Monday, May 13, 2013

the psychological payoffs of religion

Religion fills an intriguing niche in human knowledge. Its propositions are accepted despite an objective lack of effective rationales and results. Especially to an unbiased observer who examines every "experimental trial" without the aid of evasive excuses, the tangible impact of religious belief appears to be either indiscernible, ambiguous, or coincidental. Religion's material payoff is unreliable if not worthless. So it raises the question of why anyone pays its great costs.  Two immediate but uninteresting answers are belief by force, due to societal coercion, and belief by habit, due to intellectual inertia or indifference. However, it's obvious that not all followers of religion fall under either of these categories.

Their beliefs must be providing substantive psychological payoffs: subjective and sometimes subtle payoffs that are indeed all in the follower's head. Many easygoing followers have more or less admitted it. Their nonchalant explanation sounds like, "I don't care whether I'm completely correct about the existence of a supernatural realm and its alleged contents. I care about the effects of the beliefs on me. I need the extra framework for my thoughts, feelings, and actions."

Thus, the propositions of religion are intriguing in another way. These entail serious discrepancies with reality yet produce real consequences within followers. In this sense, false propositions can be pragmatic for followers, as odd as that sounds. Critics miss a learning opportunity when they hastily assume the uselessness of disproved or unproved perspectives. For instance, the shift of a human brain into a meditative or prayer-like mode of operation could obtain a real psychological payoff, regardless of the dubious concept of "transcendence". Or symbolic public ceremonies could enable a social group to furnish mutual encouragement and support, regardless of the dubious concept of "worship".

On the other hand, some payoffs are detrimental. All too often, it's despicable to elevate one subgroup's self-esteem by devaluing other subgroups, or to enhance cohesion by despising nonconformity, or to promote purity by irrationally stigmatizing things or activities, or to strengthen certainty by forbidding expressions of doubt. In practice, reality is messy, and religion's degree of value is complex. Perhaps more credit should be given to humane "cultural" followers who extract some of the psychological payoffs of religion but openly deny its pretenses of infallible moral and metaphysical laws.