Saturday, April 26, 2014

Primitive Prozac: Religion as Anxiolytic Therapy

Or- I'd rather have a frontal theophany than a bottle in front of me.

"Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions." -Karl Marx
Marx, unfortunately, lived before modern neuropharmacology. But whether the blunderbuss of opium, (or alcohol), or the scalpel of prozac, we are clearly in need of something to get us through the night, and self-medicate in all cultures and all times. Religion seems to be one such universal method of relieving anxiety, and comes up for a chapter in Jared Diamond's book, The World Until Yesterday, titled "What electric eels tell us about the evolution of Religion". To boil it down brutally, Diamond, wearing his sober sociologist's hat, tabulates seven functions of religion, dialed to various levels among different religions, cultures, and times:
  • Supernatural explanation
  • Defusing anxiety through ritual
  • Providing comfort about pains and death
  • Standardized organization
  • Preaching political obedience
  • Moral codes of behavior towards strangers
  • Justification of wars

What I realized in reading this is that most of these points, and probably the most significant ones, can be collected under the head of antianxiety medication, individual and collective. We are a very anxious species. Our great intelligence and ability to model past, future, and social structures, etc. has also granted us an expanded, indeed infinite, ability to worry and fret. Squirrels seem anxious too, so this is not a new phenomenon. Chimpanzees soothe each other mostly via grooming, something we seem to have given up in favor of language and social interaction, of which religion is perhaps the most powerful form. Part of our transition from prey to predator species may have been finding some way to calm down, which in our case became, in part, religious practice, rather than the more biological alterations that allow other top predators, like lions and raptors, to seem so calm and unruffled.

Not knowing something makes us anxious, to the point that we habitually make up stories to fill the gap. There seems to be some kind of law against telling a child "I don't know" in response to all those natural, and pressing, questions. So we make up stories. This can be the fount of the greatest art- a project of self-expression and self-understanding, in the guise of an origin story, story of a constellation, of a deity, etc. But still, it betrays an odd kind of anxiety about gaps in our knowledge- an anxiety that has led us to science as well.

Other people make us anxious, not knowing what is in their minds, especially their intentions toward us. Disease makes us anxious, especially back when next to nothing was know about it. Death makes us extremely anxious, being the end of all we hold dear, and typically involving unspeakable suffering besides. We are existentially anxious, about what it all means, where it all came from, who is in charge, what our life is worth. Similarly, the future makes us anxious. It is a big unknown. Historically, many people didn't even take the sun rising again for granted, but developed elaborate rituals and theologies to help that process along.

All these sources of anxiety can be addressed through religion. It explains the unknown, at least sufficiently to allay naive anxieties about cosmic origins, natural surroundings, biology, and disease. Perhaps it assures us about a destination after death, and furnishes a father figure who provides both ultimate justice and meaning to life. It also relieves an enormous amount of social anxiety, providing us with a "gang" to hang with, with some hierarchical structure and rules of interaction, which relieve the anxiety of social chaos. The meaning that religion provides allays at once our social, existential, and intellectual anxieties. Indeed, Diamond's last point about justifying wars can be framed in a similar way. What keeps us typically from making war is prudence and anxiety about the future, about losing, and about the personal price paid by some, even if the group wins. Religion can wipe away each of those anxities by painting a glorious picture of the cause, the boons to be gained, and glory falling especially to those who die in such a cause.

This is hardly a new observation, but seems insufficiently appreciated by those trapped in the is-religion-true (nor not) debate. Not being remotely true hardly makes it useless or pointless.

For instance, from book on religions of antiquity:
"During the process of acculturation from childhood, this heritage is transmitted to all members of a community who absorb is, and are thus enabled to sidestep the burdensome intellectual challenge of developing a personal or private explanation of the order of the real and its counterpart in the imaginaire. Myths constitute the vehicle of transmission of this collective account, which undergoes adjustment corresponding to changes in the objective conditions of the historico-social formation in which they are elaborated. It this becomes a cultural mediator of great importance, offering a shifting form of explanation that allows members of the community to face, without excessive anxiety, a reality that might otherwise appear chaotic and uncontrollable." - Jaime Alvar Ezquerra, in "Romanizing Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation, and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras" 2008.

False as it must necessarily be, the model works just so long as most members don't question it too hard. Like the classic answer about the turtle that holds up the world... "It's turtles all the way down!" Beyond such a superficial level (which, bless them, drives theologians to such contortions), the content hardly matters at all. It is the psychological lifting of weight that is so valuable. Problems only arise when people take their myth too seriously, insisting on a truth that isn't there. A natural corollary is the rise of modern religious toleration (an echo of the polytheistic all-for-on and one-for-all model in Western antiquity). For if deep down, we realize that religions give us a therapeutic service, then the flavor doesn't make much difference, for all their various and impossible claims to truth. It is very similar to the situation of modern psychology, which has realized that talk therapy is highly beneficial, pretty much regardless of the Freudian / Jungian / Dynamic / Cognitive / etc. forms it may take. It works because it throws a lifeline of structured, social, soothing calm.

What is a modern person to do? Our intellectual insecurity has been resolved in vast degree by diligent intellectual practice, i.e. by science and other forms of disciplined inquiry. Our physical insecurities have been resolved in large measure by just government and economic prosperity (and lots of oil!) No one in today's developed world should go hungry, or be crushed under political oppression, let alone be attacked by wild animals. Prosperity has also brought great social freedom, though not solidarity or communalism. Quite the opposite- it has given us atomization and anomie.

Psychotherapy addresses, in some degree, this small facet of the anxieties that religion treats so comprehensively, not touching issues of the collective at all, for example. Prozac is an even less productive solution, relieving the physiological symptom, but not addressing either individual or collective problems, assuming that they are problems, and that social engagement in a religious-style community helps solve them. For our anxieties are not just hindrances, they have a purpose, (at normal levels), driving us to plan for the future, form protective and productive communities, learn all we can about our environment, etc.

So, social isolation, personal meaning, and death remain significant unresolved forms of anxiety for which religion remains a functional prescription, in competition with prozac and other aids. Ritual, for instance, whatever its content, provides a socially calming and organizing activity that has largely been lost to non-religious modern people. We see pieces of ritual in musical concerts, political events, newspaper reading, school attendance, business formalities, even facebook obsessing. But none is as powerful as the religious practice that whips it all together into a compelling Sunday morning multi-ritual production of cultural connection and cosmic import.

And meaning? The modern worldview, for all its anxiety-allaying efforts in other spheres, denies intrinsic meaning in this life, while denying future lives altogether. We have no more meaning than a fly that lives its day in the sun, or a grain of sand. We naturally adopt inborn meanings, through our family and social lives, and our competitive natures. And we create other meanings in profusion, high and low, including that confection of meaning called religion. Religion has been the exercise above all others that assures us of some ultimate reason for it all, and has been exceedingly difficult to replace in that respect. The only answer, in refusing all false meanings and empty faiths, is an astringently stoic / existentialist philosophy that is perhaps the single strongest characteristic of modernity.

  • But others wonder whether it isn't just peer pressure and indoctrination.
  • Calculus was once heretical.
  • Atheists have mystical experiences too. But they interpret them skeptically.
  • American atomization, anxiety, and anomie.
  • Brain injury can give, as well as take away.
  • Sado-monetarism, Swedish edition.
  • The mortgage system is still rife with fraud and lawlessness.
  • Korean ferry disaster is another story of corruption and revolving doors.
  • Some successful government programs. 
  • But we have not been keeping up with the highway fund / gas tax.
  • Why does "freedom" not extend to all users of the internet?
  • Colbert does Cliven. Plus, more on guns.
  • Wolf on money: nationalize it!
  • Solow on Piketty. "This is Piketty’s main point, and his new and powerful contribution to an old topic: as long as the rate of return exceeds the rate of growth, the income and wealth of the rich will grow faster than the typical income from work."
  • Doutat on Piketty.
  • And for remarkable disclosure (and self-disclosure)... WSJ on Piketty. After explaining how CEOs certainly don't deserve what they are paid, (what a foolish theory that would be!), but are the fortunate cronies of crony capitalism, they conclude:
"A more useful prescription, long before anyone heard of Mr. Piketty and his gloomy novelties, is the prescription promoted by boring-old Social Security reformers. They've long argued for turning Social Security into a system of real savings, via private accounts, so every American can become a capital owner and benefit from [CEO] Mr. Mulally's incentives too."

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