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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/16/10

Why Does Religion Persist?

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Message Todd Kashdan

There has been debate about the future of religion. I, for one, believe that religion is going to last for quite a long time. Despite scientific facts and philosophical arguments against the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient creator -- including undeniable evidence for Darwin's evolution theory -- and ridicule, religion remains the norm. And people that are uncomfortable using the word religion turn to less volatile terms, such as spirituality.

As a psychologist, I find that the most interesting questions have nothing to do with whether or not God exists. An idea that cannot be proved or disproved is trite, contrived, and appallingly boring. Instead, I am interested in the benefits, costs, and struggles of people grappling with the confusion and randomness of the human condition. Why do some people turn to religion while others do not? What function does religion serve? What happens when religious convictions are challenged? How well integrated is a person's religion into their everyday life?

Consider the widely held idea that supernatural forces intervene to benefit believers. People regularly pray or strive to be virtuous in hopes of getting a piece of the action. If you follow sacred texts literally, attempts to be completely virtuous are doomed from the start. In the only document ever written by the supernatural creator for a human audience, the author felt that a full 20% of the fundamental rules should focus on sex. Not only should you avoid adultery but you should not even have a single lustful thought about your neighbor's wife. Should we ignore the fact that our supernatural author held sexist views that were no different than those held by other people living around 1500 BC? Should we ignore the fact that our supernatural author failed to consider the cruel irony of these commandments? That is, the more you try to conceal thoughts about the sexy, curvaceous body of your neighbor, the more frequent and intense those unwanted cravings are going to be. Scientists have discovered that willpower operates like a muscle. If you exert too much energy trying to control your thoughts, you are going to exhaust your limited energy supply. When your energy supply is limited, you are less able to delay gratification, resist sexual temptations, or do much of anything that requires self-control. The inherent limitations of willpower ensure that you will defy the so-called creator of the universe. Be mindful of the commandments and try to resist coveting your neighbor and in turn you are going to fail miserably and feverishly fantasize about them. There are four ways to think about this:

1. There is now a built-in mechanism to excuse the so-called creator when things don't go the way that believers want: your prayers weren't answered because you just weren't virtuous enough. How many rape victims prayed right before a perpetrator violated them? How many Haitians die daily from diphtheria and infectious diseases while talking to their supernatural friend? What parent of a missing child does not pray? Are we to believe that a benevolent supernatural entity feels that some parents deserve to have their prayers answered, with their child returning home, while others deserve to be ignored?

2. The so-called creator has a dark, perverse sense of humor. If this is true, can this be considered independently from his benevolence?

3. Skepticism about this so-called creator is warranted.

4. A religion that is hyperfocused on sex seems to be quite useful for handling dilemmas that are at the center of evolutionary theory. Prevent people from engaging in adultery and you increase the likelihood that the children being raised in your home happen to be your own. Of course, when many religions decided on the ironclad laws for humanity, no consideration was given to single parents, adoption, gay couples, and plenty of other interesting features of the modern day world.

The year is 2010. Is it time for superstition to take a backseat to action?

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Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his speaking engagements, books, and research, (more...)
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Why Does Religion Persist?

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