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thoughts on religious/spiritual belief

This was originally posted as a comment in vito_excalibur's journal here; it's slightly expanded here.

Whether or not deity exists, it seems clear that a lot of people have a lot invested in deity's existing (believing or hoping or acting-as-if or...). I'm probably just not looking in the right places, but sometimes I wonder why more attention isn't paid to why so many people invest so much in it. Most of the speculations about that I hear are insults or dismissals from people who don't have the investment and who think that having the investment means you're deluded. That may be so, I suppose, but I also think that throwing away some pretty amazing (and yes, also some pretty horrible) human accomplishments as entirely based on delusion is depressing and reductionistic - kind of like saying oh, thoughts and feelings are nothing but electrical signals in the brain. Yes they are, but they aren't "nothing but."

Can you think of any neutral-to-positive and non-insulting reasons that many humans have a lot invested in believing in the existence of deity? What do we get out of it; why do some of us need or strongly want it?

(Disclosure - I need/strongly want spiritual experience and have had spiritual experiences [that could also be explained in non-supernatural ways, but I choose to experience/remember them as spiritual]. I neither believe nor don't believe in the existence of deity. I usually boil this down to "I believe in deity on alternative thursdays.")


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 2nd, 2005 07:18 pm (UTC)
I've found, talking to those who do have an investment in things spiritual, that it is mostly a source of comfort and strength for them in trying times. I have one rather devout friend who is also struggling with a really nasty disease, and his faith carries him through some pretty dark days.

It also seems to give people a sense of belonging, a sense of community, and an answer to the question, "what is the meaning of life?" Well, they don't get the actual answer, but they ARE told that there IS an answer, and that alone seems to be enough for many (I've noticed that being able to say, "I don't understand, but GOD understands, so it'll all be okay in the end" is a great source of comfort to some people).

It gives them guidelines to live by when societal laws or rules of etiquette don't apply, and a framework for how their individual lives are supposed to fit in to this great, big, giant world.

I do not have such an investment, but these are observations that I have made from talking with others who do. My sources are nothing more than "people I know," so I claim no accurracy or expertise in the topic.
Aug. 2nd, 2005 07:41 pm (UTC)
Can you think of any neutral-to-positive and non-insulting reasons that many humans have a lot invested in believing in the existence of deity? What do we get out of it; why do some of us need or strongly want it?

Well... what most comes to mind is, I like erotic spanking. Why? I don't rightly know, but it does something for me, something I don't have without it. I don't care if you can prove logically, scientifically, and spiritually, that erotic spanking is a terrible practice... all it will prove to me is that you just don't get it.

It would be just as valid to ask you why you aren't into it, as it is valid to ask me why I am into it.

Now, do I think everyone who spanks or gets spanked by a lover is a good, healthy person with no problems or issues that should be dealt with? Of course not. I'm sure some people spank, or are spanked, for terrible reasons. But, until I know that there *is* a serious problem, I'm not going to assume there is a problem... especially not when spanking is such a common erotic game for people.
Aug. 2nd, 2005 07:54 pm (UTC)
On a secular level, if I had to dissect my faith down to a "if God didn't exist, we would invent him," level, I suppose I would invent a God to believe in because:
1. Believing that there is a purpose behind my existance other than just to be part of a functioning ecosystem makes me feel good.
2. Believing that I exist as part of a god's grand design in creating for himself a friend makes me feel really good.
3. Believing that there is an explanation behind the unexplained makes me feel secure.
4. I can't imagine that I am the biggest sort of mind in the universe.
5. I can't fathom that our universe just "happened."

If I had to dissect it down to the secular for why I believe in my particular faith it would be because:
1. If there are going to be rules, I can't think of any better than Love the Lord your God with all your being and Love your neighbor as yourself. Kind of covers everything when properly applied.
2. I can't live without the idea of redemption.
3. My faith is built on the idea that a god wanted a friend, so he made mankind, then when mankind screwed up, that god still loved his imperfect little people so much that he went out of his way to give them a way back into his arms. I screw up a lot, so I need that kind of a god.
Aug. 2nd, 2005 08:17 pm (UTC)
I think for many it probably has a lot to do with recognition of mortality and a desire for something beyond -- whether fear of your own death, or fear of the death of loved ones. It is very difficult to believe that a beloved parent or child or lover is just gone, and scary to imagine one's own not being. It seems like an unlikely waste somehow, that it all comes down to nothing in the end. One fundamental pillar in almost every spiritual path has to do with explaining what happens when we die. It makes life meaningful rather than a short pointless interval between eternities of not-being.
Aug. 2nd, 2005 08:19 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure. I was discussing this with my hubby, though, and we came up with a few things:

1) Diety is so widespread a belief among humans that there is obviously something deep down in the human psyche that finds it important to believe in something larger than ourselves.

2) Essentially the erotic spanking explanation - People have many reasons for believing things and for deciding what constitutes valid evidence. For many people, the evidence for the existence of a diety is more powerful than the evidence against it.

3) I hadn't really thought of this one until my agnostic/atheist spouse mentioned it, and it's more of an insulting reason to NOT believe in god than a non-insulting reason TO believe. But, for those who choose science over religion as an explanation of why and how the universe works, faith is still underlying that decision. It's faith in science and not diety, but unless you really understand ALL that science out there, you mostly just have faith that it's correct. Faith that it's a valid system of explanation. You don't really know.

4) My personal theory - it's an extension of "it's all about me." Most people are self-centered. We interpret other people's behavior in ways that put ourselves at the center. If an LJ friend doesn't reply to my post, it's because they're mad at *me*. In reality, they're busy, or their computer broke, or they can't think of anything good to say, or a million other reasons, but by making ourselves the focus, we give ourselves some measure of agency or control or importance. We aren't just tiny, peripheral bits of fluff that don't matter. Anyway, we believe in diety for the same reason. We can't bear the thought that we're all just nothing, less than little bits of star-fluff. This may be an insulting explanation, but I really don't mean it that way. I think some kind of greater purpose is necessary to keep us from just giving up or going insane.

I think I've read that the oldest religious rituals are burial rites. The implication is that the development of religion is deeply intertwined with the awareness of mortality. That once we realize we're going to die, we have to come up with something beyond death.

BTW - Have you read Robert Sawyer's Hominid series? He kind of talks about this.
Aug. 2nd, 2005 09:56 pm (UTC)
*ack*, no
But, for those who choose science over religion as an explanation of why and how the universe works, faith is still underlying that decision.

i don't doubt that for some people faith in science plays the same role as faith in religion.

however, that's not true for everyone who chooses science over religion as a means for explaining how the universe works. i know what faith feels like because i once had it, but what i feel about science when i don't myself understand all of it is not faith, it's ... probability. i don't have faith in it at all; i expect that some of my scientific understanding will change as more data is found and new theories are formed. also, some of it i do understand completely because i've studied it.

i make a distinction between "belief" and "faith" -- belief consists of thinking something is probably true as explained to me; i could test it and check it out myself if i wanted to, but i trust a source enough to not go to that extent all the time. faith has no component of being able to test it and check it out for myself, it's just there, no rationale required or even possible. ergo i believe that science can attempt to explain how the universe works. but hey, if god stands in front of me tomorrow and explains sufficiently how that belief rests on faulty data, i'll be all ears and ready to discard what science i know. i don't have anything invested in science being true; it just has turned out to make good, solid sense whenever i've decided to study something in-depth. and the scientific method is ace when it comes to ferretting out pseudo-science.

because science is all about testing and checking things from every angle, faith is anathema to science; we have peer review instead. :) science can stand without anyone having faith in it at all, in fact it needs to stand no matter who tries to investigate it, faithful or not. science also changes when gaining new data, which is pretty much the opposite of faith persisting despite all contrary evidence. you can learn to understand science, all of it, if you apply yourself,because science has clear rules and is reproducible by anyone, anywhere. faith requires special insight and you can't learn it by following clear guidelines that work for everyone.

people who claim science is just another religion usually don't understand the scientific method.
Aug. 2nd, 2005 11:41 pm (UTC)
Re: *ack*, no
people who claim science is just another religion usually don't understand the scientific method.

Well, i think back to Hume's _On Miracles_ often in this context. Hume's injunction is that if the observation cannot be replicated, (and thus you can not use the scientific method to examine and explain it,) the rational man is required to deny it occurred.

In practice this is where one looks at the out-lying data point and says, well, yes, but there was probably some factor that intruded (the sample was prepared incorrectly, a power surge occurred in the equipment, the original diagnosis was incorrect). And I am very happy to accept there may be an explanation along these lines that explains why most out-lier points occur.

What this then leaves is the fact that there are potential areas of reality where the scientific method cannot be applied. Assertions to the actuality of these areas cannot be tested with the scientific method. To me, fidelity to skepticism and science means one must accept that there are potential modes of reality that cannot be described scientifically and be agnostic about those modes. Perhaps we will learn all the complicated relationships and be able to isolate and make repeatable the patterns, thus moving the observation or experience away from the miraculous into the scientifically understood. But if we don't, i don't believe Hume is right in saying we must deny the observation. I think *that* is the mark of faith, not in the scientific method, but that the the extent of what is is completely describable through science. And i've met folks who do hold that faith.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 02:52 am (UTC)
Re: *ack*, no
What this then leaves is the fact that there are potential areas of reality where the scientific method cannot be applied.


To me it's entirely rational to hold the theory that new scientific methods will be developed that will allow observations and testing on areas of reality that currently can't be observed and tested. Such new methods have appeared many times already.

(Note, I personally don't think humans will be able to observe and test absolutely everything, but there are a lot of areas of reality that we can't test yet but will be able to eventually, assuming we don't blow ourselves up first.)
Aug. 3rd, 2005 01:11 am (UTC)
Re: *ack*, no
Okay, I'm channeling the spouse now, not myself - I think what he's saying is that for most people (many? some?), the belief in science contains a faith that the people doing it are doing it correctly. That the scientific method really works. And he's claiming that the difference is more the standard of evidence you'll accept. And now he's saying that he has faith that eventually science *will* figure it out. And that there's really no basis for that, but he believes it just the same. (And then he started quoting George Michael and I had to stop listening :D)

Personally, I think I agree more with you - the difference in the standard of evidence is of utmost importance. Replicability and logic are key. And the fact that I *could* learn this stuff if I wanted to. Although, if I mediate and fast long enough I might have visions, so maybe that's not a good point.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 02:55 am (UTC)
Re: *ack*, no
The many technologies that I'm dependent on is proof that people are doing science - some kinds of science - correctly: they can replicate the result so exactly that they can crank out a zillion products based on it, which mostly work.

There are other things that are a lot harder to study scientifically, and having delved fairly deeply into research in some of these fields, I'm quite sure that most people aren't doing it correctly. Perhaps they'll eventually figure it out and perhaps not.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 03:28 am (UTC)
Re: *ack*, no
Yes, exactly. People who insist that science is just another form of religion bug the fool out of me, because it's clear that they don't really grasp either science or religion. Here's the difference:

No matter how esoteric or involved the science, if I chose to put in the effort to acquire the training, I could understand it eventually. That I choose rather to trust that those who have had the training are not lying to me is no different from choosing to trust that the 12"x6' piece of lumber I'm buying at the hardware store really is 6 feet long and 12 inches wide, rather than re-measuring it for myself, or using a calculator instead of pencil and paper to figure my gas mileage.

The essence of religion is that it cannot be understood -- it must be taken on faith, particularly because so many of its tenets appear to contradict observable reality. There is no training I can receive which will prove that Heaven exists, or allow me to determine whether the Deity is male or female, single or triple or an entire pantheon. Those concepts are all human inventions -- they are items of faith, not fact.

My partner makes a button which states it very succinctly: "Faith requires no facts. Facts require no faith." Religion is about faith, while science is about facts -- which is fine until people try to mix the two together. There's a place for each; science can't prove that the Bible was divinely inspired, and the Bible can't demonstrate how the earth was created.

Aug. 3rd, 2005 09:34 pm (UTC)
Re: *ack*, no
no different from choosing to trust that the 12"x6' piece of lumber I'm buying at the hardware store really is 6 feet long and 12 inches wide, rather than re-measuring it for myself

*grin*. i re-measure it for myself. and not just because people make mistakes either when cutting, or when sorting. lumber measurements are simply an iffy thing, partly for historical reasons, partly because wood changes dimensions with humidity, and it makes a big difference whether it was cut green or dry. eg. a 2x4 of construction lumber never actually measures 2 inches by 4 inches, but might be 1.5 by 3.55 inches; a 6" wide piece of pine board lumber likely measures just 5.5". the only thing that can usually be trusted is the length.

i think your calculator example is much better. :)
Aug. 2nd, 2005 09:26 pm (UTC)
I think dieties exist for many reasons people mention here.

Personal: I primarily feel that humans benefit personally and societally by having templates of social behavior to guide them in making socially acceptable decisions. The traditions and the dialogue about personal life choices that religion (under the guise of diety) seems to help people stay connected, discuss these things, examine themselves and gives them a chance to be rewarded for improvement. This is why I'm a fan of a supportive belief structure for 'most folks'... it gives them more tools for surviving and growing -- even though I'm not particularly religious.

Political: one thing I don't recall seeing mentioned is that by supporting diety and religion it's possible to create and enforce large social power structures. This creates an ecosystem for wealth concentration or redistribution. I subscribe to the belief that diety was originally an explanation for the rhythms of nature that hunter/gatherer tribes and eventually agrarian societies are dependent on (particularly in harsher climates). These stories were then coopted to allow management of larger populations, storage of food stuffs, taxation, justice, and war.

The enlightenment gave us an alternative where scientific method could be applied to social systems, but after the end of the progressive era, I suspect we're reverting more back to the style of Hamurabi's empire.

Aug. 2nd, 2005 09:46 pm (UTC)
I'm an atheist, in one sense. I don't think any deities exist outside ourselves, because there isn't anywhere for them to be, if that makes any sense. (It's a biological/complexity argument: everything ultimately is matter, and the matter has to be complicated to give rise to complex higher-order effects, and our brain is about the most complicated matter we can find.)

On the other hand, I don't agree that that means deities don't exist, full stop. I think it's much too simplistic a definition of "exist". My preference for chocolate ice cream doesn't exist according to those criteria, either. Nor does the speed limit. In other words, matter might be fundamental, but it's only fundamental, and lots of complex things exist at higher levels of abstraction, particularly within and between people.

I also think that at that level of abstraction, things can exist to different extents. For example, the law against murder exists more than the law against building anything within 10m of the Brisbane River. And Hamlet exists more than [your favourite example of badly-written fictional character]. And on that kind of scale, deities seem overall to be at the 'exists lots' end of the scale - you see evidence of that all around you, even if you're an atheist like me.

I don't think I've answered your question, but hopefully I've pointed in the direction my thinking goes. And certainly when I talk to people who are theists/deists, I respect their beliefs. This has been more about how I think about it from my viewpoint.
Aug. 2nd, 2005 10:09 pm (UTC)
Re: thoughts on religious/spiritual belief
what constitutes an insult?

for me, a difference between insulting and non-insulting is expressed in viewing something as a "crutch" versus a "tool".

i am not sure all people of faith see it similarly.

finding tools that aid one in gathering strength, perseverance, comfort, and joy around oneself can be a good thing.

somewhat less strong is the distinction between "delusion" and "illusion".

delusions are for psych wards, but illusions aren't necessarily insulting or to be scoffed at: when reading fiction or watching a stage play or a movie, being transported by the illusion into another world can be educational, reaffirming, relaxing, delightful, and a host of other things -- and those effects can work wonders in one's daily life. that isn't a bad thing either.
Aug. 2nd, 2005 11:17 pm (UTC)
Re: thoughts on religious/spiritual belief
I would draw the "insult" line between "delusion" and "illusion," although people who believe in deity more strongly than I do might also find "illusion" insulting.

Whenever people say, for example, "fairies don't exist" or "fairies aren't real," I think of all the forms in which they do exist - in fairy tales, picture books, as sculptures, as characters in movies or computer games. I've never seen a flesh-and-blood fairy that wasn't obviously created partly out of human imagination, but to me products of human imagination clearly exist and are real in various ways.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 12:00 am (UTC)
I hold both the belief in the divine and the understanding that it's not necessarily an accurate representation of what Is, as the same time. I can accept that my experiences of mystical and spiritual types are observable as electro-chemical neurological functions.

I think that we invest much in belief in divinities as answers to Why questions. I also think that when it comes to issues of illusion and delusion, Buddhist practice leads to a much more honest stripping-away than some Western rational attitudes. Many people who might dismissively assign delusion/illusion to faith in deities, have other beliefs and values that might crumble equally when examined.

I remember discussing with another nuclear physicist the then current research into closed vs open universe. I observed that people seemed to care a great deal that the result be closed, that that had some meaning. His earnest response was that it would be all meaningless if the universe were open and to die a heat death. Further conversation just emphasized the gap between us. I could care less; somehow, to him, meaning at the level of his life was tied to a cyclical universe.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 02:58 am (UTC)
I agree with you on Buddhism. I'm always wondering whether it really counts as a religious/spiritual system or something else, and I decided that I wouldn't even try to fit it into my post.

I've had various emotional reactions to the notion that the universe is open. I've felt disappointed (there's something wonderfully tidy about a cyclical universe), and I've also felt amazed, like that would make everything the universe has and will produce so much more precious.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 03:36 am (UTC)
I believe that the earliest uses of religion were (1) attempts to explain random occurrences such as weather, illness, accidents, and natural catastrophes, and (2) attempts to convince ourselves that death was not the end of consciousness. I also believe that those two reasons are still the strongest draws religion offers. IME if you talk to someone who is very religious (and it doesn't seem to make any difference what religion -- I've had the same conversations with people of widely varying faiths) about why their religion matters to them, sooner or later it comes down to one of those two things.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 05:20 am (UTC)
The unknown has a "mysterious power" by its very nature; if that power or energy is anthropomorphized, it is easier for us to interact with it.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 11:59 am (UTC)
Another thing I wanted to mention is related to a common point above: not just "why are we here?", but "why is there anything?". My impression is that the normal human instinctive explanation for anything is that it was created, made by something just as complicated.

If you look around you, you see lots of complicated stuff, and a lot of it has been created by other complicated stuff, so well, that's how the rest of it got here, too, right?

While I'm not the biggest fan of Richard Dawkins in general, I think he had a valid point when he said that the theory of evolution was the first remotely plausible alternative to "god created everything". And it's not easy to understand, there seems to be nothing intuitive to plug it in to.

It's possible that you regard this as a negative or insulting explanation for faith; I don't think it's any more so than the fact that we can't synthesise vitamin C, the way most other species can.

I also think there's an important component to religion which is consistently devalued and demeaned in the discussions I read and participate in, in the Western world, and that is community. I really think we've pushed individualism too far when it's okay to make fun of people for wanting to be part of a community, to share something with other humans. Good religion[1] is often about fast, effective ways of creating community.

[1] In the sense of successful/popular: after all, you were interested in why people would want to invest in it.
Sep. 6th, 2005 09:56 am (UTC)
From my experiences in Free Methodism, Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Goddess-centered Paganism, and the local Humanist group, I'd say that the main reason people go for religion is that community is available there, and that our society is very hard on people who don't have the support of a community.

I think that many of the benefits claimed for religious belief actually accrue to the believers from the fact that they are in community, rather than from the specific beliefs. Living in a culture that treats humans as a commodity (whether as the commodity "labor" or the commodity "consumer") leaves us all with a hunger for an identity that is more than "something with a price tag".

Community gives us mutual aid and comfort in times of birth, sickness, old age, and death. It gives us people like ourselves to hang out with for primate purposes of mutual grooming and whoopie. It gives us somebody to share food, music, dancing, and shelter with, especially if there is an ashram or monastery or retreat center to share. We are meant to huddle together in the dark and keep each other warm, and community furthers.

But too many people have been forced by job or work to move away from communities they were born to, or that they worked to build, and to start all over again in new places. So the Big Old (or new) Rich religions are the most successful ones. They have lots of branches, where new people can fit in right away. If there had ever been such a thing as a chain of Freethinkers' Mutual Aid Societies, I doubt very much whether I would ever have joined any religions or cults.
Sep. 6th, 2005 04:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Community
These are wonderful observations!
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