Saturday, 11 May 2013

The habituation of a lie

Lately I’ve been coming to consider that religious belief, in particular ritual, is an unconscious method for people to accommodate inconsistencies between what they believe and how the world actually works.

Consider transubstantiation. In Matthew 26:26-28, Jesus said:
26And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. 27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; 28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
From an early period in Christian thought, there was a belief in the literal transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. However, since this does not actually happen, a disconnect is formed between the desired belief and actual reality.

Such believers realize it’s not true, but they want it to be. So how do they make sense of this?

I suggest that the Eucharist became a ritual as a way to habituate oneself to the painfully obvious fact it was wrong. That is, simply by repeating the ritual over and over, constantly reinforcing the truth of the belief (regardless of whether or not it actually was true), people came to literally believe it.

Think of beliefs as being on a linear scale. If you believe that something is false, you’re on the left of the scale, and if you believe something is true, you’re on the right of the scale.

False <-----------> True

Now, if you believe the Eurcharist does not actually turn into literal flesh and blood, but you want to believe, simply ritualize the Eucharist and, after enough repetitions, you will slowly move your way towards the right of the scale and come to believe in transubstantiation – despite your prior convictions of the falsity of the belief.

This process doesn’t even need to be conscious. A friend invites you to join them at church and take the Eucharist. Even though you don’t believe in it, if you do it every week for a couple years, there’s at least a good chance you will eventually accept it as truth.

Why? Just like repeating a word too many times forces it to lose its meaning, staring at an essay too long prevents you from noticing little mistakes, or staring at an interesting object makes it less interesting, so too does repeating a lie appear to make it seem less like a lie.

By habituating ourselves to lies through repetition and ritual, we actually convince ourselves something is true despite obvious evidence it is not.

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