Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

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Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).


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    Alfred A. Barrios, Ph.D. says:

    I believe you will get a more correct theory of what religion is as well as what its purpose is by reading my article: “Science in support of religion: From the perspective of a behavioral scientist”. You can find it in the Dr. Barrios Articles section of my website, The following is an excerpt:

    What is Religion and What Are The Main Functions of Religion?

    I feel that religion is made up of three basic components: an anti-chaos or order-to-the-universe factor; a guidance factor; and a belief factor. And the three main functions of religion are to provide: (1) answers to allay fears of the unknown; (2) guidance or a way of achieving optimum peace of mind and happiness; and (3) ways of building belief.

    What Is Belief and What Is Its Purpose In Religion?

    I would define belief as a state of mind, usually evoked by words, whereby there is concentration on a thought to the exclusion of any thoughts or sensory stimuli that would contradict that thought. This definition of belief allows you to more readily see the reality of belief in terms of: how it can affect behavior; how it can directly affect the body; and why and how this effect can be so powerful.

    The two major components of belief are: (a) the thought focused on along with the response connected to the thought; and (b) the inhibitory set inhibiting any stimuli (both cognitive and sensory) capable of interfering with the response to the thought. The stronger one believes, the stronger will be the inhibitory set blocking any interference and thus the stronger the response to that thought. In support of this contention see the sections on belief in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957, pp. 159, 160 & 366) and suggestion in Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes (1927, p. 407).

    To verify the reality of belief, then, we would first have to confirm that thoughts can automatically evoke actual responses. Pavlov was perhaps the first to shed light on this area when he spoke of the potential of words and thoughts to evoke responses as a result of previous conditioning or association:

    “Speech on account of the whole preceding life of an adult is connected up with [through association or conditioning] all the internal and external stimuli which can reach the cortex signaling all of them and replacing them and, therefore, can call forth all those reactions of the organism which are normally determined by the actual stimuli themselves” (Pavlov, 1927 p.407).

    An obvious example of this is the effect a word or thought like “lemon” can have. If someone were to suggest to you thoughts of biting into a sour, tart and tangy lemon, you might find yourself quickly starting to salivate. This, because the word or thought “lemon” through previous association with the natural salivary response to biting into a lemon becomes a conditioned stimulus able to evoke the same salivary response. And the stronger you believed you were actually biting into a lemon, the more focused you would be on the thought and the more likely you would be to start salivating. (See also the chapter “Belief becomes biology in Cousin’s book Head First: The Biology of Hope, 1989.)

    The second component of belief that needs to be verified is the inhibitory set aspect. Since belief can be looked upon as one way of focusing attention on a particular thought, one area that can provide such support is the area of the neurophysiology of attention and the work of such pioneers as Hernandez-Peon (1959). The latter has shown that when an organism is attentive to one stimulus (thoughts can be looked upon as cognitive stimuli), other stimuli impinging on it tend to be inhibited. And the more focused the attention, the stronger the inhibitory set. The converse would of course also be true – the stronger the inhibitory set, the more focused the attention (and reaction) to the stimulus.

    Work in the area of hypnosis and suggestion can also be used to support the concept of an inhibitory set aspect to belief. The concepts of hypnosis, suggestion and belief are all closely related:

    Suggestion can be defined as a verbal means of evoking a belief in a person. Lindzey (1954, p. 27), in summarizing a number of definitions of suggestion, states:

    “In these and in similar definitions, attention is called to some arbitrary restriction in the determinates of behavior…Granted that suggestion proceeds according to the laws of association (conditioning), still we must allow for the blocking of normal associations so that the end result in behavior is due to a selected field of determinants.”

    Barrios (2001) defines hypnosis as a heightened state of suggestibility (or belief) resulting from a heightened inhibitory set produced by the hypnotic induction. To get some idea of how strong this inhibitory set can be, one need only look at studies summarizing the effectiveness of the use of hypnosis in surgery. Under hypnosis, suggestions of anesthesia lead to such strong inhibition of pain stimuli that even amputations can be conducted without a pain response (Kroger, 1977. p.212).

    As Pavlov puts it, in the state of heightened belief produced by hypnosis, a suggestion

    “in correspondence with the general law concentrates the excitation in the cortex of the subject (which is in a condition of partial inhibition) in some definite narrow region, at the same time intensifying (by negative induction) the inhibition of the rest of the cortex and so abolishing all competing effects of contemporary stimuli and traces left by previously received ones. This accounts for the large and practically insurmountable influences of suggestion as a stimulus during hypnosis”. (Pavlov, 1927 p. 407, italics added).

    To fully appreciate how much stronger the response to verbal stimuli can be in a heightened state of belief as a result of the strong inhibitory set, perhaps it might be useful to use an analogy or two:

    “The result of this elimination of competing negative thoughts is analogous to a tug of war where the other side suddenly lets go. An even better analogy to illustrate the power of [heightened belief] is that of the laser beam. We all know how powerful a laser beam can be; it can cut through thick steel. But how many know that a laser beam is ordinary light that has been treated so as to concentrate all its rays and bring them into harmony. Ordinary light emits light rays in all directions and at different phases. In the laser beam all rays are emitted in one direction and all at the same phase. This concentration and lack of conflict is what produces the tremendous power of the laser beam.” (Barrios, 1985 pp. 16-17).

    Studies on the placebo response (which is based on the power of belief or expectation) also support a strong inhibitory set component. Take for instance the study of Dr. Stewart Wolf (1950) of women who endured persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy:

    “These women swallowed small, balloon tipped tubes that once positioned in the stomachs, allowed researchers to record the contractions associated with waves of nausea and vomiting. Then the women were given a drug they were told would cure their problem. In fact, they were given the opposite – syrup of ipecac – a substance that causes vomiting. Remarkably, the patient’s nausea and vomiting ceased entirely and their stomach contractions, as measured through the balloons, returned to normal. Because they believed they received antinausea medicine, the women reversed the action of a powerful drug.” (Benson 1996, p. 32).

    There are actually two ways that belief can play a part in affecting behavior. In addition to intensifying the response to a particular thought at any given point in time it can also play a key role in facilitating the programming in (conditioning in) of a new positive behavior that will now automatically occur in all future relevant situations. It facilitates such reprogramming by blocking out, at the time of the new imprinting, any interference from previously programmed contradictory negative behavior (thanks to the inhibitory set component of belief). In support of this see Pavlov (1927, p. 407):

    “The command retains its effect after termination of hypnosis [of the heightened state of belief], remaining independent of other stimuli, being impermeable to them, since at the time of primary introduction of the stimulus into the cortex it was prevented from establishing connection with the rest of the cortex.” (italics added)

    We know that it is possible to condition in new behavior by means of words. As pointed out by Barrios (2001), Mowrer’s theoretical formulations on the sentence as a conditioning device (1960, pp. 141, 147-150) tend to support this contention. However, what often keeps us from programming in the new behavior is the ever presence of the old behavior (the old programming). In order to condition in the new behavior effectively we must be able to block out the old long enough to establish a strong new connection. Thus we can see how the inhibitory set component of belief can play a key role here.

    Looking at belief in this new light can also help us to better understand the concept of exorcising (blocking out) of the demons or the devil (negative programming) within us and the role that belief can play.

    Another way to appreciate the key part belief can play in affecting our lives is to realize how difficult it usually is for most people to change their negative ways. How often don’t we see good advice simply go in one ear and out the other. Most people do not seem to have the will to change. It seems that although we have learned a great deal about how to program and re-program computers, when it comes to reprogramming the main computer – the human mind – most people are still in the dark. Seeing the mechanisms whereby belief facilitates reprogramming can now show us the way out of the dark. (See next section for how belief plays a key role in giving one greater free will.)

    This also helps us to more fully understand the far-reaching and in-depth changes that can often be produced (almost instantaneously) by “a religious experience”; how it can indeed be possible to be reborn or born again as a result of such an intense heightened-belief experience.

    Now we come to the question of the purpose of the belief factor in religion or faith. It is felt that the purpose of belief here is as a means of giving us greater control over our destiny, in facilitating the programming in of the guidance factor by blocking interference from any previous negative programming. (Faith can thus be defined as “guided” belief). The guidance factor, as pointed out above would include a set of thoughts and beliefs aimed at helping you achieve optimum peace of mind, happiness and fulfillment in life. The more strongly you believe in this way of life, the more focused your mind will be on, and therefore the more likely you are to bring about, the fulfillment (the programming in) of these guiding thoughts.

    Is There Free Will and Are Some Religions Fatalistic?

    Free will implies that we have control over our own destiny. The question of whether there is free will or not has been posed by the great philosophers down through the centuries. But to my knowledge this question has never been fully answered. Many of the religious tell us that of course we have free will; God has given us the choice between good and evil, between misery and happiness. But then the realists point to all the miserable people in the world and say: “Are we to believe that these people have freely chosen to be miserable?” Is there free will or not? In order to answer this question, again we need to first define our terms.

    Towards Greater Freedom And Happiness (Barrios, 1985, p.16) free will is defined as the ability to transcend one’s automatic side by means of inner speech or thought, the ability to make choices based on reasoning rather than emotions, the ability to change negative habits, attitudes and beliefs (one’s negative programming) by focusing sufficiently on the appropriate thought. The key words here are “by focusing sufficiently on the appropriate thought.” Not all people have developed the ability to focus sufficiently on the appropriate thought when they wish to. Very often, conflicting and opposite thoughts interfere and do not allow the full positive response.

    From this definition of free will we can see that the answer to the question of whether there is free will or not is that all humans have the potential for free will (because all humans have the potential to respond to words and thoughts) but not everyone has fully developed this potential.]

    This is why the belief factor is so important in helping to effectively program in the positive guidance factor. Belief is the key to allowing an individual to more fully tap into his free will potential. Remember, the definition of belief used herein is: concentration on a thought to the exclusion of anything that would contradict that thought. Thus, the stronger we believe that something will happen, the more focused we are on that thought to the exclusion of any contradictory thoughts and therefore the stronger our will to bring about this happening – even in the face of negative programming (negative contradictory thoughts).

    Those among you who are adherents of Determinism need not feel that this approach to free will contradicts your beliefs – if you define determinism as the lawfulness of nature rather than the opposite of free will as some mistakenly do.

    What is the opposite of free will is the concept of fatalism. If you believe that your life in preordained or predestined and that you cannot change it from that, you are a fatalist and do not believe in free will. The question we wish to answer now is are some aspects of religion fatalistic?

    One example that comes to mind is the use of the following thoughts when something tragic has happened: “It is (or was) God’s will” or “We must learn to accept God’s will, that no matter how tragic a situation is, it fits into God’s overall plan for you.” Some people may interpret this as being fatalistic but it does not have to be so. I feel that what people could be saying here is that no matter how tragic a situation is, you can always find something good that may come from it if you follow God’s way – a sort of “always look for the silver lining” philosophy.

    The bottom line here is that any religion that believes in the concept of free will is by definition non-fatalistic. They can be deterministic in the sense of believing in the lawfulness of nature but at the same time believing that we can to a considerable extent control our own destiny.

    Is Religion Needed?

    Based on the above, we can now answer the question of whether religion is needed. We can see that people can definitely benefit from religion in that we can all benefit from (a) allaying our fears of the unknown as well as getting (b) positive guidance and (c) ways of increasing the belief factor so as to better absorb into our lives this positive guidance and thus be able to achieve optimum peace of mind, fulfillment and happiness.

    It should be made clear here that when we refer to achieving happiness, we do not mean simply satisfaction of immediate desires without regard to the possible negative consequences for yourself and others. For example, constant play and no work could deny us the satisfaction of long range goals, and of course stealing and killing to achieve our ends can definitely be detrimental to others. This type of behavior would of course be considered negative and the programming in those of us who are prone to such purely self-centered behavior could be described as the devil in us. Also, such purely self-centered behavior would deny us the vast sources of satisfaction that can come from doing things for others, from being brotherly (from being altruistic).


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