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Monday, May 17, 2010

Is Religion Cognitive-Emotional Cheesecake?

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.


  1. I love cheesecake. I love music. And I love Jesus for all of the aforementioned reasons (and many, many more). Jesus is like cheesecake. The plate is religion. Eat the plate and it will mess with your insides! The dangers of eating a plate are different from enjoying cheesecake. Religion, for me, is different from a relationship with Jesus. Religion is the packaging built by flawed people. If it successfully delivers the cheescake to the hungry soul, it has served it's purpose. But for too long the plate and the packaging have supplanted the cheesecake. People have been eating porcelain and complaining about the cheesecake. Non sequitor.

  2. David, your beliefs and relationship with Jesus in every way qualifies as a religion, based on the word's generally accepted definition. What you're obviously doing here is redefining religion so it narrowly means "dead ceremonial and doctrinal formalism." Then when people object to your message on the grounds that they dislike religion, you can come back with, "We're not a religion." But it's not a valid argument.

  3. Steve, this is the heart of where all of discussions would ultimately end anyway, so we might as well cut to the chase! From my perspective they are two different things. I have a personal relationship with my wife. There are also laws and customs and rules that define and regulate marriage. I submit to you that they are very different, but from a certain perspective I could see how they
    might appear indivisible. From your perspective if
    it involves any explanation of any social arrangement that includes a deity, it is by definition a religion. But my marriage relationship with my wife cannot be confined to laws, customs and traditions. I still claim that having a relationship with Christ is different from the rules, laws and customs that are customarily understood as religion.

  4. David, what kind of relationship do you have with Jesus, if you don't mind my asking?

  5. Ahh, yes, this sounds familiar. I used to tell people that "Christianity isn't a religion. It's a relationship with Jesus." Give me a break! Christianity, despite it's claims, is just as much a religion as anything. There are all kinds of rules and social codes that one must keep in order to show that they are a true Christian and that their "relationship" with Jesus is a true one.

    David, you are incredibly naive if you think you can fool with anyone with that line. Believe me, I used to tell people exactly what you are telling us. Been there. Done that.

    Another weird thing about your claim is how one can possibly have a relationship with someone or something that doesn't talk to you, who can't be seen by you, who can't be felt by you, and who can't be heard by you. It seems no different than having a "relationship" with an imaginary friend. By comparing your relationship to your wife with your "relationship" with God, you are insulting you are insulting your wife, in my opinion. You talk to your wife. She talks to you. You see your wife. You can hear your wife. You can physically touch your wife. None of this is true with God. To compare your relationship with a real living person such as your wife with a totally invisible God that cannot be experienced by any of the five senses does not give your wife much credit.

  6. Steve and Mike,

    My relationship with Jesus Christ is a personal, spiritual relationship that began when I had little to no knowledge of Christianity or church, or even the Bible much. For years I had struggled with an addiction to drugs, alcohol, nicotine and sexual perversion. I was lying to cover it up and stealing to keep it going. I found myself incapable of changing my own behavior, because although I deeply disliked all the growing negative consequences I experienced, inside I was driven by a fatal attraction that kept demanding more for me to find satisfaction. I was angry and frustrated. My social relationships were breaking apart and I found myself increasingly being alone. Life sucked.

    I was in the grocery store and saw a copy of the Living Bible (which I'd never read before). I had always despised religion and thought religious people (I didn't know the difference between Christianity and others) were kooks to be avoided, although I really didn't know any.

    The introduction said I should read the Gospel of Mark since it was short and to the point. I did. Naive? Yep. But by the time I got to the end, something happened inside me that can't be explained (though I can't wait to hear your explanations!) except that I was born again. I immediately sensed an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame lift off of me. From that very moment on, my addiction to alcohol, drugs, nicotine and perverted sex was completely broken. Everything even looked and smelled different.

    All of a sudden, the Bible made sense to me. I found myself filled with an incredible sense of joy and meaning. It went way beyond the five senses. I also "sensed" the presence of someone inside me at a level of relationship I had never experienced before. It wasn't an audible voice, but it was a very real presence that has never left me in nearly 30 years.


  7. continued from previous post...

    This "presence" that I experience daily, completely fits with what I have learned about the Holy Spirit, who is Christ, who indwells every true believer from the time they repent of their sins and believe the good news of God's kingdom. I find encouragement from this relationship when I am discouraged, correction when I am headed into error, and peace that sometimes just makes me cry. If it was a drug, I would give it away freely, though I could become the richest person on the earth by selling it.

    I do talk to God and I do sense personal, timely instruction from God for living my life coming through the Bible. I have found great value in the teachings of Jesus. I find myself compelled to try to love people as I love myself. I try to do to others as I would want them to do to me (wow, now that you point it out, Christianity really is dangerous--imagine people actually trying to live this way?). I find myself trying to be patient with people who are difficult, kind to everyone (as much as I can), trying to be generous in giving to those who are needy and less fortunate (oh, again, I can see the harm in this way of thinking). And hen I say "trying" it is not something I am having to "work up"--it is more of an experience of letting go and cooperating with this presence inside me. I remind you, that before my Gospel of Mark experience, the only thing "inside me" was a craving for things that hurt me and others.

    I have also had a number of prophetic dreams and revelations at incredibly coincidental times of need for direction in my life. I have seen these phenomena in operation in the lives of tens of thousands of people too.

    I fully realize that those who have never experienced something like this will write it off as psycho-babble and wishful thinking or even some type of self-induced state. But my experience is that I was headed for destruction (even from those who only observed me with their five senses could see that), and after I met Jesus through the Gospel of Mark, my life has been radically different. And people who know me well, know that it isn't my nature to finish things. I'm as ADD as most guys from my generation. But here am I 30 years later, only more convinced than before.

    "Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny. For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ." 1 Corinthians 2:14-16.

    I have found my experience to be thoroughly consistent with Scripture. I also see your inability to understand my perspective to also be consistent with Scripture.

    That's the kind of relationship I (and all born-again believers) have with Christ. In many ways, it goes way beyond the relationship I have with my wife, and she with me. I only wish you could know this presence too!

  8. David, you must be incredibly naive or think we are really stupid! I'll admit that I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but even I know that your experience is nothing new or unique to Christianity. How is your experience and dreams any different from the "burning in the bosom" that the mormon claims. The fact is that tons of people from tons of different religions and worldviews claim visions and experiences that indicate that their newfound revelation is true. In fact, it doesn't have to be religion. Plenty of people claim to have tingly feelings inside that changed their life and visions from self-help seminars among other things.

    If your vision and changed life is your main apologetic skill, than you are leaving a lot to be desired.

    By the way, you seem to imply that I never knew Jesus. How do you know that? At one time, I was the biggest Bible-thumper there was. I handed out Chick tracts and Ray Comfort material, I witnessed to muslims, led a Bible study at my church and at the local jail. Could it be that I never knew Jesus? Well, anything is possible, but if you are right, that was the biggest con job ever, and if someone like was never a true Christian, how do you know you are?

    I'm glad your life is turned around and If evangelical Christianity is working for you, than great! I think you're wrong, but you are helping yourself and others, so keep it up! Just don't expect us to be convinced by your "evidence", which is obviously not unique to you or evangelical Christianity.

  9. Let every man be convinced in his own mind. I'm OK with agreeing to disagree.

  10. David,

    I am glad that your life is better now than it was before. I am fully aware of how a religious experience or strong religious belief can change one's life. My dad experienced it at age 39 and his life was totally changed. I experienced it at 18 and my life changed pretty dramatically. I have seen it happen to others. How do I explain it now that I no longer believe?

    I think there are psychological explanations (see William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. If the conversion experience proves the truth of the religion, then we have a problem because people's lives have been transformed by a conversion experience to a number of different religions. For example, Glenn Beck used to be a drug addict and alcoholic, he converted to Mormonism and his life radically changed. Many young black thugs have converted to the Black Muslim movement in prison and their lives have been radically changed. These conversions do not prove the objective truth of the religion that produced the conversion but rather the psychological imapct of a radical new belief that demands full committment.

    Having said all of that, the truth is that religious conversion does work for some people, just like a placebo works for some people. I am glad that these people have a better life but I don't think their conversion tells me anything about the objective truth of their belief system.

  11. Admittedly, experience does not prove the validity of anything, just as non-experience does not disprove the validity of something. But to claim the validity of something without a corresponding experience suggests that the thing believed, whether true or false, isn't my true experience. All I have attempted to suggest in my blogs is that my experience fits the explanation offered by Christianity taught in the NT. While this neither proves nor disproves the objective faith of Christianity, it does offer a level of validation at the personal level. At some point, every man must acknowledge that his experience is what truly demonstrates what he really believes. While the presence of an experience might not validate the authenticity of the thing believed, a lack of experience would seem to be good cause to keep looking until one's experience matches one's beliefs.

    Honestly, isn't that has happened in your own life according to your "testimony"? If you're talking about pursuing the truth about religions in this blog, shouldn't you also be examining the subjective side of the equation? Again, this isn't so much about validating the objective as validating the honesty of our religion. To deny that experience or lack of experience plays any part of a person's faith isn't intellectually honest. There really is no such thing as a purely objective truth. All objectivity is skewed by subjectivity. That is why I am not uncomfortable at all bringing personal experience into the discussion of religion.

  12. David,

    I agree completely that all knowledge is subjective knowledge. Objective knowledge exists, I think, and we have some means to attempt to arrive at objective knowledge but none of them are perfect. That is why ultimately I am an agnostic. However, I don't accept personal testimonies of religious conversion to sway me one way or the other because they can be experienced by people of many different faiths. Thus, I conclude that it is some type of psychological phenomena taking place in these individuals, perhaps similar to a placebo, rather than an acutal deity or something else external to them causing the transformation.

  13. So if I follow your logic, if 4 witnesses claiming to have seen a traffic accident for which there was no objective knowledge (like a video or something) and the four witnesses disagreed on the details, you would necessarily conclude that all of them must be wrong? One of them might be correct (or perhaps more correct than the others) but you would have necessarily excluded that option due to your a priori standard. Am I following you right or did I miss something?

  14. David,

    You are misunderstanding me. I don't a priori dismiss evidence or testimony. I would listen to each of the 4 witnesses in your scenario and attempt to arrive at what most likely happened (the objective reality). That is essentially what jurors do and that is why they have 12 jurors and require them to be unanimous. That is the best we can do to shoot towards objectivity.

    When I say I am ultimately agnostic, what I mean is that I don't think there is sufficient evidence available to arrive at any sort of definitive conclusion about ultimate reality. I have arrived at a tentative conclusion but not absolute certainty.