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Monday, August 25, 2008

Superstition and Religion

During an email exchange discussing the value and importance of religion, a friend of mine suggested that superstition might be a vital part of how our minds work.

I agree, in the sense that superstitions are most likely an inevitable product of our cognitive machinery. But there is a big difference between religion and superstition.

Like religion, superstitions are a blend of rational and irrational behavior. Consider the belief that you are more likely to win a baseball game if you are wearing your lucky underwear. If you invest enough energy into that belief, then you are probably more likely to be nervous and make mistakes if you are not wearing your lucky underwear. So the belief is true, even though it was wholly fabricated in your mind.

But the superstition was born from an error, and the failure to recognize that can be damning. The error happened when you first attributed one of your successes to your underwear, and then decided that you had better wear the same underwear for every game. That highly questionable judgment is what established the superstition in the first place.

There is a chance that the underwear played a part in your initial success. But if you focus on that to the exclusion of more likely influences (like training, skill, preparation, etc.), you will no longer be working towards your aims. You will be courting irrationality, and will likely end up cursing yourself. Consider the dilemma you will face if your lucky underwear gets destroyed in a fire.

I think we are inclined towards superstitions because of two related aspects of our cognitive machinery:

1. As beings that rely on pattern-recognition with limited resources (including time) to make judgments about the world, we do not rely on proof to form conclusions about cause-effect relationships. We instead make judgments because they work in the moment, and later revise them when the need arises.

2. Our success as actors in the world depends on our ability to establish a certain degree of confidence in our ability to control the world around us. Yet, we often lack control and cannot fully grasp all of the factors that influence our fate. Thus, we try to explain our successes and failures as being within our control for arbitrary reasons (wearing lucky underwear, pinching salt, etc.).

We sometimes make irrational judgments about cause-effect relationships (“I won because I was wearing my lucky underwear”) when our desire for a confidence-builder outweighs our interest in rationally analyzing the situation.

This is natural, and many superstitions probably don't have a negative effect on our lives at all. They give us a little comfort and we don't take them too seriously, so nobody gets hurt.

The point is, if we don't know how to recognize superstitions for what they are, we risk being their victims when they turn against us.

But let’s get back to religion. Superstitions are not religions. Religions are much bigger and more powerful. Religions regulate all kinds of personal and social behavior. They are partly born from the same psychological elements that are responsible for superstitions, and they involve superstitions; but they are ultimately more than just superstitions.

Religions introduce a new element which is not covered by the two psychological mechanisms I mentioned above. Religions do not simply offer us a way of gaining a sense of confidence in our ability to control our own fates. They do that, of course. But they also allow us to regard the world as being ultimately out of our control, and for a very good reason: God’s absolute goodness.

God’s absolute goodness is the greatest security blanket one could imagine. It’s security times infinity. So long as you follow the rules set forward in your religion (or, in some cases, simply make a deathbed conversion), you will enjoy an eternity of bliss with the ultimate Cause of all that is, was, and shall be. It doesn’t matter how many bad things happen. Your inability to control the world is just a part of the plan. All that suffering is there to teach you how to be a better person. Don’t worry about it if you can’t understand it. You’re not supposed to understand it. Just follow the rules, and you’ll go to heaven.

It’s a nice story, way more powerful than a mere superstition. It’s the kind of thing people are happy to die for.

Incidentally, I often wonder just how much people really believe in their religious beliefs. If people really believe that their recently departed loved one is waiting for them in heaven, why do they cry? Shouldn’t they celebrate with joy and excitement? Shouldn’t they feel jealous that they’re not enjoying all that wonderful bliss yet?

Perhaps they think they should celebrate and be happy, but their dispicable flesh is designed to feel bad. So it’s all a big obstacle God has placed to make their lives more difficult. Perhaps God designed us to suffer at the loss of our loved ones, because that creates a new temptation for us to overcome—a new way to prove our love and devotion to Him. See, when we suffer at the loss of a loved one, our bodies are trying to make us feel more attached to this mortal coil. So we have to try harder to connect with God. It’s all part of God’s cunning plan to make us work for our salvation.

Of course, most people don’t try to explain the incongruities between their lived experience and their religious beliefs. They just believe. This creates a world in which people fail to understand their own feelings, fail to understand their place in the world, and fail to recognize the inability of their beliefs to make sense of their lives.

Let’s face it. Religious beliefs don’t make sense of our lives. They are designed to not make sense. They are designed to lead us to that point where the only answer is, “God’s absolute goodness is beyond human comprehension.” They give us the security of sense without having to do the actual work.

And some say that's good, we should be happy we have religions, because people need the security. Apparently they think sense is overrated.

The distinction between superstition and religion is pretty clear now, I think. Superstitions are small, and they are falsifiable. We can test the proposition that a pair of underwear is responsible for good baseball. We can empirically determine whether or not pinching salt makes a difference in our lives. Superstitions are relatively innocuous, because they can be easily controlled and discarded with rational reflection.

Religious belief, however, has a built-in mechanism to evade rational reflection. For this reason, it is much more dangerous than mere superstitions. Since religions are much bigger than superstitions, and since they offer much more than what is offered by superstitions, religions are that much more powerful. So their potential for harm is that much scarier.