Religion: It’s almost like being in love

| October 20, 2010 | 13 Replies

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).

Image by Chuck26287 at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

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.

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Category: Evolution, Human animals, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

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.

Comments (13)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    A couple quotes to serve as an epilogue:

    "Many a man has fallen in love with a girl in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit by it."

    Maurice Chevalier

    "Love is only a dirty trick played on us to achieve continuation of the species."

    W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook, 1949

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Tonight, a reader named Barbara sent me a link to a music video by Christian rocker Jason Gray: "It's like I'm falling." How apropos . . . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUykOG0xhEk

    It's really amazing how so much Christian rock melds ostensibly romantic love lyrics with the traditional worship (translated for me: community building) lyrics. It's a double dose of survival medicine, if my hypothesis is correct. I should also make it clear that this is not really "my" hypothesis. Anyone who has been following my writings on religion for the past four years sees that I'm heavily indebted to many others, including Amotz Zahavi, Robin Dunbar and David Sloan Wilson, to name a few of many influences.

    Incidentally, I've found myself listening to Christian rock periodically ever since Mark Tiedemann wrote his post: http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/07/16/chris… Fascinating genre for the reasons Mark described.

  3. This analogy is fantastic. Trying to talk people out of bad relationships is just as hard as trying to talk Theists out of their abusive relationship with the invisible sky man.

  4. Christ says:

    I loyally agree with your post, thanks for taking the time to write it

  5. Tim Hogan says:

    Reading the posts of the radical atheits herein reminds me of the far right fundies of Christianity! Eeew!

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tim: You call this post radical? Step back a few steps and ask yourself how it is that millions of people, straight faced, can declare that a virgin had a baby. Ask yourself how millions of people can possibly believe that the bible is the most important book in the world yet surveys and quizzes show that they don't know its basic contents and they don't often read it. This post is part of my quest to understand. Perhaps it make you uncomfortable to have others attempt to put your religion under a microscope and attempt to explain it using the same logic and the same scientific method you applaud when used to invent rockets or cure sick people.

  6. Al Moritz says:

    I love God, but I am not 'in love with' God. I am not emotional about my faith, and I have never had a 'religious experience' of God. When it comes to evaluating my faith and the existence of God, you would be surprised how 'cold' my reasoning is, pondering arguments pro and con. If the evidence would have turned out in favor of atheism, which to me necessarily implies the rational feasibility of naturalism, I would have switched quite a while ago; I have, in practical terms, taken the outsider test of faith many times. However, the evidence is in my view still in favor of theism — naturalism does not cut it for me –, and I stick with the evidence. For me, decisive arguments for the existence of God are cosmological arguments and the argument from reason, see here:

    http://home.earthlink.net/~almoritz/cosmological-

    (Arguments for a specific religion, if any, follow different lines than those for the existence of God.)

    Of course atheists will come with the old standard reply that religious indoctrination prevents me from thinking things through properly. How can you know that? How do you know that your reasoning is more objective than mine *), and how do you know that you are not biased at all?

    *) and no, science alone does not yield naturalism, that worldview is a philosophical view just like theism

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Al: My main point isn't that you are "in love" with your God (though I find this conflation in modern Christian music interesting). My main point is that believers feel a strong compulsion to belong that apparently evolved over time to be so strong that in most of us, this deep compulsion overwhelms the ability to consider evidence that might tempt one to question one's own group's articulated "reason" for coming together (it doesn't keep you from questioning other groups, because those groups are not offering you a survival advantage–much to the contrary).

      I suspect that this deep compulsion of human animals to glom onto each other has evolved this way because it has often enough been successful at helping groupish individuals to survive. No man is an island, and it takes a lot of energy/practice to successfully resist the herding instinct.

      I also suspect that the self-critical intellect is a relatively recent add-on that, in many of us (in religions or other tight-knit groups) gets tamped down (or even crushed) by the emotion-driven (i.e., long-evolved) craving to be one with the herd. Not that we evolved to be one with a particular kind of herd, but some herd, and most of us choose the type of herd that is most culturally available to us. If you had been raised in the Middle East, you'd likely be honoring Allah (and unable to consider evidence suggesting that that belief was unwarranted). The herding instinct apparently comes with selective blinders to encourage individuals to stay within the safety of a herd, usually their own herd.

      Non-religious folks often have their own herds and their own dogma, so I'm not only picking on religious folks.

  7. Al Moritzh says:

    Erich: I was never much of a herd person. I like my 'herd', but if I saw evidential reason to leave my faith, the 'herd' would be the least thing to hold me back.

    I agree that if I had been raised in the Middle East, I'd likely be honoring Allah. But this would not be the biggest of all problems, even though it would not allow for as rich a relationship with God. As Pope John Paul once told a cheering crowd of Muslims at a visit in the Middle East, "we all believe in one God." I am a Catholic, and Catholicism holds that people of other religions can reach salvation, see heading "Roman Catholic interpretation" under:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extra_ecclesiam_null

  8. Jim Razinha says:

    Erich – I'd argue that one of the characteristics of non-religious folks is that they don't have their own herds. Dogmas? yes; even dogmas of relatively common bases. But I believe a reason there hasn't been a more organized backlash to the fundamentalist coopting of the right wing is that non-theists tend to be individualists with the common bond being that they all don't believe together. But for as many different reasons, if not more, than those who do.

    This past spring, I was simultaneously working my way through Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" and Boyer's "Religion Explained" to try understand the evolutionary/biological component to the tendency toward belief. After Friday (PE exam), I am getting back into them. There appears to me to be enough evidence to support your thought that it is a survival mechanism. In our not too distant past, individuals did not fair well along natural selection lines (or they did, but being individuals, perhaps were overwhelmed by the herd, thus their lines were diluted). We aren't that far removed from our evolutionary roots to have made much progress in eliminating the herd instinct, or many other characteristics (aggression?) for that matter. And human natural selection no longer works as it has historically with our advances in medicine, so whatever is prominent will continue. (Opinion, of course).

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Gallup confirms, in accordance with numerous other surveys, that religious folks are happier. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/29/gallup-m

    Does this have anything to do with any particular set of religious beliefs? Not at all. This study (and other similar studies) survey people of many types of religion. Consider, also, this thoughtful analysis by Gallup.

    Consistent with the Gallup numbers and analysis is that human animals have a deep biological craving to be social, and that religious invite widespread face-to-face social networking at low-risk for being rejected (as long as one utters the prescribed prayers and beliefs, regardless of whether one believes them to be true).

    I see a parallel here to the evolutionary perspective on depression, which should, according to Randolf Nesse, be seen as an adaptation, not an aberration. http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/08/30/depre… Perhaps skepticism, like depression, entails costs to immediate well-being, but for a big payoff: The ability to deactivate one's rose-colored lenses through which one normally perceives a "meaningful" life, and thus allows one to re-evaluate one's situation from a much more neutral perspective, leading to solutions to which one is normally blind.

    In short, depression and skepticism are strong medicine to allow one to see reality in a more raw form. The price to pay is lower well-being, but the payoff if significant.

    For more on a possible reason for which we willing put on our rose-colored glasses, see the many posts at this site that reference "terror management theory." (e.g., http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/10/07/cultu… )

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