Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The dark side of religion

I've wanted to write this post for a long time, talking about the sneaky little tactics of cults, the way they get into your head and cause you to be more attached to their teachings than would be reasonable.  But the trouble is that many of these tactics are done by legitimate religions too.

Does every religion do all of these, all the time?  No, but most will do them at least sometimes.  Certainly the answer to many of these would be, "But Catholics aren't supposed to do things like this," but, of course, some of them do.  In some cases it's just the nature of trying to teach something religious; in others, people know it's less than rational but figure, because it's so important to win souls for God, it's justified.

So here are a few common things religions do which encourage people to stay in them even when this is not a reasoned decision:

*A teaching that authority is extremely important.  Members are told that they should readily doubt their own reason and instincts but trust their leaders absolutely.  Failure to do so is labeled as pride and disobedience, and so sincere members who see a serious problem with the teachings will stay silent out of obedience.  The cultier the group, the greater the emphasis on instant, unquestioning obedience.

*Doubt is considered potentially sinful, and belief is mandated.  Fundamentalist Protestants have a very serious problem with this, because they think salvation is from faith alone and so obviously if you have any doubt at all, your salvation is jeopardized.  But even the Catholic Church teaches that voluntarily harboring doubt, after you know that the Church teaches something, is sinful.  Either way, members feel the need to shut down lines of questioning, avoid reading things that criticize their religion, and constantly try to force themselves to believe.  No one will reach the point of reasoning their way out of a religion if they avoid even entertaining doubts.

*Beliefs about hell terrify members into staying.  Belief in hell has been shown to make people less happy, but reduce immoral behavior, just as you'd expect.  It also appears that religions with a belief in hell are better at retaining members.  And that's pretty natural -- if you believe in hell, you will continue trying to force yourself to believe long after you have a good reason to do so.  If you are 99% sure your religion is a sham, but there's the tiniest chance it could be true, fear of hell will keep you conforming.  That's the idea behind Pascal's wager -- you should always, always give religion the benefit of the doubt.  In short, religion is not required to meet the same standards as other sorts of belief.

*Former members are often shunned, and the way members talk about them is very negative: "She left because of sin in her life," "He abandoned Jesus."  When you constantly think of former members as bad people, you realize that if you left, you would be a bad person in your own eyes and the eyes of others.  You would feel guilt and shame, even if rationally you thought it wasn't justified, and you would also find friends distancing themselves from you, or even (among, say, Orthodox Jews or Amish) cutting you off altogether.

*Forcing complete commitment.  I first noticed this in boarding school, where we were constantly given the message, "If you aren't going to give this 100%, why even bother?  You're not going to get anything out of it if you are holding back anything."  Which was rather unfair because when I was first thinking of going, it was more "come and see, you don't have to commit."  They wait till you really don't want to leave, till you're attached to some parts of the group, whether beliefs, people, or practices, and then they up the ante: commit entirely, or leave.  Once I was aware of it, I caught St. Paul at it, saying "Unless Christ has been raised, your faith is in vain."  He is trying to force a decision with the doubters -- agree to believe the whole thing, as he gave it to them, or else leave.

Catholics do something similar when they say, "If you think the Church could be wrong on anything, why stay?  It's lost all credibility, so you should leave."  But when you consider doing so, they say, "If there's any truth to it at all, you should stay."  The first statement isn't actually a suggestion that anyone leave, it's just a way of using your attachment to other parts of the Catholic faith for you to buy-in to the rest.

(And yes, it makes perfect sense according to Church teaching -- either it's infallible or it's not -- but the thing is, it works to silence doubts.)

*Guilt.  In Regnum Christi, the "Jesus gave his life for you, how could you hold anything at all back from him" sermon is ubiquitous.  I thought it was just an RC thing, but our parish priest does it too.  Reflections on Jesus' passion are often all about wringing the people's emotions and getting them to agree to greater levels of commitment than they may have been willing to otherwise.  That's why they rank up there with sermons about hell as the most persuasive and effective sermons -- as well as the most emotionally manipulative ones, the most likely to get people to ignore their own boundaries.

*Separation from outsiders.  In some cases, people will be told in so many words not to associate with unbelievers, or else only to do so to evangelize them -- which amounts to the same thing, since most people don't want to be evangelized.  In others, subtle differences in the lifestyle of insiders and outsiders (not drinking alcohol, having lots of kids, etc.) may naturally guide insiders to primarily associate with other believers.  This has two effects: first, it keeps members from being exposed to other viewpoints, and second, it means that a person feels that they would lose all their friends if they fell away from their religion.

*Judgment of outsiders.  "The world" is full of people who are terrible sinners.  These nonbelievers are described as immoral, sleeping around, killing babies, whatever will provoke a reaction among believers.  In boarding school I was told that kids at regular high schools were all doing drugs and hooking up.  Of course exposure to real-life outsiders can come as a surprise, and with repeated exposure you find members of your own religion aren't always better than outsiders.

*Fear.  This ties in with many others.  The assumption is that you'd better watch out for irreligious books, movies, friends, ideas, and so forth because they will cause you to lose your faith (or, in Regnum Christi, your vocation).  This seems to contradict the idea that the religion itself is rational and provable -- because if it were, further exposure to outside ideas would only strengthen the obvious conclusion that the religion is true.  However, it's a simple fact that when a child is brought up with one religious and one nonreligious parent, they are likely to grow up nonreligious, and that a few nonreligious influences seem to have a large effect on people. 

In fairness, though, I've heard atheists say that if you surround yourself with religious people, you run the risk of adopting their ideas.  It's just that humans really are influenced by each other, more than you might think.  But it seems to me one is most likely to discover the truth (if that's a goal) by exposing oneself to a variety of opinions and trying to compare and contrast them.  Fear makes it impossible to do this; you cede the field immediately, as if assuming from the outset that your beliefs could not compete rationally with others.

*Seemingly meaningless rules.  Religions with lots of rules suffer less attrition than those with fewer.  But it's not so simple as "people like a challenge."  Instead, it seems to me that abiding by rules like "no alcohol," "cover your head," or "don't eat meat on Fridays" have a number of results.  They bind you more closely to others doing the same thing, while causing you to seem a little weird and set apart from outsiders.

In addition, every time you reaffirm your beliefs by abiding to one of these rules -- rules no one outside your religion follows -- you strengthen your commitment.  You'll be less likely to leave because of the sunk-cost fallacy -- you don't want all that effort you put in to be wasted.

*There are levels of commitment, from those who are only nominally members to those who are extremely committed.  Even if the inner circle displays some problems, you can always point to the outer circle and say, "See, it can't be so bad because these people aren't having problems."  The trouble is, there is a pressure inside the group to move from the outside in, because why be a little bit committed if it's better to be all committed?  Easygoing personalities may live quite happily on the margins their whole lives, while intenser people (like me!) find themselves thinking, "If it's good to pray five minutes a day, it's better to pray an hour a day.  If it's good to go to confession once a month, it's better to go twice a week.  Jesus said I should hate everything for him, so I should give away all my money and join a monastery."

Responsible religious leaders will constantly have to remind about balance -- but it does raise the question, if this is so good, why do we need constant vigilance about not doing it too much?  There's a slogan, "If your religion has a problem with fundamentalists, maybe there's a problem with its fundamentals."  When a religion has verses or doctrines which would be problematic if you seriously tried to follow them, that still matters even if most people don't seriously try to follow them.

 There are surely many more, but these are the ones I notice most often.

So what am I saying?  That religion is bad because it does these things?  Not at all; I think religions have to do them in order to bind people together as they mean to do.  You don't get all the things on last post's list if you don't have the things on this list.

However, it does give the lie to the idea that believers remain in their religions because they are true.  Clearly a maximum of one religion can be true; billions of people remain their entire lives in religions which are false.  Why would they do that?  Well, because religion doesn't rely on rational proofs entirely; it relies on tactics like those listed above.

A religion could be true despite these, but if it does them, it can't claim to be true on the basis of "x number of believers can't be wrong."  With tactics like these, they certainly could; and in fact, most believers must be, given the multiplicity of religions.  Yes, this is my "theory of error," just as I described a few posts ago -- people who believe in false religions are neither stupid nor evil, but in the thrall of a system which makes rational consideration difficult.  If you don't like it, obviously you can stop going along with it.  Some religious people do, although my own experience suggests that shortly after they do, they leave their religion or at least reduce their commitment to it.  The choice is entirely up to you.


Enbrethiliel said...


What you've written here overlaps uncannily with the topic of a post that I have been working on for a while. It was influenced by what we have been discussing; and since I can't un-read this post, the final draft will have shades of that, too. I'm going to wait until July to post it (because we're running out of days in May, it has to come out on a Thursday, and all the Thursdays of June are already reserved for my giveaway, which you are cordially invited to join); but here's a heads up because it's relevant: the post is a Reading Diary entry on a book about marketing that argues that we are never 100% rational when making a decision. It's an impossible ideal because, as he found out through brain scan studies, we're simply not wired for it.

When I read that, I found it fascinating because it seemed to suggest that if a religion were really true, a God Who wanted us to believe it would have made sure there were as many irrational reasons to believe as rational reasons. Everything you mention here is a feature rather than a bug--and a feature of human nature as much as of religion. This doesn't mean they won't ever be abused, as they clearly have been--by people making idols out of themselves . . . or marketers making idols out of brands! But they were part of the natural order of things before they ever became tactics.

Sheila said...

Yes, they're completely natural -- but there's a world of difference between "I always use this brand because it reminds me of my mother" and "I can get people to buy my product if I can convince them their favorite sports star uses it." One is a natural emotional reaction, the other is deliberately forced. And neither one encourages a person to buy the better brand!

That's the thing -- when it comes to finding out about external reality (as opposed to finding out what you want, or what choices will make you happy) reason is a heck of a lot better at finding out what reality is actually like than emotions, subliminal preferences, and so forth. All of these tactics I mentioned are truth-independent -- they would be likely to get a person to believe *whether or not* something is true! I have an emotional attachment to the hymns I learned growing up, but I would feel exactly the same way if I'd grown up singing hymns to Satan. So it's not really good evidence!

And to say "no one's 100% rational" is obvious, but it doesn't follow that we shouldn't even try to be rational, that reason isn't a good way to find stuff out, or that it's a good thing to just pick what feels best. It's possible to try to correct for your biases and to make more rational choices than you might naturally do, and it seems undeniable that if you did that, you'd be more likely to find the truth. With your brand of dish soap, it doesn't really matter and you can spend a buck more for the warm fuzzies of having your kitchen smell like your mother's, but whenever you really NEED to know what reality is like, reason is the tool most likely to help you.

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