Wednesday, January 13, 2010

religion and psychological needs

Canto: I believe you've been doing much interesting reading as usual Jacinta. Tell us.
Jacinta: Lots and lots, but for now I'll limit myself to the contribution of Tamas Pataki. He's written a wee book called Against Religion, which is incisive and polemical, but offers one new angle. Pataki is an Australian-based philosopher and psychologist, who develops a concept of the ‘religiose', a type to wonder at. They’re not precisely fundamentalists, though a lot of fundamentalists would fit the ‘religiose' description. They might have conservative or liberal dispositions, and they may or may not take the Bible literally – the key is that they take their religion very seriously. They're the ones who talk and walk with their god regularly. Their relationship with him is personal, perhaps even intimate. You might better describe them as god-botherers rather than fundies.
Canto: Pentecostalist types?
Jacinta: Ye-es. In any case the types who wouldn’t really go for the separation of church and state, because their religion is the source of their social, and therefore political, life. Pataki attempts to offer a psychological analysis of this fervency of belief, and in so doing criticizes, I think rightly, Dawkins’s lack of interest in psychological explanations.
Canto: Yes, Dawkins favours an evolutionary view of the development of religion doesn’t he? That it’s a by-product of adaptations that confer advantage.
Jacinta: Yes Pataki gives the example of gullibility – believing exactly what your parents tell you. Considering the long period of human childhood, this trust and obedience, this following in your parents’ footsteps, mentally as well as physically, is possibly a selected adaptation, which has its down-side in gullibility.
Canto: Mmmm, it would create a unified group, I can see that. But the wholesale swallowing of stories of supernatural forces that need to be feared, placated and brought on side is all very well – the next question is, where do they come from?
Jacinta: Not such a difficult one, that. My guess is that the personalisation of inanimate, mainly destructive, but also potentially benign forces, like thunder, storms, fire, flood and so forth, helped to render them more familiar, to assimilate them into the more quotidian rhythms of life. You could say that all religions are a variation of animism, but that over time, or as a new adaptation, the animism recedes from natural objects and passes into supernatural entities that control them, such as ancestor spirits or ‘associated’ spirits – moon-gods, harvest-gods, thunder-gods and so forth. And new variations and adaptations spring up, including monotheism of course.
Canto: Well isn’t that kind of a psychological explanation?
Jacinta: Undoubtedly, yes, but it doesn’t enlighten us as to the largely modern phenomenon of the ‘religiose’.
Canto: Not that modern, I’ll be bound, but go on.
Jacinta: Pataki first emphasises the relentless human need for interpersonal intimacy.
Canto: Thank god I’ve got you, Jacinta.
Jacinta: He also writes of our need to ‘symbolically reconstitute the past’, both individually and collectively. Individually in terms of a largely fantasised childhood, collectively in terms of an earlier ‘golden age’. The ‘before the fall’ paradise so briefly sketched in the bible thus has its connections with the more fulsome and fascinating ‘age of heroes’ epics of Homer. Pataki combines these needs or tendencies in his take on religious belief, describing it as ‘communion with cultural entities animated by the ghosts of our pasts.’
Canto: I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Jass.
Jacinta: We’ll look further into it next time.       

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