Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The quest for meaning

In the last few months I've found myself often interested in essays published at Quillette. Today it was "From Astrology to Cult Politics—the Many Ways We Try (and Fail) to Replace Religion" by Clay Routledge, a professor of Psychology.
.... The history of science is full of examples of science replacing old superstitions. But explaining the natural world is only one of religion’s functions. Ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning. This need is inherent, not learned. It is a fundamental component of the human condition.

Indeed, the degree to which humans perceive their lives as meaningful correlates reliably with observable measures of psychological and physical health. A sense of meaning also helps people mobilize toward the pursuit of their goals (persistence), and serves to protect them from the negative effects of stress and trauma (resilience). In short, people who view their lives as full of meaning are more likely to thrive than those who don’t.

When people turn away from one source of meaning, such as religion, they don’t abandon the search for meaning altogether. They simply look for it in different forms. ....

Nearly one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who has died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe ghosts can interact with and harm humans. These numbers are going up, not down, as more people seek something to fill the religion-shaped hole in their lives. By no coincidence, infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers.

Americans are abandoning the pews, but are increasingly fascinated by astrology, “spiritual” healing practices, and fringe media sources that purport to describe the powers of the supernatural realm. ....

And if you imagine that secular ideologies and political movements now seem to exhibit faux-religious characteristics, you aren’t alone. “We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong,” wrote Andrew Sullivan recently in New York magazine. “And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”

.... The more people abandon religious spaces to meet existential needs, the more likely they are to turn to extreme political tribalism, and to blur the lines between spiritual and secular pursuits. Indeed, studies find that it is people who score low on commitment to a religious faith who are most likely to invest in political ideologies to counter threats to meaning in life. Also, the more extreme secular ideologies on both the left and right often involve conspiracy theories, which are cognitively similar to paranormal and supernatural-lite religious substitutes and similarly motivated by the need for meaning. ....

Some people may be disinclined toward religious-like thinking in all respects, but they are likely an extremely small percentage of the population. And I have seen no evidence that the underlying cognitive and motivational psychological characteristics that orient people towards religion and religious substitutes have diminished during the time that the Western world has supposedly become less religious. Instead, most people who imagine themselves as irreligious simply haven’t come to terms with their religious nature. They believe that because they have rejected the faiths of older generations that they have no faith at all. They may simply be unaware of how many leaps of faith they regularly take, and misjudging which ones will allow them to generate meaning in ways that allow humans to maintain a healthy harmony between the secular and the sacred.