Prosperity vs. Religion

HawkgrrrlMormon 18 Comments

There was a great article in Newsweek called (Un)wired For God.  It was a follow up on a prior article that had talked about the theory that people are hard-wired for religious belief (pre-disposed through our brain structure to believe in God, the supernatural, etc.)

So, first of all, what is meant by being predisposed toward religious belief?  Here are the characterizations from the article:

  • imagining the invisible hand of the supernatural in acts of randomness (aka “answers to prayer”)
  • conjuring “non-physically present agents” and imagining “what if” scenarios involving these agents (e.g. angels and devils)

Hmmm.  Based on that, I’m not sure I’m religious after all.  Interestingly, the Reformation rejected many of these “superstitions” of Catholicism.  So, does that mean Protestants are less religious than Catholics?  Really?  I guess this means that religion = superstition.

Data shows that the parietal lobe (which detects where our physical body ends and where the larger world begins) can be suspended during intense meditation or prayer.  This indicates that our brains are wired to “commune with God.”  This is the quintessential religous experience.  So if the belief in God is hard-wired into human brains, then the logic goes that it is innate and therefore unchangeable.  Yet, the number of unbelievers has doubled since 1990.  This begs the question whether it really is innate or not.

New data suggests that maybe this predisposition to believe is not innate after all, but created by our environment (yes, the old nurture vs. nature argument).  There are two prevailing ways of looking at the data:

  1. Our lives suck because we believe. Religious belief creates dysfunction (religious wars and being judgmental), causes stress (through guilt and perfectionism), causes us to fear death (and eternal damnation), causes us to become poor (through misplaced altruism and donations to churches).  This is the party line of some prominent atheists who are anti-religion.
  2. We believe because our lives suck.  Religion is our way of dealing with stress, fear of death, poverty, and dysfunction.  If people live in an environment free of these things, they tend to become agnostic or atheist.  This is kind of like the idea that poor people cling to “God and guns.”  It’s what is meant when they say “religion is the opiate of the masses.”  Is it also what was meant when BY said he feared the Saints’ ability to withstand prosperity.

Interestingly, this trend holds true across most believers:  the worse their lives, the more religious they are.  The more prosperous people are, the less religious they are (the more secular).  This sounds a lot like the BOM prosperity cycle.  Once you get rich enough, you “outgrow” religion.  It reminds me of the joke about the guy who is going to die, and he says if God saves him he’ll give half of everything he has to God, so God saves him.  Then the guy says, “Oh, nevermind, God; looks like I got it covered.”  (cue rim shot).

Of course, this is tricky logic when applied to Mormonism because the most recent Pew Forum shows (yet again) that higher levels of education and income actually create higher levels of religious commitment, contrary to the trend in other faiths.  IOW, Mormons somehow bust the BOM prosperity cycle.  Take that, Nephites!  Maybe it’s all that reading of the BOM.

The article posits that it may be a combination of our brains being hard wired to believe, but that life circumstances have to reinforce that worldview (e.g. life has to be sufficiently dysfunctional) in order for the programming to kick in.  So, here are some more logical questions if that’s true:

  • If social progress is the enemy of religion, should religion quit trying to solve social problems?  Should it try to create more social problems?   Remember, Jesus said “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.”
  • Do things like “persecution complex” and imagining we were are in an actual war with Satan (people ranking as generals and so forth) work to kick in the God programming?  Are these “imaginary dysfunctions” adequate to the task or do they wear off like placebos?  Do we need actual persecutions and enemies for it to work long-term?
  • Once your God programming starts, can it be rewritten or changed, or do you always have a glimmer of belief (or a nagging fear you are wrong in unbelief)?
  • If your God programming doesn’t kick in by a certain age, does it take a major dysfunctional event (like personal tragedy) to get it to work, or is it too late for it to fully develop?

These questions are still unanswered by science, so each of you will have to come up with your own speculations!  What do you think?  Discuss.

Comments 18

  1. Perhaps we ought to discuss the idea of an ideological gene in people, the propensity for some to believe in polar absolutes. Religion, therefore, may only be a vehicle that carries these absolutes–secular totalitariasm certainly has done more damage recently. I have no problem with seeing zeal as a genetic function where some are born with quantities of zeal less than others. Zeal may or may not be a factor of faith and belief. Where some of the correlations between religion, war, guilt, shame, violence, and persecution some into play I think are related more to the zeal function of the brain than the belief structure.

    To elaborate, I can be zealous for my cause and be a non-believer in God. My zeal would cause me sign on and send 20 million to the gulags in the name of the righteousness of my cause. This is nothing more than an update to the medieval purges or the Crusades. In both cases you have politics hijacking zeal for a prevailing belief structure, in this case, Catholicism. The belief in God is not the correlating factor. Zeal can also upset the spiritual balance of a believer because there is no room for error. I believe, for example that the TBM becomes the EXMO as a result of the zeal gene than any other factor. They are both polar absolutes. A non zealous believer has more room for error, correction, suspension of judgment, compassion, tolerance,and displays almost non of the criticism leveled by those that see a God gene.

    The question of having a belief gene, should therefor be separated from a zeal gene. Both are relevant to this discussion.

    The question of belief is rather fascinating. I have a friend-he and I are on the opposite belief spectrum–both of us LDS–although he has grown more tepid over the years. Where I see the earth, Occam’s Razor tells me that the physical structures of matter exists, ergo, something must have created it. He seems Occam’s Razor as–there is no evidence that it was created, ergo, it must have come into existence spontaneously. Try as he might, and he has tried, he cannot suspend disbelief enough to allow the frontal lobe to wander into God’s arms. It comes easy to me, very easy. It is my gift that allows me to suspend my issues with the perceived historical and doctrinal fallacies with the Church and just believe anyway–the experience is that powerful for me. I see my experience as just as scientific as he sees his non-experience. I tap into a feeling–I call it truth harmonics–and I hypothesize that I am harmonically converging with dark matter, which I believe is spirit. He sees my experience as a brain chemical, my God gene, turning on an emotional response because I have the gift and ability to do so. In other words, I am my own God. Because he thinks that this is my experience, he doesn’t want to experience it because he can’t trust it. I on the other hand, believe that your eyes and ears can deceive you as much as your heart, and therefor, they can’t be trusted. The harmonic convergence is the only thing I do trust, mostly because it elicits feelings of wellbeing and joy, whereas there usually no such emotional approval from eyes and ears.

    For us, although we do give credence to genetic predisposition as to how one sees the world, we do agree that ultimately it’s a matter of choice as to how one believes because the logic works in either fashion, and that there is just as much uncertainty for one system as the other. The only reason we can admit this is because we both aren’t very zealous.

  2. Peter – You bring up some great points. It is true that our senses deceive us on a regular basis. The only problem I have with your statement is this line:

    “I see my experience as just as scientific as he sees his non-experience.”

    While your experiences may be proof to you, it’s not “scientific”. Personal experience has never been proof in the scientific world. I’m not saying your wrong, or that science is the only way to find truth (Again, our minds can distort our reality). If that’s the way you find truth, more power to you,just don’t call it science. 😀

  3. I’ll take a stab at the 4 questions I posed above:

    1 – Should religions stop trying to solve dysfunction and society’s problems? I think this is where some get off-point. The purpose of altruism is to create servant leadership, not to eliminate poverty. Charity creates love and attachment; it doesn’t cure all the world’s ills any more than parenting creates perfect children.
    2 – Do imaginary dysfunctions work long-term to kick in the God programming? I think they can lead to later disillusionment because they are somewhat infantile. For children to have such a simplistic view is one thing, but for adults, at some point it seems silly.
    3 – I think once the God programming kicks in, there’s always a God subroutine, regardless of the change within. But only if the programming really did kick in, not just cultural or social indoctrination.
    4 – Personally, I think this notion explains a lot of conversion stories.

  4. Since everyone is born with “The Light of Christ”, then there would be no need for a “belief gene”.
    “Variety is the spice of life” – which can account for differences in the way individuals express their belief in God.

  5. Peter, I also would disagree somewhat that belief in god is not the correlating factor and that zeal is the culprit for all the evils done in the name of religion. Zeal may account for the active behaviors, but those actions would never have stood in a civilized society if the majority of the populace didn’t approve, or at least turn a blind eye. Even within the context of mormonism we can see this at work. Mormons overlooked, and continue to overlook, things done in the past by those in power that would be considered highly disturbing if they didn’t believe they were god’s will. Obviously if they were commanded by god there’s no problem. But every day christians also believed that the crusades were god’s will, and it’s a little intellectually dishonest to pretend that only those doing the killing were responsible.

  6. In answer to your questions:
    •If social progress is the enemy of religion, should religion quit trying to solve social problems? Should it try to create more social problems? As we consider the apostles’ work after Jesus was crucified, they definitely addressed social problems, including poverty, class and cultural exclusion, and the needs of widows and orphans, to name a few. I believe it is part of our stewardship and opportunity as Christians to make a positive contribution in our communities.
    •Do things like “persecution complex” and imagining we were are in an actual war with Satan (people ranking as generals and so forth) work to kick in the God programming? Are these “imaginary dysfunctions” adequate to the task or do they wear off like placebos? Do we need actual persecutions and enemies for it to work long-term? I believe Satan is real and is definitely is a war to win our souls. Paul writes, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Paul exhorts us that faith in Jesus Christ is a shield against the powers of the adversary. I have found this to be true.
    •Once your God programming starts, can it be rewritten or changed, or do you always have a glimmer of belief (or a nagging fear you are wrong in unbelief)? I believe that because of agency, any programming or teachings that we have can be rewritten or changed if we choose to change it.
    •If your God programming doesn’t kick in by a certain age, does it take a major dysfunctional event (like personal tragedy) to get it to work, or is it too late for it to fully develop? For me the term “God programming” has some negative connotations. I believe we are free to choose for ourselves and that we are never too old to gain a strong faith in our Savior and that personal tragedy can either destroy or define our faith, depending on our personal perspective and whether or not we choose to trust in the Lord during challenging times. Sometimes personal tragedy has brought me to my knee in despair; others times it has brought me to my knees in prayer. Jesus counselled us that we will have tribulations in life, but that we can be of good cheer because He has overcome the world. I love His advice and am discovering ways to implement it in my life.

  7. Hawkgrrrl:
    Interestingly, this trend holds true across most believers: the worse their lives, the more religious they are. The more prosperous people are, the less religious they are (the more secular).

    While it’s true that the Lord h imself said that it is easier for someone to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get to heaven, the rich think differently.

    For example, if you were to go to a poor person and tell them that you intend to start a business, a poor person will typically say What for? You need money. It’s too hard.
    The rich will typically say “You go for it. You can do it.”
    I don’t know why we try to glorify poverty.

  8. If social progress is anathema to religion, then I think religion should make its goal to put itself out of business. Imagine if societies devoted to the elimination of diseases (like societies devoted to finding cures for cancer — note that we *do* view these societies as good things) said, “Well, if we do find a cure, this is bad for our business…so let’s promote cancer instead!” It simply does not make sense to create more problems (that truly would be malicious).

    When Jesus said he came to bring a sword, I think he meant that in the sense that you need to have some lower-level suffering and sacrifice to reach higher-level achievement. A treatment for a disease may be painful, make you nauseated and make you lose your hair, but if it works, that would have been worth it.

    I think persecution complexes work insofar as they are back with something real. I’m not saying that Satan is necessarily a real entity (like Carol has said), but rather, our persecution complex is a spiritual model around the physical and intellectual persecution we actually do face. The complex is a theological justification that finds purpose out of chaos and allows us to feel that we suffer for our benefit. Imaginary persecution complexes will be stumblingblocks down the road (e.g., when you find out that things you thought were sins don’t appear to be as “bad” as you learned about in the past…things aren’t as black and white, etc.,)

    Relating to your last two questions, I think that if you don’t, for whatever reason, have the inclination (or god programming) or if you do, for whatever reason, have such inclination, then while your brain is plastic and can change, we do *not* have a reliable, repeatable method to get an inclination or lose it. So, I like how you put it, in that it may require a major dysfunctional event (and even this can go either way…you see people who experience similar stories — like the freak death of a relative, but you can easily see them going either way…either them coming to doubt there could be a god based on that happening…or those who gain new faith in a god as a result of that happening. While people say, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” the other popular stereotype is that wartorn soldiers and survivors come back cynical, with faith shredded to pieces moreso than anyone physically may have been shredded.

  9. #7 – John, our tradition doesn’t glorify poverty. Quite the opposite. The Book of Mormon’s Jacob says, “Ye will seek [riches] with the intent to do good.” It’s true some of us glorify voluntary poverty in the tradition of Jesus. Perhaps you are questioning that. I think the opening post simply is re-stating the old “No man can serve two masters” idea in a new way.

  10. Carol: “I believe it is part of our stewardship and opportunity as Christians to make a positive contribution in our communities.” I guess Andrew S and I must think alike, because my immediate thought was that religion should be in the business of putting itself out of business under this model.

    Carol: “Sometimes personal tragedy has brought me to my knee in despair; others times it has brought me to my knees in prayer.” But (again agreeing with Andrew S) that’s your choice. You respond to tragedy by falling to your knees either in despair or prayer. There are plenty of potential responses to tragedy. It is certainly also common to respond by rejecting faith in one’s dark moments. That must mean it’s more about your personal disposition than anything else.

  11. I can’t find the quote yet, but I understand that Brigham Young lamented over the fact that LDS members would become more prosperous and he feared that they would neglect the principles of the Gospel.
    As I see it, individuals react differently to positive and negative stimuli and I’ve been impressed by many LDS who have become very prosperous and are strong in their Faith.
    However, “greed” knows no bounds and its just too easy to get wrapped up in it.

    I heard Pres. Marion G. Romney state that when he went to law school, that he “had” to read the Book of Mormon every day.
    We all knew what he ment.
    There are those that find themselves in a blessed stuation and they also feel that they must read scriptures, or something like unto it, every day – so they do not loose their true prospective while in the world.

    Likewise, some are poor and will remain so, but feel they are “blessed” by just being alive and they remain strong in their faith.

  12. re 11:

    sxark…kinda overextending yourself with quotes you don’t have a citation on, eh?

    what you’re looking for is this:

    “The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this
    country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth
    ” (Brigham Young, as quoted by Gordon B. Hinckley in his address, “These Noble Pioneers.” See also Salt Lake City, George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1900; New York: AMS Press, 1971, pp. 11923, cited by Preston Nibley in Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1936, pp. 12628).

  13. Andrew S.

    “they have to be ‘tried’ with riches”. – It’s sort of like “Job” in reverse. And no laughing matter.

  14. (2) Dave – When I say that my experience is scientific, my use of the term is different than yours. I hypothesize that my experience from outside of myself COULD be explained by scientific phenomenon via an idea such as dark matter. No, I cannot prove it. It is not explicable or observable, so my empirical experience cannot be deemed scientific. If we could ever observe dark matter, this may change, but to this date, it’s just a theory.

    (5) BrJones – People overlook all sorts of things in communities and cultures be they Mormon, Catholic, Nazi German, or 21st Century China. The masses, the emotional manipulation, and the zeal is the correlating factor, not a belief or non-belief in God. You do bring up a good point that some very thoughtful and measured persons could perpetuate a bad thing based upon the idea of it being “God’s will.” But could we not say the same thing about it being the “Fuhrer’s will” or the “Comrade’s will” or the “people’s will” or even what is perceived existentially correct in principle (ends justifying the means?) People have a tendency to defer difficult choices to authority. It’s authority that correlates, not the divinity of that authority.

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