The importance of religion

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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2011-03-15 01:32:46

It occurred to me today that one of the reasons religion is important is because it lets you practice faith. Faith, as I see it, is believing in something even if there is no rational reason to believe it. Even though I'm not a religious person, and generally dislike religion, I do think that being able to have faith is important.

The reason for this is that faith lets you bootstrap virtuous cycles. If you believe something good will happen, then it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy because your behavior changes so as to make it happen. The key is that you have to believe it will happen even if there is no rational reason to believe it. This requires faith.

If you've never experienced this before, or if you're an extreme rationalist, you may strongly disagree with the previous paragraph. And there's probably nothing I can say that will convince you otherwise, so I'm not going to try. You should probably stop reading now and go do something else.

Getting back to religion - the one fundamental thing that is common to all religions is faith. Every religion that I can think of requires you to have faith in the existence of some being or process, and to maintain that belief regardless of external evidence. While this has some rather obvious disadvantages, it does also have the advantage of giving you a lot of practice with maintaining faith. And if you have a lot of practice with faith, then it becomes easier to pull it out of your bag of mental tricks and use it when the need arises.

There's also the caveat that just because something could become a self-fulfilling prophecy doesn't mean it will. And that's true, it won't always work. Again having a lot of practice (think 10,000 hours) can improve your ability to determine when it will and when it won't.

Posted by Varun at 2011-03-15 15:17:21
Or maybe the story is backwards: humans are wired to have faith, and religion is what happens when faith gets overused (or perhaps, misused?) by the human mind.

For example, you have to have faith that this land bridge across the Bering Straits goes somewhere with better prospects for food and survival (good use of faith). Thus you reach out to $DEITY$ to help reach said other side of land bridge (overuse of faith).
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Posted by stak at 2011-03-15 15:51:47
Hm, interesting idea.. faith might be wired precisely because it is useful. i.e. natural selection took care of those who didn't have faith wired-in.
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Posted by Varun at 2011-03-15 16:32:44
That too. I can see many places where faith is useful in applied economics - transactions between people that one wasn't screwed by the other.

My main point being, perhaps religion is an outgrowth of faith, rather than faith being a purpose of religion.
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Posted by stak at 2011-03-15 16:36:59
Yeah, that makes sense.
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