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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

The Religious Mind

by Michael E. Berumen 5-1-05

Having said something nice about the late pope, I would not want anyone to assume any sort of recantation or a moderation in my views about religion. I think John Paul II's positive attributes are largely despite his religious beliefs, not because of them. I should like to make it very clear that I am generally suspicious of people with religious temperaments, not because I think they necessarily have untoward motives, but because I think their propensity for irrational thought is harmful, not only to themselves, but to others. Allow me to explain.

It seems to me that people of a religious bent are especially apt to confuse their beliefs with understanding or knowledge. Things are thought to be true simply because they believe or desire them to be true, and not because of their having acquired any knowledge through testable, first-hand acquaintance or from the verifiable description of others. They prefer to rely on intuition instead of evidence, and on their feelings as opposed to logical analysis. Faith is favored over ratiocination, ex cathedra proclamations over rigorous demonstrations. It is this tendency, in particular, that has been a major impediment to progress in science and technology over the centuries, and, consequently, to the improvement of the human condition.

Equally bothersome is the fact that many religious people are not really motivated to do good works or to avoid evil out of their feelings of compassion, a love of mankind, or even out of a sense of duty, but from the fear of punishment in Hell or the desire for a reward in Heaven. There is something much less noble, I think, about the good deeds of one whose primary motive is the approbation of his deity versus one who gives no thought to either reprisal or recompense. Much of religion strikes me as having this unseemly, egocentric, utilitarian bent, one rooted primarily in personal gain, even cowardice.

Now, religious persons and ideologues on both sides of the political divide have much in common with one another. For example, they usually have a sacred text and a messianic, charismatic leader. They believe and work towards a kind of Utopia, whether in the present or in the afterlife. They adhere to a set of principles from which they believe everything else can be explained, notwithstanding any evidence to the contrary, for contradictory evidence is always found wanting, no matter how compelling from a scientific or logical perspective. They have a predilection for systematic and comprehensive worldviews, one where any new bit of information or idea that is inconsistent with its fundamental principles is automatically branded as mistaken. They also have a strong desire to have everyone else believe in the same things, and they are highly intolerant of those who do not. There need not be a supreme being involved for one to have a religious frame of mind. Indeed, one might even subscribe to atheism, which in its most strident form is tantamount to a kind of religion.

The most ardent members of political movements are in fact quite "religious" in their outlook. In recent history, I would include as examples communists and Nazis. Dialectical materialism in the former case and the imagined blood ties of the Volk in the latter represent the cosmic forces substituting for the deity; Das Kapital and Mein Kampf represent the holy scripts that explain all; Lenin and Hitler are the messianic leaders whose mission is to lead the chosen people to paradise. The extremists on the political right and left, today, are birds of a feather with the ultra-religious when it comes to their fanatical righteousness. They would have many of us in camps, I believe---if not to exterminate us, then to "re-educate" us to the proper perspective. Their behavior is largely indistinguishable from the would-be theocrats that have been disturbingly prominent in American politics during recent years.

To my mind, there are several principal features of the religious temperament that stand out more than others, namely, fear of the unknown and a need for certainty; the requirement for shared beliefs; magical thinking; a mystical outlook; and a desire for purpose. One or more of these characteristics is usually apparent, perhaps especially the first two. Their relative proportions and the degree to which each of these traits dominate a person's behavior will vary by individual. I shall briefly describe each of them.

Fear of the unknown might be the most pronounced of these attributes, for it is related to our primal fear of death. We want to know what lies ahead, and we want an explanation for the things that frighten us, not just any explanation, but one that will quell our sense of dread and one that will provide us with comfort through having some sense of certainty about the future. This has no doubt been true since our hominid ancestors first witnessed nature's unpredictable and sometimes devastating fury. We humans want to understand why there is so much privation in the world, for such knowledge gives a modicum of control, which enables us to ameliorate the trials of daily living. It is, therefore, not surprising that we would develop systems of belief, sometimes very elaborate ones, in order to help us deal with the world and, as much as anything, to provide some emotional succor.

To some extent, the need to understand and systematize the world is an attribute that the religious and scientific perspectives have in common. However, while the motivation is similar, the end product in behavior is quite different. Those who are compelled by a sense of curiosity and discovery, and who are more adept at using logic and analyzing empirical evidence, are more inclined towards a scientific outlook, one which constantly challenges assumptions and findings, and one that admits error more readily; whereas, those who need reassurance from authority figures and who require a sense of unquestioning certainty are more likely to turn to religion or ideology.

The scientific mind goes wherever logic and evidence lead, whereas the religious mind discounts anything that contravenes his worldview. The latter uses the scientific method rarely and selectively, and only when it supports his assumed dogma. So, for example, the creationist observes human footprints and dinosaur prints  in the same place on an ancient riverbed, and then surmises they must have lived contemporaneously, before the great flood wiped out the dinosaurs. This further "demonstrates" to the creationist that the earth is much younger than mainstream paleontologists and geologists have maintained. All of these claims have been shown to be bogus, of course, and in most of the cases the footprints alleged to be human are not human at all (one so-called human print, for example, is the size of an elephant). Dating techniques have shown others not to be contemporaneous.at all. Such nonsense is typical of creationists, though, and entire "creation" museums are devoted to such things.  Gullible people unfamiliar with science continue to be persuaded by creationism; unfortunately, sometimes these people are in positions of influence.

A hallmark of the religious mind is what appears to be an overwhelming need to have others believe the same things. It is reassuring for many to know that others agree with the same set of invariant principles and that they can be expected to behave in a similar way. Believers draw strength and even more conviction from fellow believers. Realizing this, religious leaders have used mass meetings to great effect to strengthen the confidence of believers and to cement connectedness among the faithful, not to mention to exert control over them. By their very existence, nonbelievers, deviants, and apostates shake a believer's confidence in his view of the world, which he finds wholly intolerable and, therefore, actively seeks to change, if not through persuasion, as history has unfortunately shown time and again, then by force.

In this vein, much of religion is geared towards public activity. Religious people want you to know that they are religious. They, of course, confuse piety with morality and belief with action. Many religious people, perhaps most notably, politicians, want others to think of them as being quite devout. They go to great extents to show that they are virtuous with their public displays of churchgoing and their references to God. And no politician in America ever could be elected to a major political office without having proved his religiosity.

I must confess, it sends chills down my spine whenever I encounter some of these true believers with their sanctimonious "Jesus and I love you"-phony smiles; for it is easy to see through their controlled and supercilious politeness to their seething, inner anger. They of course really despise you for your non-belief, and they fully expect and, I think, even savor the idea that you shall soon experience eternal suffering and damnation with all of that gnashing-of-teeth business that a disconcertingly high percentage of Christians prefer to the Sermon on the Mount. Some are sincerely concerned about our souls, of course; but, I fear, not all of them are.

Magical thinking has deep roots in man's history. The more we know about the world, and especially the more we know of science, the less prominent a role this kind of thinking plays in society, but it remains a factor to a disquieting degree. Even in relatively advanced societies, such as the United States, where the populace avails itself of the many fruits of scientific knowledge, the average person remains astonishingly ignorant of the workings of nature, especially as described by the so-called hard sciences, and he is consequently susceptible to all manner of preposterous beliefs. Large numbers of people in the industrialized world who consider themselves sophisticated and civilized also believe, for example, in faith healing, angels and demons, miracles, astrology, and so forth.

Religious people seek explanations for natural phenomena in hidden, supernatural causes, which they find easier to grasp than, for example, the principles of physics or chemistry. This might result from simple ignorance or from just plain stupidity. I suspect it also results from a simple intellectual laziness on the part of some. The account that science offers might not comport with their own desires or preconceived notions, so religiously-minded people will opt for the more comforting explanation that superstition offers. This latter tendency is sometimes true even of those who should know better, people trained to understand the scientific method, who nevertheless refuse to believe where it leads. Perhaps this is most evident in the modern age with so-called intelligent design theory, a slightly more sophisticated alternative to traditional creationism, which typically has currency among the more simple-minded.

Magical thinkers have great difficulty imagining such things as a universe without a prime mover, a designer invariably endowed with anthropomorphic and fatherly qualities. To them, all things are caused, and there is always a first cause in a chain of events, therefore, something had to cause the universe. When asked what caused the first cause, with great assurance they advise that their deity is uncaused, has always existed, and has neither beginning nor end. It is a curious thing that they have difficulty imagining a universe beginning from nothingness, or thinking it absurd that always existed in some form or another, but they have no difficulty whatsoever in imagining that there is a bearded friend in the sky that has existed forever. Desire obviously trumps reason.

The magical thinker also usually believes in the power of prayer. This is perhaps a most understandable thing for primitive humans who were at the complete mercy of nature with little to go on but the hope that the mysterious forces that beset them might take pity on them as a result of their pleas. It is much more difficult to understand in the context of today's relatively recent, major religions, which hold that there is an omnipotent and benevolent Creator. Omnipotence, which by definition already knows what one desires even before we know ourselves, is apparently fond of supplication and groveling. Our entreaties are not always answered the way we want, however, because even though we are the creations of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely benevolent being, we are nevertheless imperfect and, more often than not, quite undeserving of the generosity of the All-powerful One. Is it only me or is there not something a bit sadistic about such a Creator? The inevitable answer: who are we to question the methods and ends of God? I find that to be most unsatisfactory response, even unseemly, the sort of answer one might expect from downtrodden slaves, not free men.

The mystical aspect of the religious personality is similar to the magical one, but not quite the same. Whereas most religious people have magical beliefs, relatively few are truly mystical. Pope John Paul II, for example, had a decidedly mystical side to him. The mystic believes he has an insight and a special connection into an ethereal kind of reality, one beyond the reality that the rest of us see. Most religious people simply believe there is something behind the curtain, whereas, the mystic believes that he actually sees what's going on behind it. The mystic is often captivated by the grandeur of nature, and he tends to have a more fanciful explanation for it. Mystics also often believe they are in contact with spirits and that they can see into the future. It is not uncommon for a mystic to be in a trance-like state. Mystics do not devise the consistent, axiomatic systems more typical of pedantic theologians and churchmen, striving to appear scholarly. The mystic's writings and sayings are much more obscure and seldom direct, using metaphorical and allegorical language to make their points.

Of the major religions, it seems that Buddhism and Hinduism produce more mystics than the others do, although Christianity and Islam certainly have had their share. I think a mystical trait is often present in some of the great artists and composers throughout history, and perhaps we ought to be thankful for that. Surely Michelangelo and Bach, for example, had a very obvious mystical side. Various religious tracts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, Sefer Yetzirah, and even some parts of the Old and New Testaments are steeped in mysticism, and in places they each represent some of literature's most beautiful, creative, and lyrical prose. The apocalyptic visions of The Book of Revelations are foreboding, consisting of dark imagery with multilayered meanings, but are strikingly conceived. The poetic writings of St. John of the Cross are among the most moving in the Christian catalogue. For better or worse, however, the doctrines of both Catholicism and Protestantism were more heavily influenced by the juridical and prosaic mind of Paul than the musings of mystics. And, in any case, notwithstanding their literary or other artistic merits, fantastic assertions that cannot be measured by logic or evidence, whether from Shakespeare or a sandal-wearing ascetic who hears voices, remain little more than flights of the imagination or delusion.

I think the religious personality demands a purpose in life that is somehow grander, more fulfilling, and more permanent than the ones that we invent for ourselves. The thought that we are only the product of random forces and natural selection, that we have no cosmic purpose beyond the biological imperatives, leaves some unbearably forlorn and without hope. Surely, there must be more to the existence of intelligent, feeling beings than reproduction, a constant fight for survival, and in short order, death. I am reminded of the young Bertrand Russell's own struggle against such feelings. He yearned for something more, but nothing that could satisfy him emotionally could also pass muster with his intellect.

As I mentioned before, many believe we are the product of design, and a design implies an antecedent Designer, an intelligent and directed force; it only follows that the Designer had some purpose in mind for His creation. Some creation stories would have us believe that our primary purpose is merely to keep the Designer company, to amuse Him as though we were pets. One cannot help but ask how He could have permitted, indeed caused---and knowingly mind you, for He is at once all powerful and all knowing---so much misery and pain to be visited upon His companion creatures? Yes, there is that ancient and venerable excuse: our free will. That dog won't hunt, though, for He already knew what we would choose, and our choice was a product of His creative act, consequently, our "free will" is a mere sham of an excuse in the final analysis. After all, how many have truly chosen their own misery. Some will complain that we carry the mark of Original Sin, notwithstanding our own motives and deeds, and that it is the choice of our ancestors that haunts us. How small, vindictive, and even sadistic it is for Omnipotence to saddle innocent people with the error of others. Honestly, it is hard to take such views seriously. I myself contend that our freely chosen purpose ought to be to rid the world of as much of this suffering as possible, and, in the meantime, Providence will simply have to take care of Himself, including any problems with low self esteem, which one might infer from the descriptions of His apologists.