Sunday, 24 December 2017

On Religion At Yule-Tide

Some social scientific estimates suggest that up to 84% of the world’s population are members of religious groups or claim that religion is important in their lives (two very different things). We can draw three general conclusions from this: 

  • A very large number of people are 'stuck' in religion because of inherited religious structures even when religion is not actually important in their lives. Some might actively do with some support in becoming liberated from the communitarian power of religion and it is ironic that right-wing Christians often want to 'liberate' Muslims without seeing the mote in their Southern Baptist eye.
  • A very large number of people have unstable 'selves' (we explain this further below) or are hard wired into a faith-based view of the world: the rest of us are going to have to contain (preferably) or accommodate such people from a position of relative cultural weakness.
  • Those who are both free of religion and free from religion are a minority about the size of (say) other 'historically deviant' minorities such as the gay community, once violently oppressed (we think of Giordano Bruno), then pushed to the margins and then having to put up with the dead weight of a past dominated by the narratives of their former persecutors.

The logic of all this is that those who are free in both senses (free of religion and free from religion) might need not to be so soft in accommodating an unstable, hard-wired bunch of true believers. The latter hold the high ground here, despite over three centuries of steady scientific and political progress, and are quite capable of misusing their position given half a chance.

Accommodation really ought to be replaced with containment. Those of our 'brothers and sisters' who are not hard-wired to faith and don't think religion is important may need to be actively liberated through propaganda and perhaps political action given the dominance of the hard-wired believer and the religious conformist.

A tougher stand on accommodation does not mean the counter-oppression of soft or different minds, just a re-balancing of culture so that people can choose what they need for their own psychic security completely free from enforced and historic social and cultural pressures or the need for order as some theocratic-backed ruling caste defines matters. Another corollary of a tougher stand is support for the idea that education should be about encouraging internally resourced psychic security and so have this taken out of the hands of those offering only external psychic security and, so, psychic dependency. 

And here we have a secularist action plan of sorts - a dismantling of communitarian religio-cultural structures, containment of spiritual and ideological types (both those advocating our beholdness to the external and those advocating the non-existence of the personality or self) and a shift of education back to the centre ground between faith-based and non-faith-based personalities ... so that young people (as well as those engaged in life-long learning) are enabled to make private choices about their own best bet psychic survival mechanisms. 

Such mechanisms may reasonably include belief (assuming a state of freedom to choose beliefs consciously or sub-consciously) in any sort of nonsense that serves a personality's purpose. The strong-minded, those grounded in material reality, have perhaps become too soft in their instinctive tolerance.

Obedience & Marginality

This matters because psychological research shows that if you remind someone (most people) of 'God' then that person tends to become more socially obedient. It is pointed out in favour of religion that this orientation towards obedience is so great that, when religion is disposed of, it is simply replaced by cults of the State and the Leader (conformitarian constitutionalism as in the US and EU, fascism and Stalinism). 

There is some truth in this but only because religion is removed suddenly without the prior work required to undermine the culture of obedience through practice, persuasion, example and education. It is, therefore and against the prevailing narrative of liberal intellectuals, not an argument for religion but an argument against religion for having permitted the culture of obedience to embed itself in the social in the first place - understandable perhaps in managing resource-poor societies but scarcely justifiable today.

The fact that social and economic instability inclines people much more towards faith-based analyses tells us that religion is very much associated with social and economic anxiety. The best way ((in theory) to eliminate faith's hold on people is not only to educate but to educate within a context of order and economic prosperity. 

Secularists' primary concern should be to resist the religious moral praise for poverty and community and drive society forwards towards maximum satisfaction of needs and (within reason) wants whether in capitalist or socialist terms (the method is irrelevant so long as total prosperity is enhanced and order maintained). Low growth 'green' politics is, for example, a natural vector for the introduction of faith-based solutions to problems and is deeply conservative.

The same applies to 'marginality'. Religion has always provided security to marginal communities and it gets reintroduced in more fundamentalist and despairing ways (as in the Ghost Dance phenomenon amongst the defeated Sioux) under extreme stress. It could be argued that radical Islamism arises out of marginalisation, defeat and relative poverty as much as ideology, an ideology actually not really any more irrational in itself than evangelical Christianity and Eretz Israel. 

If we want to weaken religion's hold on free people, we have to deal with these marginal cases which have a dangerous tendency to embed their survival models in later and more prosperous generations, albeit in an attenuated form. There are people still 'religiously' and without serious internalised faith going to mass on Sundays because Irish famine refugees in their family pasts brought a strengthened peasant Catholicism into host countries that allows even today Cardinals to claim informal powers over education and social mores. 

Any strategy of reason is going to have to deal with marginality as soon as it appears - either by keeping marginality out of the main community in the first place (so as not to have Islamist and Pentecostalist problems in the future) or requiring conformity with host values as a condition for inclusion (I can hear the rage of post-modern liberals mounting at that suggestion). We must ensure that such people (especially the young) do not remain marginal for long and can escape from their communities of that is what they want.

The Psychology of God-Things & Wobbly Minds

But it is the psychology of the God-thing (and the God-thing is, of course not the only manifestation of religion) that is most interesting because even if we had absolute prosperity and no marginality, religion would always reappear because of something we can do nothing about - which is the fragility of some people's relationship to other minds and their wobbly inability to see a clear distinction between their own subjectivity and that of others and then that of all others to all other others. 

This wobbliness results in the imputation of mind to things (in fact, for all the protestations to the contrary, other humans become just other things and, if so, so why should not non-human things have minds). This can then proceed to an unwarranted imputation of mind to all-things taken as a whole (that is, universally). 

The religious person is not interested in general in the alternative subjectivity of the other. They ask no questions of the other except within a framework of conformity to pre-set narratives and codes. The other becomes a person only insofar as they are defined as a person (in a way that invents an equality of all non-subjectivities) within a particular pre-set narrative. 

This mind-set has transferred itself to contemporary non-religious ideology and created revealing paradoxes so that, for example, the feminist who targets fellow human beings as objectified and objectifiers has actually objectified both herself or himself instead of allowing both the dignity of speaking for themselves and being permitted free choices. Religion is derivative of the psychological problem rather than cause of it.

There is little that can be done about this because having wobbly minds is embedded in all humanity. There are, of course, degrees of wobbliness and none of us is free of it. It was inherent in the evolutionary process itself. Anyone who would seek to make the human mind universally un-wobbly is really asking for us to cease to be human which is neither necessary nor helpful. 

Indeed, radical negativity towards the wobbliness of human minds is always a form of radical wobbliness in its own right - an inability to accept human reality, a drift towards an abstract universalism as absurd as the God-thing. It is yet another form of mental instability arising out of personalities disconnected from observable material reality (worse, when, from purely intellectual speculation, such mental instability denies the very existence of personality).

The projection of mind onto a social world of resource scarcity is the source code of religion. Removing resource scarcity and the culture of obedience that derives from it can only culturally re-balance humanity towards liberation from the irrational as part of our social and material condition but the projection of mind onto materiality itself is not a solvable issue. It is not even necessarily desirable (for the bulk of humanity) since the projection is an intrinsic part of many people's ability to survive in the world.

Brain and Religion

Increasingly neuroscientists are accepting that this projection function is hard-wired into the brain, whether genetically predetermined or emergent from social interaction with others predisposed to belief. The genetic component is anecdotally confirmed by the many testimonies of totally atheist persons whose atheism was recognised as an absolute personal fact on the ground (a disposition) early in life despite highly religious family environments - the reverse is likely to be the case with 'spiritual' types emerging regardless of rationalist and pragmatic parents. 

It is just as grim for deeply religious parents to have an atheist child as it is for atheists to find that their son or daughter believes in the Second Coming. The trauma can be greater than for parents who find their child is gay or transgender because a sexual disposition is less threatening to their own identity.

The genetic component may make having rational or faith-based children a bit of a lottery with a consequent tendency to try to force such children into communitarian modes of being that are grossly unfair and limiting (on both sides). The point here is not whether there is a God or not but how a belief in God (or not) represents the true inner nature of a person as a function of their brain structures. 

Few modern religious people would make the claim today that they can prove the existence of God on material evidence. Even reliance on revealed texts is fairly lightly held among the majority. Yet that does not stop belief despite believers often being highly educated, intelligent and functionally effective in every other way ... so long as they are allowed their belief. People will die for their beliefs because the belief is who they are. 

The negative detached view of this as a 'mere' psychic survival mechanism (to the extent that bodily survival may be abandoned if the psyche is threatened) is irrelevant and circular. If believing a non-provable proposition ensures psychic survival and affirms identity, then it is functionally useful. End of argument.

However, it is important to understand that there is no actual God-spot in the brain ... this capacity for belief or faith arises out of a general perception of reality, of the relationship between mind and matter. Let us take brain aspects of the case ...

  • The medial prefrontal cortex-together with the temporopolar region, temporoparietal junction and precuneus are strongly associated with our ability and tendency to figure out other people’s thoughts and feelings. These regions of the brain are particularly active among religious believers, especially when they are praying. This suggests that religious activities involve processes related to the 'flow' of managing the difficulty of dealing with other minds. It is as if other minds cannot be seen as separated but must be integrated into the observing mind in some way. This would accord with the religious person's tendency to be more communitarian in general.
  • There seems to be some connection between temporal lobe epilepsy and religious experiences. A few controversial attempts have been made to stimulate this part of the brain to generate religious experiences artificially but they have been inconclusive. Ecstatic religious experience (which is different from the communitarian normality involved in social religion) would seem to have its origins in the brains of some people. Non-believers in general find this (unless induced by drugs) either incomprehensible or find it rationally contained within artistic, creative or emotional experiences that are not presumed to have a meaning beyond the expression of the Self in the world.
  • And an odd one - neuro-imaging studies and studies with brain damaged patients indicate that decreased activation of the parietal cortex – particularly the right side – may be involved in religious experiences. These seem to be linked to the dissolution of the self which, of course, is also a consequence of some drug experiences and it may be at the basis of the experienced rather than rational interest in dissolution of the self in post-Wittgensteinian and post-modern philosophy. 

This last is of great cultural importance because as formal religion declines and religious ecstatic experience is marginalised, the discourse of dissolution of the self has become more salient - to the point where it is having the precisely opposite social effect to that of communitarian 'pre-frontal cortex' shared experience. The dissolution model, rationalised for this type much as Scholastics rationalised the first type, has fragmented the social and not in ways appreciated by the rational or Enlightenment atheist.

Ritual and Anxiety
This brings us on to ritual where there are highly variable approaches to its importance and necessity. Some individuals have private habits (which may have ritualistic aspects, even to the point of being clinical as in OCD cases) but no interest in social rituals - they may not even see the point of Christmas or only see its point in restricted family contexts. Others crave mass social rituals, ranging from the comfort of Mass on Sundays to engagement with national funerals and royal weddings. 

This is just how it is but the need for private and social rituals has become embedded, perhaps appropriated by religious structures. It is these rituals that ensure that religion remains extremely 'sticky' in terms of its social survival. Ritual, also often embedded in brain structures, whether a genetic propensity or environmentally determined, also arises from deep within our evolutionary heritage. 

Ritual ensures that religion can never die but can only be contained. Once the Mexican revolutionaries and Soviets departed, the rituals, far from forgotten, returned. Any aspiration to do otherwise than contain religion is doomed to failure. Ritual is the primary mechanism for many human beings (possibly, if we include private ritual, all human beings) in dealing with a fundamental human issue - anxiety.

Anxiety is central to being human for evolutionary reasons. Again, this is totally regardless of truth propositions about religion. Psychologically, religion deals primarily with anxiety (rather than, say, depression). This deals with the 'straw god' point (that many religions have no God-thing) because this anxiety-relieving function has no requirement for the God-thing in itself. The ideology and ritual are sufficient.

We can simply replace the God-Thing with a Universal whether Tao or Buddha-hood, and the same mechanism starts to emerge. It would emerge with a theoretical form of organised Atheism or Existentialism. The Satanists consciously invented a Satan in order to have ritual although this is probably more for fun and self-expression than in order to relieve any direct anxiety. If anything the Satanists are 'detourning' religion by denying completely the motivational force for anxiety.

Since human anxiety cannot ever be truly extirpated by even the most enlightened form of social action and only with great difficulty by individual action (since not everyone has a desire to buy tranquillity at the cost of serving an imagined Satan), religion provides a relatively cheap and effective form of mass psychotherapy for minds otherwise unable to cope with circumstances or even reality itself, even if it exacts its high price in conformity and even oppression in other areas such as sexuality. 

It is all a trade-off but the restrictions placed on an anxious person by religion sometimes ensures that the anxiety can only be contained by containing the person. From this perspective, extirpating religion could represent a profound social bad. Religion may need to be contained but its psychotherapeutic function, for lack of anything better for a large portion of a distressed humanity is beneficial and vastly more cost-effective than trying to divert limited resources to some sort of state mental health operation. 

Indeed, it might be regarded as a cruelty if atheists with access to sufficient power removed this salve from such people. One thing we should not abide is ignorant cruelty to other human beings by fanatics of any type.

In addition to its anxiety-relieving function (which is simply a matter of ensuring that the world has sufficient meaning to give an individual sufficient security for the future aka 'hope'), the wider 'meaning function' of religion is what gives it its cultural power and strength. Again, the non-religious are going to find it thoroughly futile exercise (as the Soviet experiment demonstrated) to invest vast resources in providing a structure of alternative total meaning. 

This merely becomes, to all intents and purposes, a religion in all but the supernatural aspects. It requires brutal means to effect the transition and nothing is gained for anyone, especially as core surviving believers tend to have their beliefs strengthened rather weakened in the long run by outright repression. 

Strategies of Tolerant Containment

We are back to a strategy of containment and (qualified) respect, appropriating religious items (such as a baroque painting, Mozart mass or derelict monastery) as non-religious heritage items, in effect as part of a meaning structure that is cultural rather than religious. Of course, this could get us into a political discussion about who dictates cultural meaning and about multiculturalism and the collapse and fragmentation of national cultures under the combined effects of neo-liberalism, post-modern philosophy and so forth - but that is for another time.

Religion has thus emerged not only because of the manipulative operations of specialised classes or the needs of Power (though there is this element to the story that needs its own analysis) but because it has provided quite simple totalitarian means of dealing with psycho-biological realities for many people (albeit at the expense of a lot of other people). In short, religion is a manifestation of inter-personal and social power relations iltimately derived from biology, being useful and insidious at the same time. It can be false and yet still expressive of real human needs (though only of the needs of the weaker in terms of mental state). 

The problem of religion is, in effect, the problem of human weakness as vulnerable creatures surrounded by material uncertainty in permanent potential conflict with other persons (anxiety) and seeking to give order its world ('give it meaning') in order to limit personal vulnerability through the compromises of social cohesion and through shared ritual. Religion has its passive total withdrawal aspects or those associated with aggressive and violent proselytising but the core of religion is that it is a tool in the hands of a tool-using animal and a tool where those using it have been incorporated into the tool like the Borg.

Because the nature of such a tool is that it cannot be used except cynically (psychopathically) or by incorporation of the Self into it, then, as it develops, religion becomes a lived totality if not in terms always of actual belief, at least in terms of communitarian power relations. For the non-religious position, this is what makes it insidious because these communitarian power relations extend themselves beyond actual believers to demand conformity from non-believers. The attempted Borg-like incorporation of non-believers is either a matter of Power exercised in a struggle for control and resources (as in the Constantinian Settlement) or it is a case of believers actually being blind to the equal status and reality of non-belief. 

Non-belief represents a serious challenge to the anxiety-reducing belief system of the believer to the degree to which religion buttresses identity and community. Non-belief creates anxiety simply by existing. The non-believer is not, on the other hand, made at all anxious by belief. Unaware that his indifference creates such anxiety in the believer, his own lack of anxiety makes him complacent about the threat to his own integrity from what amounts to an 'enemy' (at the level of the fundamentalist or politically active religious interest). 

This is the central nature of our problem as people who have a balanced view of the separation of our own minds from other minds, of the equality of value of other minds (except when our own survival is at stake) and who cannot impute minds like ours to animals or any minds at all to vegetables and minerals. We are dealing, on the other side, with wobbly minds unable to understand the actual relationship of our minds to other minds and non-minds and there is no educational way of changing that perception in those hard-wired to believe. In the end, containment becomes the only option if the wholly rational person is himself or herself to be wholly secure..