BoingBoing has an interesting post about a man (A. J. Jacobs) who tries to live by all the Biblical laws – all 700 of them. This includes no work on Sunday, leaving side hair uncut, dwelling in huts on certain holidays, strict dietary routines.
The religious practice of following rules and making sacrifices is something that I’ve thought about in the past in terms of how it affects people psychologically. Regarding the rules, Jacobs says, “It really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I’m still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.” I can’t help but wonder if following all these rules helps reinforce religious belief because they get to a point where they can’t live without the rules – which makes them cling to their religion. Perhaps it’s a bit like the African women who wear rings around their necks to stretch them because it is considered beautiful in their culture. With their heads supported by these rings, their necks become elongated, and their neck muscles atrophy. Eventually, they get to a place where they can no longer live without these metal rings. Their necks have been overstretched and their muscles atrophied, and now they depend on the rings. I can’t help but wonder if legalistic rules of religion are the same way – people get used to not thinking for themselves for so long that they can’t deal with the outside world and its choices without the crutch of religion.
Another way rules and sacrifice could reinforce religious belief is because people don’t want to admit their sacrifice was in vain. A common psychological phenomena noticed in economics is the tendency of people to “throw good money at bad”. For example, let’s say that a city wants to build a stadium. They decide that they are willing to spend $25 million dollars to do it. Later, they get $10 million into the project, and realize their new stadium is going to cost $50 million (on top of the already invested $10 million). If they had been told the cost was $50 million originally, the would’ve scrapped the project. But, now that they’ve already committed $10 million, they can’t bear to cancel the project. So, they continue. This is called “throwing good money after bad”. When religious people sacrifice for their religion, it might have the same effect. They spent a lot of effort doing something for their religion, and later they can’t bear the thought of “wasting” that effort, so they try to quell any doubts they have about the validity of their religion. I think about this whenever the Mormon church asks Mormon children to spend two years preaching “the gospel”. Anyone who has ever spent two years trying to preach Mormonism to “the unsaved” will have a harder time leaving the church because they’ve become invested in it.
By the way, the BoingBoing link (at the beginning of this post) links to Kevin Kelly’s website. He was one of the executive editors of Wired magazine and a strong Christian. This American Life had an interview with him years ago, and he describes his Christian conversion in pretty much the way I described in “The Religious Lobotomy” post months ago.