Friday, May 22, 2009

Why I Think Religion CAN be a Good Thing

It's no secret that I don't ascribe to any religious beliefs, but I think that religion gets unfairly panned by atheists. Before I talk about why religion can be good, I will enumerate specific religious beliefs that I think are harmful. I will refer to manifestations, rather than make blanket statements about religions, since it's usually certain groups that espouse the harmful beliefs. Many manifestations of western religion are obsessed with social dominance (it's a worthwhile read), which puts them at odds with anyone that has dissimilar beliefs. This is the root behind a lot of the hatred that is put forth by religious groups. Also, many manifestations are selfish interpretations of the religion. For example, some Christians interpret Genesis 1:26 to mean that people can do whatever they want to the earth without regards to the effects.

Those two are the most obvious problematic beliefs. They aren't necessarily isolated to religion, and are visible in the political arena. Within religions, these beliefs are most common within fundamentalist sects of Christianity and Islam. Buddhism seems to be the religion that does the best job of avoiding these.

The reason religion can be a good thing is because it gives people meaning, purpose, and moral guidance in a way that is accessible. Most people would be ideologically lost without religion, since trying do derive meaning, purpose, or morality from existence without it is far from easy. In fact, I think the rise of non-believers is largely due to the creation of viable non-religious world views. As a non-believer myself, I think that religion is valuable, but needs to be kept in check, in the sense that a belief system and its effects should only be applied to its practitioners.

25 Minutes of Auditory Bliss

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the death of the album, the rise of the single and bands loading up albums with filler tracks. I would counter that a lot of bands that aren't a product of corporate record labels and radio play never fell into that trap. So I'm going to argue that "The Element of Sonic Defiance" by Strung Out is the ideal album.

First, every single track on the album is good, and they are varied in pace, style and intensity. It is only 25 minutes and eight tracks long, and I think it's because they saw it as complete and sufficient without feeling the need to bulk it up. Every track is beautifully produced, including some use of samples and other production effects, but not to the point where the songs aren't amazing live. It's 25 minutes of what an album should be, with absolutely no filler.

Second, the arrangement of the songs on the album, and the way they are put together produces something greater than any single track. This is done without falling into the trap that many progressive rock concept albums fall into, which is a significant portion of the tracks are dependent on the context of the other tracks (Pink Floyd, anyone?). Each song can stand on its own, but becomes something more when listened to the album as a whole.

I will note that The Element of Sonic Defiance is almost 9 years old now, but in my mind, there is not a better example of a perfect album. There have been plenty of other great albums released since then, but every one I can think of either has some weak songs, or the songs themselves don't form a cohesive work.

[edit] I should mention that I think all of Strung Out's albums have been great from "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues" on, but none have the cohesiveness of EOSD.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Purpose of Ritual in Religion

Religious rituals, like going to church on Sunday or praying, have two purposes. First, they are to reinforce preexisting beliefs, and make them salient in a person's life. For example, making sure to eat a kosher meal, or praying before a meal, reminds that person on a regular basis of their beliefs. A person is more likely to act on their beliefs if they are cognizant of them.

The second reason is to induce a phenomenological experience. Many church services are structured in a way to try to get the congregation to "feel" the presence of god. Every mystic ritual was created with this purpose. Entheogens were used with this intent. Phenomenological experiences are more important to religion, since they are what creates strong and lasting believers.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Psychological Mechanism behind Conversion

One thing I've come to believe more with experience is that a person's world view, be it religious or secular in nature, is ultimately a component of their personal experiences. Specifically, certain personal experiences carry with them a certain indescribable meaning that cannot be fully conveyed to another person. It is the phenomenological portion of the experience, to put it in more formal terms. For example, you can describe a meaningful event in your life to someone else, but there is no way for you to convey the full weight of that experience. It is that part that I am going to talk about today.

So, what causes a change in world view? People are inherently biased towards their current beliefs, especially the beliefs that make up a person's world view. Disconfirming information is requisite for conversion to even be a possibility. Unless a person is lacking any sort of strong conviction, there is a good chance that any strong challenge to a person's world view will be avoided if possible.

Does disconfirming information automatically cause a conversion? No, since there is a few ways a person will try to deal with it. First, people will attempt to reinterpret it in a way that supports their world view. For example, a fundamentalist Christian may interpret the decline of church attendance as a sign that the end times are near, rather than a rejection of religious institutions and their inherent flaws.

If disconfirming information cannot be reinterpreted, a person will try to reject it. The most common method is to discredit the information or the source. Common rationale include claiming a flawed methodology, a biased source, that the information has been "spun" to present it in a certain way, or that the information is entirely fictitious.

Sometimes disconfirming information cannot be rejected. The third thing that people will do is to minimize the impact of the information. They will say it isn't as important as it seems, or that it's presented in a way that overplays it. This is done using similar rationale that people use to reject information, but in a way that acknowledges some level of correctness.

If none of the above work, a person goes through a "crisis of faith" or an "identity crisis", where their beliefs are challenged on a level that cannot be easily dealt with. This requires a person to either change their existing world view in such a way that it can handle the information, or it requires them to change their world view. If a person's world view is changed in a meaningful and profound way, this would be considered a conversion experience, which is a significant phenomenological event in itself.

So how does phenomenology and phenomenological experiences play into conversion? They are important because most conversions are due to experiences that challenge a persons beliefs, not second-hand information. A challenging phenomenological experience is the most powerful form of disconfirming information, and it is much harder to reinterpret, reject, or minimize. I will use my own conversion experience as an example to make this idea more concrete. I stopped believing in a theistic "God" not because of the facts and ideas that were hurled at me by some of the people I know. Rather, I stopped believing in God because a naturalistic point of view provided a better view of reality, and allowed me to handle personal issues that my previous beliefs couldn't.

My next post will be on what religious rituals have to do with phenomonology and creating zealous believers.