Sunday, June 8, 2008

On the psychology of religion

I have a few friends who are "progressive" christians. They have garnered and retain certain faith-centric ideas that, not surprisingly, resound quite strongly with me, a humanist, secularist, atheist, etc... This resonation does not occur because of some secretly harbored religious, soft-heartedness that I have deep down inside, or anything of that sort; instead, it exists because, more and more, the things I hear "progressive" christians say, regarding Christ's message to humanity, are primarily humanist and therefore unintentionally secular. There are many "New-apologetics" out there that are purporting to counter the " New Atheists" who are behaving quite vocally. Bishop Spong, Timothy Keller, and locally here in Grand Rapids, MI, pastor Rob Bell are just a few who are trying on some new clothing for the sake of the faith. No doubt, these religious leaders are attempting to recast the message of christianity in a light that will gather more to the fold, but I'd like to believe their intentions are more magnanimous than that, and that they really are trying to positively effect mankind's existence. If this is a part of their aim, I will not complain, because I am a person, who has to live next to other people; and, if these religious leaders can help these other people to feel better about themselves and thus act better towards the people they live next to, that will make my life better, and I have no problem with that.
Helping other people learn to live better lives, to feel better about themselves and to be more content with the lives they are leading, sounds an awful lot like what psychologists do. Psychologists help people to see what problems they, themselves are running into in the everyday life. They uncover what we can't necessarily see. Objectivity is where they stand, and it is from where they look at the lives we lead. It is this objectivity which enables them to see what we usually do not, and we trust this objectivity (but sometimes we don't). Doesn't this sound exactly like what a pastor does? They too stand outside the arena and look into our lives. Old school pastors and fundamentalist teachers do this as well, it's not just the new apologetics. A difference between old school and new school, is that with the fundamentalist side of things, the standard which pastors would compare our lives to is that derived from an outdated, contradictory and sometimes downright silly book. Nowadays, the new guys no longer just use the same book to compare our lives to; they also use the "standard" of morality, which translates to the standard of humanity. It is what psychologists try to steer their patients towards. Tapping into that which will allow people to think of themselves in the best, most beneficial light possible, is something that both psychologists and the new apologetics do. So, my question is....
How is it that the new apologetics think the god side is necessary at all? Maybe god exists, maybe he doesn't (I certainly don't think he does, for all of the many reasons I've listed on previous posts), but what I am certain of is, religion has little to do with a god and it has everything to do mankind. Man is the target audience. All of the rules and stipulations are in place because of us and the recognition of our inability to behave universally welland live a good life, sociologically speaking, for that is really the whole point. If there were no other people, save me, there would be no need for a set of rules or stipulations on how to behave or live my life. I could do exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, and for whatever reasons that I thought proper. Of course, I'd have to pepper my decisions with behavioral choices that would result in my survival, else my existence, while being uproariously enjoyable for the most part, would very quickly decay into discomfort, despair and death. Morality would play no part. It would not exist if it were a one-man show. Morality is societal and the fact that there are more people here than just us, clearly illustrates this.
Thus the humanist side of religion is the side which actually matters, whereas, the supernatural side is silly hocus-pocus, boogeyman, campfire ghost stories, which only superficially resonate with those who say they "really" believe. I would ask those people to imagine themselves as adam, but with the knowledge that we have today about the scientific nature of the world. Could they still imagine praying or sacrificing animals to a god for the benefits of rain, a good harvest, or a long life? If they said yes, then I think its a safe bet that most of us would accuse them of simply lying to themselves and us, and that they should think a bit more about the question, maybe from a different point of view.
Religion is a form of psychology, maybe the oldest one we have, and maybe the strongest, but it is not the religiosity that makes it so powerful, it is the psychology that makes it so. People flock to churches every week, be they progressive or fundamentalist, christian or muslim, in order to help themselves, not physically but psychologically. It is a free form of group counseling. And no doubt, it helps countless people, in the short-term. But as is testified by the return each week, for the same life lessons by the same folks, the weekly teachings never sink very deeply into the psyche. You get what you pay for, in other words. If you want free psychological counseling, you're going to get the caliber of advice that would not be worth charging for.
But there are other problems. Unfortunately, there are those church-going folks who have morphed the process into the goal itself. The teachings have become the prize, and the benefits of the process are no longer beneficial. Living a better life, has been pushed into the background in lue of doing what is necessary to be able to live a pristine and utopian life after death. The letter of the law becomes the goal itself. It is at this point when religion loses its value. When the supernatural overtakes the natural and obliterates it, we witness jihad, or the sincere desire to obliterate an entire country only because it is of a different official faith than yours (Iran's president saying on many occasions that Israel should be destroyed).
While the new apologetics are surely trying to swing the pendulum back to the center a bit, I would say, we should be trying to solidify the pendulum, stop it's swinging altogether, pointing it towards a better humanity. We should be looking to ourselves for the answers to how to live the best possible life. We can do this by first admitting that that is what religion really exists for. It is a responseto the fact that we are conscious, social beings, who recognize detrimental and beneficial behaviours for what they are. Secondarily, we should celebrate the humanity we all possess by not cow-towing to the silliness of a belief in something that has no discernible presence, and thus effect on us. Finally we should abandon the thoughts that lead us to think we are better that those around us for whatever reason, and recognize that no matter what we say to our friends or ourselves, the life we are living now will end after a span of approximately 100 years (give or take) and what we do with that time is the only thing that will ever matter, cause after we're gone, we're gone!

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