Yesterday, I ran a post that included a video by Sam Harris on the dangers of religion. Is religion really dangerous or is it mostly harmless? Paul Thagard calls it Cognitive-Emotional Cheesecake. For most American Christians, that is probably an apt description. But too much cheesecake could also be dangerous to one's health.
On his blog, Thagard writes:
Religion is not innate, but rather a cultural development that we might call "cognitive-emotional cheesecake". I adapt this metaphor from Steven Pinker's claim that music is not innate, but rather amounts to "auditory cheesecake". A preference for cheesecake is not innate, since cheesecake did not exist during the early stages of human development. But preferences for sugar and fat are innate, and cheesecake cleverly combines them in an appealing way. Similarly, I conjecture, religion is appealing because it combines the psychological needs for explanations and emotional reassurance.
He believes man's belief in god(s) is not innate (as in the God Gene or a God-spot in the brain), but rather is due to it's pyschological and emotional appeal.
Another blog, Epiphenom: The Science of Religon and Non-Belief, has a recent post entitled, What's the evidence that anxiety and insecurity turns people to religion?. In the post, the author refers to several scientific studies that show the following increase a person's interest in religion:
1. Being reminded of death.
Ara Norenzayan has shown that subtly reminding people of death makes them say they are more religious. That's probably related to something called 'World View Defence' - when you remind people about death, they tend to grab onto their traditional, cultural values.
Research shows that having a positive view of the afterlife (i.e., heaven or paradise) seems to be good for one's mental health, whereas having a negative view (i.e., hell or annihilation) brings no psychological benefit.
2. Feeling loss of control.
Aaron Kay has shown that making people feel like they are not in control strengthens their belief in a controlling god - in other words, they compensate for lack of control in their own lives by believing in a god that has it all in hand.
3. Dealing with negative life-events.
Kurt Gray has shown that people invoke god as a moral agent to explain negative (but acausal) events. In other words, instead of saying that a major life event happened by chance, one prefers to think that it was caused by an intentional agent, usually god(s).
4. Feeling lonely.
Nicholas Epley has shown that making people feel lonely increases their belief in the supernatural. Many people turn to religion when they feel all alone in the world. You've got a friend in Jesus is very appealing.
5. Feeling anxious.
Researchers from the University of Toronto have shown that religious believers get less 'error-related negativity' (ERN) - a neurological response that's associated with conflict anxiety - when they make mistakes (Religion: Xanax of the People?). Perhaps, Marx was right when he called religion the "Opiate of the Masses." It definitely seems to relieve stress (especially prayer and meditation ).
6. Having financial hardship.
Matt Bradshaw and Chris Ellison have shown that religion can reduce the stress caused by financial hardship.
Andrew Clark found that European Protestants and Catholics are less fearful of unemployment than the non religious.
If these studies are correct, they reveal why religion is so appealing to people. It provides comfort and certainty in a cold, hard world. However, if the benefit provided is really a delusion, is it not dangerous ultimately? Does it not cause one to stop looking for real solutions to life's problems? I think so but it's hard to resist cheesecake.