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The Self-Delusion of Religious Belief

Posted by on 11/07/2011

We are often wrong about those things of which we are most certain. To say that something is ‘real for me’ may just be another way of saying, ‘I like my delusion, so let me keep it’. Some people are convinced they have been kidnapped by aliens from space. At any one time, up and down France, and elsewhere, there are a number of people convinced that they are the reincarnation of Joan of Arc. Others are convinced that they have been chosen by their god to perform a particular task. This can go as far as believing they are one or another holy prophet or a reincarnation of such a prophet. Sometimes such people manage to convince others that they are telling the truth, and a cult begins where self-delusion reigns supreme. If the cult gets big enough – in other words, if they get enough people to believe them, it turns into a religion.

So what makes a believer? How can old or new religions continue to attract followers in the world of computers, mobile connectedness, Facebook and Twitter?

The truth is that even in the modern world we interpret our own mental ‘experiences’ according to our environmental influences, wishes, and desires. We can’t help that. We are programmed by evolution to conform with group influences, and in the past that propensity has been important for group survival. But those were simpler days. Now, one person can have influence over millions and we have to be careful about not getting things wrong. That, unfortunately, means maintaining the position of skeptic, and questioning ourselves about our own reasons for believing what we believe, before we communicate it to others and start a ‘meme’ that may perpetuate, not just about any particular religion or new age cult, but about everything. An awareness of our own mental vulnerabilities and prejudices must be a good thing.

A moment’s thought reveals that at any given moment we hold a number of erroneous beliefs. We think we know someone and find out the person is far different than we thought. Hence the danger of going on holiday with friends. We discover that some things we believed were based on another person’s delusions. Hence the danger of taking anything some people say at face value. We get tricked in matters of love and money because we wrongly trusted someone or the circumstances of some situation. Hence the danger of basing belief on faith or trust, or on what people call ‘inner conviction’.

We tend to adopt opinions from those we admire, or have beliefs about them, and what we thought was real may have no basis in reality, but it becomes very firmly rooted in faith, trust, and love. In the end, people can love their own beliefs with a passion that even surpasses their love for their own children.

In the words of Michel de Montaigne 1533 – 1592, (Essays), “How many of them have been seen patiently letting themselves be burned and roasted for vain opinions borrowed from others, unknown, and not understood!”

Inner conviction, no matter how firmly rooted in the subconscious mind, is not reality, it is merely the consolidation of thoughts, memories, experiences, hopes, fears, wish fulfilment, ego and an hundred other complex interplaying factors into a belief that is strong enough to be called a conviction, but which may nevertheless be wrong.

Organised religion encourages self-delusion because it needs people to be self-deluded to perpetuate the status quo. We can have compassion for the deluded and understand why people get comfort from their delusions, but we already know that deeply held religious convictions (read delusions) can be dangerous. Consider the millions tortured and killed in the name of gods and ‘prophets’ in the past, and the current round of wars and religious conflict throughout the world. Or think of a specific instance. Think of people killed because of a cartoon in a Sunday newspaper.

Religion is by its nature a dangerous thing because it involves people who will kill or die for their delusions, whether or not those delusions stem from misunderstandings about reality, and however they arrived at their believing state of mind. Facebook and Twitter make such people even more dangerous and reinforce the fact that religious conviction is a dangerous phenomenon, with dangerous memes, and whilst it’s a good thing that people can gain comfort from their own delusions, the fact that those same delusions can lead people to kill each other and at the press of a button urge similar believers to kill others in the name of a god, a prophet, or a belief system is a bad thing about religion.