OK – I’m probably going to piss a lot of people off with this post, even if they can make it past the title. I’m not trying to be deliberately inflammatory (nor am I trying to be a dick), but I think this is important stuff – I’ll try my best to explain why.
Let’s start by clearing the air. I respect your right to believe whatever you want, and to practise whatever rituals are important to you (so long as they don’t hurt anyone else). I do not, however, respect your faith – I say this with compassion, and I really need to explain myself.
First, let’s look at faith. A dictionary definition is something like the following:
faith |feɪθ| noun
1 complete trust or confidence in someone or something;
2 strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.
Faith is, therefore, the belief in something or someone, that trumps all other processes, rational, sane or otherwise. It allows people to do remarkable and, sometimes, obscene things because, for the faithful, actions in the name of their faith are just.
If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ll be familiar with my ideas about how we often make decisions based on our evolutionary preparation, and our internal ‘core’ programming (here). These processes are seldom available to us consciously, but present themselves to us in the form of instinct. We often act because we ‘feel’ that it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. Because it feels right, we seldom question whether it is right. In fact, the ‘righter’ it feels, the less likely we are to question it. This is a lot like faith.
A while back I wrote about memes and memetic infection (if you haven’t read it, you can access it here). Basically, I suggested that some memes (viral memes) are extremely successful because they are able to bypass our consciousness and provide a direct neurological reward. The religion or faith meme is probably one of the most successful and tenacious ideas, because accepting it allows us to feel safe, allows us to connect with like-minded individuals (a tribe), reduces feelings of threat, assuages guilt, and diminishes our fear of the unknown (death), all by providing the idea of respite. In other words, the faith meme feels incredibly ‘right’, and the more vulnerable, lonely, threatened, fearful or guilty we feel, the greater the chance of infection.
Throughout my posts I’ve pushed a central message: the importance of learning to think for yourself and, in understanding your motives, to be able to choose to act based on human-centric values. A key part of this process is to recognise the various internal influences vying for your attention, and that attempt to make you act in a particular way. The main problem for most human beings is that they are completely unaware of these influences, and act without conscious awareness or intervention. Scarier, is the ability for humans to rationalise their behaviour by convincing themselves that their actions are the result of conscious choices (when they were no such thing). And the more we find ourselves acting in a certain way, the more we’ll justify that action, until we truly believe that our actions (and the initiators of those actions) were not only the right thing, but that we always believed them to be that way (if you don’t believe me, have a read of this and this).
This flaw in human awareness scares the crap out of me. It’s how we can justify outrageous actions in the name of a particular faith, and convince ourselves of the righteousness of our beliefs and the consequent behaviours.
Now, at this point, some of you might be really upset. My apologies if I’ve offended your beliefs. I recognise that I’ve used hyperbolic examples and that, for many people, faith is a heartfelt and deeply comforting experience that can result in compassionate and beneficial actions. Nevertheless, I’m going to offend you again. I’m really sorry to say this, but faith is a lazy option – it requires very little cognitive processing (one of the reasons it feels so right). It’s based on the simple argument: “it feels right so must be right”. You couldn’t be more wrong.
If you read last week’s post, you came across Daniel Kahneman (nobel laureate) and his ideas about Type I and Type II thinking. Briefly restated, Kahneman proposes that most of our instinctive thinking is Type I, and requires little or no mental effort. Little or no effort is a good survival strategy, because the brain uses a lot of our blood sugar and is biologically ’expensive’ to run. We can do pretty complex things with our Type I systems (like drive a car), but we can’t think deeply, or weigh up the various sides of a complex argument; that requires Type II, a biologically expensive process that involves concentration and effort. Consequently, when faced with difficult decisions, we often default to Type I thinking and then convince ourselves post-hoc that we used Type II. Type I thinking often feels ‘right’, Type II thinking feels ‘hard’ (it evolved this way). Faith is pretty much always Type I thinking (often presenting as Type II).
But what about tradition? Surely, if humans have been thinking a certain way for thousands of years, it lends credence to their beliefs? Tradition certainly doesn’t excuse irrationality, and the scary (or great, depending on your point of view) thing about faith is that it helps people cover up any inconsistencies in their beliefs (but doesn’t hide the irrationality of other faiths). For instance, many people actually believe that drinking wine and eating a wafer blessed by a priest means they are literally drinking and eating the blood and flesh of a guy who supposedly existed 2000 years ago. They’d probably scoff with incredulity if I espoused a belief in a magic teapot who lives in the sky and who beams his commands directly into my head (as one of its faithful flock). Hey, in some instances this type of belief might be cause for institutionalisation (the teapot, not the proxy cannibalism . Just shows the lengths us humans will go to to defend our irrational beliefs.
Ah, but what about anecdotal evidence? Many people claim to have had direct experiences (such as near-death experiences, religious epiphanies, or a ‘deep knowing’). Surely this is enough to justify faith? Unfortunately it’s not. In recent years, scientists developed a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Based around a very powerful magnet, TMS machines are used to target particular parts of the brain. By directing a magnetic impulse to specific brain centres all sorts of temporary effects can be stimulated. For instance, we can induce temporary aphasia, ataxia, or amnesia. Interestingly, we can also induce out-of-body experiences, religious experiences, near-death experiences, etc. (there’s even a so-called “God Helmet” that uses a weak magnetic field to induce a “sensation of God”). In other words, if you’ve experienced it, chance are it came from a glitch in your brain, not from a mystical presence. Nevertheless, we’re wired to believe the things we experience, so we trust the ‘evidence’ of our senses, even when they get it wrong (check out this amazing list of various sensory illusions – it’s a great way of demonstrating that the things we see and hear really aren’t trustworthy).
As a psychologist, I spend my days helping people to recognise that just because they feel a certain way (e.g., anxious, depressed), that they are not defined by those feelings. I work with my clients to help them recognise thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges for what they are (i.e., brain activity), and to understand that they are not, in fact, their brains (or their thoughts or feelings). In doing so, they often learn that they are capable of functioning despite the unpleasant thoughts and feelings they experience. This awareness allows them to voluntarily choose to act in certain desired ways, even though it will feel unpleasant or even distressing (e.g., going to a friend’s party even though they feel highly anxious). This work isn’t just about ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings. It’s important that my clients are able to recognise the things that are attempting to influence their behaviour, no matter the resultant emotion, so that they can make a voluntary choice about how they want to act.
Faith (and it’s associated behaviours) is not a voluntary act. It’s the result of neurological ‘design’ (I say this for want of a better word) flaws in the human brain that result in us accepting the resultant sensations or feelings on faith (pun intended). So, let me finish by saying that there’s nothing wrong with your beliefs – I don’t mind your delusions (I respect your right to have them), and I recognise that many find comfort in them. But they’re simply not real…