The Emotional Factor

I have often pondered the fact that throughout history, many extremely intelligent people, even geniuses such as Bach, Mozart, and Michelangelo, believed in God. Not only did they believe in God, but they often reflected their faith in some of the most profound and beautiful masterpieces in history, even sometimes going so far as dedicating their work “to the glory of God.” People throughout the ages and to this very day have done and continue to do some extremely wonderful and beautiful things in the name of God and religion, as well as some extremely terrible and ugly things. Since any genuine critical thinking on the traditional concept of God will reveal its endless contradictions and therefore falsehood as we have discovered before, I have at times found it perplexing how and why extremely intelligent people can believe in God. One of the reasons why many people – even extremely intelligent people believe in God is because they have not taken the time to think critically and analytically about their faith, taking it at face value simply because they have been taught to revere religious belief as somehow “different” than everything else in our lives, “beyond” the scope of critical thinking and rational analysis, holding matters of faith to a double-standard. However, as I have contemplated the phenomenon of faith, I have come to realize that a lack of intelligence and/or critical thinking cannot entirely account for why we buy in to religious belief, since so many intelligent people and those who apply critical thinking to the non-religious areas of their lives, are in fact believers. This helped me to realize there must be at least another factor in play in this entire game of accepting superstitions and beliefs as fact without evidence and/or sound, non-contradictory logic to back up our beliefs. It is the emotional factor. I have touched on this idea more than once on “The Mystical Voice,” including in my last post in which I stated the fact our beliefs often serve deep seated, primal emotional and ego needs. And while I have touched on this idea in the past, I felt it was worth exploring this concept now more in-depth.

I greatly admire and enjoy the writings of Marshall Brian, the author of the “God is Imaginary” and “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees” websites, as well as the incredibly successful website, “How Stuff Works.” He recently completed a new book which takes a critical look at religious faith, ingeniously entitled, “How God Works.” While I have not read the book, I have read a good deal of the “How God Works” blog, and there are some excellent and very well-written articles which clarify his perspective in very easy-to-understand language. However, where I disagree with Marshall Brian is in a belief he expresses in all of his atheistic websites – that somehow if we can teach people to be good critical thinkers, to be rational and logical, we will transform people one by one, into non-theistic people who will not buy in to superstition and religious belief. While on the surface this “solution” may sound practical and seem to make sense, it is very naïve to believe this will work on the grand scale Brian appears to believe it will because he does not take into account the emotional factor. If human beings were only robots with no emotion that lived and operated on reason and logic alone, we would not believe in God in the first place because belief in God is not based on logic and reason, but on emotion. The fact is, we are not just critical thinking, rational beings, but emotional beings as well. While some can and do overcome their emotional biases with logic, reason, and evidence, there are others who cannot or will not.  This is a fact Marshall Brian does not take into account, and he frankly offers no real solutions as to how we can emotionally cope with life without belief in God – no small thing for one who has relied on the comforts of religion their entire life. To have these beliefs taken away from a believer, regardless of how compelling and irrefutable the evidence and logic, is frightening and threatening to them – a fact Marshall Brian does not consider, exposing a major flaw in his thinking of how we can turn the world away from superstition and theism.

The reason I can sympathize with how believers feel, and how hard it is to face challenges to deeply ingrained religious beliefs is because I used to be a very strong Christian theist myself. I grew up Catholic and definitely “feared God.” I was terrified I would be punished or have my musical talent taken away if I sinned or did anything to displease God. I am relieved to now be free of this fear, no longer believing in the traditional ideas of God and the afterlife, but I remember what a long and emotionally painful journey I had to take to eventually leave my faith behind, and learn to stand on my own and take ownership of how I viewed the world as a critical thinking, rational, while at the same time emotional being. I am a very emotional person by nature, which is part of what I think kept me caught in the trap of religious belief for so long, especially since religious belief caters almost exclusively to our egotistical and emotional needs, and not our logical, rational mind. Even now, I can still remember what those religious threats of hell and punishment felt like, and to this day any reflections on those ideas can give me pause now and then. There are times I occasionally get angry when I remember how badly I was brainwashed, and especially when I recall how many years I wasted in unnecessary fear and self-doubt. All of these after-affects sadly reveal the insidious extent of how deeply religious belief can poison our thinking, especially when it is instilled in the minds of young children. Even after years of questioning and intensive critical thinking, the shadow of old memories can be frustratingly persistent, occasionally haunting us from the deepest recesses of our conditioned minds. Fortunately for me, I am an equally natural critical thinking and logical person – and this is what enabled me to not indefinitely resist what my critical thinking mind was telling me, even though it went against everything I emotionally wanted to believe was true as far as the comforting and pleasant aspects of religion were concerned. All of my life, I had my questions, but never seriously pursued any answers. Somewhere deep down inside, I always suspected what I believed was not true, but I continued to believe because I felt I had to believe and wanted to believe. However, at some point I simply realized I could no longer deny the overwhelming evidence, combined with what sound, non-contradictory logic was telling me. I knew and felt in my heart and mind I had to go with what my critical thinking mind knew for a fact had to be true. I realized “round squares” do not exist because they cannot exist since they are a contradiction. Once I understood that believing in the concept of a “separate” and “supreme being” ego-god is exactly the same contradiction as believing in “round squares,” I realized I could no longer deny the painfully obvious.

What essentially began this long journey for me in eventually abandoning faith was exposure to so many varied world views while taking a class in college called, “Belief and Unbelief.” Through these “new” and intriguing points of view I had never before considered, I could not stop myself from thinking critically about all I had been taught and taken for granted within the context of religion and spirituality. I wrestled for what seemed an eternity with the conflict between what my emotions wanted to believe was true and what I knew had to be true based on the irrefutable evidence I continued to examine day after day, leading me to a profoundly painful spiritual crisis. The more I realized what was actually true through incontrovertible evidence and logic, the more I resisted these unpleasant realizations with other “spiritual solutions” and escapes such as mediation techniques and the writings from other “sacred” texts like the “Bhagavad Gita,” and the “Yoga Sutras” of Patanjali. I spent thousands of dollars on a “transcendental energy” technique, and even almost joined a cult in the South Pacific which claimed to have possession of a “special” meditation technique supposedly preserved from the Apostle John, which in reality was just a ripoff and re-wording of the paradigm and mantras from Transcendental Meditation, or “TM.” At this time I was also introduced by a friend to the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, whose essential message was the rejection of the idea that truth can be approached by any technique, dogma, ritual, or formula. As he said in a speech in 1929, “truth is a pathless land.” This message disturbed me greatly at the time because I was lost and I was looking for “the path,” for “the answer,” and Krishnamurti’s message told me there is no such path. It was only a year or two after the time I began reading his work when I finally came to appreciate the truth of Krishnamurti’s message – when I could finally see for myself – not because he said so, that the meditation techniques I was practicing were all fraudulent, that my religious beliefs and blind authority following were in error, and that Truth is indeed, a pathless land.

Nevertheless, I continued over the course of several years to vacillate between periods of strong religious faith and great skepticism. During this period of my life in which I had much personal turmoil and uncertainty, I would always find reasons to believe, and then reasons to not believe. After several years and many experiences in my life both extremely painful and quite wonderful, as well as one last attempt at being a Christian, I was able to eventually soothe my fears of dying without an afterlife, of not having “someone watching over me,” and came to realize and eventually accept the fact my life only had meaning if I defined it, and that my life had no real objective “meaning” dictated by God. I came to see how Life takes care of itself with the natural order of action and consequence, and from this I realized the value in taking complete responsibility for my life by taking ownership of my actions and their consequences without blaming others. I realized if I did not accept responsibility for myself, then I would have to therefore endure the negative consequence of not accepting responsibility – to be perpetually enslaved to the triangular blame-game of persecution, defense, and rescue, which is responsible for the untrue notions of a “punishing ” and “rewarding” God and the false dualistic concepts of Heaven and Hell. I also came to realize that stasis, order, structure, as well as change and the impermanence of all forms are simply aspects of our existence which have no “reason,” or “purpose,” but must be accepted if we are to find any true peace and joy in this life. It was ultimately acceptance of what is that was the key to helping me finally realize that “peace that passes all understanding” for myself. This realization did not take away my problems, and nor did it make me a “perfect” person who always takes responsibility and ownership of my actions and emotions, but it did help me gain an extraordinarily important perspective I had longed for and had inherently knew was a reality all of my life deep down inside, but had not been fully conscious of or experienced for myself until now.

I know from my own personal experience, and from observing others, that religious belief is primarily an emotional phenomenon, and not a rational one. As stated previously, if we were only rational people without emotion, then we would not believe in superstitions and impossible, contradictory ideas like God in the first place. That is precisely why we believe in the supernatural – because a part of us is not rational. If we are to grow in our potential as fully mature individuals, then we need to have not only the rational and intellectual maturity and honesty to observe and understand what the facts are telling us, but also the emotional maturity to accept what the facts are telling us. It is a rare person who can do both of these things successfully. The problem for so many of us is not necessarily that we are bad critical thinkers who cannot see reality clearly. The problem is primarily due to two factors, as we discovered earlier…

1. We refuse to apply our critical thinking skills to our religious beliefs because we have bought in to a double-standard between “worldly” matters and so-called “spiritual” matters.

2. Many of us are emotionally needy and immature. It is our emotional immaturity, lack of inward security, and the desire to be a part of the group, to not be separated from the majority which so often leads to our clinging to religious faith. One of the symptoms of this emotional immaturity is the need to also validate our egos by believing they will somehow “live forever” because we cannot accept the fact and the truth of impermanence. Our response to our fear of death by inventing “ways out” of it through the creation of ideas on the “afterlife,” and our attachment to our egos are the most obvious manifestations of our emotional immaturity.

The fact that critical thinking is not the only component necessary to see our religious beliefs for the illusions they are is clearly evident in how a person can agree that “round squares” are a contradiction, and are therefore impossible and cannot exist, but after being shown the undeniable contradictions of the idea of God, refuse to see the fact that God is just as impossible as “round squares.” The reason for this double-standard and compartmentalization – why some people can accept the impossibility of “round squares,” but cannot accept the impossibility of God at the same time is because people have an emotional investment in their belief in God, but have no such emotional investment in the belief in “round squares.” This is why when jury members are selected, those who are family members, friends, or significant others of those on trial, or are those who have been a party to a similar crime in the case being tried, will not be considered as a jury member due to potential bias because of their emotional investment. When we examine anything we believe in which we have an emotional investment, there is almost always bias and defensiveness when that belief is challenged, but when there is a challenge to a belief in which we have no such emotional investment, we are almost never defensive or biased. This proves the overwhelming power of the emotional component of faith, and particularly religious faith. While there is no question that critical thinking is essential to see the Truth as Marshall Brian states, he completely misses the emotional side of the equation. We need to somehow also develop our emotional maturity, and learn to love ourselves enough so we no longer have to enslave ourselves emotionally to superstitious notions and religious belief. Personal counseling is one of the best ways to develop this emotional maturity and self-love, but we must first make that commitment to ourselves in order to take the first step to face our fears head-on. Counseling will only work if we want to love ourselves, if we want to be completely honest with ourselves and with our counselor in order to enable us to realize our true potential as intellectually honest and emotionally mature people.

We also have to recognize and acknowledge our natural tendency to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. When it comes down to the bottom line of why we do most things, it is usually all about pleasure, and with it – ego. It is only from our egotistical perspective that we are able to judge what we call “pleasure” and what we call “pain,” because without the ego, there is no thing to measure and judge these subjective experiences of pleasure and pain against. Virtually all of us are addicted to pleasure – pleasure in food, pleasure in sex, pleasure in music, pleasure in relationships, pleasure in entertainment, etc. What is often not said out loud because it is politically incorrect is the fact we derive pleasure from our beliefs in God and the afterlife as well. Religion offers us the ultimate pleasure in the indulgence of the narcissistic fantasy we are “special” and “more important” than other life forms, that we were made by a God “for a purpose,” that our enemies who are “bad” are sent to Hell, while we who are “good” and “saved” get to go to Heaven, etc. To not believe in all of this is to cause our ego pain, which is why so many of us cling to these ideas and get defensive when they are demonstrated to be clearly false through rational, thoughtful analysis. Because we are so addicted to pleasure, some of us pursuing it at virtually all costs in one form or another, it is clear what it is we truly value – pleasure more than almost everything else. Pleasure more than truth. Pleasure more than knowledge. Pleasure more than love.

When we stop to think about this, it is a sad and most telling state of affairs. To realize we are so shallow that we would value pleasure over almost everything else is a strong testament to our pitiful emotional poverty. Are we really that weak emotionally and that lacking in foresight and perspective that we must only ever do what gives us the most pleasure above everything else, and forgo pain even when enduring pain in the short term might sometimes ultimately benefit us far more than pleasure in the long term? We see this in our dealings with food, with parenting, with relationships, with exercise, with work, etc. There is not a single aspect of our lives that does not absorb the consequences of our values. If we always value pleasure over everything else, then we can expect a shallow life which may be filled with plenty of superficial “exciting” experiences, but also one with virtually no depth and true joy.

In short, we tend to do whatever makes us feel good. It feels good to believe we will live forever. It feels good to believe there is a God who loves us and looks after us. It feels good to believe we are “made righteous” simply by “having faith” in the “perfect righteousness” of a “savior.” But while these things might make us feel good, that does not necessarily make them true. However, to the one for whom pleasure matters above all else, Truth is of much less concern, if even a concern at all, especially when it threatens to interfere with the pleasure of our ego-validating beliefs. If logic, rational thought, and critical examination reveal our beliefs which give us pleasure to be false, then we will usually reject that logic and evidence – even when it is incontrovertible. This sadly reveals where our hearts truly lay – in subservience to pleasure and ego – not Truth.

While validating our egos with irrational beliefs may bring us pleasure, they can also bring us pain. The fear of Hell, of being less than “righteous,” of being rejected and judged by others, etc., are only some of many examples of the pain we can experience as “believers.” I know this only too well because I used to be a true believer myself. What is so liberating about the Truth however, is it is free of this entire dualistic game of pleasure and pain – of all the worry over salvation and damnation, of being “right” or “wrong” in the eyes of a “Holy God,” etc. It is joy – pure joy to be committed to the Truth – to be courageous and strong enough to be committed to know what is actually True, regardless of whether or not it corresponds to our egotistical desires. The reason Truth is joy and is the only freedom is because it is unconditional since it not a part of the dualistic game because it does not depend on the ego and its validation, unlike pleasure and pain. The Truth always is what it is and depends on nothing – not our approval, not our happiness, not our sadness… it simply is – without reason or apology. To be free of the need to hide away in beliefs which give us comfort even if they are incorrect, provides a joy and a freedom no amount of “faith” in the “supernatural” could ever hope to match.

We all have our personal desires of what we would like to be true and how we would prefer life to be. That is only natural given the facts of our human nature. But if we can instead make Truth be our “God,” and not our egotistical projections of what we hope or want God and life to be as we do in our religious beliefs, then at least we can be in a position to find that True peace that truly passes all understanding.

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