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Here is some of my chapter in Jonathan MS Pearce’s (ed.) recent anthology of chapters from writers here at Patheos Nonreligious (Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century) [UK here]. My chapter is “Not Seeing God in Religion”. Obviously, we implore you to get the book… The previous part to this can be found here. In this piece, we continue to look at core aspects of the psychology of religion. In order to move past God, we must understand what the idea of God might do for us.

I just feel that I’m right

Other entries in this volume have mentioned Kahneman’s (2003[1]) Emotional (System 1) path, which is quick, intuitive, associative and in most cases good enough; and Reasoning (System 2) path, which is slower, sometimes counter-intuitive, rule-based, but more likely to land on a better answer. Religion is the reliance on intuitively satisfying, non-specialist consensus (System 1). Science is the reliance on engaging with the facts of the matter in a deliberate and concentrated way (System 2). A complication of this admitted over-generalization is that theology and apologetics are the application of System 2 reasoning to justifying System 1 conclusions. Meanwhile, a specialist in a complicated topic (requiring the use of System 2) may well have flashes of creative intuition (System 1).

The object of belief in religion seems to be the incompletely abstracted, still somewhat anthropomorphic (and thus supernatural) explanation. It is easier to accept these human-shaped explanations because we are human-shaped, so they slot more easily into our cognitive make-up. Kahneman calls the feeling of rightness due to the ease with which the features of an explanation can be accepted, cognitive ease. This feeling can be caused by features of an idea that have nothing to do with being right, and everything to do with how often one is exposed to the relevant features of the idea (and we’re exposed to being human daily).

As you might imagine, in light of all of this, I see the idea of a post-religious society as unlikely, in part because, with no firm definition of what “religion” in fact is, the concept of post-religiousness is meaningless; and in part because Believing, Bonding, Behaving, and Belonging, whilst eminently descriptive of religion, is also descriptive of virtually all social undertakings.

Believing, Bonding, Behaving, and Belonging

In his original paper, Saroglou seeks to illustrate that religion is unique by noting other social phenomena that involve some combination of believing, bonding, behaving, and belonging, but not all four. I suggest that whilst his examples might seem to be accurate, any missing element in each may merely be less explicit, rather than missing (much like the “god” of karma). He gives philosophical systems as an example—like religion, there is an interest in existential claims, possibly impacting morality, but unlike religion there is no emotional/ritual dimension, no bonding. I would suggest that spirited intellectual debate is a form of bonding. It is quite ritualized, or formalized, if you prefer, and it is a means of not only affirming one’s beliefs/values as it relates to the given philosophical system, but also seeks to remove a point of disagreement about the system itself between two adherents (or an adherent and an a opponent).

But who is it that does the Believing, Bonding, Behaving, and Belonging, regardless of whether it is religions or philosophical systems?

The Other Holy Trinity – Me, Myself, and I

A very important, and I think under-discussed, aspect of the psychology of theism is how the understanding of the self impacts upon the fact and quality of belief (and not just because of cognitive ease). One obvious trinity of selves that we all have is what we believe about ourselves, what we aspire to be, and the reality of our “selves.” It is ironic that the third image is the one we don’t (and probably can’t) know. For a number of Christians, the idealized self is expressed as the desire to be “Christ-like.” If you happen to believe in the “fallen” nature of human existence, then you probably have a far more negative view of your present self than other (non-believing) people do. If you aspire to being “Christ-like” and believe in your fallen nature, you must necessarily see the difference between your present self and your ideal self as insurmountable (so it’s just as well that you probably also believe in miracles).

It is interesting to note that many people view their future self in idealized terms (whether as “Christ-like” or not) and, importantly, as someone who is not them. This is why we offload the need for better behavior to our idealized selves (in some future time, when we are more Christ-like). If, six months ago, I “planned” to write one chapter of my own book, each month for the following twelve months, and to date I’ve written none (this is true), the normal response to this failure would be to literally double down on the original “plan” and assign my idealized self the task of now writing two chapters a month in the remaining six months. In other words, I remain committed to the decision of my past self—a self who did not have access to the knowledge that I would fail to write any chapters in the intervening months (of course, it also wasn’t privy to the knowledge that I would write this chapter in less than twelve hours of concentrated effort).

To assume that a person that has not so far engaged in a desired behavior will suddenly do so, and at double the intensity, is irrational. Acceptance of my failure and a revised plan to write an outline and make some notes in the next month is more achievable, and less daunting. To do this, however, would be to update my beliefs about myself, and particularly my idealized self, in accordance with the demonstrated, if somewhat confusing, facts of the matter. This is a process that Carl Rogers spoke of as self-actualization—improving yourself in accordance with your beliefs about yourself—and it is antithetical to a desire to be “Christ-like.” Christ is an externality imposed upon you, and as such does not reflect the internal reality of you as an individual, and it is unable to be updated in response to new data. If you also view yourself as fallen, then what you believe about yourself will not change much, regardless of the success in approaching the stated goal of being Christ-like (whatever that means).

[1] Kahneman, D. (2003). “A perspective on judgment and choice: mapping bounded rationality.” American Psychologist58(9), 697-720.

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