Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 4
by Ervin Taylor
This is part 4 of a discussion of Dr. Wilbur’s book which here considers his Chapter 3. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 3: Unique Power of Religious Belief
The usefulness of religious beliefs in molding our social reality is at least partly related to the power these beliefs wield in a majority of human minds.
Emotional Power and Truth.
The power of an idea in a human mind seems to be little related to its ontological truth. Men often die on both sides of a battlefield thinking that they are dying for God and Truth while supporting conflicting visions of these things. Religious beliefs are probably seldom selected on the basis of a rational analysis. Instead they are supported by an emotional response that is at least partly related to our acculturation. This positive emotional response confirms the “truth” of the belief.
The long term success of a religious belief system seems most related to how it deals with human nature and culture and with the physical realities of the world we live in—not to some unique understanding of the universe or the supernatural.
Presumed Sources and Reinforcements
Most current religions claim to be supported by ancient texts that are attributed to divine or semi divine sources. These include the Bible, Qur’an, Vedas and Upanishads, Analects, Daodejing, etc. Such texts are given worshipful respect by believers regardless of all the critical questions that surround their origins and interpretation.
The second support of religious belief is mystical experience—ranging from a warm feeling of acceptance by God during private or public devotions to visions and dreams thought to be sent by the Divine.
Complete Knowledge without Struggle: Standing in God’s Place
Religions usually offer a claim that they have a complete understanding of man and his duties and place in the universe. This is available for any believer and comes without the intellectual struggles of science or philosophy.
Magic and Religion
The practioners of magic (often called “black magic”) and religious petitioners for divine interventions in the world both share a claim that this can be arranged—that such power is available. The only difference would seem to be that the religious believer expects moral restraint if/when his power acts.
Immortality and Reward
Most religions describe some form of conditional subsequent human existence. Great power may flow to a religious organization that seems able to arrange a good place or even the avoidance of a bad place in this inevitable future.
Most religions are supported by ritual systems and these systems seem to have powerful effects on many participants—for instance conversion experiences in Christianity. They appear to reinforce the central religious mythology and make it more real to the believers.
Religion and Social Psychology
Influence in our social world can sometimes be obtained by using reflex responses to particular social situations. Religions are adept at using some of these including reciprocity, commitment, authority and social proof. The religious use of these social impulses is about as follows: reciprocity says you owe the divine world something for all the blessings you have, commitment refers to your obligation to something after you publicly support it, authority refers to the use of designated authorities to answer important questions, and social proof refers to the attempt to establish a belief system’s authenticity by an appeal to the wisdom of those who publicly support that system now or have done so in previous ages.
The Self Reinforcing Nature of Some Religious Belief Systems
If one believes that success in this world is a sign of God’s blessing one may always find reinforcement for that belief. The world is complex and causes only partly known. Confirmation bias guides us to support our beliefs. Once enmeshed in such a belief system it may be frightening to even question it.
Religion addresses things outside the empirically evaluable world that are of great intrinsic interest to human minds. It mobilizes powerful emotions in its work and makes offers many find hard to refuse. Thus it’s huge impact on all human civilizations.
In the previous chapter considered (Chapter 2), Dr. Wilbur quoted a statement attributed to Heraclitus “Religion is a disease, but it is a noble disease.” The use of the word “disease” suggests the idea that religion is a pathology of human societies. If this is what Heraclitus meant, may I suggest that the choice of his words (in Greek, and assuming that the English translation communicates the original meaning) is rather unfortunate. Unfortunate, in part because the members of all known human societies have been reported to manifest behaviors which we moderns call “religious.” (We will not consider the problem that many societies don’t have a separate category “religious.” That’s a modern Western construct.) If religion is a disease, then all known humans are infected with some sort of “religious” pathogen or infection. May I suggest that a better word that might be considered is “condition.” Thus the quotation that I would like to read would be: “Religion is one of the conditions of being human, but it can be a noble condition.” I don’t know if that helps or not.