Skepticism and the benefits of faith

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. 🙂

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21 Responses to Skepticism and the benefits of faith

  1. Marahm says:

    Ah, yes, this is an eternal question just as valid as the eternal question of whether or not God exists. If he does not, can we have good, happy healthy lives without religion? Yes, I believe we can. In fact, a cursory evaluation of history would suggest that religion is actually counterproductive to good, happy, healthy lives.

    So, if this were so, and human beings cling to religion tenaciously nonetheless, wouldn’t such tenacity arise from a hard-wired truth regarding the spiritual component of humans, namely, that a belief in non-material influences upon the world (and our lives) exist because the influences themselves exist?

    I don’t know, and don’t expect to find out any time soon.

    • Sarah says:

      Why do religions persist… it’s an interesting question. I imagine most believers, though, do think religion is good for them. 😉

      I think I resisted the rationalisation of my beliefs for a long time because (1) I was afraid God would send me to hell if I couldn’t believe in him, (2) I knew my marriage wouldn’t work out if I didn’t believe, and (3) I felt if I stopped believing in God/religion there would be a void in my life. I was very drawn to religion and felt it had good things to offer me.

  2. Lorri Scilini says:

    “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. ”

    Thanks for starting my day with a major fit of laughter. I’ve never, ever heard it expressed any better. LOVE it! 🙂

  3. Achelois says:

    Brilliant post Sarah! I really enjoy reading your thoughts on religion.

    I guess there must have been some time in history when people were both good and didn’t have religion; a time when God wasn’t invented (according to the skeptics). But religion has been around for so long that if one day it is proved that there is no God, I wonder if we would not suddenly end the world with anarchy upon such a revelation! Religion is more powerful than politics or the crown, both of which have been established often through playing the card of religion. There are millions of people who are only good because they fear God, and there are millions who are bad and evil because they believe that is what God wants.

    “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.”

    Ditto!

    • Sarah says:

      I think religion is as old as humanity. I think religion was (at least partly) our way of explaining a lot of things, before we had natural, scientific explanations. And it was only natural for people to imagine personal explanations – i.e. gods. We tend to see everything through the lens of our personal experience. Lightning storms were caused by someone being angry because that was what we could readily relate to and imagine.

  4. Religion ,like each linear dogma, assumes that humans have to progress to be”good “.The old neoplatonist “soul/animal” division.
    Bad news to them….the human is NATURALLY good and caring (newest researches demonstrate it even neurologically).
    So enough of the fire stater starting the neurose by “nice(nescius/ignorant) humiliation to cure her.
    High time to trust into the human potential to make sense with his senses.

  5. Religion is relatively recent human creation , not a “must” to explain the world and has been replaced over the century’s through more valid ways of interpretation of inner and outside and interactive phenomena’s.
    Neglecting the devastating impact of religious doctrines on humanity in history and only “keeping the good”, is participative avoidance non assuming that religion is not alive spirituality, but since ever about a go between clergy’s instrumenting human needs for the own power greed. The wish to remain into an immature existential point of view out of “safety” can affect not only the individual but his community forced to “believe” to “fit in”, specially in country’s still lost in feudal bigot mannerism.

    • Sarah says:

      Recent research has shown that religion goes a lot further back in human history than was previously thought: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/02/18/history-in-the-remaking.html

      Religion served authoritative power structures, yes, and it is set up to ensure its own survival by requiring to be passed on to the next generation on threat of hellfire… it evolved to succeed just like any organism, not necessary at the benefit of religious people themselves… but like I said, I think it is a mixed bag and it does have benefits for people too. I don’t underestimate the creative potential of people to turn it into something that benefits them, either.

  6. Why not simply accepting the human spirituality in her “non religious”individual/interconnected form?
    Why this need to refer to some external authority& dogma system to struggle with?
    Existential angst of “non belonging” to a clan?

    • Sarah says:

      I think individual spirituality (for example, superstitions) can be just as dangerous as external authority and dogma systems. Accepting anything on a subjective basis is risky. I no longer accept anything on a subjective basis, and I feel this is better for me, but I simply recognise that there *are* benefits to subjective beliefs. Life is not black and white. 🙂

  7. Superstitions is mostly a collective myth shared and co mutually confirming.
    So you consider religion as being “objective”? It s a bit like the mistrust towards the human nature assuming that neuroses are forever in the human nature who needs “control” to be society supportive.The old mistrust towards the “wild” unconscious.
    I mistrust those assuming that the human potential to make sense with his senses needs “control”to be lead to “goodness”.

    • Sarah says:

      So you consider religion as being “objective”?

      No. Superstition and religious beliefs are all subjective. Incase I haven’t made it completely clear, I am not religious myself at this time, and have no desire to be, but I am trying to take an unbiased view of religion and its effects. It seems to me that while religion causes or exacerbates a lot of problems, beliefs can be helpful to people in other ways, like in the article on superstitions that I linked to. I am not saying that people should be religious.

      I already agreed with your point about humans being naturally good, too, when you made the same point in an earlier comment. It seems like you are determined to have an argument with me! 🙂 Perhaps you should find a religious person to debate with…

  8. I have a argument with you considering that it does not get clear to me why you cling to any “goodness” of religion, what appears to me like the good old bourgeois fear of trusting truly the human unconscious and still having in mind that for “good reasons” a little bit of “spiritual immaturity” is still a must.If I don’t get it right, please share what you truly mean by this “goodness”.By the way, I am not an atheist who appear to be the same zealot pious other side of the coin to religion, so assuming I have to “fight a religious” person is not help full in OUR debate. I am only very critical about the society project the middle class seems inclined too, who never gets to the ground of violence thus keeping it all “nice”(nescius/ignorant) . What do you want to keep and what do you want to get rid of? Only asking for clarity!

    • Sarah says:

      My view has been very much influenced by the ideas expressed in this video (which I recommend, it is truly very interesting). I am a liberal; I tend to trust humans to mostly be good without threat of punishment, I think freedom of conscience and reason is generally the safest option; if everyone gave up religion and external truth authority, I wouldn’t be protesting… but I also accept that perhaps traditional authority structures can be an important component of a functioning society. Perhaps they evolved for a reason. Reality is complicated and I don’t think there are any simple ideals that would bring a utopia.

      I am only very critical about the society project the middle class seems inclined too, who never gets to the ground of violence thus keeping it all “nice”

      Perhaps I have been misunderstanding your objections; I’m not so familiar with the society project you are referring to. But I think I understand. And the relationship between religion and violence is something I often think about and am happy to discuss because I am not sure what I think.

      I think the refusal or inability to empathise is probably a necessary condition for violence in the name of religion. In that sense, the violence can be blamed on psychological problems rather than on the religious belief itself.

      But on the other hand, if the ideology that a person subscribes to wouldn’t permit violence, and if it would promote empathy for all, then religious violence would be much less likely to happen. Buddhism is perhaps the religion that comes closest to this, and Buddhist groups in the world do seem on average to be more peaceful than groups from some other religions. So I think the nature of the ideology may be an important factor too. And as we know, the Abrahamic faiths espouse a violent tribalism to some degree.

      I like to think that most people don’t get their morality in a fundamental way from their ideology. They get it mostly from their culture and their upbringing and their own conscience. This makes me not want to challenge ideologies, because they are not problematic in people who use reason and compassion. I don’t think that religion is harming those people, and I don’t have the conviction or the heart to say that it is bad and that they should give it up. That would be hurtful and offensive to them. However, given that the tendency towards fundamentalism exists in some portion of the population, the nature of the ideology becomes very relevant in the hands of that fundamentalist minority. And so an ideology that can easily be construed to be encouraging violence is really a disaster waiting to happen. Because of this risk, I would certainly not be happy if I had children to have them raised to believe in such an ideology. Even if I think I could teach them to be good people, I wouldn’t like to take the risk of them surrendering their minds to an authority which may not have the best things to teach them. Even if it is a small risk, to me it is just not worth it. The risks outweigh any possible benefit in my mind.

      But I realise that for others, there may be benefits they experience which would make it worth the risk. It is easy for most of us in the modern developed world to live a happy and meaningful life without religious beliefs, but in places where people suffer real hardship, religion thrives, presumably because it offers them psychological support. Because I have not experienced such hardship, I don’t want to say that those people would definitely be better off without any religious beliefs – how can I know that?

      I also find it hard to criticise those who choose to keep the “nice” parts of religion, or choose a nice interpretation, because most probably it will work OK for them and their children too. It is just a small percentage for whom it will lead to violence. On the scale of the whole society, is it better to have the small benefits of religion and traditional authority structures with the small risk of fundamentalist violence, or is it better to throw it all away? I don’t know… if it were up to me, I’d throw it away and invent a new and extremely empathic religion for those that need religion, but it doesn’t work like that. 🙂

  9. Thank you to have take your time to reformulate your thoughts. I might surprise you , that I fight against “organised” religiosity because of 1) my own spiritual experience who contradicts totally the dualism created by the anti humanist responsible “humble child”postulate of ALL religions who by definition re-ligare(reconnect) something who was never disconnected, for specific power greed reasons of domination upon the human, 2) having seen the devastating effect on the psyche of so many I was helping to overcome their neurotic structures ,3) my awareness of religion history, who describes a very worldly matter, and immunise me against easy cliches like “buddhists are peacefull”(the amount of wars, power struggle violence inside the clergy and feudal determinism is not less violent than “our” religious “side effects”, not to mention the actual use of “buddhism”or other “religious renaissance” to avoid handling the drastic evidence of a globally devastating turbo capitalism and a middle class “losing ground” in it through a neocolonial projection on “faraway paradieses (mostly countrys full of corruption ans class apartheid..how comes!) and golden country club of holiness worship belonging pride. 4) searching shelter under paternalist projections might appear first as a “good choice” but history should have teach us the danger of such a wish, and this world would be a far more safer space if people would face their existential issues instead of hoping for salvation methods of “simply believe, don’t question!”.5) Observing the factory agriculture around me, I doubt the “good shepherd” and his herd.The actual soul catchers are damaging actually in many ways, in many country’s. 6) I deeply trust into the human potential to make sense with his SENSES, a direct immanent spiritual step by step, instant by instant, human heart to human heart situation, who is damaged by controlling rules how it has to happen/and how it has to be interpretated and blooms up through a responsible freedom(not a contradiction to me, spirituality is the awareness of accepted paradoxes interacting!).7) Our neurology, who builds bridges of awareness through pleasure and curiosity, and get inflexible through control limiting “rules” how to perceive the world. 8) “safety”of the here&now trust into the human potential appears more safe to humanity, than “safety” through the humiliating mistrust of it, pointing towards his “bettering”…once!. Normally, I dislike such list, forgive me for this one.I simply tried to formulate few thoughts.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you for expanding on your reasons for being against religion. If I may summarise what I have understood from your list:

      1 – we are not separated from goodness and do not need special initiation to be “reconnected” to it
      2 – religious beliefs can have bad mental effects
      3 – religious history is worldly and often not constructive in solving problems
      4 – credulity is dangerous
      5 – power corrupts authorities
      6 – being flexible and reasoning is better than having fixed rules
      7 – religious ideas limit the progression of understanding about the world
      8 – we should trust human goodness

      I think I agree with everything on the list, actually.

      On point 2, I come across people all the time in the blogosphere who are deeply concerned that God will condemn them for questioning or doubting. When I see that, I certainly do feel like challenging the ideology. It is definitely a liberation to let go of it.

      Point 6 I think is very important – there are just no simple absolutes in morality; even rules which seem sensible can be really counter-productive if applied in a rigid and widespread way. For example despite the covering of women in Islamic cultures, men in those cultures are often less respectful towards women.

      Another very personal reason I would give for why religion is bad is that it demands to come first in a person’s life. A religious person will serve what they think their god wants even if it goes against their closest bonds of human loyalty. The only other phenomenon that competes with a relationship for loyalty is addiction!!

      I very much agree with these statements:

      this world would be a far more safer space if people would face their existential issues instead of hoping for salvation methods of “simply believe, don’t question!”

      spirituality is the awareness of accepted paradoxes interacting!

      You make it sound as if it is enjoyable to accept that there are no easy answers. I usually focus on how difficult it can be to let go of comforting certainties and answers, but you’re right, it is an amazing and inspiring thing to recognise what a mystery existence is. At the very least, it feels profoundly honest to do so.

      This evening I went to hear a talk by Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar’s number). He mentioned religion and said that the power greed only starts when the religion becomes large. I’m not sure that is necessarily true… there are small cults run by dictator prophets… but he said that it is mostly about the shared rituals producing endorphins and a bonding experience. In communities of around 150 people such as the Amish communities, it can function really well and there is no need for law enforcement to maintain good behaviour; peer pressure within the community is enough to make people be good. I suppose it doesn’t need to involve religion, these effects could be produced by other means. But in the end I recognise that there is some goodness in some aspects of religion; it would be dishonest to deny that. Perhaps, though, I am being dishonest by not fully acknowledging all the problems I have with religion, too. Perhaps I am just being cowardly.

      Thanks for an interesting discussion. 🙂

  10. susanne430 says:

    Enjoyed the post although I forgot anything I might have added while skimming the comments. 🙂

  11. Sarah, you might find it funny that I have friends who are still “into religion”, but I assume their “goodness” of being theirs in our shared life.I might be less doctrinal as I sound, but as my mother(both religious “side” of our family in the Seine red of blood at the St.Bartholomew night!) would have put it…the spirit is in the wood too. But I am sure that our next step as humanity is to mature up to self responsibility after the disastrous failing of all hierarchical “elite” concepts. It is necessary on many levels, ecologically, socially, economically, politically…and spirituality.
    Strangely enough, once we make this step we find out what we truly have in common and how life makes sense on his own. Neurological researches overcomes the Smith concept of greed as primal motivations and find out that the most humans knows that caring for other is “good” for themselves.It was, is and will always be our natural surviving optimum. I trust that looking under the surface is bringing light, like let say…Amish’s and punishments, limitation of learning curiosity as “preserving”or group exclusion. In the moment the Dogmas and I don’t limit them to religious ideologies, neoliberal “stinktanks”can produce post modern versions of the same mental limiting crap, matters more than our human freedom to reflect, the control obsession starts and the think limitations starts (by associating with the “authority”, the pseudo “humble” creature retrojects her own omnipotence fantasy and feels the superior right to impose it to other “for their best”…just a little inside into the psychological game. The way to hell is paved with good intentions, and may I ad, the way to heaven is a mistrust in our common ground. Thanks too for our shared debate.

  12. Pingback: Authority, submission, and self-responsibility | Meaning and Truth

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