Hiding our Religious Luggage

You get on a plane, find an overhead compartment for your luggage, tuck it away and sit down. The people sitting next to you did the same thing. After all the passengers are seated, the flight attendants close the luggage bins hiding your hidden lives from each other.

But sometimes, during your flight, you may actually talk to the person next to you — partially exposing the luggage you carry around. Most often, conversations on planes are careful and polite. Occasionally you’ve feel each other out and find common points of interest to share. But in your luggage, tucked away carefully above your seat, may be big differences between you and that person. Differences neither of us could expect of the other. We don’t hold our luggage in our laps and expose ourselves fully to our neighbors. Or well, most of us don’t.

I imagine most of you have the experience of finding out that a friend believes something you consider irrational, unreasonable, uneducated, delusional or immoral — whether that be in the realms of politics, ethnic biases, cultural values, children raising or ethics. You may have known that person for so time before you find out their odd opinions. This is because many of us tuck away areas of our lives in luggage out of view of others. (see my “Luggage” analogy here)

Your Partitioned Mind

In my work, I have met many physicians, who I otherwise know as very educated and intelligent, yet who believe in things I consider unreasonable, confused or even irrational. And I wonder how they could possible hold these odd opinions while still being careful, highly rational and objective in their practice of medicine.

Echo-chambers is a primary method. We isolate ourselves from the opinions of others and feed ourselves only with opinions that echo our own. But it is difficult to have a safe echo-chamber when your job takes you out into the greater community and mix with others. For that reason, in my post here, I liken such thinking to water-tight chambers in submarines. In other words, we keep our unique ways of thinking isolated from others and only open them when we feel safe or surrounded by similar believers. I think the luggage analogy helps a bit too. What do you think?

Conclusion: We all have abstractions wherein we package our preferences to guard from both others and ourselves.

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Your “God” Luggage

Introduction

The word “God” is an abstraction. As an abstraction it contains many components — often components unaware to the people who use the word “God”. Believers uniquely connect all these components of their God, bundle them together as a whole package and carry them around as luggage in their life. That luggage is then part of their identity.

As a believer goes through life, they can examine the items in their God luggage and rearrange them, remove items and/or put in new items. Because these items are hidden in their luggage, two believers may use the word “God” but really mean and feel very different things.

I have made this diagram to discuss briefly some of the common items packed in people’s God luggage. I wrote this imagining two different audiences — each using it in different ways.

  • For religious folks
    • Hopefully it will help believers to dialogue better with each other.
    • Perhaps it will help some believers to improve their religion.
  • For my religion-free readers
    • I hope it helps some atheists/agnostics to stop seeing religion as simply a set of wrong superstitious beliefs, but instead, to see that a believer’s God Luggage actually serves some useful, if not admirable, functions.
    • Help religion-free folks dialogue with religious folks by looking at shared values in life.
    • Help religion-free folks see that perhaps they have a package of items that serve similarly many of the function of religion – the good, the bad and the questionable.

The explanations of the component follow:

  1. Tribal Belonging
    The vast majority of religious people belong to the religion of their parents. They are born into their religion or one of the religions readily available to them in their community. Oddly enough, most believers feel they have chosen their faith, but then, must of us feel we are far more in control of our lives than is true. Anyway, as our religious community grows larger it gives us a sense of belonging, security, comfort and purpose. Being tied to others is drastically important.
  2. Stories: True and False
    Every tribe and community weaves itself together with stories — some true, some half-true and some false. We are taught our religion. But the truth of these stories matters little. Instead, it is the power of the stories to bonds their community together.
  3. Customs
    Stories are great, but taking actions based on these stories is what truly binds a community. The actions include rituals, holidays, foods, gestures, meetings and more.
  4. Comfort and Hope
    The tribe, the stories, the customs all offer comfort. They give a sense of “something bigger than us”. Believers call that feeling “God”. They usually do not understand how that “Bigger-than-Me” idea is really wrapped up in community. This is a sense of Earthy hope. But promises of eternal life are also hugely important. For many, hope that their loved ones aren’t gone permanently when they die is even more important than their own eternal life. But they are connected of course, because you can’t see your dead loved ones again unless you are going there too.
  5. Fear
    Fear (move away from) and Awe (move toward) are too simple common emotions to all of humanity. Religious experts are very clever at manipulating these emotions. Instilling fear of possible punishment in both this life and the next are inculcated in believers from childhood. And the way to avoid these punishments is through Rule or Magic.
  6. Rules
    Eat the right things, wear the right closes, go to temple, church, mosque or synagogue, pay tithe, confess, do the sacraments, pray… The list goes on. Some simplify it to “just believe” — that is a much more clever marketing scheme, but it comes with its caveats too.
  7. Magic
    Future promises can only go so far. Religions always promise believers benefits in this life for themselves and loved ones: safety, healing, happiness, success, the perfect spouse, right choices and more. Religions offer many magic methods to obtain these benefits: obeying customs, following the rules, praying and more. Religions can be very magically creative.
  8. Awe
    I use “awe” to cover a while range of motion that cause people to move towards something: amazement, love, excitement, passion and more. All religions use both fear and awe as motivators, but some use one more than the other. I am aware, of course, that there is negative awe — greed being a perfect example.
  9. Friend
    Most religions offer a personal God or guru or teacher or saint, which can act as a friend for the believer. Someone they can talk to, who can give them personal divine guidance or supply happiness or even perform magical blessings for them.

To Readers: What is in your God luggage? What items are least important to you? Let me know if you think I missed something or distorted something.

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God’s Will: A generous translation

Generous translation can help us bridge different view points. For example, take this group of mysterious or sacred expressions:

  • God’s will
    • Arabic: ‘iiradat allah / إرادة الله
    • Spanish: la voluntad de Dios
    • German: Gottes Wille
  • destiny
  • fate
    • Spanish: destino
    • Arabic مصير masir
    • German: Schickasl
    • Japanese 運命 unmei

My religion-free readers will automatically disagree with the idea of “God’s will”. Similarly they may also see divine control wrapped up in words like “destiny” and “fate”.

But, let me ask you religion-free folks — Do you agree with my following two soft claims?

  • Claim #1: We can never fully understand the complexity of what happens in our lives.
  • Claim #2: We have far less control of our lives than we can possibly imagine.

Now, to religious or spiritual readers, do any of you also agree with those claims?

For those who do agree, both groups would naturally agree for very different reasons. I contend that though their reasons for holding the claims may be different, they may share similar emotional reactions to these claims such as awe, wonder and/or humility.

It is for this reason that I suggest to religion-free folks that when they hear a believer say words like “God’s Will”, “fate” or “destiny” that they begin by generously translating them to yourself to mean:

“Of course we can never fully understand the complexity of what happens in our live and we have far less control of our lives than we can possibly imagine.”

This generous translation may allow both groups to share emotional agreement even though they surely both have very different cognitive maps. This generous translation will perhaps offer a dialogue bridge of common insights if you choose to discuss these issues further, or just move on in your days peacefully.

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A Huge Variety of Believers

Most believers in a religion were raised in that religion: their parents and friends all believed that religion. So though most people think that they freely chose their religion, this is obviously not true. Thus, the biggest part of the reason most believers stay in their religion is IDENTITY. Yet even believers with the same religious identity vary from each other greatly. They embrace components of their god in very different ways (see my post: “Components of Your God“).

There are thousands of types of believers. For fun, I made the above diagram to illustrate just four of the thousands of types of believers. Each believer identifies with their religion but they settle into a flavor of their faith based on their personality, education and experiences. Here is are some of their traits to illustrate my point:

Awe–> Comfort
This believer is very takes great comfort in knowing they and their loved ones will be see each other after they die. They don’t care much about the rules of their religion and feel that belonging is enough to feel secure in their fate. They find awe in their world in terms of love for their family and their church. They don’t use their religion as a tribal flag and have lots of friends outside their religion.

Fear –> Rules
This believer fears hell but by very careful to follow the rules can avoid damnation. Those rules could be praying often, no alcohol, no sex outside of marriage, regularly reading their holy book and confessing their faith with others. They feel that such obedience will protect them from the wrath of their god. There is little room for real comfort (as they are the nervous sort) and very little awe in their lives.

Fear –> Magic
This believer has fear of bad things in this life. They pray often for miracles, for protection of their health and the safety of their loved ones. They give tithes and hope this may make their god happy. They may practice laying on hand to heal the sick, visiting shrines or using special good-luck religious items. They identify strongly with their religion and hide their superstitious behavior from nonbelievers.

Follower –> Filler
This believer is along for the ride. They aren’t very religious but believe in a god because things wouldn’t make sense if they didn’t. Besides, they were raised in a believing family and all is going well. They use their god to fill the things they just don’t understand.

Conclusion
Can you see how two people could call themselves Christians or Muslims and yet be very, very different in the way they hold their religion? Thus, ignoring theologies, two believers of different religions could be more like each other than they would be like other believers within their own religion. You will notice that some believers identify strongly with their religion, that sort of believer will have a difficult time recognizing those they are similar to.

Notes:
1. For a fun look at Christians who illustrated 19 types of Christians see this link.

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Your God’s Components

Introduction
The “God” of Theists (believers in a personal god) use the word “God” serves many functions. We can think of those functions as components or modules. My diagram above illustrates six of the main categories of functions. Each of these categories themselves contain several components which I will explain below. None of these components, however, are isolated — they can influence each other, as the arrows show.

Understanding the components of your god will help you understand the difference between yourself and other believers. Later I hope that this model can help believers move closer to embracing a more mystical “God”. Mystics have more in common with non-believers than they often have with believers inside their religious tribe. Indeed, a mystical god requires no belief, thus the terms “believer” and “non-believer” then become meaningless.

  1. The Identity-God
    This god supplies a sense of belongingness. A feeling of belonging to a larger group and thus feeling safer. When believers say, “Don’t you believe in something BIGGER than yourself?” perhaps they are unknowingly referring to this sensation. The word “identity” can be used for this. It can be either personal identity or group identity or tribal identity. Besides safety, these identities can supply a rich sense of meaning and purpose.
  2. The God-of-Rules
    The power of rules supplied by god are not supposed to questioned — they are sacred. Thus god-rules become more binding and stable than apparently man-made rules. To the believer, then, these rules are safer and powerful. These rules can be for nations, families and personal behavior.
  3. The God-of-Fear
    To make rules work, there must be the fear of punishment. All theist gods have a large fear component. That fear can bond believers. For theists, by simply believing and obeying, they can escape the fear of punishment in this life or the next, while non-believers can not.
  4. The Filler-God
    From times of old, things that were not understood (volcanoes, death, fire and more) were explained by the acts of god(s) or spirits. These became supernatural fillers for the unknown. As time progresses and knowledge grows, the Filler-God naturally becomes smaller.
  5. The Magical-God
    Theists believe in magic. They believe their god controls the world and can give believers good health, guidance, success and safety — both in this life and after death. They believe their god can listen to prayers for these thing and intervene in the world and help believers.
  6. The Comfort-God
    We all fear our own deaths and the deaths of our loved ones. Theists believe that they and their loved ones will live forever. They believe that their god gives will give them eternal life, eternal happiness and reunion with their loved-ones. The other side of that is that they believe that their god will punish non-believers with eternal torture (or if they are lucky, only annihilation). The reward part of this can be very comforting for believers, because everyone fears death.
    Additionally theists gain comfort from a god who personally loves them and talks to them (or at least listens to them). They have an all-powerful friend in times of need. Their god is like a friend who performs miracles to help them and gives them all-knowing advice. What could be more comforting?
  7. The God-of-Awe
    When we are fortunate in our lives, we can experience awe, wonder, amazement, excitement and inspiration. We also value contentment, peace, love and kindness. These emotions are also a component of theist gods.

Expanding Your Mystical God
In a coming post I hope to explain how Theists can move toward Mysticism. Mysticism healthfully emphasizes the God-of-Awe while de-emphasizing the other god-components.

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Others & Phone Fingerprint Scanners

Smart phone finger print scanners can tell us about others.

To set up the fingerprint security, our phones have us place our finger on the phone a dozen times until the AI can get an accurate reading of our fingerprint from several angles. It makes us to touch our phones with our finger from several different positions until the AI can compose a complex recognition system which allows our phones to recognize us no matter how we position our finger.

People are equally complicated. The analogy is useful.

People present differently in different situations and different times, both to ourselves and to others. We have no consistent, homogenous self. We even begin to know others unless we see them in many situations and at very different times. We can build an image of others, but unlike our phones, 12 views is almost nothing. We are far more complex and changeable.

To rest in the fact of our own ambiguity and that of others, is the beginning of real understanding.

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Evidence for Types of “Gods”

The word “God”, like “love”, “freedom”, “patriotism” and many other words, has many uses, depending on the speaker.

Therefore, to facilitate meaningful discussions on this word, it is important to realize the various way it is used. I hope this diagram helps such conversations.

If someone asks me, “Do you believe in “God”? “, I can emphatically say that I do not believe in a miracle-god. Most people who describe themselves as “Theists” believe in a miracle-god and so they can rightfully call me an A-Theist. But for believers only believe in an inspiring, comforting and/or creator god, since their god can do little harm and it is almost impossible to proof such inner-subjective evidence, I am agnostic, even if a bit sympathetic.

What do you think? How would you tweak this chart? Where do you think I am wrong?

Further notes:

  • Creator-god: A creator god does not have to be wise, kind or even intelligent — these are all assumptions brought over from the other traits of the theist-god (ie, the miracle-god). Indeed, a creator god could just be deep impersonal energies bound to create. Or a creator-god can create and walk away (this is the Deist God). Or, a creator-god could do no more intervention and only inspire or comfort — depending if the believer wants a bigger god. It is not logical or reasonable to assume a creator god MUST have other traits.

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Even Neuroscientists have Dualistic Habits

Today I ran into a very fine 2014 article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (linked here) which shows how mind-body dualism is such a strong cognitive illusion that even people who know that mind and brain are the same (most neuroscientists), they still use dualistic language in describing functions of the brain. The authors of the article give a table of examples of the incorrect phrasings of many neuroscientist and then offer suggestions for more accurate expressions without using dualistic language.

If any readers would like to discuss, please make comments.

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Successful Reproduction & The Soul

An organism’s neurology evolves to help it successfully reproduce. To successfully reproduce, an organism must survive long enough to have offspring and for many organisms they must survive even longer to launch those offsprings into a life where they too can successfully reproduce.

The neurology of human beings starts in a big tangle of neurons that we call “the brain”. The brain then send tentacles throughout the body. And as we are just like other organisms, the human brain only cares about one thing — SUCCESSFUL reproduction, of which survival is only part of that, albeit a big part. Simplifying the various aspects in human life we get:
Survival –> Reproduction –> Nurture –> Death.

The human mind does not care for our happiness, our health, our insights or our understanding reality except to fulfill those steps.

The skills to accomplish those steps evolved in a way that at “good enough” — it has imperfect heuristics (quick useful methods) that can also create errors. For example, when walking through the woods and we hear rustling in the bushes, our first reflex is “agency” (a person or an animal or a spook) and only secondly do we relax and realize it was only wind or a falling branch. This agency reflex is often inaccurate but it can keep us alive, albeit a bit neurotic when it over fires. Optical illusions are also such phenomenas – our brain is good enough for most things we see, but we can set up images to trick it — to expose the flaws in its naturally evolving sloppy heuristics.

The illusion of agency is sometimes called a cognitive illusions of sight are called optical illusions. The funny thing about many illusions is that no matter how much we know we are having an illusion, we still can’t see correctly or even think correctly. One such troublesome illusion, albeit it perhaps a useful illusion, is what philosophers have called mind-body dualism — the idea that mind and the body (including the brain) are distinct and separable. This is the illusion that leads to the idea of a soul.

This post will serve as an intro to the next post, so I will pause here to allow any readers to challenge these generalizations in the comments.

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The Churning Mind Remembers

A blender can be a useful analogy for how our mind works. Imagine a blender 1/2 full of a slurry and chunks of unblendable colored pieces (like tough pieces of fruit). When the blender is on (when we are awake) consciousness is the stuff at the top of the blender. This superficial stuff (mainly driven by the sense organs) is the stuff we are aware of — the stuff we are conscious of. However, the churning stuff below is almost like dreams that are happening even when we are awake but which we are not aware of. In other words, though we think that we only dream while we sleep, we actually dream all the time.

Here are some examples of the usefulness of this model:

  • Daydreaming: Daydreaming is when our mind pulls away from sense perceptions (the surface stuff) and looks at the stuff below. Daydreaming is when your awareness drifts away from the world around you, to other parts of your constantly churning mind.
  • Suddenly remembering:I don’t know why, but I just remembered that I have to go and buy some avocados for this weekend’s party.” Or, “I don’t know why, but I just remembered three years ago when my former girlfriend told me that she wanted to break up.” Both of these memories are just hunks of fruit that churned up from the stuff constantly moving below the surface and came close enough to the surface for the person to be aware of them — to “remember” them.
  • Mood changes: Let me over simplify for convenience sake: “all thoughts are attached to feelings”. We don’t have pure thought which are unattached to emotions. Instead, it is best to think about having things called “thought-feelings”, not “thoughts”. The brain is a feeling thing.
    So with that in mind, imagine plowing through your normal day, with your attention only on the superficial movements of your senses, when a chunk of feeling-thought comes from below and close to the surface. It does not come close enough that you “remember” it, but it comes close enough that the feeling attached to that chunk can color our surface and change your mood unexpectedly. The result may be something like this: “I don’t know why, but suddenly I am sad.” Or, “I don’t know why, but suddenly I am feeling a bit insecure.” The reason we say “I don’t know why” is because we don’t understand how our own mind works.

Knowing how the mind works does not help us see through its illusion. Knowing is even not enough, because just like optical illusions, the illusion of self and mind are so strong that we can’t unsee the illusion, we can only understand it.

Related Posts:

  • The Will to Say “No”: addressing the spastic chunks that churn up
  • Many Selves: Our minds trick us to think we are ONE self, but that is wrong. Buddhists and mystics of all sorts, seeing through this illusion may claim therefore that their is “No Self”, but I think this phrasing is not as useful as instead, realizing that we are many selves.
  • Photos reveal the Illusion of Self: The last half of this post illustrates the power of illusions.

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