Many believe that religious behavior is only justified if one has religious belief. I disagree, argue that religion should be managed according to its membership in what I call the category of “Adaptive Distorted States of Perception”, and attempt to make the rationalist case for moderate orthopraxis.
One of my philosophy professors at university adopts a seemingly pathological behavior; he attends Church every Sunday, despite lacking belief in God. It may be worth mentioning that the university in question is not a Christian college, but rather your run-of-the-mill secularized Ivy. Of course, he is not alone in doing something like this. But, perhaps somewhat uniquely, he does so neither due to a failure to parse his beliefs nor because of inertia. Instead, he chose to adopt this practice as a result of first principles reasoning, reasoning which I ultimately do not find compelling, but which nonetheless centers a question which I believe allows for a productive reframing of the problem:
Do we make a category error when we speak of religious belief?
Here, I’ll seek to argue that we ask too much of religious experience when we seek to espouse global beliefs which accord with it. I will seek to instead identify a category of adaptive imperatives, place religious experience in this category, and suggest that we ought to evaluate its value and its place in life in the same way in which we evaluate that of its categorical peers, such as romance and appreciation of art.
II Alief and Possession
On some level, many people recognize that infatuated love presupposes strange beliefs — that the object of our love is particularly fascinating, good, or even divine among the alternatives. Jungian Psychology seems silly until one remembers the vivid imagery which the mind constellates around one’s lovers in the heat of youth. In the arms of a lover, we adopt a map of the world that is a radical distortion of the one we rationally ascribe to in our more clear-headed moments. Even if in the back of our minds we recognize that this map is not correct (useful) in a global sense, we nonetheless feel its weight. In a sense, we are blissfully unable to reject the peculiar ontology of love.
The story is the same for art. We recognize on some level that the painting or music in front of us is simply information carefully arranged to stimulate our meaning-making faculties. And yet as we look at the painting, we find awareness of this cold reality to slip away, a creeping earnestness taking its place. We take the painting seriously and even begin to take it literally. We enter a trance — or, put another way, a cluster of salient aliefs — nearly as overwhelming as that of infatuated love.
Most would report that these trance states are quite enjoyable, perhaps even addictively so for some. This suggests the question — is it responsible to enter them willingly? What distinguishes love from an LSD trip; that is, what makes it anything other than a potentially habit-forming escape from reality that carries the risk of propagating its hallucinations to our day-to-day living?
II Adaptive Imperatives and A Set-Point for Possession
I believe there is a key difference between love and LSD: love is a biological imperative. It’s hard to opt out of the love/sex ontology categorically. Many who try seem to find themselves slipping into ontological possession, where the distortion finds them rather than the reverse. Why?
Well, we can imagine a toy model where certain distorted states of perception (DSPs from here on) mediate adaptive behaviors: a romantic DSP helps us convincingly seduce mates, an artistic DSP helps us convincingly signal non-verbal intelligence, etc. Indeed, not only will a DSP promote success in an associated endeavor, but it may also motivate the endeavor in the first place. A romantic DSP not only makes me better at seduction if I happen to be engaged in it, but motivates me to seduce if I’m not. We could hypothesize a sort of emotional tally that records the frequency at which we enter DSPs, where if the recent relative mass of a certain DSP drops too low, the brain induces the same DSP in order to promote the adaptive behavior. We’ll refer to such DSPs as adaptive.
III The Optimal Mixture
Assuming this set-point toy model to be true, the optimal response to DSPs is not to vainly strive to prevent them, but rather to schedule them in a manner that best controls and contains them. Just as it’s better to eat regular and planned meals than to naively attempt to starve oneself until one gives in to an indiscerning binge, it’s better to plan out the basis on which one enters the love DSP than to have it erupt at exactly the worst times (school, work, etc). If one says to himself “the love DSP is untrue, and scheduling it into my life is to endorse falseness. I won’t do it!”, we might admire his devotion. But we’d probably be right in describing him as foolish — he is subject to a biological speed limit of rationality, and to pretend that this limit does not exist is to accept a suboptimal DSP schedule. He may love rationality, but his very devotion robs him of it — the DSPs he wishes to reject keep inexorably creeping in at the worst moments.
Thus the key difference: whereas taking LSD is strictly elective in the sense that it adds to the mass of expected delusion, embracing love moderately simply alters its distribution across time.
III Identifying Adaptive DSPs
So, we’re potentially left with a sharp decision boundary along the categorical divide between adaptive DSPs and other DSPs (like those induced by LSD). One seeking to be maximally rational should indulge the former judiciously, but presumably reject the latter (or at the very least view them suspiciously). So, how do we know if a DSP is adaptive?
Generally speaking, we likely would be satisfied with the fulfillment of three conditions: lack-induced compulsivity, universality, and evolutionary plausibility. That is, we’d expect a DSP to be adaptive if it visits humans whether they invite it or not, we’d expect all humans to experience it and all cultures to optimally schedule it, and presumably we would also grow more confident in our belief if there were an attractive evolutionary justification for its existence (although this latter condition might not be necessary).
The DSP associated with love seems to check all of these boxes. It seems to be something that can possess even the most unwilling — begrudging crushes are not exactly unheard of — if it is neglected, and yet seems to infrequently afflict (at the wrong time) those who schedule it into their lives. That is my experience, anyway. On the second point, I’m no anthropologist, but it seems like love and infatuation are quite universal and that all cultures evolve some way to regulate them if given enough time. Finally, the evolutionary advantage is obvious: if I can credibly tell my mate that I see her to be a goddess more beautiful than any of her rivals (and so would not cheat), I become a more attractive prospect.
IV Religion associates with an Adaptive DSP
I admit that this is less clear than the case of love. But, I still think there is a decent case.
Lack-Induced Compulsivity: Justice Potter famously argued that it is difficult to explicitly characterize when imagery begins to serve as an outlet for the love-associated DSP. Similarly, it is out of the scope of a brief blog post to demonstrate from first principles that various movements or ideologies are or are not sustained by religion-associated DSP. Is “money” a religion? Probably not. Have Fascism, Leninism, and now Wokism indulged the religious compulsivity of their otherwise “secular” adherents? Perhaps. If we take religions to be comprised of the following elements: worldview, community, central myth, rituals, ethics, characteristic emotional experiences, material expression, and sacredness, I believe a strong case can be — and has been — made that, were we to group the above three in with the standard “religions”, an uninitiated alien observer would not detect a salient category boundary around them. I’ll leave it at that, so as not to induce inordinately much political excitement in the discussion (yes, of course I agree that the totalizing ideology you prefer is *not* associated with a DSP, but instead perfectly agrees with the maximally rational position).
Universality: Religion seems to be universally culturally encoded, and presumably arose many times throughout human history, as even today children not fully acculturated to secularism frequently adopt seemingly endogenously generated religious attitudes. Just as with the love DSP, the religious DSP seems to arise naturally in the process of development and to persist into adulthood.
Evolutionary Explanation: Some believe that religion is a just an accident of heuristics of cognition. The argument goes something like: humans evolved greedy agent detection and a teleological valuation of the world, and religion is the consequence of both faculties misfiring on random noise. This likely bears some explanatory power. Is religion, however, merely a spandrel of cognitive heuristics? Clearly, there is what we might call an animistic spandrel — children universally seem to believe that things have minds and are designed with a purpose. Yet, this spandrel doesn’t seem all that difficult to undo; we’d expect culture evolution to manage and eliminate this belief if it were not beneficial (as the West is now doing). It stands to reason that formal religion was indeed selected for — most likely as a way to credibly signal devotion to the group. This should causes us to update in the direction of there being a truly adaptive component to the religious impulse; we can easily imagine a world in which religion arose as an unalloyed spandrel, but quickly became useful and subsequently directly selected for. Indeed, just as the first eye spot was likely an accident which then subsequently was selected for and took on its own adaptive trajectory, we should not expect that an advantageous spandrel like religious belief would remain just a spandrel for long — given enough time, we’d expect some religious-DSP set point to be adaptively installed. Finally, if religion were simply a spandrel, we wouldn’t expect people to enter into a DSP when engaging in it — there would be no separation between sacred and profane, as “sacred” (spirits, purpose, etc) would be just mistaken aspects of the perceived profane. Instead, it seems like people experience strongly distorted perceptions of the world when encountering the “divine,” just as they do with love and art.
So, there seems to be a religious DSP, many believe it possesses even those who claim to be irreligious, there is a strong cultural-evolution flavored adaptive case for it, and it appears to be universal. We might conclude, then, that there is a good chance that there is an adaptive DSP associated with religion.
V Embrace Scheduled Religion
Assuming the hypothesis that the religious DSP is adaptive, it seems that the optimal response is to embrace standard casual religious practice. Weekend services can be thought of as coordinating devices for people to contain their inherently social religious DSPs in community, just as bars are coordinating devices for people to contain their inherently social love DSPs on a (mostly) pairwise basis.
Belief, of course, is an entirely different matter. One can appreciate art while recognizing the degree to which that appreciation is an artifact of evolution, and the same with love. Do we feel distressed by our apparent inner contradiction and irrationality when we slip into the alief that our lover is truly a goddess among mere mortals? No — because we recognize that such a belief is on some level enriching. Both in that the love DSP is an important aspect of being human, and in that splurging on love alief on Saturday night will allow us to be more rational Monday through Friday (that is, allow us to find ourselves free from compulsively pining after random people in our workplace, etc).
Similarly, we should not feel distressed as we slip into a religious DSP at the weekly service of our choice. Is it really any more shameful to alieve that a god is real than it is to alieve in love? Is it so undesirable to embrace one of the experiences that makes us distinctly human? Plus, indulging on a controlled and contained basis, according to a regular schedule, should leave us less vulnerable to the kind of compulsive religious-DSP possession that arguably killed millions in the secularizing 20th century and arguably has left more looking very silly in the secular 21st.
By scheduling our DSP possession to concentrate on a single holy day of the week, we can ensure it stays out of other considerations, such as whether to invade country X.
Of course, one should schedule DSPs moderately. If one were to inhabit the art DSP or the love DSP all day, every day, we’d call him indulgent and foolish — living one’s life entirely possessed by a distorted view of the world is sure to cause problems. Constantly inhabiting the religious DSP can cause one to enact some strange and problematic behavior, which I believe has contributed to much of the animosity toward it. It’s true that wars have been fought because of the religious immoderacy of the involved populations. However, such ubiquity and immoderacy is not necessary — if Omega asked me whether my lover truly was more beautiful than all the other women in the world, I would tell it no in a heartbeat.
We should similarly contain aliefs associated with religious DSPs. It is true that there are some religions which attempt to be totalizing — but why should that matter? The choice between immoderacy and abstinence is a poor one, but it seems to be the one both atheists and vocal religionists stipulate. Moderacy, that is religious practice and situational alief without sincere belief, is often criticized by intellectuals on both sides as inconsistent and unthinking, partly because those who have converged to it typically don’t think as hard about the topic as do extremists.
Ironically, it may be the very people who think least about the topic — “Sunday casuals” — who have converged upon the optimal schedule; it’s only the thinkers who let themselves be fooled by a category error — that religion is a matter of belief and not alief — into adopting suboptimal strategies. Something something something species is wise?