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Can religion program people to be irrational?

14 July 2014, 10:47

Reading through the comments on MyNews24, I was reminded again that irrational thoughts can so often stand in our way to listen with an open mind. Irrational beliefs are thoughts, feelings and actions which cause us to feel unhealthy and behave inefficiently. Irrational beliefs interfere with our natural flow of life, getting less of what we want and more of what we do not want – this can lead to dis-ease. Rational beliefs do the opposite and encourage us to develop a healthy psyche.

In my practise as a counsellor I often see how people’s irrational beliefs can destroy their relationships. I have also seen how religion creates a perfect breeding ground for irrational thinking. I suspect the reason for this could be that many Christians do not question their religious books, preachers or the church. When we don’t question our thoughts, the mind starts to “calcify” in its thinking. Our mental world becomes small and our thoughts become irrational and fearful. When we ask questions - either in our own minds or to other people - it triggers the brain to build new neural pathways. We owe it to our mental health and development to investigate our thoughts ever so often. This is also how we grow and evolve to a higher level of consciousness. Listening without irrational judgement helps us to grow emotionally.

I suspect religion is programming people to judge - subconsciously.

Christians believe in a God that judges his followers and will punish them if they do not obey him. He is the father who teaches his children how to behave. This programming happens subconsciously. Our brains are wired in a way to copy what we see others do. This is how children learn behaviour from their parents. If someone believes in this imaginary world of God, his place of heaven and hell etc., it will become a reality and the real world could be viewed in a similar way of imagination and irrational thinking.

Albert Ellis is the founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and he identified a list of irrational beliefs that we often hold. Irrational beliefs are sneaky and all of us fall at pray at times. Most of us have our “favourite” Irrational Beliefs and most often a few beliefs cluster together – almost as if the one Irrational Belief is aiding in “rationalising” one of the other Irrational Beliefs.

Here are the 13 main types of irrational beliefs – all which fit religion very comfortably.

1. WHAT IF’S: overestimating the odds that something bad will happen.

“What if you stop believing in God you will go to hell?”

2. CATASTROPHISING: thinking that if a negative outcome did occur, it would be catastrophic, overwhelming, and unmanageable.

“If you sin and you don’t beg for God’s forgiveness on all of your sins, you will be condemned for eternity.”

3. UNDERESTIMATING: your own ability to cope, or not recognising your own ability to cope if a negative outcome did in fact occur.

“I am nothing without God and will not cope without his Word.”

4. OVER-GENERALISING: assuming that because you have had one bad experience that your bad experience will always repeat itself.

“All atheists just want to convert Christians and not allow them to follow their faith.”

5. FILTERING: selecting out and focussing on one negative aspect of a situation so that you ignore any positive aspects.

“We are born in sin and Jesus is our only saviour.”

6. EMOTIONAL REASONING: refers to the tendency to judge or evaluate something irrationally, using your feelings as a basis.

“I feel sad that you don’t believe in Jesus, therefore it is my duty to save you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

7. IRRELEVANT REASONING: bringing in some or other argument rationally unrelated to trick you and others into believing something that is not true.

“You don’t believe in the Bible and in God’s word, therefore your beliefs are wrong.”

8. MIND READING: pretending that you are 100% sure of what another person is going to feel.

“I know you are lost and feeling alone without Jesus in your heart.”

9. OTHER DIRECTED ‘SHOULDS’: when we insist that others should live according to our personal values.

“You should ask God to forgive your sins or you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

10. SELF DIRECTED ‘SHOULDS’: When we insist that things should be as we want them for ourselves.

“I should fear and obey God.”

11. MUSTERBATION: This is a specific type of SHOULD that can be either self or other directed.

“We must believe in God.”

12. BLACK & WHITE: When beliefs fall into only extreme categories and there is no room allowed for any grey areas.

“When we die we will either go to heaven or hell.”

13. CRYSTALBALL GAZING: believing you know the future.

You will come to your senses one day and realise God is the only way to salvation. If you don’t, you are condemned to eternal suffering.”

All of us have some irrational beliefs from time to time, but being in a religious environment and hearing these phrases sometimes as early as childhood, start to program the mind to form irrational thoughts and beliefs. When non-believers challenge the mind, it feels threatened and the person might find any justification to support what they already believe in, because change is difficult. It takes energy to build new neural pathways. When we are brave enough to question our thoughts and listen to other people’s feedback, only then can we become aware of our existing beliefs and change our way of thinking. However, change cannot happen without acceptance. Acceptance cannot happen without awareness. And to become aware we ultimately need to make use of our mind.

Religion’s greatest enemy is thus Rational Reason. Religion demands that a person does not question the holy book, hence not questioning any thoughts of reasoning. The mind becomes calcified when we fire the same neural pathways over and over, thus making change even more difficult and the person becomes more fearful, trapped in the repetition of the same neural pathways always firing.

When we hold onto irrational beliefs as ‘the truth’, we set ourselves up for major conflict when challenged on those beliefs. Therefore we will feel more comfortable amongst people who harbour the same beliefs. This is the major cause of separation among different groups of Faith.

Another concern about religion is that it teaches people to think in terms of fairy tales, instead of focussing on what is real, factual, helpful and rational. If we read the bible with an objective mind, we will identify many fairy tales. There is the story of Abraham who heard a voice in his head to kill his son. In modern times we will lock him up in jail or send him for psychiatric evaluation. Another example is the talking snake in Genesis and Jonas that survived inside a fish for 3 days. These stories are similar to the fantasies you will read about in any Harry Potter book. I often hear Christians speak in such a fairy tale language. Examples such as:

“Jesus is alive and lives in your heart.”

“The lamb’s blood will wash away all your sins.”

“God told me to sell my house and just work for him”.

I think language like this could create a disconnection from reality and can create an easy way out for not connecting with the emotional realities of day-to-day living. It is in our human nature to be intrigued by fairy tales and it is good to have imagination. However to be fully functional we need to be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. How will we deal with hardship if we cannot see reality for what it is?

The religious person likes to personify their God. They see Him in their own image as someone who is able to be jealous, can judge and will punish. However, they also believe that God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. If God is all of that, what will he be jealous of? According to Christians we need to fear God, but also love him. How is it possible to teach the mind to love and fear at the same time? I think irrational beliefs like these could only distort people’s understanding of love.

I view the church as a “shop” that sells Faith to people: Come to church and find out how to have faith in God and be saved! However, they never seem to get the product or feel satisfied. Instead, they return – every Sunday - due to the fear of what will happen to them when they die. They will rather obey their jealous God and stand a chance to be rewarded with heaven. I see religious people as seekers of a spiritual truth; once they have really discovered that, they will leave the church and create their own beliefs. However, to find that spiritual truth we need to connect with others, get feedback and become aware of our own shortcomings and challenges. Religion can easily become an excuse not to face reality and escape into a fairy tale world of beautiful promises that will make everything better one day. This is not the real world! In the real world we need to take responsibility for our actions, feel our hurt and pain, accept our fate and work with what life is presenting us. In the real world there is no right or wrong, only consequences to our actions. Maybe some people just do not have the courage to face the real world? I wish I knew what the real payoff is for escaping into religion. Maybe it just gives people hope to cope with life.

I want to believe that all of us need Joy, Health, Peace, Beauty and Significance in our lives. That will leave us fulfilled. We all can have that if we believe it and open our minds to new experiences. Religious people assume they will get the glorious eternity in heaven one day. There is no real proof for this promise, only interpretations from an ancient book. Every time we make an assumption we rob ourselves from a potential and new exciting experience. How can we grow and develop if we do not investigate the world and only rely on assumptions based on one book? I think it is detrimental to our spiritual development if we base our beliefs on just ONE ancient book. Even more so if this book tells us this is the only way to go.

According to biometric research in Human Behavioural Genetics, what affects our behaviour is a combination of genes, shared and non-shared environment. The non-shared environment is in most cases the prominent influence. A non-shared environment is an environment that we choose. Sometimes genes can be the most determining factor of our behaviour such as Schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome, Phenylketonuria, etc. The only 3 instances where SHARED environment is the most prominent factor to influence our behaviour are General Cognitive Ability, Antisocial Behaviour (rebelling) and Social attitudes (RELIGION). 

How we behave towards people is so powerful that it can change the world. I think it is more important WHAT we do with our time on earth than to have a belief in God. Wisdom cannot be found at a certain place, book or mythical person; it comes with the application of knowledge and experience. We gain knowledge and experience by opening the mind to new information and experiences.

The conclusion I came to is that “The Truth” is definitely not the same for everyone. To discover what is true for yourself, you need to ask yourself a few questions about your beliefs or thoughts you may have.

1. Do my beliefs/thoughts help or hinder me in the long run (especially with relationships)?

2. Are my beliefs/thoughts logical and consistent with known facts?

3. Are my beliefs/thoughts flexible or rigid?

4. What am I preventing myself from doing with these beliefs/thoughts?

5. How awful can it really be to be open to change?

6. Is there a possibility that I am kidding myself by having these beliefs/thoughts?

What we then choose to accept as the truth will ultimately become our beliefs and thus so also our actions. Therefore it is important that our beliefs are not affecting our relationships in a negative way and we need to feel comfortable and self-assured in what we believe as the truth. Only then will these beliefs work for us. What we say might sound beautiful and our intentions could be virtuous, but alas, it is our actions that speak louder than words. In order to act differently, we first have to think differently.

I think the ultimate question to ask is if my Beliefs, beliefs or thoughts are helping me to feel united with ALL people?

A belief is a mental conception of our perception whereas the truth is a realisation through acquired wisdom, but ultimately reality always prevails.

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