July 14, 2008
Why religions expect you to believe preposterous things
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I visited the mother of an old friend of mine, and the conversation turned to religion. She was a Protestant who had married a Catholic. She had thought about converting to Catholicism but in the end found it impossible to do so. She said that she found she could not accept three things that the Catholic Church required you to believe: transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Pope, and the assumption of Jesus' mother Mary (i.e., the belief that Mary did not die but was 'assumed' directly into heaven).
These things are pretty tough to believe. Transubstantiation alone is enough to give anyone pause. This doctrine asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.
I have often wondered if, in their heart of hearts, Catholics actually believe this. It seems to me that if they did, it would be hard to avoid having the gag reflex that accompanies the thought of engaging in what are essentially cannibalistic practices. Yet millions of Catholics go through this ritual every week with seeming equanimity. Perhaps they don't really believe but convince themselves that they kinda, sorta do in order to not seem like heretics. Or maybe they just don't think about it.
But although this is a particularly striking example of the kinds of extraordinary things that religious people are expected to believe, it is not by itself more preposterous than believing that Jesus rose from the dead or that god ordered the sun to stand still during the battle of Jericho or that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammed.
In fact, organized god-based religions sometimes seem to go out of their way to create difficult things to believe in. It seems like if you are a member of any organized god-based religion, you are expected to believe preposterous things. Abandoning reason and logic and evidence and science and accepting preposterous things purely on faith is deemed to be a virtuous act.
In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that it is easy to believe impossible things. "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." She says her trick to believing in something that is wildly improbable is to simply draw a long breath and shut her eyes. Sounds a lot like praying.
Of course, many people find it hard to abandon reason and believe impossible things, and thus leave religion and become atheists or at least agnostics. Some modernist theologians have tried to counter this problem by stripping as much of the extreme forms of the supernatural as possible from religions to make it more acceptable intellectually. They argue that god is some mysterious essence, some life force that gives 'meaning' to our lives, a 'ground of our being', and so on, but is not a physical human-like entity that we communicate with or can expect to intervene in our lives. In this approach, it is attempted to free religion from all those difficult beliefs that are hard to accept.
Would such a trend make religion more acceptable to more people, largely freeing them from having to choose between religion and common sense? Superficially, one would think so but some research suggests otherwise. The success of religions seems to depend on having people believe difficult or impossible things. Paradoxically, the more difficult the belief is to accept intellectually and the more rigid rules with which it binds believers, the more successful the religion is in holding onto its adherents. "[T]he most successful religions, in terms of growth and maintenance of membership, are those with absolute, unwavering, strict, and enforced normative standards of behavior." (Study cited by Peggy Catron, Encountering Faith in the Classroom, Miriam Diamond (Ed.), 2008, p. 70.)
This may be why those religious doctrines that are really hard for a rational person to accept (fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism) don't seem to be in any danger of going extinct in the face of modern science that undermines their doctrines. They may even be experiencing growth, while it is the more open-minded liberal religious traditions that are in decline. It is as if people want their thinking to be bound and confined and that they fear intellectual freedom. It seems like a form of intellectual masochism.
Why is this? I don't really know. Perhaps it is because once you have convinced someone to believe an impossible idea as an entry point to membership in an organization, they have crossed a threshold that makes them accepting of all the other impossible ideas that come as part of that religious package. Since people pride themselves on being rational, getting them to accept something bizarre at an early age, like a virgin birth, means that they will then try to construct reasons why such a belief makes sense or suppress any questions and doubts. I find it interesting that believers in a god, instead of frankly saying, "Yes, it is irrational but I believe anyway", will go to great lengths to try and use reason and logic to convince others that their beliefs are rational when they are manifestly not.
Once you have got people to suspend their rational thinking in at least one part of their life, all the other seemingly small, but equally preposterous, beliefs that are required don't seem so hard to swallow. This may be why religious organizations carry out induction ceremonies for new members mostly when they are children, before their skepticism is fully developed and when the desire of children to join the organization of their parents is still strong.
It is also perhaps similar to how brutal hazing is sometimes used to bond people to a fraternities or secret societies. Once you have overcome that kind of hurdle, it is emotionally harder to back out, to admit that one must have been crazy to ever do or believe such a thing.
Note: I wrote this post some time ago but never got around to posting it since there seemed to be no urgency. To my amazement, transubstantiation, of all things, suddenly burst into the news late last week down in Florida. I will write about that tomorrow.
POST SCRIPT: The propaganda machine at work
In my series on the propaganda machine, I spoke about how publishing houses like Regnery seem to exist largely for the purpose of subsidizing and promoting authors who promote their specific agenda, irrespective of the quality of the work or even that of the author. Here is another example.