Why performing Religious Activities is like drinking Coffee….

Recently I came across this extremely informative, thought provoking and useful blog, written by a journalist who is interested in psychology as well. The blog is called You Are Not So Smart. I strongly recommend subscribing to this blog as well as going through all the previous posts. Anyway, a few months back, I came across an article about Coffee in the same blog. The post was as mind altering and paradigm shift initiating as many of the previous articles I had read in there. I am not going to be summarizing that post in here. It is worth a read in its entirety. But as the title suggests, what I WILL be doing is to explain why practicing any religious activity is like drinking coffee.

And before I start out, let me assure you that this post is worth a read only if you are open to possibilities different from what you may be accustomed to. So while non-believers will (and perhaps should) have absolutely no issue  in seeing my point of view, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the believers who read this post strongly disagree with me. I wont exactly call myself an atheist but I am kind of hovering around the edge of late. And some of my realizations are now getting manifested in this post.

Anyway, before I digress to the point of you closing this window/tab, let me get to the point.

All of us at some point of time, or perhaps even now, would have gone to temples, churches or other places of worship. You would have also prayed at home soon after taking bath, perhaps prostrating yourself in front of some God photographs, praying that the day go well for you.  You may have the habit of praying to God when you are about to embark on something important for the day. You may even go to Sunday masses or some other religious/spiritual gathering on a regular basis. Perhaps you may even make that trip to Tirupathi/Shabarimala/Haridwara/Hrishikesh etc once in a while, donating money to the God and praying for good health and peace of you and your family members or maybe as a gesture of gratitude for some good luck that may have come your way. Maybe you make the effort to wake up early in the morning just so you perform a particular religious activity at the auspicious time. You or your family members may hold one or more religious ceremonies at your home once in a while, inviting family and friends for the occasion. You would probably have the habit of fasting on certain days or if you are a non- vegetarian, you make sure not to eat meat on certain days of the week or month.

The list is endless and I am sure you can add your own specific activities to that list. We may not have (or in my case, will probably never have) a fully convincing reason for doing all the things that I have listed above but we still do it because we believe that there must be SOME reason for it. (Rest assured, my argument is not going to question the validity of the ‘reason’. ) We do not thoroughly inquire about this reason because our belief accommodates the possibility that the actual reason is ‘out there’ in some scriptures or in some other religious book. Fair enough. And so whatever may be the ‘reason’, we continue to perform some or the other religious activities on a regular or irregular basis.

Continuing in the same train of thought, the logically correct thing to discuss next would be how performing these religious activities influence us.

Our parents have constantly reminded us that performing these religious activities help us in many direct ways such as improving our concentration, discipline, control of mind and in reducing distractions. And it would probably have come as no surprise when we found friends or other fellow students who were religious and were able to focus on the task at hand and not yield to short term temptations. ( Whether or not they ‘scored’ well was a different issue altogether.) Perhaps our parents would have even taken their examples to teach us the usefulness and importance of performing religious/spiritual activities. Again, fair enough.

But there is a fundamental flaw in the whole matter. You see, correlating the discipline and the ability to focus to the regularity and/or sincerity of the performance of religious activities is valid. And I also believe that this does exist very predominantly. But claiming that the performance of RELIGIOUS activities is the actual CAUSE for that discipline and focus is completely and utterly false.

Let me elaborate.

You see, discipline and focus stems not from the regular performance of ‘religious’ activities. They stem from the regular performance of ANY constructive activity. And since we have been told from our childhood that ‘religious’ activities are, by default, the most constructive activity, they also tend to yield the same results.

We wake up in the morning, take bath, go to the Sacred Pooja room and spend some time praying to God and asking for his blessings in all our deeds and actions. We do this mainly because we have been told from our childhood that we are SUPPOSED to be doing it for whatever ‘reason’ that we spoke about earlier. We go about doing all the other activities in the list above at some regularity and we do it because there is SOME reason for it and we are SUPPOSED to be doing it. Whether you actually find out what this reason is is totally irrelevant. You will continue to do the same activities either way.

So what happens when you do these activities on a regular basis? You are essentially doing something, which in your mind, you are SUPPOSED to be doing and which you perceive to be constructive. And what happens when ANYONE does ANYTHING constructive that they are ‘supposed’ to be doing? Its simple. They gain some happiness. They increase their self esteem. They become more confident about themselves. And as a consequence, we can see them get more disciplined and focused in their work and studies.

Think of it. Instead of being told to perform the early morning ceremonies without fail, what if our parents had pushed us to take an early morning jog or walk everyday? If that had become part of our daily activities, then we would have reaped the same rewards as performing religious activities on a regular basis. Hell! We would have in fact reaped a lot more rewards in the long term. Our fitness levels would have increased, our body gets healthier, a  lot lesser number of people would have diabetes and most significantly, it would have vastly reduced the number of pot bellied middle aged uncles in our families!

There are so many more activities that one can think of, which if performed regularly, would not only improve our discipline, focus, self esteem and confidence, but also provide benefits in a lot more ways as well. We could explore our hobbies, passions and interests which definitely yield a lot more tangible results than religious activities.

And this is where the idea of drinking coffee comes in.

You see, coffee does not really stimulate you. If you have read the article, you would have understood what I am trying to say. It only temporarily cures your withdrawal symptoms that arise from the effects of the previous cup of coffee wearing off. Caffeine replaces adenosine, the chemical required to induce sleep in the body, in the receptor sites in the brain and makes you feel stimulated. The way the brain responds is by creating a lot more sites having a lot more adenosine which makes you feel a lot more sleepy, thereby requiring you to consume a lot more Coffee to just feel Normal. And everytime you drink coffee, this effects adds up and you end up getting addicted to it.

So how is this analogous to our present discussion? Think of it. If you at any point of time, stop performing religious activities, you will feel crappy about it. You will feel crappy about it because you believe you are NOT doing something that you are supposed to be doing. And if you become extremely irregular in doing those activities, you begin to lose your confidence in yourself, your self esteem and ultimately your discipline and focus takes a beating, which may end up reflecting at your work or in your studies.

And so to ‘fix’ this, you end up performing more religious activities. More activities, because you believe you  have neglected your duties and that you need to make up for it. And it makes you feel happy for a while, thus getting you back to ‘normal’. After this, you will feel even more crappy if you end up becoming irregular at performing those religious activities. This time it will be worse because you will take your previous neglecting into account here as well, thus making a bigger neglect of duty. And after this reaches a certain point, you go perform some other (maybe bigger) religious activity wherein you pray to God to condone your neglect of duty- here duty being performing some or the other religious activity that you were expected to do on a regular basis.

And thus, this vicious cycle goes on and on and on. You will continue to do the activities for the same reason (or the lack thereof) you have been doing from the beginning: just because you are SUPPOSED to.

If any believer or a religious reader points out that this kind of a phenomenon is possible with ANY other kind of activity as well, then he is essentially retreating to the “Not only mine, but even your examples are wrong!” line of argument. There is just one problem with this argument. If you argue this way, you yourself are essentially negating the very things about religion that I am contesting! In other words, if you argue this way, then you are essentially accepting that all religious activities are for the sole purpose of generating discipline and focus among people through the performance of religious activities. This way, there is no higher REASON that needs to be found in any scripture or religious book.

But come to think of it, there is a much larger implication in all of this. In the entire post, I have never argued the fact that the generation of discipline and focus among religious people can be correlated to their regular and sincere performance of religious activity. But lets take it a bit further.

It is extremely plausible that religion and religious activities started out with this very intention- the intention to help people generate more discipline, focus and self esteem, thus leading to a more civilized society. Random people over the centuries preaching the masses that they are ‘supposed’ to be doing these activities, failing which, they will accrue sins for neglecting to do the same.  Every single religion on this planet expects its followers to perform some or the other religious activity which gives rise to the whole phenomenon that I have described here. But over time, this original idea takes a beating and  religion becomes what it is today. This, of course, directly implies that religion is man made!

As much as I have come to accept this in recent times, the high levels of logical certainty that exists in that statement is really daunting and scary. Especially if you look around at the scale of violence that is occurring in the name of religion. But that is for another day.

I am open to reason. I do not consider faith as a good enough substitute for reason. Feel free to leave any comments arguing my line of thinking. But please make some effort at least to include some reason in them.

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About Akshay N R

Civil Engineer by Profession; Dudeist by Religion. Also allergic to mediocrity.

Posted on September 22, 2010, in My sense of Humour, Religion, Serious Writing, The things that happen only to ME... and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Man instead of telling this to be religion, you should used use the term “Ritualistic activities”. You have shown your ignorance in a great anner in terrms of understanding religion and it activities.

    “You would have also prayed at home soon after taking bath, perhaps prostrating yourself in front of some God photographs, praying that the day go well for you.” If you would understand what religion says on morning prayers is not to pray GOD that the day go well for you, infact the religious prayers are asking him to get into his service, get his prayer and ultimately glorifying the GOD himself, so your take what a prayer is infact is wrong, this shows the lack of knowledge of yours what is a prayer. The intention in which you should go to any holy places is also mentioned in scriptures is also mentioned, if any person goes to pray to be material happy and healthy is considered equal to be an ass.And again can you tell me the reason why we fast on particular days? .

    “The list is endless and I am sure you can add your own specific activities to that list. We may not have (or in my case, will probably never have) a fully convincing reason for doing all the things that I have listed above but we still do it because we believe that there must be SOME reason for it.”

    Each activity we perform have a convincing answer if you have gone through the authorized scriptures and studied under a representative teacher.A scientific reason is provided for each if you enquire under a proper scripture or guru, which you haven’t done and addressing them to be not convincing is not appropriate.

    “Whether you actually find out what this reason is is totally irrelevant. You will continue to do the same activities either way.” What you mean the reason is irrelavant, whatever activities is performed, the reason for which it is been performed is very relevant.

    “And what happens when ANYONE does ANYTHING constructive that they are ‘supposed’ to be doing? Its simple. They gain some happiness. They increase their self esteem.” Any religion always preaches you to be not to boost your ego and be humble in any activity, the question of increase of self-esteem happens to a person does those activities to perform as a ritual. So you have taken a example of person who doesn’t know why he has to perform that activity, so this statement doesn’t apply in general to all the folowers of any religion properly.

    “Think of it. Instead of being told to perform the early morning ceremonies without fail, what if our parents had pushed us to take an early morning jog or walk everyday? If that had become part of our daily activities, then we would have reaped the same rewards as performing religious activities on a regular basis.”

    First of all you dont know what results are given by any religious activity, you are seeing the secondary symptoms of discipline, focus etc., to be the prime reason of any religion activity and you are comparing to that of any ordinary activity of jogging and walk. This shows again that you being ignorant of religion activites compare the results of ordinary activity. The world religion comes latin ” religgare ” means “Being bound”, so any religous activity to aimed for being attached with GOD, I dont see a mere jog and morning walk will be successful for any living entity for getting attahed to GOD. If you dont believe this concepts and start commenting on what would have relgious activities aimed for in your interpretations then keep them for self, but publicly telling religious activities are aimed for only and making others influenced is not good attitude. You are not qualified enough to comment on religious ascepts.

    “There are so many more activities that one can think of, which if performed regularly, would not only improve our discipline, focus, self esteem and confidence, but also provide benefits in a lot more ways as well. We could explore our hobbies, passions and interests which definitely yield a lot more tangible results than religious activities.” – As I mentioned the religious activities are not performed in order to imrpove our focus, discipline, self esteem (which religion doesnt preach), and if you are viewing that the results of relgious activities are aimed to improve the same is youir ignorance, time and time people are being ignornant of religion, but materially oppulent make statement against religion people think worngly about religion. If some doctor states something against fashion immediately people brush those statements aside, telling he is not in that field and those comments are irrelevant, similarly, any person who isn’t trained in proper religion makes statement against religion makes statement on religion should be brushed aside. Making statements that our parents are making us to follow religious activities just make us discipline and compare them with other mere material activities isn’t right attitude, our parents maybe ignorant about religion that doesn’t mean religion is a mere personality developing program, if you are so keen to make statements on religion i appreciate you to approach any authorised guru and then compare the results.

    “After this, you will feel even more crappy if you end up becoming irregular at performing those religious activities.” Even though you may be irregular in religious activities but it gives permanent effects. In BG 2.40, it states “In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” This results are permanent, unlike a morning jog.

    So please stop arguing or commenting on something which you are ignorant. Comment the usual football or so which you are ardent fan and have understood properly.!!

    • Man I am so damn happy that you have made the effort to comment in such an elaborate fashion. Frankly speaking, I totally expected this elaborate comment as this is something that you hold so close to yourself.

      With regard to me terming them as “religious activities”, let me clarify that one first. The activities I have referred to here are what you may call religious/spiritual or ritualistic. And I am sure there is a very specific reason written down somewhere in some scriptures for each of those activities.
      The bigger point I am trying to make here is that if one finds it difficult to believe that a set of (very) old books hold the truth to everything that we see, there is a different explanation as to why those scriptures came about. I am saying that the scriptures and its contents were written to create a more civilized society. Of course, the scriptures themselves will give you a different explanation as to how they were created. But then, the only reason you believe in the scriptures is because the scriptures themselves tell you that they are the absolute truth. And this is reinforced by many Gurus and Saints, authentic or otherwise. This leads to a recursive belief. You believe in one thing to be the truth. But the reason you believe in that one thing is because that same thing claims in itself to be the truth. Which frankly speaking doesnt really make sense to me.

      Call me ignorant or whatever you may like. But the way I see it, questioning the very axioms which religion is based on is the real inquiry- it does not attribute to being ignorant.

      Looks like I have got all your emotions and sentiments up and excited…and rightly so! After all this is something that you really really believe in. Which is totally up to you. I wish we could have had a face to face discussion about this. Would probably have taken a good few hours of intense debate. But irrespective of the debate, I already know the end result- I will continue to believe in what I believe and you will continue to believe in what you believe!

      But frankly speaking, your comment has only made me more motivated and enthusiastic to post MORE about religion in the coming days. So I will be on the lookout for more of your comments!

  2. Akshay,

    Your coffee example does not explain religious activities completely, because when you say coffee, the initial premise is that, of addiction or giving a false sense of well-being when it does not help the individual. Going by this, you have given the side-effects of being ritualistic individual, one of which is compounded guilt for lack of performing these regularly. However, you have not given an explanation of the guilt phenomenon associated with people who are religious. Therefore, even though the premise of coffee addiction and false impression is correct in itself, this cannot be an analogue to explain religion and guilt.

    Instead, if you take say another example, that of an insulin, which helps a diabetic to maintain decent health as long as he takes it. Here, the substance insulin in some sense is like coffee, but the initial premise is different. Here, there is no question of false security (unlike the coffee example). It simply says that as long as a diabetic takes insulin at proper intervals and proper dose, it keeps the patient non-diabetic (so to speak) for that period. It does not say that it would cure the disease, but the reason for taking insulin is not out of addiction or for permanent cure, but out of a need for maintaining sound physical health for a specified duration. Going by this, a religious person may choose to perform these rituals periodically to maintain psychological balance and focus (to that effect) over a finite duration into the future, or for some, it may be due to entirely another reason. You can see that this example has given a different perspective to explain religion. Others may come up with better parallel.

    The issue of guilt is entirely another topic of discussion. The coffee example is like cherry picking, that one would select to arrive at a certain attribute (not proved why in the post) of religion, say that of guilt and addiction.

    You have said that faith is not a good substitute for logic/reason. Faith, to begin with, is not structured to be a substitute for logic/reason. Each has a distinct definition and function. It is like looking at apples and oranges! Each has a role to play in respective domains and are independent of the other.

    Good post though.

    • I fully agree with your point of view. In fact, I should have perhaps mentioned in the post what you have pointed out here. The coffee analogy is intended only as far as the whole process goes. Coffee works as an addictive thing. Religion and religious activities do not fulfil that part of the analogy. It just makes people guilt driven when they do not perform those activities. But the fact that they continue to perform those activities should not be considered as the “addiction” part of the analogy. On the other hand, the insulin analogy is perhaps more apt and explains all the ideas I wanted to convey. I have always found you to generate awesome analogies on the spot. So not surprised that you came up with this really good one.
      And the reason I said that faith is not a substitute for reason and logic is because the only counter argument religious people generate is ultimately based on faith at some level. And if you have read my good friend’s Sravan’s comment, you can see what I mean.

    • I did a lot of thinking. And frankly speaking, the insulin analogy doesnt really work. The insulin analogy works with the premise that the person is ALREADY diabetic and that the insulin dose is a NECESSARY thing to feel normal. Nobody is infected when they are born and religion is definitely NOT necessary for living. We do NOT need rituals or any religious activity to maintain psychological balance. The analogy deals with the issue that makes sure to take the addiction aspect out of the coffee analogy. But the main premise I believe is wrong in the insulin analogy. The coffee analogy does not involve guilt. But it is present in the real life religious example. THink of it.

      • Akshay,

        That was exactly the point that I was trying to make….that it is not easy to provide an analogy to parallel religion.

        Your coffee example had a different premise and gave a different interpretation of religion. So, did the insulin, which I began by a different premise to explain a different aspect. My point was not about the correctness of the premise, but to convey the difficulty in constructing parallels.

  3. It is common attitude which we have developed thinking whatever educational system we are having now, we think it to be more evolved than the ancient. But at the same time the so-called modern scientists feel low to claim the previous civilizations maybe more evolved and more intelligent than ours. When some modern author claims ” Learn everything about X scientific subject in 28 days” people, study them without a doubt, but there are some people who also enquire about the particular author if he is authorative person to take the knowledge from. Similarly if you question the authority of any scriptures just because what they say but not enquirying who and how authorative the person compelled them it will for sure to difficult to understand any scriptures. Gurus themselves reinforce about that, this happens in any modern educational/research institute. Any authorative person does a scrutinizing study on that reference and after that recommendes the followers. But just because Guru/saints wearing a saffron color or cross across his heart, and dont resemble a modern day educationalists you think these are set of beliefs based on faith.

    Though i wont be forced to follow any of them, but i will still be bothered how you make the comments. because you would have observed some people without knowledge perform any religion activity and perform them for the sake for improving their discipline etc., and make these comments, but if you put your efforts to study the scriptures ( you may not follow them) but study them on a scientific front and comment on them i will appreciate those comments.

    You have made a statement” And the reason I said that faith is not a substitute for reason and logic is because the only counter argument religious people generate is ultimately based on faith at some level.”
    Yeah faith is necessary on any front of life. I have faith that any particle thrown will ultimately come down, because i have understanding the laws of gravity to support them. This faith is not developed on a sentimental platform but on a reasoning platform. In fact, this is the same with any of our present day modern study also, what ever you study you day a reasoning and experimental judgement in order to develop faith and proceed forward to study more. So similarly even the scriptures doesn’t support mere sentimental attachment to the activities perform, but develop faith on the scientific reasoning platform. This also happens in day to day life, if a mother says to her child that this particular person is your father, the child with faith believes it, but doesnt do a reasoning to accept it. Even in case of your acceptance to join a particular university was based on comments on alumini of the university and develop the faith. But, scriptures doesn’t say any one to follow it sentimentally, so those who are following them without reasoning why are infact are not following them.

    A person following it ( maybe religion or even geotechnical) in full knowledge can’t compare that to an addiction of coffee!

    • Like I said, we will have a long discussion face to face next time I come over…or you come here (whenever that is btw!). You should perhaps read my new post-just on the scriptures and why they cannot be accepted for what they are. I am sure you will have a lot of opinions on that as well.

  4. This also reminds me of learned helplessness and extinction bursts, both of which apply to religion to a certain extent as well.
    Maybe this is a slight bit different from what has been put here, but what I had been discussing in my blog is somewhat similar:
    http://avinashpathak60.blogspot.com/2011/02/faith-religion-and-science-or-i-know-so.html

  5. @Akshay
    Honestly, if I had to associate religion with an article on “you are not so smart”, I would personally go with the sunk cost fallacy for the purpose of explaining why people don’t just leave religion so easily.
    Honestly though this entire entry could be a test of the backfire effect, I am not by any means a fan of religion so I read through the article without it really challenging my beliefs or understandings. However, judging from your conversations with Sravan, the backfire effect and the potential debate / flame war that resulted may have been the result you were looking for all along.
    @Avinash
    I don’t think that the extinction burst happens when you leave something that you have lost faith in, or more specifically something that wasn’t just quit cold turkey with a yearning for it. Most people don’t quit religion for the same reason they quit cigarettes or alcohol, there is no underlying bad thing that they are trying to drop.

    • The backfire effect was for sure proved in there by my friend. And I am also thinking of the whole idea of Karma or heaven and hell as manifestations of the Just world fallacy. WIll write abt that soon.

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