You know how it is when someone is in the first throes of infatuation. We call it “love,” but it’s very different than the kind of relationship that eventually develops. Or doesn’t develop.
Think of all of those young couples “in love” who are at each other’s throats only a couple years later. While they are in the romantic love stage, they are “caught up in the emotion.” Their lover can do no wrong. Their lover is perfect. Their lover has no faults; oh, sure he or she has idiosyncrasies, but nothing that could possibly impede this relationship. At least not until the fairy dust settles and they are able to start seeing each other as flawed human beings, sometimes horribly flawed.
Amazing as it seems, strong emotions can cause massive distortions in perceptions. They can make A look like Not-A. Strong emotions can also completely shut down our ability to think self-critically.
How is it possible that perceptions and understanding can be massively distorted by emotion? How is it that a violent drunkard kleptomaniac can initially seem like a nice fellow? That’s evolution at work. As Robert Wright once wrote in The Moral Animal, emotions are “evolution’s executioners.” We have deep instincts for falling in love, for losing control, for blinding ourselves to the other’s faults so that we will make babies. I should restate this. It’s not that evolution is trying to do anything at all. Evolution is not conscious and it has no plan. On the other hand, we are survivors at the top of a long branch of the tree of speciation. You and I and all of our ancestors have survived Nature’s amoral pruning, millennium after millennium. We are extremely lucky that we evaded the weeding phase of breed and weed. The unrelenting reproductive urge, the one thing that every one of our ancestors had in spades, has been passed on to us or we wouldn’t be here to ponder anything. ALL of our ancestors had it and acted on it: the compulsion to reproduce–the urge to merge. This ancient instinct is ubiquitous, even though, once in a while, a cigar is only a cigar.
What is the most efficient way to make animals reproduce? How about this? Blind them to each others’ faults and make them horny. This is a much more efficient way of going about it than rigging us to carefully weigh the pros and cons of potential romantic partners (ironically, that’s how Darwin went about it when considering whether to marry Emma). Blind and horny describes describes the early stage of romance of just about every couple I’ve ever met. They might think they are engaging in a culturally-proscribed process of “romance” (and the process is highly embellished culturally) or they might talk themselves into thinking that they are doing something noble by declaring their lust to be “love,” but make no mistake: our bodies are vigorously pulling strings, and what is driving it is a deep biological reality of which we might not be conscious (and in fact, many of us are in denial).
What does passionate romance have to do with religion? A lot, I believe. Human beings are incredibly social animals; when we live in groups we massively improve our survival odds. We can serve as each other’s eyes and ears to watch for predators and interlopers. We can keep a lookout for anyone who seeks the benefits of our society but who doesn’t want to share the burdens (i.e., cheaters). As a group, we can be more assured that we will have something to eat and a place to seek shelter. Without a group, it would be extremely difficult for any of us to have and raise babies, because as individuals or as tiny groups, having and raising children makes us vulnerable to outside dangers. When we live with a group ( even a group of about 150 people), we have a much greater possibility of finding mates. Assume that this urge to live in groups has been passed along for millions of years in our ancestors, as they speciated into who we have become. This deep (and often unconscious) urge to coordinate our efforts with other humans in societies would presumably tug at us and drag us wherever the herd goes, our herd, of course.
We are wired to identify (in a wide variety of ways, including language, gestures, style of dress, music) with our herd. And this is done because it is in our bones (whether or not we are conscious of this urge). Without much thought, we find ourselves aligning ourselves with political parties, former classmates from our school, and the fans of sports teams who root for our teams (usually the team represented by our city).
We also join together to be part of our religion. Many of us can’t conceive of doing otherwise. None of these are logical decisions; rather, they are deeply emotional ones. Many of these are, in fact, illogical decisions. Shouldn’t we shop for religions more carefully, comparing alternate groups before deciding what group to join? Most of us don’t shop at all–we stay with the religion of our parents. Again, emotions are evolution’s executioners. Once we are hooked to a group, evolution blinds most of us to the pluses or minuses. Evolutions blinds us to the faults of other members of our society when we are scared. Following 9/11 the most powerful images were those of Americans standing together, helping fellow Americans. As long as you were an “American,” you were OK, no matter who you really were.
Where survival needs are salient, whether it be making babies or joining with a group so as to make babies, our intellectual brains are turned down or turned off. Consider that the intellectual brain didn’t exist for most of our evolution. It appears to be a recent add-on over the past 200,000 years. Our brains are mostly designed as survival tools. When self-critical evidence-based thinking conflicts with the more ancient survival-based functions of the brain, survival tends to wins (except for some of us hard-core skeptics, puzzlingly). Survival often means that we are blinded to the faults and dangers of lovers and and the faults and dangers of groups because it is more important to survive somehow than to survive thoughtfully.
Some have raised the possibility that denial of mortality is an evolutionary adaptation. To the extent that religion is a type of group that is super-charged by terror brought on by the realization that one is mortal (see also this post on terror management theory), one would expect that the urge to form tightly-knitted groups would especially be able to overwhelm self-critical evidence-based thought. It is my hypothesis that this is exactly what is happening to people who are religious. For the most part, those who follow religions are not conscious liars or connivers (though I can’t so easily make this conclusion for many leaders of churches). Rather, they are blinded by deep survival instincts. They are blinded to the faults of their religion just like new lovers are blinded to the faults of their mates. Did Jesus walk on water? Absolutely! Believers are unable to say otherwise because their evidence-based self-critical minds are disabled by the ancient survival-oriented function of their brains. Incredibly this powerful cognitive-disabling function is selective. It cranks up when human animals feel especially threatened or when their group appears especially threatened. When they are not required to attend church services, many of them are proficient and highly self-critical. Many of them excel at high-tech science-based jobs.
When they are in disabled-brain mode (where self-critical thought and willingness to rely on evidence have been tamped down), they are much like new lovers. They can’t see the faults of their religion. They can’t even process the oxymorons (e.g., the claim that a virgin had a baby). You can see their inner struggle whenever you challenge these supernatural claims. You can see that look in their eyes. When their beliefs are questioned, much less threatened, their intellect is frozen and they switch over into survival mode. My religion is perfect. Every word of the bible is literally true. Challenges to implausible religious claims are seen as attacks on their group and attacks on their physical survival.
Romantic love fades, as evidenced by divorce statistics. But why does the blindness that leads us to join religions never fade? Since this entire post is highly speculative, I’ll continue on: Perhaps our bodies are rigged to feel passionate love as long as it is typically necessary to impregnate a woman. Compare that the generalized terror of mortality that drives us into groups might never fade. Thus, the compulsion to be blind to the illogic and faults of one’s protective social group never fades.
It seems to me that if the above hypothesis is correct, the proper method for dealing with angst-ridden believers is not to try to snatch the thing to which they are desperately clinging. It would be like grabbing a drowning person’s life preserver. Nor would it seem productive to tell them “Just say no to religion.” Nancy Reagan tried out that type of message on drug users, with no demonstrable success. If my hypothesis is correct, a more productive approach would be education, including a thorough education in biology. But perhaps this is wishful thinking, since it is so difficult to get started with meaningful education where believers start with the premise that anything that attacks their religion (including a rigorous education in biology) is a toxic thought.
I’ve struggled with these issues for years. I wrote this post today after the thought occurred to me that a well-recognized process other than religion dulls the mind or turns it off, apparently driving by emotions fueled by the survival instinct. That’s how it seems to me. It appears that religion is almost like being in love.
I’ll end with some thoughts about romantic love, taken from a site called New Life Ministries. Here’s what is notable about romantic love (compare this to religion, especially fundamentalist religions):
- An infatuated individual seems to have a blind sense of security, based upon wishful thinking rather than careful consideration; infatuation is blind to problems.
- An infatuated person loses his or her ambition, appetite, and interest in everyday affairs.
- Infatuated people tend to disregard or try to ignore problems.
- Infatuation imagines love to be intense closeness, 24/7, all the time.
- Infatuation can explode into being at any moment. It is not a product of careful comparison shopping.
- Infatuation may grow out of an acquaintance with only one of these characteristics known about the other person. Something about the way that person looks or the way he or she functions in a certain role may give you a very distorted idea of their full character. You may not even know the other person. Frankly, a glance or a chance meeting can act as a kind of trigger that sets off the chemicals.
- Infatuation is self-centered.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Affirmative action for conservatives? | Dangerous Intersection | February 20, 2011
- David Sloan Wilson: some types of atheism serve as stealth religions : Dangerous Intersection | January 24, 2012