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Apr 06 2012

Intoxicating faith

One of the topics I keep coming back to (in my mind at least) is the question of religion itself. Why is it so appealing to so many people? Religionists would like to tell us that we have some kind of “God-shaped hole” in our heads, er hearts, but if that were the case you’d think that only God would really fill it. People, however, seem to have a powerful hunger for religion regardless of what the religion is, which would be odd if our “hole” were specifically shaped like any particular god or gods.

Two thoughts occurred to me the other day. One was alcoholism, and how it seems to affect people physically, creating an ongoing craving for a substance that only impairs their perceptions and judgment. The other thought was how computers break down: some failures are hardware, and some are software. I’m not sure why I had these two thoughts together, but it does suggest an interesting possibility: faith may be literally intoxicating, or at least it might bear the same relationship to physical intoxication as a software bug has to a flaky keyboard.

Think about what religious faith does for (and to) the believer: it creates an artificial state of euphoria not connected to actual real-world circumstances, it suppresses sensations/perceptions of discomfort (worry, fear, aimlessness, etc), it impairs their judgment and reason, and it creates a desire for more of itself. In many respects it has the same functional attractions and disadvantages of a physical intoxication, but it happens entirely “in software.” When believers indulge in faith as a social activity, the effect is amplified, and the addiction likewise intensified. And like all addictions, it comes complete with a whole toolbox of denials and rationalizations to prevent the addict from acknowledging that he/she has a problem and needs to break the addiction.

What do you think? Is this a fair and/or useful metaphor for understanding the influence and appeal of religion?

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Beth

    An interesting metaphor. Let me continue with it a bit.

    Not everyone who regularly drinks alcohol is an addict. In fact, various studies have indicated that moderate alcohol intake is not only not harmful, but can lead to better health than not drinking at all. Are you be willing to entertain the same hypothesis about moderate religion?

    1. 1.1
      Deacon Duncan

      As a matter of fact I would indeed be willing to consider a similar hypothesis about moderate religion. I’m not necessarily in favor of it or opposed to it, but I’d be willing to consider it. Granted, the benefits of moderate alcoholic intake are likely due to things other than the alcohol itself, and are accidental by-products of the physical makeup of both the beverage and the body, so they might not be strictly applicable to a “software-only” intoxication. Plus a big part of responsible drinking is recognizing that alcohol does impair your perception and judgment, and acting accordingly. I think moderate religion could benefit greatly from a similar recognition.

      1. Beth

        Thanks for the clarification. Good to know that you are willing to have an open mind about the question. Many posters here seem to have a rather ‘blind faith’ in the idea that religion is bad for people, much like some prohibitionists seem to think that all alcohol and other recreational drug use is bad for people.

        I’m not sure why you think that the beneficial effects of moderate alcoholic intake are not due to the alcohol though.

      2. Deacon Duncan

        Just stuff that I’ve read and don’t remember well enough to elaborate on. I don’t know enough to say for sure that alcohol does or does not have beneficial effects.

      3. roland72

        I think before you can say it’s a good thing to have an “open mind” about this question, you need to have a better definition of “moderate religion”, which so far has been completely undefined. What religious beliefs do you think could be good for you? I think that here, for a belief to count as religious, it must be uniquely so – so the golden rule wouldn’t count as it’s quite possible for a non-religious person to hold that belief.

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    A certain KM beat ya to this metaphor – except that he compared religion to the juice of the poppy, rather than that of the grapevine.

  3. 3
    MatthewL

    A bit OT…

    If the god shaped hole is in Hilbert space it could take the shape of infinitely many gods when viewed from three dimensions ;-)

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