Religion Is Cheesecake For The Soul

19 Aug


(Christianity, in edible form)

So I was reading some older posts over at Epiphenom and Dr. Rees had this interesting analogy for why religion exists:

First off, we are not naturally religious.

At least, we are no more naturally religious than we are naturally football fans, or concert goers.

Of course, football and pop concerts are popular because they appeal to a number of deep-rooted instincts, but no-one would claim they are natural. They are things we invented.

And here’s the critical bit: we invented them specifically to satisfy our instincts.

So that’s the way that it works. We have mental biases, that make us want to do certain things. We make culture, and we make culture that appeals to and works with our mental biases.

Religion, like music, is cheesecake for the mind – an “exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of our mental faculties”. So the fact that religion, like football and pop concerts, taps into our instincts is not a coincidence and it’s not a surprise.

In fact, it’s bleeding obvious.

That leads to another critical concept. There is more than one way of tickling these sensitive mental spots. All of culture does it. It just so happens that one group of cultural practices in the West that seem to appeal to similar mental biases have been given the label ‘religion’.

But try to apply these categories to other cultures, and you fall flat. Other cultures have invented kirschtorte, not cheesecake, while some choose not to have dessert at all. These people have the same cognitive biases, but different ways of tickling them.

Once you get that point, the next is obvious: Religion can be beneficial without being optimal.

Of course, Rees (and Pinker) call religion cheesecake for the mind, but I like “soul” better. It’s more ironic 🙂

So yeah, religion isn’t “natural” anymore than cheesecake is “natural”. We are adaption executors, not fitness maximizers. And just like our biology doesn’t make sense except in the light of the theory of evolution, our cognitive biases — especially those that produce religious beliefs — don’t make sense except in the light of evolutionary psychology.

There was once a time when high calorie foods were scarce, so we evolved an adaptation that made us prone to eat high calorie (i.e. sweet) foods. Similarly, there was once a time when life was harsh and short, and identifying strongly with a group was one of the best ways to survive. We no longer live in that world, one where we need to continually eat sugary foods. But we still do eat sugary foods; and is why we have an obesity epidemic in the West. Furthermore, people seem to gravitate towards sugary foods when they are depressed, busy, or exhausted. The analogy with religion in this regard continues to be apt. Though, sugar still has its uses: Judges give harsher sentences for the same crimes late in the day when they’re tired unless they drink a sweet drink during breaks (Kahneman 2011).

Ironically, I don’t really like cheesecake. But I do like Fuze, a much healthier invention than cheesecake. I don’t see why we can’t invent an analogously healthy alternative to religion that takes advantage of our cognitive biases to do good.

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Posted by on August 19, 2013 in cognitive science


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