Personal Religion

We don’t spend a lot of time staring at the cruel, absurd universe

My roommate Nate said something very interesting recently. My friend Greg and I were telling him about the horrible, regressive, anti-consumer, anti-environmental agreements in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he told us he’d rather not hear about it.  This surprised me because I consider Nate to be the most politically active person I know. Not only does he generally keep up with politics, Nate actively gets involved in political controversies. Most recently he put North Carolina State University’s climate science program on the map and appeared in the News and Observer for arranging the controversial “Shored Up” to be shown at the Hunt Library.

Nate succinctly explained that if he could not expect to have any effect on an event happening in the world, its only value to him is the effect it has on him. Therefore, learning of a depressing, awful deal like the TPP has only the effect of making it more difficult for him to believe in a generally good world, making him stressed and less hopeful, and may even hurt his ability to affect the parts of the world he can change.

This is tremendously interesting to me because it ties in neatly with a concept I’ve been considering that I call “personal religion.” Here I define a “religion” as any belief having intrinsic value outside its truth or falsehood. An organized religion such as Christianity has various beliefs that, irrelevant of whether they are fact or fiction  have enormous effects on both the world at large and their believers.

I define a personal religion as a religion, as defined above, that an individual keeps for his or her emotional benefit, whether knowingly or not. I suspect that everyone has personal religion. Athletes believe that their team will be the team to win the next game. Entrepreneurs believe that their struggling company is imminently close to a breakthrough. Parents believe in their hearts that their children will grow up to be successful and happy. A cancer patient believes that his chemotherapy will send his tumor into remission. Descartes might agree that we all choose to believe that what we experience every day is truly reality. Nate chooses to believe that the world is generally a good place, emotionally if not intellectually, which I think is why he prefers to avoid bad news when he can help it. One of my personal religions I share with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

In the vast majority of cases, our religions harm no-one. They are merely the tools we use to cope with the uncertainty in our lives. Just as our more mundane earthly religions reassure us and help us through this life,  belief in the supernatural, in life after death, helps us not to fear the next. I personally like to entertain a personal religion of reincarnation, or even an admittedly absurd faith in the imminent technological singularity which will grant me immortality, rather than torment myself with my inevitable demise.

Did you notice that I admit the absurdity of my own belief? F. Scott Fitzgerald said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  A motivated entrepreneur believes in his business, but a wise one hedges his bets. An aspiring actor believes she will make the big time, but gets a technical degree to fall back on. The cancer patient writes his will.

Religion is a wonderful and beautiful shield that protects us from the cruel absurdity of the universe. But when it comes to making decisions, we should rely on our own understanding. Our decisions that affect ourselves and other people should be based on the evidence that we see in front of us, be it an umpteenth audition failure, an economic downturn, or the results of a cancer screening. What we want to be true is often different from what is. Sometimes the cost of avoiding the truth is greater than the cost of staring the universe in the face in all its absurd cruelty.

Fortunately, though, it usually isn’t. Nate, for example, can easily ignore the TPP if it makes him uncomfortable because it’s not likely he’d be able to do much about it individually anyway. Also, I can keep denying that I’ll ever die for decades to come! I’ll see y’all at the technological singularity, when we’ll be able to scan our brains and replicate them in software. I look forward to the day when I’ll live forever as a free-roaming artificial intelligence on the Internet!

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3 thoughts on “Personal Religion”

  1. I have heard of research that suggests people are happier and more effective if they have something to believe in. So in a sense, if personal religion is that which falls beyond the realm of truth and falsehood, Nate’s not wanting to hear about something that would make him unhappy and challenge his belief that he can make the world a better place actually goes beyond the realm of personal religion. In fact, I would go so far as to assert that Nate’s belief that listening to depressing news he cannot do anything about is destructive is probably a truth based on his knowledge of himself.

    I’m also not quite sure I agree with your definition of religion since I’m not sure at all that it transcends truth and falsehood. Religion has been known to teach both great truths and great falsehoods.

  2. Thanks for commenting, it’s always nice to hear another position! It seems like I did not communicate well what the religion was in Nate’s statement. I have modified the entry to be more clear.

  3. I try to place more emphasis on goals than on what you define as a personal religion. To me, there is no point in enshrining the certainty of success as a dogma. Positive thinking is empowering, but there is no reason to believe in victory as a certainty.
    Why should we let defeat make us heretics? The sport, sickness, business venture, etc. is a test that is either passed or failed. Unless you reach some final destination in your life, eventual failure is inevitable. Unless you stop working and contributing entirely, you will die leaving some project incomplete.

    Unless you make it to the singularity.

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