The most dangerous religion: Me

Like all abstractions, “religion” is a fuzzy word. It is easy to forget that we created the word “religion” and that the meaning of “religion” does not exist out there in the real world waiting to be discovered. Many dialogues are wasted over not realizing the artificial nature of the word. Yet, it helps us communicate.

I created a definition here to capture the sense of the word when used to describe “world” religions.   But the use of “religion” I will be discussing in this post is:

#5. something of overwhelming importance to a person: eg. “football is his religion” (Collins English Dictionary)

meMost of us view our own temperaments with “overwhelming importance”.  Indeed, with such overwhelming importance that the will sacrifice reason and even relationships to protect them. Outgoing people think it is virtuous to feel bold in stating our opinions or to keep a conversation going. Shy people feel it is virtuous to hold back and let others speak in conversation and that speaking too much is selfish. Each views their own tendencies as if they were noble, self-chosen skills.

Some people view music, solitude, nature, gardening, poetry, cooking, sports and more as virtuous and worthy of proselytizing — the rationales they generate for their preference rarely contain “well, because I love it, and I am not really sure why.”

Reason and skepticism are just such temperament issues. Some people are more inclined toward those skills and feel those poor at them are dangerous, ignorant or vacuous.  They feel they are so overwhelmingly important that they ironically stop being reasonable about their discussion on their importance and turn off their skepticism about their own attachments and their own shortcomings.

We all make a religion of our temperaments, our stations-in-life and/or our conditions at sometime — the question is, do we know that we are doing it?

Note: Also see this graphic illustration of this phenomena I did back in 2009.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “The most dangerous religion: Me

  1. Do you know Geoffrey’ Miller’s book _Spent_? I found it useful in helping me think about issues of temperament, belief, and social behavior. One of the axes of difference he looks at is “Openness to experience” (, which probably relates closely with your skepticism axis.

  2. David,
    No, I have not read that book. But reading the O in “O.C.E.A.N” section of wiki, I am reminded that I am very high in “Openness” — but I am very high in skepticism too. But I would imagine you are thinking they may be inversely related instead.

  3. Yes… Miller’s observation is that high Openness leaves you vulnerable to attack by bad memes. If you have low Openness, you generally stick with mainstream ideas, uncritically, which is relatively safe—you are no worse off than most people in your culture.

    If you have high Openness, you are liable to adopt non-mainstream ideas, some of which are better than the mainstream and some of which are worse. You might join a cult, for instance 🙂

    Openness is a high-risk/high-gain strategy, evolutionarily. (It seems to be highly heritable.)

    So the winning combination is Openness plus scepticism (which requires high IQ and probably other factors).

    Thinking about the vulnerability of Openness has made me re-evaluation some of my fundamental attitudes. I’ve always thought of Openness as inherently good (which is sheer egotism, because I have extremely high Openness). But for most people, it would probably be a bad idea. Social conservatives, for instance, may be right to be conservative—their brains couldn’t cope successfully with a more fluid social environment. So I’ve gotten to be much more sympathetic to their sort of politics (even though it’s against my interests).

  4. David, I like your idea that Openness plus scepticism is a winning strategy. Openness to experience encompasses a diverse set of traits with some intriguing consequences. Thus, studies have found that atheists are high in openness compared to mainstream religious believers. However, believers in paranormal and mystical beliefs are also high in openness as well. One researcher proposed that traits encompassed by high openness compose a kind of spectrum with more intellectual traits (associated with scepticism) at one end, and the tendency to see meaningful patterns in random events (apophenia) at the other end (associated with magical thinking). (I have written an article discussing this if anyone is interested.)

    Personally, I have explored both ends of this spectrum in my time, as I embraced many mystical and magical beliefs when I was a younger man but have since become a thorough-going sceptic. (A non-confrontational one for the most part, occasionally outspoken.) Perhaps, this shows that temperament can change to some extent, or at least be reorganised. I have always been high in openness, but I have shifted my emphasis from one area of openness to another.

  5. Scott, thanks, your article was really interesting. (Sabio, I think you’d like it too.) The idea that Openness promotes both atheism and non-mainstream religions makes sense.

    Any credit for the idea that Openness plus scepticism is a winning strategy should go to Miller, not me. (I’m pretty sure he said that!)

    I would add that, whereas IQ is significantly heritable, critical thinking isn’t. Probably both are required to be an effective skeptic. And the years it takes to learn critical thinking might explain why all three of us have evolved from magical thinking to scepticism.

  6. @ David (& Scott),
    Miller’s book in on my Amazon list, thanx.
    I am thinking of a cool grid using Openness and Skepticism. But would a better one be with Patternicity. But I am not sure those other two have been empirically evaluated.

    You ,Scott and I sound like we have many personality trait overlaps. The most interesting being that we have several times embraces non-mainstream practices/beliefs — experimental but also a bit “rebellious”(?). One could be OPEN but stay mainstream — rockclimbing, extreme sports, exploring other lands and languages and foods but not weird beliefs. Maybe it is Patternicity that plays a large role — I definitely have huge patternicity — to a fault. And it is a great pleasure, I would not give any of it away (the faults have been well worth it).

    But the reason for the grid would be to show why I see blogging atheists talking past both theists and each other. They discuss religious ideas when to me, their important differences are temperaments and they seem to have no clue that the issue is temperament and not belief. Thus when I started this blog, I felt (and still feel) it was essential to lay out all the weird mistaken things I have embraced. And then show I am not stupid. Believing Weird Things does not mean you are stupid — like many non-OPEN, non-Experimental, non-Patternistic atheists tend to think. Likewise Theists don’t understand that the difference between their favorite theology and another believer may come down to temperament.

    Anyway, you guys get it, I am sure.

    Your last point about critical think being a learned skill is fantastic, David. As I said, it is probably easier to learn critical thinking than it is to learn to be Open. As is predictable, I prefer my more dangerous temperament. What I have learned, however, is not to take credit for it and not to valorize it — it is the animal I am, not to my credit. This has helped me to be less personal in my criticisms of others (to some degree).

    @ Scott
    See above. Thanks for dropping in.
    Your Sept 2012 article is a perfect example of what we are discussing. In the game of WeiQi (do you play?) I am a very low level player but several people say they love playing with me because my style is unusual. That is because I think WeiQi reflects much of the structure of the player’s mind more than other games. So in my games I care far less about winning than I do about experimenting and seeing new things and I am inefficiently eclectic in my style. So I make a fun opponent, even if a bad one. 🙂

    Your article is fun and informative — great writing. “OPENNESS” seems too broad a characteristic — to wide in what it captures. Maybe it will be refined in the future — but indeed it is useful.

  7. TWF

    Great post and discussion! I don’t think I deify my own personality, life-station, etc., but who knows? Such observations are often easier for someone else to make. And I reserve the right to judge them wrong based on their limited information! 😉

  8. very much agreed. people have a tendency to choose a religion that reflects them and their personality

  9. David & Sabio, thanks for taking a look at my article, I’m glad you both enjoyed it 🙂
    I’ve been a chess player most of my life, but have only tried WeiQi once. The person I played with was kind enough to coach me on the strategy – it was a lot to take in! From what I’ve seen, I appreciate it is a very deep game. I don’t know if there have been any studies on this topic, but it would be interesting to look at how people’s playing styles might reflect their thinking styles.

  10. @ M. Rodriguez
    As someone who has recently left Christianity, I am pleased to hear you find this perspective accurate in some ways.

    @ Scott McGreal,
    I feel that articles likes yours are helpful to assist rationally-self-righteous atheists to escape their narrow views of the believing mind. Likewise, it may help religious folks to see behind their shared mechanisms with folks they label unfortunate unbelievers (explicitly or not).

    Also, for your perusal, here is a quick, fun list of the playing styles of professionals — made by other professionals (apparently). Here are some descriptors which I have grouped:

    timid, sober, placid, steady vs. daring, brave
    daring, aggressive, vulgar, ferocious vs. balanced, honest, not greedy
    theoretical vs practical,
    tenacious, stubborn,

    As for my style, I am weak, so I change styles depending on who I play. I can be both aggressive or timid, but I am universally known as creative/stupid !

  11. PS, David & Scott:
    Concerning Skepticism and Intelligence balancing out Openness, I think when discussing people, it is very important to recognize how partitioned we can be — we may allow Openness in many areas of our life, but leave it out of our religion, or our sex life — to give to examples. Trait settings may change depending on domain — matching my “many selves” metaphor.

    PS, everyone: You may be interested in seeing a graphic I did here (back in 2009) which tries to illustrate much of what I discussed here).

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