Why Is There So Much Negativity Associated With Religious Belief?

16 Nov
A while back I made a post outlining some of the problems with religion. Religion seems to make people more close minded and intolerant, while the benefits of religion are really only the result of the social support networks they provide. Meaning that, if religion disappeared but their social support networks remained intact, we would get all of the benefits of religion with much less of its drawbacks. This means that the UU church – with its high number of unbelieving members – does the same amount of social good as any other church filled with believers.
I made another post where I wrote why I think this is (and in that post, the girlfriend refused to go to a UU church). It is the dogmatism associated with religious belief that creates so much of the negative behavior associated with religion. But is dogmatism the cause or the effect of being religious? Does religion make you dogmatic, or does inherent dogmatism make you more primed to be religious? Here are some other negative traits associated with religiosity from this other post on the blog “Life Without A Net”, the Need for Closure

..dogmatism (Francis, 2001, for review), authoritarianism (Duck & Hunsberger, 1999;Leak & Randall, 1995), risk avoidance (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995), low spontaneous humor creation (Saroglou, in press; Saroglou & Jaspard, 2001), low openness to experience (Saroglou, 2002b, for review), stereotypical thinking (Watson et al., 1999),non-proscribed prejudice (Batson et al., 1993;Duck & Hunsberger, 1999), in-group favouritism (Burris & Jackson, 1999; Jackson & Hunsberger, 1999), values emphasizing the need for reduction of uncertainty (values of conformity, tradition and security) and low importance attributed to the values emphasizing openness to change (values of self-direction and stimulation)  (Beyond dogmatism: The need for closure as related to religion. Saroglou, Vassilis; Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Vol 5(2), Jul, 2002. pp. 183-194.)

Most importantly, there seem to be two types of people in the world. Those who need certainty, and those who do not need it:

Enter the Need for Closure.  This psychological trait is defined in five parts, as follows:

(1) ‘desire definite order and structure in their lives and abhor unconstrained chaos and disorder’ (preference for order);

(2) ‘would experience as aversive situations devoid of closure’ (discomfort with ambiguity);

(3) desire a secure or stable knowledge, that means ‘a knowledge that can be relied across circumstances and is unchallenged by exceptions or disagreements’(preference for predictability);

(4) ‘do not desire that their knowledge is confronted by alternative opinions or inconsistent evidence’ (close-mindedness); and

(5) feel ‘an urgency of striving for closure in judgment and decision-making’(decisiveness) (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994, p. 1050).

One of the first indications that we’re on the right track is that Need for Closure is negatively associated with Need for Cognition. That is, people who are drawn towards active critical thought and problem solving are unlikely to like “set in stone” answers.  They tend to dislike dogma and prefer to pursue evidence until and unless they reach a suitable conclusion.

Second, people with high Need for Closure tend strongly to prefer any answer to no answer, so much so that there is a subconscious tendency to view someone who claims to have an answer more favorably from the start than someone who is undecided or open-minded.  This tends to make them biased towards accepting claims from people with dogmatic opinions.  Maybe that’s why some people can be part of dogmatic religions without scoring high on dogmatism scales. 

In other studies, it seems as though when you prime people to make them feel uncertain or out of control, they intensify their religious beliefs. This seems to be why certain people are drawn to the claims of the religious, no matter how ridiculous the belief actually is when looked at objectively. They are convinced by the mere act of conviction instead of the actual content. I am unaware of anyone who sat down and read, say, the New Testament like they read the morning newspaper and after reading the stories of reanimated bodies marching out of tombs and floating zombie apocalypses that the stories were true. No, it seems more likely that people have some sort of religious experience and then, without even reading their Bibles, conclude that the [general] story is true only because of their need for closure. Kind of like downloading iTunes and not even reading the Agreement, but scrolling down immediately to the bottom and clicking “I Agree” just so they can have some closure on their baffling experience.

It seems to me that the Need for Closure has the most obvious link to dogmatism.

So if this true – that the reason most people are religious is that they prefer the Need for Closure over the Need for Cognition – then what next? What would be a good way of establishing dialogue with these people? It seems as though the Need for Closure is the cause of a lot more problems than religion (namely politics).

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Posted by on November 16, 2010 in cognitive science


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