Challenging religious belief is not enough when individual self interest depends on it

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Discussion by: markchapman289

The Sociology of religion? I thought that the problem with challenging religion was that it's irrationality may not just be vested in it's beliefs but also by the fact that various self interested parties depend on it. And these interests defend it against those that may challenge it or offer an alternative. From sociology, it may be obvious to observe that human beings form groups and they often have internal structures including an authority figure (though not necessarily so). The interest of the individual depends on their relation to that group, often their survival. Though the Roman Catholic Church in Europe has weakened since medieval times (I assume), it seemed as though during that period it was one of the most important economic, social and political organisation in Europe. Secular authorities executed opostates and heretics and prosecuted wars at the instruction of the Church. I wonder if you were almost obliged to have some relation to it.

We think of our forebears, in the absence of scientific knowledge, to be ignorant and to believe anything that is said particularly by an authority. But, I wonder whether this is only partially true. Perhaps all possible opinion existed within a human population but, their frequency may have varied and may not necessarily have been expressed or recorded. Apostates and heretics were said to be executed by burning at the stake by order of the Catholic Church. It may therefore not be sensible to have expressed a personal view and they may not have been recorded. Still, is it possible that a trading society would have been inclined to scepticism since they would have had to look at what another is selling with a degree of criticality. Would they not apply this to the teachings of the religious authorities. Perhaps this results in pragmatic conformism rather than blind faith.

Is religion in itself a cause of conflict? The twentieth century seemed to be based around conflict of various groups on the basis of ideology (though they also seem to have existed between pre-existing nation states). Is the conflict simply between groups of people as one form of possible relationship rather than the basis for the group itself? I.e. established groups of people meeting each other, I assume, have a finite number of possible relations such as coexistence, isolation, integration, assimilation by one group of another, to conquer or annihilation of one group by another (presumably numerous others). When one group challenges another, the people inside that group do not know what such a change would bring and what place they would have in a new group of both original groups due to say being conquered (or at least some relation that puts their position at risk) . This could also take the form of a pre-emptive strike or recruitment such as conversion of the heathens/pagans etc.

As perhaps an example of a conflict born of a social order issue rather than belief in themselves I would suggest considering the amount of effort expended by the Catholic doctors. Their activity, I think, has been decried as intellectually unproductive and characterised as 'counting how many angels can sit on the head of a pin'. But if failure to create an elaborate and thoroughly explored set of beliefs was not done, differences found in interpretation, etc., could form the basis of a break off group or schism dividing the church, reducing its authority, putting those positions at risk and even violent conflict for dominance. So, in fact, what seems trivial matter here and now, in the context of a social order, could have been matter of grave seriousness for the social order of the society the church existed in.

Defence of false beliefs using often poor arguments and circular reasoning could just be a person's way of defending their self interest at all cost including at the expense of facts and reason. 

13 COMMENTS

  1. May I suggest redefining the term fanatic according to Frantz Fanon’s definition of Cognitive dissonance
    ? He states, “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable called cognitive dissonance. And because it is important to protect that core belief they will rationalize, ignore and deny anything that doesn’t fit into that core belief.”

  2. It is very interesting to ponder on the subject of trying to fit into a particular society, more especially if one is an atheist. I sometimes find myself defenseless due to the amount of bias arguments for faith over science and reason have in their core. Questions of purpose are always thrown around, and it is as if religion is a prerequisite for one to have morals, and I do not feel settle at that thought. Human beings have evolved social skills for survival; using confrontation to resolve differences is a way of survival, since war involves a lot of killing. I mean, it is audacious to think religion has all the morality and science and reason only has bad in it. I am particularly amazed by scientists who still uphold religion over what they do daily, the confirm to logical progressive models to solve problems, but never seem to carry that over to their own personal (spiritual) lives. In more precise terms, they abandon science the minute they talk about their existence. This is heart-breaking, and i mean it with the same emotional integrity one would assume as to how heart-breaking it is to encounter an atheist as myself.

  3. Well, do you think that religious people defend some form of status quo when they defend their beliefs? What’s the interest you suggest they’re defending? It’s na intereting way of thinking

  4. Hi Mark,

    The interest[s] of the individual depend on their relation to [their] group, often their survival.

    This is always true of children. Having learned that behaviour, it is surely unsurprising that the habit is carried into adulthood? This sociological background is probably also supported by our genetic makeup. That we are animals that survive in collectives would seem to be beyond question. If we are intelligent, collective-survival, animals then it also appears to be inescapable that we are social animals.

    In addition, may I suggest that identity plays a role? In adolescence, as we make the transition from being wholly dependent on the first group[s] that welcomed us as members we begin to seek out other groups that reflect our thinking.

    Religions have long identified this as a key area for their energies – the bar mitzvah, the confirmation, and so on.

    We think of our forebears, in the absence of scientific knowledge, to be ignorant and to believe anything that was said particularly by an authority. I wonder whether this is only partially true. Perhaps all possible opinion existed within a human population but, their frequency may have varied and may not necessarily have been expressed or recorded.

    If History can teach us anything it seems to me that it teaches that all power-structures appear (come into being) as idealistic structures, then devolve into oligarchy. The United States is currently well on the way to building a form of oligarchy called plutocracy (rule by an upper class, defined by their wealth and connections). The Bush family would appear to offer pretty damning evidence.

    Communism is an idealistic form that appears, from the historical record of several countries, to be so unstable that it devolves to oligarchy in just two generations.

    An integral part of oligarchies is that they increasingly become impatient with criticism and challenges to their position – and censor. The ultimate form of oligarchy, of control by the Group holding the levers of power, is Fascism.

    North Korea is the clearest and most unambiguous evidence that Communism can devolve to Fascism. Russia appears to be in grave danger of following that path. China is losing the battle to side-step devolution.

    Few censors in history have been more diligent and forceful than the Catholic Church in the Medieval period.

    Perhaps [censorship] results in pragmatic conformism rather than blind faith.

    That seems highly likely, and well evidenced.

    Is religion in itself a cause of conflict?

    This is a rhetorical question.

    The twentieth century seemed to be based around conflict of various groups on the basis of ideology (though they also seem to have existed between pre-existing nation states).

    The 20thC was not particularly special. Group-Group conflict raised to the power of State-State conflict, it’s not like history hasn’t seen that before. The Catholic Church likes to pretend that it wasn’t involved in order to point to that history and say; look secular violence. Apart from being heroically false the sub-text is that the Catholic Church can’t stomach the facts: a. It was on the losing side, and b. It exposed the fact that the Church Oligarchy was no longer powerful enough to act on its own – even in Italy. On the plus side (from their point of view) they gained statehood, though this further exposes the true nature of their business.

    Is … conflict simply between groups of people as one form of possible relationship rather than the basis for the group itself?

    Clausewitz thought precisely that: “War is the continuation of (policy or politics) by other means.” He is highly regarded among military philosophers.

    When one group challenges another, the people inside [those groups] do not know what such a change would bring and what place they would have in a new group …

    True. This is the reason one needs leaders; to escalate conflict beyond the dialectic to open conflict and aggression. [tongue in cheek]

    This could also take the form of a pre-emptive strike or recruitment such as conversion of the heathens/pagans etc.

    These are the tools of the State. Individuals have their trust in in-group identity, their in-group security, exploited by the powerful leaders to act against the out-groups. The out-group identity is also, more blatantly and openly, undermined. The common result is that both groups emerge from the experience changed.

    [regarding Catholic Doctors] … if [they] failed to create an elaborate and thoroughly explored set of beliefs … differences found in interpretation … could form the basis of a … schism dividing the church

    This happens all the time. Look up the Reformation.

    [Schism] reduces [Church] authority, putting … positions at risk and even violent conflict for dominance.

    It’s interesting that conflict tends to automatically be defined as a struggle for dominance. In Church affairs this seems to be the case. In secular affairs I’m not sure that it’s either true, or constructive. We should apply critical thinking to matters of policy and executive action.

    So, in fact, what seems trivial matter here and now, in the context of a social order, could have been matter of grave seriousness for the social order of the society the church existed in.

    I’m not sure I follow. In what way is the position of Catholic Doctors – or Catholics as a whole – trivial today? I can think of very few Catholic practices, or policy positions, that are not anti-Human. Where the Catholic Church does involve itself in supporting humans, it’s ulterior motives are always clear.

    Defence of false beliefs using often poor arguments and circular reasoning could just be a person’s way of defending their self interest at all cost including at the expense of facts and reason.

    I suggest you read Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett. It will help you to organise your thoughts on why religion ‘works’.

    Peace.

  5. In agreement with mchasewalker #1.

    I reckon cognitive dissonance says it all. Even without being familiar with the theory it is obvious to see the amount of distress people exhibit when their beliefs are threatened (and not only religious beliefs!). Perhaps this is why creationists etc. go to such ridiculous lengths to justify their beliefs.

    Where ones ‘self’ structure is largely based on deep seated beliefs to question them can feel almost like death – and in a sense it is. Many beliefs carry the promise of life after death – not too bothered about the survival of the physical body but totally identified with the mind and all its contents which contain the ‘self’ structure.

    Even we non-believers who are so attached to our views, opinions and concepts will defend and justify them as though under physical attack. Perhaps we are all simply engaged in trying to protect and maintain, what is in effect, an illusory ‘self’ structure.

    • In reply to #6 by Turan:

      Even we non-believers who are so attached to our views, opinions and concepts will defend and justify them as though under physical attack.

      Non-believers are not attached to non-beliefs. That’s the old chestnut about atheism being a religion.

  6. Defence of false beliefs using often poor arguments and circular reasoning could just be a person’s way of defending their self interest at all cost including at the expense of facts and reason.

    I’ve been thinking about the character Walt of Breaking Bad. (For those of you in the UK, watch it online, solarmovie.so) Clearly a brilliant, genius of a man who knows science and chemistry at a level in which he can think of a solution to get himself out of a pinch – dead battery – make one with what you have. An intelligent master-mind, he could figure out the dynamics of a situation and play people like a life-sized chess game. Yet, with all his knowledge, intelligence, and cool rationality, several times throughout the series, he would say “I am not a murderer.” With the death toll racking up, he’s a mass murder. He would justify his actions as “providing for his family when he would finally die of cancer” instead of acknowledging that he enjoys the challenge and ability to fully utilize his intellectual strengths in a way that he never could use as a chemistry teacher.

    My point: We all play mind games with ourselves in order to justify our actions even if they run contrary to our perception of our own “goodness.” Organization and individuals alike come up with elaborate ways of justifying evil deeds. Property, gold, and art was stolen from Jews during WWII without second thought. What shift in perception is needed in order to maintain our high self esteem? When questions arise about acts our loved ones commit, do we think out the situation rationally and logically to get to the truth or do we make up a story that keeps us in denial so that our life remains seemingly consistent?

    Perhaps all possible opinion existed within a human population but, their frequency may have varied and may not necessarily have been expressed or recorded. Apostates and heretics were said to be executed by burning at the stake by order of the Catholic Church. It may therefore not be sensible to have expressed a personal view and they may not have been recorded.

    As a child maybe 9, I clearly recall questioning my parents about God coming down as a human being. I remember the incident because I was uncomfortable with the explanation, yet I justified the answer with “my parents would not lie to me.??” If I could do this as a kid, I’m sure there were people who did not express their skepticism with Jesus’ ability to walk on water, cure the the blind… (As a side note – Jesus needed a better marketing plan. He limited his exposure to a small group of people considering the vast size of the earth. He could have provided them with penicillin or stood on a mountain sending energy to cure the blindness of all people – announcing his intentions beforehand… )The whole story is flawed and I’m sure some must have questioned it – but shut their mouths or else….

  7. In reply to#7 by Aldous “Non-believers are not attached to non-beliefs. That’s the old chestnut about atheism being a religion.”

    My comment was not about ‘atheism being a religion’. It pointed out that we can indeed be very attached to our non-beliefs (doesn’t make us religious). In maintaining our ‘self’ structures we all have various concepts that declare ‘this is who I am’. Of course the popular one to ‘hang hats’ on is religion, but non-religious ‘self’ structures can comprise of (to name but a few) national identity, culture, race, family, football team – anything that promotes a sense of identity.

    The point being, we all have various cherished and guarded concepts (ideas, thoughts, models of reality, views etc.) that our identities are founded on and to have these questioned or challenged can be felt as a threat to my identity, of who I am – my very ‘self’..

    To clarify cognitive dissinance – Wikepedia answers.
    “Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. When inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals largely become psychologically distressed. His basic hypotheses are listed below:

    1. “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance”

    2. “When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the per-son will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance” [1]

    The importance of cognitions: The more elements that are personally valued, the greater the magnitude of the dissonant relationship will be.”

    As mchasewalker #7 pointed out and as the heading of the article stated;- “Challenging religious belief is not enough when individual self interest depends on it.”

    People have so much invested in protecting their concepts of self interest challenging them (even education – e.g. America with its fine education system) may not be enough to enable a more enlightened point of view.

  8. What actually is in your self-interest, presuming we can find a way of defining that, depends on your personal situation and the society you live in. In Pakistan, for example, those who are averse to being put to death will profess a belief in Islam, or at least a great respect for it, even if that’s not what they think. In free societies, the threat to unbelievers, although less grim than death, can still be serious, like the loss of family, friends and income.

    Where there are no serious external threats, the importance of intellectual honesty and the ability to form opinions on the basis of facts, is something that depends on education and upbringing. Fooling other people and fooling yourself can seem to be a sensible way of living your life to those who haven’t learned to put a high value on intellectual achievement. With the failings of educational systems in general and the pervasiveness of religion even in secular societies, many people are underequipped to form reasoned and informed opinions.

  9. “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance”

    Which obviously involves telling yourself lies to mitigate. Unless you are a reasonable individual and can accept the mistake specially after understanding that they are not what they were made to be like. I would say that this dissonance would be more than uncomfortable and even create anger. Not necessarily anger about being told something they do not want to hear, but because it collapses whatever support structure they had formed or were made to believe existed.

    This dissonance is the same as when someone tells you as kid that Santa Claus is your parents. You feel disappointed .

    1.Dissapointed that the magic of santa is a hoax.

    2.Dissapointed that they made you buy into the hoax and now you feel stupid.

    3.Dissapointed that you now realize that some of the things you asked Santa to bring was peace on earth but now, that is impossible because your parents can’t bring peace in the home much less on earth.

    This example can be extrapolated. This how it feels to have your belief system crushed. It is not your fault you were made to believe something was true. You just were forced to believe it. You were forced to replace hope with faith.

    That will shock anyone. What is important is to provide a substitute belief system after pulling the rug out from under someone . This part may be the hardest. Because it is as cut and dry as faith or not faith. Then you ride life by the seat of your pants and claim your achievements as your own as well as your failures. You realize only you will help you or save you as well as the opposite.

    When I catch myself fathing as I call it. Because I will ask any god out there any powers that be to help me out. All of this in desperation of course… then I will reason with that and force myself to realize again that there is no such thing. I start to play out all the reasons. The main question I ask often during this exercise is, how could it be logistically possible for anything other than the internet to be in all places at once answering every prayer from every person. It is so impossible that is why people still suffer. Their prayers not answered. Those who need it the most.

    I ask myself why would I be more important than them so as to have my wishes granted but not others ?

    It boils down to remembering the feeling when you were told Santa is your parents. And help other go through the reasoning exercise like I do when I find myself thinking nonsense even if it is comforting at first to do so. But it is no different than hoping Santa will bring you what you wanted.

  10. I think that religion is entirely social in origin. My understanding of society during recorded history is that it has been characterized by conflicts between economic classes, and that the main role of religion in history has been to promulgate superstition and use it as a basis for social control by whatever class has been dominant. I think however that since its superstitious basis is has mostly been overturned by science, religion is gradually weakening in this world and that, unless some material catastrophe impedes human progress, religion will eventually wither and die. Class conflict has not vanished, but the main ideological instruments of social control are political ideas conveyed via television and through the educational system.

    I don’t think it is true that the typical adherent to religion has some personal material interest in maintaining it. That idea seems rather peculiar to me, since one of the most important functions of religion is to get people to behave in ways contrary to their own interest. We do not have a separate church for capitalists, for example.

    Atheism certainly is a system of belief, but to date it has not become a religion in the organized sense. I do not think that in itself it could be a basis for social control, since it does not seem to have any implications for how people should behave.

    I think it is a mistake to blame wars on religion. Wars arise from conflicts of material interest. Religion at most reflects those interests on either side, creating a religious argument and the false appearance of a conflict engendered by religion. If all the nations of this world suddenly embraced atheism, the very real conflicts between their various interests would not vanish. Nor would conflicts between the interests of different classes of society vanish.

  11. Thank you for the responses to my submission. I hope I have understood your points and will respond. I feel we are teasing out some interesting matters. Please note these are just working hypothesis and not hardcore theories or beliefs. I suppose that these issues may have been resolved by an academic somewhere years ago but I had not seen them represented in the discussions on atheism involving Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

    I would like to reiterate that the submission was in response to the absence of this point in the televised debates (and YouTube) at various conferences in which religion was blamed for conflict. I found this an unsatisfying explanation.

    @sagan the cat
    ‘The truth will set you free’ (ironically a quote from the bible)? Still, finding a closely held belief or much like one is difficult to give up if found false. In physics I quite liked the steady-state hypothesis. I like the idea that matter was being generated to form galaxies but the big bang (what ever it’s final formulation) appears to be the better theory. Realising a truth or solving a problem actually can be one of the most interesting experiences. If some understanding of a process enables you to make sense of it after a period of not understanding and confusion it’s actually a good experience.

    There is also a social function of sticking to a believe and not giving up so easily – there are numerous possibilities when faced with another belief e.g. a deception and error. Also fear of your own fallibility. If you change your mind easily, that may cause a problem in itself.

    @biomtho
    Is fitting in, conformity and submission result in a kind of belief formation? To accept an idea is to submit to it? Submission-dominance is a social strategy for organisation. So social necessity in some circumstances takes precedence over the personal and reasoning/evidence?

    @mchasewalker
    Interesting. But would being able to eat, have shelter etc (self interest) be more of a motivation than whether something is emotionally unpleasant. The threat to your wealth or way of life and knowing where you stand would be more potent than Cognitive dissonance(CD). Would CD be more important if a change in belief was more a problem for self-management, self esteem and motivation where your income/wealth are actually secure and unaffected?

    CD – magnitude due to significance of conflicting ideas. Why does an idea have significance? One means to give it such is an idea put forward by an authority figure, it’s prevalence in a group, or perhaps one put forward during childhood?

    Is CD simply an internal consistency determining process of mind or is CD actually a process which detects inconsistency between your new idea or reality and the belief of a group or authority? So, is CD possibly the anticipation of conflict, disapproval or social isolation is the source of the pain/upset associated with CD? If CD is an unpleasant emotion and emotion principally serve a social function and be extension CD is performing a social function as described above rather than something akin to a physical pain.

    @vitorfrota
    I suspect that knowing where you stand when the alternative is chaos and possible conflict is a strong motivation to defend the status quo. Belief forms the foundation of why a social order is justified,.

    @stephen
    thanks for the detailed analysis. My submission wasn’t intended to be an essay. I have not studied the subject in detail. My comment was a product of reading articles and seeing debates in which Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens argued the case against religion. They seemed to think that the religious beliefs in themselves were a cause of conflict. What I was saying is that when people form groups and these groups interact one possible form of interaction is conflict. That conflict is a product of the group dynamics rather than a specific or even irrational belief.

    Human nature. It is sometime easy to fall into the trap of genetic biological determinism. We are a species distinct from other by virtue of our gene code but sometimes the claims of their determining and overriding influence on behaviour, i.e. human nature, are exaggerated. I think what genes do is provide a platform of amazing flexibility. If you know that a thing has an influence e.g. a gene, a cultural value or other possible determining influence by knowing enables you to exercise choice. Choice denies nature, nurture and culture.

    Conflict for dominance? I mean that yes violence could be used for revenge and other purposes but I mean violence used to resolved the disorder or conflicting views in order to establish a single uniform order thus dominating/defeating all other possibilities.

    Why religion works? I don’t know why it works but I was trying to argue that self interest was also important not just belief. Could you provide a brief summary of Daniel Dennetts’ Thesis.

    Catholic doctors? I mean that their activity seems to be about deepening and elaborating the Christian doctrine in order to defend it against challenge. A challenge that could split the church creating conflict and diminish the church’s authority.

    Group dependency. I guess that commerce enables competitive alternatives so dependency on any one individual or group is reduced. But dependency on the society as a whole persists. If you had a choice of going to live in a jungle and live off land the and staying with the society your familiar with I suspect must people would not chose the jungle.

    20th century. I thought the 20th century was special in human history in terms of the magnitude of the conflict. The West-Soviet cold war seemed on course for nuclear Armageddon and proxy wars were said to cost the lives of 20 million people.

    Trade and scepticism? Do trading relations between individuals makes us intrinsically sceptical about what another is selling. And that would apply to religious beliefs. So what I mean is that pragmatic conformism may have been more common that it looks.

    @turan
    I am finding it difficult to conceptualise what a belief actually is. I cant help thinking its a means of demonstrating conformity to a group on which the self interest depends. I have seen people as upset when their possessions have been lost say in a flood as compared to a challenge to beliefs.

    Illusory self structure. It seems right that physical death and suffering are not the only cause of fear but loss of self. But why is it thought to be illusory? The self as illusion. If we take a concrete example such as an illusionist demonstrating a trick then there is a actor setting the illusion and a actor that is fooled. Both exist. Why are self concepts not thought real since they must have corresponding physical brain states. If self is not real then what about feelings, memories, imaginings etc? Your self is identified with an objective physical structure, the body, located in space. All evidence says that you are your brain.

    @aldous
    I would have thought a fair definition of self interest is the means by which you meet your needs and wants.

    Intellectual honesty can be difficult to achieve not just because people are not equipped but because drawing a conclusion that brings them into conflict with others, a respected other or authority figure is a problem. They may accept the wrong answer in order to avoid conflict not because they are incapable. Consequence of conflict? Material loss, social isolation and historically even death.

    Intellectual achievement can be valued but not always. Intellectual masturbation may be interesting but may not have a practical output. Sometime intellectualisation can seem like machination rather than leading to illumination.

    @QuestioningKat
    I have not seen Breaking bad but could the character Walt simply be acting upon his strong desire and then post rationalising it. It seems he has a conscience to begin with or at least a concern about being punished by others. Perhaps a person is an internal competition of things including conscience and desire rather than conscience having some overriding authority over behaviour.

    There is another point concerning the scope of conscience. Conscience may only apply to the group you are a member of. To take a stark example, presumably members of the Third Reich treated each other with moral restraint but obviously treated Jews, Romanies, the mentally ill and communists with no moral concern at all. This can be explained by moral conscience having a limited scope of applicability. If you extrapolated this idea to say a society that has become very individualised with people with no identifiable group except perhaps their family then perhaps treatment of the other (non family) without moral regards, given the right circumstance, might seem acceptable to them.

    @gfz
    It is said there are those that can accept conflicting ideas without CD. Orwell called it double think.

    I still find it difficult to believe that simply being emotionally upset or disappointed would be as an important factor as your world coming part. When I mean world I mean your social group and society order. I can understand that would be frightening.

    @markovich
    Sounds about right. There must be a reason why major monotheistic religions emerged during the period of civilisation. I take civilisation to mean very large consolidations of people facilitated by farming, trade and centralised government (probably more to it than that). If human beings evolved in small groups where they would live most their lives with people they know presumably having encounters with other groups from time to time. What effect does living in very large consolidations of people have? Most people in the super-group will be strangers and acquaintances can come and go and never be seen again. Is forming a community within the super-group a desirable goal? People claim to be communing with God but are they actually communing with each other attempting to get back to a simpler pre-civilisation time of small groups.

    Marxist communism has been describe as religion for atheists. Is there a logical reason why a more communal based philosophy emerged during a period of intense industrialisation. If people were going from familiar communities, even within civilisation, and cottage industries to be disrupted and consolidated into factory work did this stimulate a need for community. Was communism in part a response?

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