Sunday, February 14, 2016

Are religions uniquely capable of providing meaning?

Why is it so hard to change religious beliefs? Or, more broadly, why is it so hard to get people out of any ideological belief system? Much of the difficulty arises from what I've termed the religion gap, that distance between how we are as a society and how we need to be for a wide majority of people to see religious belief as largely superfluous. The general hypothesis underlying my recent Everybody Is Wrong About God is that the more the religion gap is filled, the more able people will be in walking away from superstitious and ideological beliefs (as they will have the psychological room necessary to reflect upon them better, for one thing). One interesting and daunting aspect of the religion gap, however, is the totality of what religion often can provide for people in a single package, something non-religious, non-ideological approaches to life often seem to lack.

I want to cite a little research from the psychology of religion to give some idea of the difficulty that leaving religion presents, and what I want to discuss is grim. Religion (and many other ideologies), if thought of as a packaged way to look at the world, possess distinct advantages where it comes to selling themselves and proving psychologically salient to adherents.

Part of my hope is to outline some of what I think our societies need to do if we have the goal of reducing reliance upon religious and ideological belief and thus being more secular in our thought. For clarity, I mean "secular" here in the broad sense that I've been using lately: the idea that sacredness (which is the crucial component of ideological motivation) is legitimately meaningful locally but not globally. To first approximation, to have a mindset that is secular in this broader sense is to recognize that different people believe different things, and so we have little, if any, authority to press other people into the service of what we hold dearest. (To go a little further, it implies that believing something personally important covers none of the distance toward establishing it as true.)

Sacredness is something like the human meaning-making impulse running on overdrive. A concept is imbued with such importance, so much meaning, much of that written in moral terms, that it essentially takes on infinite value, to paraphrase moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. This makes sacred values very difficult to help people examine honestly and reconsider. Here, I want to talk about a well-researched reason that religions (and other ideologies) are so effective at ramping up the meaning-making knob to 'sacred.'

Hood, Hill, and Spilka (The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, 4th ed., New York, Guilford Press, 2009), after asking "Why is religion the framework to which so many people turn in their quest to find meaning?" and mentioning that there are effective secular approaches to meaning-making (p. 15) give an answer that should be a bit haunting and chilling for those who want to get broader society away from religious belief--or even just to make it more effectively secular and pluralistic. Take a moment to read it a couple of times.
For many people, however, religion continues to serve well as a provider of meaning. Hood et al. (2005) have identified four criteria by which religion is uniquely capable of providing global meaning: "comprehensiveness," "accessibility," "transcendence," and "direct claims." (p. 15, emphasis original)
The idea that prominent researchers in the psychology of religion deem religious belief as "uniquely capable" of providing meaning "for many people," is a little concerning, particularly if we adhere to the fair and egalitarian view that, indeed, essentially everyone possesses the relevant psychological capacity to leave religious beliefs behind and to navigate life free of faith. We owe such an idea some attention, then, and we should start by attempting to understand the four criteria attributed to Ralph Hood and his collaborators.

First comprehensiveness.
First, religion is the most comprehensive of all meaning systems in that it can subsume many other sources of meaning, such as work, family, achievement, personal relationships, and enduring values and ideals. Silberman (2005a) demonstrates religion's comprehensiveness by pointing out the extensive range of issues that religion addresses at both descriptive and prescriptive levels: belief about the world and self (e.g. about human nature, the social and natural environment, the afterlife), contingencies and expectations (e.g. rewards for righteousness and punishment for doing evil), goals (e.g. benevolence, altruism, supremacy), actions (e.g. compassion, charity, violence), and emotions (e.g. love, joy, peace). Religion's special meaning-making power is due, in part, to its comprehensive nature. (pp. 15-16)
It is very difficult to argue with the assessment that religion tends to possess this kind of comprehensiveness. In fact, I have called "God" "the ultimate ad hoc concept, filling every gap exactly as it needs to be filled specifically because it needs to be filled" (Everybody Is Wrong About God, p. 98).

This is an apparent major shortcoming of the non-religious approach to managing society: it inherently seems to lack comprehensiveness. I think that deficiency is almost entirely in seeming, though, more than in actuality. Human knowledge feels very fragmented, but this is probably an illusion. The scientific approach--understood broadly as characterized by Sam Harris, for instance--to considering every single one of the examples cited above provides a superior avenue (a more "mature model," as Sean Carroll might put it) to managing these issues than does religion. It's also as philosophically unified as any religious approach to answering questions while being vastly more coherent and empirically grounded. Here, hardened philosophers, whatever their position on religion, are doing us no favors by muddying the water with words like "scientism."

One thing that religion does in a way that I do not know can be copied by any non-religious (non-ideological, more broadly) approach, however, is provide grand narratives -- something like concepts, ideas, or ideals that provide a comprehensive backbone for understanding the world, especially the social world -- into which their comprehensive meaning systems are embedded and conveyed. Religions often write their grand narratives in expressly mythological ways that offer very poignant and fulfilling ways for a person to characterize herself in the broader world. By introducing grand narratives, I do not mean to lure anyone into any postmodern and relativistic understanding of culture. While I do think the concept of a grand narrative has considerable utility, the notion that all such narratives are on some kind of level because they are narratives is utterly laughable.

Grand narratives provide a background context into which people can find personal meaning, which implies identity and esteem, these being objects to which people can attach a great deal of value. Finding a suitable, non-ideological alternative to grand narratives (which are by nature very prone to spawning ideologies), or convincing the wide majority of people to take up the charge of learning to face life without them (question everything!) will prove a difficult sticking point in getting to a fully post-religious (post-ideological) state, if it is possible at all.

On accessibility,
The second major reason for religion's success as a meaning maker is that it is so accessible (Hood et al., 2005). Many conservative religious groups often stress the importance of a religious world view--a religious belief that contributes to global meaning. The accessibility of such a view is often promoted through doctrinal teachings and creeds, religious education, and sometimes even rules of acceptable and unacceptable behavioral practices--often in the name of developing a system of values compatible with the religious tradition. (p. 16)
This also is difficult to argue against: the barrier to entry for a religious worldview is not very high. All a potential believer has to do is convince himself that the beliefs are true (or true enough, as is likely to be the case with human cognition and belief acceptance) and the deal is effectively done. Testimony to this claim includes that the stunning breadth of devotion to religious practices even within any given faith tradition is nearly as expansive as imagination allows.

Convincing oneself of the ridiculous is the hardest part of getting into a religion, but that's not much, at least not where people accept them already, and especially where they have wide acceptance and the societal pretense of being virtuous--and that's the thing. As Sam Harris has noted, to paraphrase, religions allow people to believe by the billions that which only the insane could believe alone. That social acceptability of religious belief is, tragically, exactly what makes them so accessible, and it's the core reason why fringe cults are looked upon with so much scorn despite being functionally identical. Religions, like all Ideologically Motivated Moral Communities (IMMCs) are a kind of manipulative group, which means they are social structures that can and do successfully manipulate intelligent, well-meaning, even critical people into their belief structures by playing upon human psychology and providing social rewards. It sounds fantastic when put as it is, but these paths are literally the most beaten trails on the landscape of human social experience.

Incidentally, this provides an avenue for heading in a post-theistic direction, and it's probably the one most identifiable with "New Atheism": cut off or reduce the social acceptability, hence reduce the accessibility of various forms of religious belief (or of all religious belief). There are, of course, limits to this effort, but it seems to be the primary goal of New Atheism -- arguing the falsity of the belief claims and pointing out the abuses that they engender.

On transcendence,
Religion, by its very nature for many, involves a sense of transcendence--the third reason identified by Hood et al. (2005) for religion's success as a meaning provider. As stated earlier, S. M. [sic] Taylor (2007) persuasively argues that transcendence should not be insisted upon as a necessary criterion for a sense of significance and fullness. Nevertheless, a belief in a transcendent and authoritative being, especially when complete sovereignty is attributed to that being (as in the case of Western monotheistic religion), is the basis of the most convincing and fulfilling sense of meaning for many (Wong, 1998). Perhaps more than any other system of meaning, religion provides a focus on that which is "beyond me." Thus many people have "ultimate concerns" (Emmons, 1999) that require some belief in an ultimate authority, be it God or some other conception of transcendence in which higher meaning is found. Walter Houston Clark (1958) put it this way: "At the end of the road lies God, the Beyond, the final essence of the Cosmos, yet so secretly hidden with the soul that no man is able to persuade another that he has fulfilled the quest" (p. 419). (p.16)
The observations by Charles Taylor bear some elaboration and provide some hope, although "transcendence" is definitely a sticking point that creates much of what I have termed the religion gap. Taylor argues convincingly that a change in perspective can reorient a sense of fullness and meaning in life from that which is "beyond" life (transcendent) to that which is "within" it (imminent). Hood, Hill, and Spilka summarize, "Thus, in our secular age, a sense of 'transcendence' (something that goes beyond our usual limits) is no longer a necessary requirement for meaning; fullness or meaning in life may also be found in the 'imminent' (the state of being within) order of nature, such as in our sense of human flourishing." (p. 15)

This observation is hopeful as well, and it is another line pursued by New Atheism (as well as older strains of atheism -- it's difficult to read that summary and not be reminded of Russell and Ingersoll, to say nothing of earlier thinkers). I think this forms another part of the religion gap, however, and I think the approach can be broadened via humanism.

Particularly, I think we leave a lot of opportunity by the wayside in ignoring the potential for finding something that is transcendent to the individual in the societal. We are a social, even communal animal by our evolutionary heritage, and there is great meaning (imminent in the world or no) in realizing our community as a kind of higher power (as compared to any individual) in itself. As I put it in EIWAG, "There is something greater than ourselves that gives us a real sense of passive control already, really. It's us--each other. We should foster that and help make it more obvious." (p. 219)

On direct claims,
Finally, no other system of meaning is so bold in its proclaimed ability to provide a sense of significance. Meaning is embedded within religion's sacred character, so that it points to humanity's ultimate purpose--in the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, to love and worship God. ... For some, such bold and exclusive claims are perhaps reason enough for suspicion. Others find these claims so convincing that religion demands their "all." (pp. 16-17)
It's fairly interesting -- and disheartening -- that sheer chutzpah appears to make up for much of the fact that religions cannot prove half-a-damned-thing that they're claiming. For this, other than the usual calls to promote critical thinking, my only suggested remedy is to better understand the term "God," to steal the power of those direct claims by reformulating them with non-religious interpretations of the same terms. This, of course, is the primary goal of EIWAG.

For what it's worth, Hood, Hill, and Spilka go from that point to note immediately that the reason such meaning-making is so important is the tireless effort to deal with human powerlessness. That is, for a feeling of control in life. Knowledge is power, we say, and even an illusory sense of control and a sense that you know something of what's happening to you will suffice when the ideal of actual control isn't available.

My thought on this matter is that public trust in science has waned over the last few decades, and I'm not sure why. A broadly considered scientific approach to the major questions of life, however, delivers direct claims about reality with enough confidence to require no chutzpah, although it possesses an unfortunate integrity that does not constrain religion: it doesn't just make things up because people want them to be true. In this avenue, the oft-made call to cultivating critical thinking skills is probably most badly needed, then.

Personal meaning systems

To expand a little on what is going on with human meaning making, I'll quote Paul Wong, cited under "transcendence" above, directly. Wong is an expert on human attempts at meaning making, and he summarizes them thusly in his 1998 book The Human Quest for Meaning: A Handbook of Psychological Research and Clinical Applications, quoting or paraphrasing Dittmann-Kohli (1991):
It [a personal meaning system] is a dynamic, centralized structure with various sub-domains. It is conceived as a cognitive map that orients the individual in steering through the life course. The personal meaning system comprises the categories (conceptual schemes) used for self and life interpretation. It is a cognitive-affective network containing person-directed and environment-directed motivational cognitions and understandings, like goal concepts and behavior plans, conceptions of character and competencies, of internal processes and mechanisms, various kinds of standards and self-appraisals. (Wong, 1998, p. 386)
In Everybody Is Wrong About God, referring to (evangelical) Christianity, I referred to this cognitive map as "Jesus-colored glasses." The matter runs deeper than just that, though, as technically heavy terms like "cognitive-affective network" imply. A personal meaning system is literally how someone navigates the world in the often-interwoven mental and emotional universe that is their subjective experience. Such a thing must run to the core of any individual--it may in fact define what makes that individual up psychologically in the first place. These personal meaning systems are what we are up against when looking at any religion, however, and to help people move away from religion requires finding suitable non-religious alternatives to determining personal meaning.

In closing, it's of utmost importance as we encourage the rise of the Nones and reaffirm the secular status of functional nations (including in hoping to spread that net more broadly) to recognize what religions and IMMCs are and what they're doing for people. Only by having an accurate view of them will we be able to effectively dismantle them and reduce their damaging, pernicious effects.


Internal references:
(1) Clark, W. H. (1958). The psychology of religion. New York: Macmillan.
(2) Dittmann-Kohli, F. (1991, July). Dimensions of change in personal meaning in young and elderly adults. Paper presented at the 11th Biennial Meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development (ISSBD).
(3) Emmons, R. A. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns. New York: Guilford Press.
(4) Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism. New York: Guilford Press.
(5) Silberman, I. (2005a). Religion as a meaning system: Implications for a new millennium. Journal of Social Issues, 61, 641--663.
(6) Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press/Belknap Press.
(7) Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Spirituality, meaning and successful aging. In P. T. P. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.) The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 359--394). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.