Religion is a predator, preying on the young, the old, and the cognitively infirm. Is this a good analogy for the workings of religion?

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Analogies are often tenuous, stretched to the point of breaking. But they can also be useful in understanding phenomena and the world around us.

Indeed, a stretched analogy is like silly putty. If you stretch it slowly, it will hold together and make sense. If you stretch it quickly, it will snap apart.

That, there, is an analogy of an analogy.

Speaking of analogies, let’s talk about this one: religion is a predator.

Think of a pride of lions and a herd of antelope. What happens in nature is that the pride will opt for the easiest kill that involves the lowest amount of energy expenditure to achieve. Existence favors a higher return on investment. Investment losses, after all, result in death for the investor.

Religion works well when it hits people young. “Give me a child till he is seven years old,” said St Ignatius Loyola, “and I will show you the man.”

The kills that require the least amount of energy expenditure for the lions are the weakest and slowest—the youngest, the oldest, and the most infirm.

When we talk about religion as a predator, you can see the similarities: it preys on the young (with their innocent, naive minds), the old (with perhaps some mental deterioration of being closer to shuffling off their mortal coils), and the infirm of mind. By the latter, I? mean those who think the least critically, the unhealthiest thinkers.

Let us dwell on the young

Religion is something that is impressed upon a good many people when they are young. It is a way of bypassing the critically thinking veto system. Take Noah’s Ark and the global flood that it entails. The young child hears stories, reads picture books, sings songs, and has this story validated by parents and elders—people in authority in their community. Over and over, repeated again and again. There is almost no escaping inculcation into this belief, or certainly believing these stories.

It is not until you are older that you start being able to parse the plausible from the implausible, knowing the possible from the impossible. Now, normally, global floods and magical farmyard boats would fail the test of plausibility, and such stories would from now on. But this one is already embedded. It is part of the agent’s cultural patchwork quilt. As such, it doesn’t get the skeptical treatment it should. It bypasses the plausibility veto.

As the agent now comes across new claims from other beliefs and rightfully dismisses them, their own equally ridiculous beliefs get away from such analysis scot-free.

Religion has gripped the mind of the child in its sharp-toothed jaws.

Religion works well when it hits people young. “Give me a child till he is seven years old,” said St Ignatius Loyola, “and I will show you the man.”

And now, the old

Then we have the old and people who may be afraid of their mortality, closer to approaching the inevitability of death. To those who aren’t the most certain of atheists, there can be the need to manage this existential terror. This is well known in psychology, labeled mortality salience in the topic of terror management theory.

This is where the vehicle of the soul becomes attractive, enabling the agent to access an eternal afterlife—one that will no doubt be an existence in a neverending paradise. It enables ultimate purpose and ultimate meaning,

There is nothing greater than heaven in human conception and so it acts as the strongest of conceptual and existential bribes. As you get older, religion can prey upon your terror—your fear of dying.

Of course, this process does not happen to all children and all elderly people, in the same way that obviously many young antelope survive, and the fate of all older antelope will not be the same. Oftentimes, prides of lions are able to corner a healthy antelope.

In this analogy, “inform” implies people who can’t think critically enough. This may sound like a conceited atheist assuming he thinks critically enough while all theists fail to do so.

And, finally, the infirm

But, of course, I do think that! It’s not as if I sit here, as an atheist philosopher, believing that my thinking is completely uncritical, that I am a bad thinker! Naturally, as we all believe, I think I am right and that my rightness is based upon my critical thinking faculties. It is not conceit, it is how we all think.

I believe I have good evidence to think that I have thought more critically than most religious people. Hence my volumes of writing and hours of video output.

So those whom I think have poor critical thinking faculties, and who are more prone to confirmation bias and other biases, with weaker mental heuristics, are infirm in the context of religious predation.

They are ripe for the picking.

As well as outright predation in the lion-on-the-Savannah sense, there is the element of entrapment, too. With the twin bribes of heaven and hell being the strongest such concepts in human conception, religion has a lot of powerful tools at its disposal to achieve its goals. Perhaps it is the crocodile damming its own stream to create an enticing waterhole, where it can wait, under the surface, attracting the thirsty antelope to drink from its enriching waters.

As you can tell, I love a good analogy. But do you? How do you think this religion-as-predator analogy works?

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...