for good” or “the universe is a friendly place” – and thereby get the benefits of faith? In this idea I am stretching the Unitarian approach of appreciating and benefiting from nice poetic ideas while escaping the cognitive dissonance of having to believe in them. To be honest, I’m still not sure if it’s a genius idea or a total mind-f***. 😀
I think the need for clarity makes some of us the biggest doubters on the planet, and there is probably just no getting around that. More on that in the next post. 🙂