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February 22, 2007

Religious Enthusiasms

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I enjoyed reading John Emerson's notion that religious enthusiasm can inspire behaviors that -- though often crazy and destructive -- also sometimes lead to evolutionarily beneficial developments. That's evolutionarily in quotes, btw.

Feeling a little nutty and inspired myself, I dropped this comment on his posting:

I don't find much to take issue with here, although I'd propose that we're *all* subject to enthusiasms, belief systems, dreams, stories, etc -- that, basically, life simply has a religious dimension. You can tune into or out of it, you can be stupid about it or non-stupid about it, you can ignore it or ridicule it or embrace it (or just kinda, you know, allow it to be what it is and get on with life). But there it is. And a personal hunch: the people who are loudest about denouncing it are often the people most helplessly under its sway.

I like your idea about how religious conviction can inspire people to take risks. A related thing might be the way that much of the greatest art has been made with some relationship with some "God"-type power or figure in mind: in praise of, as a channel to, under the inspiration of, etc. Much art has been a kind of nutty adventure inspired by religious feelings, in other words.

You might even say that today's commercial art (movies, pop music, magazines, glitzy buildings, etc) is art made in praise of the religion known as "global capitalism." If we can say that Renaissance art was made in praise of Catholicism and the Borgias, why shouldn't we admit that today's art is made in praise of the belief structure most of us inhabit? Global capitalism (or however you want to label it) promises earthly goods now and final deliverance eventually -- what's not "religious" about that?

Suits me, anyway. Curious to hear whether these notions strike anyone else as evolutionarily beneficial or not.



posted by Michael at February 22, 2007


Reminds me of one of Kenneth Clark's zingers: "No great nation of artists has yet arisen that did not first produce great soldiers." Is there a connection here with religion, too?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 22, 2007 6:10 PM

If you don't produce great soldiers, you might not last long enough as a distinct nation to produce great artists attributable to you. As ever, the USA is probably an exception.

Posted by: dearieme on February 23, 2007 6:05 AM

I actually don't think the USA has a particularly strong military tradition, probably as a result of our being isolated through a large part of our history. Certainly our army is relatively powerful but it was really Stalin who broke Hitler's back, and we don't seem to have much of a stomach for foreign adventures. The 'American Empire' is mostly financial in nature.

Posted by: SFG on February 23, 2007 3:17 PM

"I actually don't think the USA has a particularly strong military tradition"

Some good points in SFG's post, but here come a few quibbles:

- our strength isn't just financial; our military technology and spending are way ahead of everyone else

- Just at the top of my head, I think we're one of the few developed nations that has had military involvement that included a large number of our young men for each of the past few generations, creating an officer and NCO corps with combat expereince (WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, now Iraq)

- The culture of respect for the military tradition is stronger in teh US, I think, than in most other countries (the words "Marine Corps" automatically evoke awe from an average person)

Posted by: PA on February 23, 2007 4:22 PM

Knowing what we do now about neuroplasticity, "religious" fervor -- or for that matter, a quietly religious or spiritual approach to life, or a nihilistic view of life, or any other habitual frame of reference -- most certainly alters the neural make-up of our brains. So rather than "inspiring" us, I think it's a matter of habitual thoughts/frames of mind actually molding the brain, and thereby increasing the likelihood of particular behaviors, which in turn affect our well-being and ability to survive as well as the well-being, ability to survive, and behavior of our children.

IOW, religious fervor or conviction lays down a neural template that maps to seemingly unrelated behaviors such as a willingness to take risks.

It's not just religious fervor. For instance there's a certain sort of mainstream Protestant "mind" that is quietly cheerful, solid, unflashy, mild-tempered, content, that comes out of a progressive Northeastern middle class churched upbringing. Find someone who attends a NE protestant church regularly and this frame of mind or way of being is all but palpable. (Bring a dish to pass.)

Perhaps you saw in today's WSJ, Michael, the article about how researchers now know that some brain functions actually improve with age. The molding of our brains is ongoing; we are the product of our past thought patterns.

We're only just scratching the surface of this stuff . . .

Posted by: Kirsten on February 23, 2007 8:31 PM

I really liked your last paragraph about art in praise of global capitalism, I think it's quite accurate. Speaking of which, one of the most striking pieces of architecture I've seen is a non-denominational chapel on the grounds of Harvard Business School. As you may know, that school has a very "diverse" international student body -- diverse that is in their race, nationality, and ethnicity, similar I suppose in their desire to bring the capitalist message to the world. Anyway, this chapel was very...I suppose one might call it a grey flannel chapel? Inoffensive, neutral, non-sectarian, and "globalized" in the approved 21st century capitalist fashion, yet at the same time there was a heavy, grim, rather joyless power about it. Sort of like Wall Street? I always thought of this place as a chapel to the cult of capital. At least in its more corporate, globalized and less small-scale, funky, street vendor side.

I googled a bit and found a slide show of both the exterior and interior of the chapel, it's worth checking out:

Posted by: MQ on February 23, 2007 9:50 PM

Hmmm ... if "global capitalism" is a religion then it's a really strange one. Yes, yes of course there's the "most toys" form of imortality it promises and the blessings of "dynastic wealth" the market angels bestow upon the faithful, but all the same -- where's the relgious struggle? Can it really be that "functionality" is capitalism's beauty? Something mytical and incomprehensible is missing from capitalism; instead of coping with the mystical, it just seems to deny that there is such a thing. Certainly it's a powerful belief system and one that gets people on the same page, but a religion? really?

Posted by: Henry Mien on February 25, 2007 3:11 AM

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