AND THE LACK THEREOF*

*we put the "mmm" in communism

about

This is the personal blog of Tim. Here, Tim writes on anything he has enough inspiration to finish a post on. That usually ends up being matters of science, pop culture, technology, religion, and philosophy.

This blog is around nine years old, which is over a third of Tim's current age. Back in 2003, it was called "Of Tim: Tim's life - or lack thereof", and it was as bad as you might expect the blog of a freshman in high school to be. Tim hopes that his writing is a little better, these days.

Tim welcomes any input that you, the dear reader, might have. Comments are very much appreciated, especially if you have a dissenting opinion. If you'd like to learn more about Tim, you might want to see his facebook or google+.

Also: Tim is a very avid consumer of various sorts of music. You may be interested in his playlists!

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Early morning found me awake, so I decided it was time again to see how my old church was faring. As I hoped, the visit brought forth a slough of new perspectives on ancient paradigms. This time, my ponderings focused on the concept of "living by faith", a phrase often employed in many religious contexts.

I've learned that a critical part of the process of reevaluation is finding a functional definition of the concept at hand - one that shies away from vagueries and can be envisioned practically. To this end, I felt this description accurately described the act of "living by faith": engaging in any behavior where the outcome is uncertain or unknown. By nature of going forward with an action where there are a high number of unknown and uncontrolled variables, the risk of a negative outcome is much higher. Uncertainty naturally engenders much anxiety, which is why this concept is often paired with a call to trust in god to provide a positive result.

Having reached this definition, I was faced with a problem. If these behaviors are naturally higher-risk, then I should be seeing a higher incidence of poor outcomes. However, most Christians will testify that the more they allow themselves to live by faith and trust in god, the better things are. Some of this can be accounted for by mere attitude; an optimistic approach can overpower a significant amount of misfortune. This can't explain all of it, though - there must be something more going on. I concluded that it is a combination of several characteristics which feed into each other, at an individual level, as well as in the community.

Before I describe these characteristics, here are some examples of the kind of behaviors that might depend on these traits for successful execution.

  • Getting married very young, after a very short dating period, or otherwise without the knowledge most people would consider necessary or valuable in deciding whether or not to marry

  • Changing jobs and/or moving somewhere new based on the nebulous function of spiritual calling or vocation - particularly those who leave stable employment to become a full-time religious worker

  • In a similar vein, financially illogical prosocial ventures, such as charity work done totally out of pocket or started without the necessary funding already acquired

  • Choosing not to abort unplanned pregnancies

Many more examples can be drawn, but these behaviors are emblematic of the topic at hand; they're fundamentally risky and require the individual to make life-altering choices for very fuzzy reasons. Intuition says that we should be seeing primarily negative results, but anecdotal evidence contradicts this. I believe the following traits explain this.

Robust social support systems

This is the simplest and most obvious, so I don't think I need to explain it much. Church communities are tight-knit, and where other social support systems fail to provide for the needs of an individual, the church community steps in to ensure basic necessities are taken care of. Because the community invests in the individual, accountability is higher; they want to know their efforts aren't being wasted.

Try, try again

Patience is a celebrated trait in most religious traditions, and many bible verses and modern Christian authors speak at length on the art of waiting for god to act. Being patient is a safe approach to most situations; the best opportunities rarely avail themselves from the start.

These actions are ultimately executed using moral and spiritual arguments, which in the context of faith/religion are not subject to the normal acid test of cost-benefit analysis. Success is assumed to be inevitable because the outcome is guaranteed by a supernatural being. Persistence and patience are simply a necessity because of the all-in element of these choices. Once a person has made the decision, it is often very difficult, if not impossible to reverse - from a logistical standpoint as well as to avoid shame in the community (goes back to accountability). If the original plan fails, it is almost always more productive to go forward than to attempt to revert the change.

Confidence increases chances of success

Community support combined with the emotional reinforcement that accompanies the idea of divine purpose results in a higher level of confidence. The more confident one is and appears to be, the better things go. This effect is further bolstered by the irreversible nature of these decisions - having been locked into a choice, one can more quickly recognize anxiety and hesitation as useless and antithetical to the end goal.

Major decisions can initiate significant life change

The easiest way to adopt maladaptive behaviors is through stagnation. As people settle into a pattern of routine, habits and customs are acquired that can lower quality of life by a significant degree. The sort of choices in question tend to force individuals to completely alter the structure of daily life in order to overcome new challenges and adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. Old habits can be more easily eliminated in new contexts, and other desired changes can be initiated since many of the factors that discourage change become irrelevant in the process of drastic life change.

Adaptation to high-uncertainty situations

As each individual goes through the ordeal of surviving the period of adjustment from stability to instability, and back again, experience is accrued that provides valuable lessons for next time. They will inevitably improve at performing damage control when things go awry (which they will). By making it through significant life change, adaptive capability will improve. Even more importantly, this knowledge is diffused throughout the community, providing valuable insights for others that will eventually find themselves in similar circumstances.

Combined together, these characteristics of religiously-motivated behavior form a potent cocktail of social momentum. Choices that would be disastrous in other environments become somewhat more feasible, at the cost of individual identity and control. By going all-in, the individual becomes inexorably tied to the community, and s/he becomes wholly dependent on that community for survival. This description remains true at practically every level of religious organization and involvement; think of your favorite radical group or cult, and if you examine their practices, very often the prerequisites for membership in the community demands abandonment of out-group relationships, personal property, and/or individual identity. This effect exists in more moderate religious circumstances, but it tends to be more subtle, lurking in the subconscious of the group's members.

I feel, at times, that I'm discovering things that everyone else already knew. Looking over the evidence now, all of this seems completely obvious, as if there were no other conclusion that could be reached. It feels very strange to see all of these forces I once thought beyond definition and description, amalgamated into fairly typical psychosocial phenomena. Amorphous platitudes (anyone remember my truth, beauty, and goodness kick?) have been usurped by more practical perspectives.

It took me a long time to accept that reality really is just what we can see - no more, no less. I wanted desperately for there to exist something unimaginably lovely and pure behind this veil of existence. I spent more time thinking about the plane of the supernatural than I did about my own life, and my life in the real world suffered greatly for it. Now, having figured out how to make reality a place worth living in, I just don't need more than this. As I learn more about nature, of the laws of our universe and the tremendous and wonderful complexity of the systems it contains, I feel like I've been an ignorant child, sobbing for ice cream as a giant bowl of mint chocolate chip sits right in front of me.

The world isn't an easy place - at least for now, there is no escape from suffering. Pain and hardship are a part of our reality that we cannot eliminate. Rather than fleeing from reality to escape the unpleasantries, I have determined that life can, in fact, be good enough to make the bad parts more than worth enduring. That's what friends and family are for.
posted by MC Froehlich at
Blogger TheGreatAnt said...
Nah, still doesn't account for it. Besides, there are a lot of negative outcomes. But the way the negatives are perceived can be very different.
Blogger Christopher said...
Blogs should function like source control with a code review mechanism--not for the purpose of approving or rejecting content, only for the utility of being able to start a threaded discussion at a particular block of text.

Google do this

With respect to your comment, "I feel, at times, that I'm discovering things that everyone else already knew." I think this is a life long, communally shared (in that many people experience it simultaneously) experience which is frequently not shared (in that people don't talk about it much). Maybe it's darwinian: realizing something which later seems obvious feels like a weakness which should be hidden? I don't know.

What I do know is that I live in never ending spirals of this experience. Something about this, in my mind, speaks to the difference between those who "live by faith" vs those who "live in earnest". The camp of the former is well described here and requires no further comment; but I submit that this camp rarely, if ever, challenges the present moment. They spend less time in analysis, either deterministic or quantum in nature, and more time in "how can I believe better?" mode.

The latter camp tends to think more about causation: the humidifier caught fire because it was old and the wires were frayed and the smell of burning subconsciously caught my attention vs. a god saved our lives from fire because I listened for his voice and followed him into the basement to find an electronic blaze (real testimony, btw).

The latter camp also tends to think about non-causation: not observing is as powerful an influence as observing. Someone else supply a metaphor, but don't post it.

At any rate, it's a powerful observation about yourself and meaningful. What conditions a group to ignore this fundamental instinct? What real benefits does the group derive from its suppression? If substantial, are they better positioned to survive?
Blogger TheGreatAnt said...
Christopher, that rings of intellectual elitism, though you might find it well-founded in this case. But what basis do you have for stating that the believers do not challenge the present moment? That they do not analyze the world around them? I find quite enough thoughts in each day both to consider my sinfulness and need for a savior while logically and scientifically approaching the world around me.

At a basic level we say many of the same things. The camp of belief (the ones needing no further comment, for they have been boxed well), will hold often that 'natural' events led to what could be considered a miraculous ending. Indeed, I often wonder how many great miracles were God working within the universe I believe He created to 'naturally' bring about a desired outcome.

Too, there is a definite lack of perceived credibility in the word of those who do believe. Even in what you wrote, Christopher, you automatically assume that while the fellow BELIEVES he was led into the basement, it was just as likely the smell of burning in his subconscious. Now me, I might say God used that smell to save His life, but even that would denigrate his ability to reason. He experienced the event. If he felt God telling him to go downstairs, without some other evidence we must realize that that is the only eye-witness account available. To automatically reject it and invent some other reason because it fits our outlook on life better is to deny reason. Of course you could say that only a madman sees his madness, and to trust him is lunacy. I address this somewhat in the next paragraph.

Some, and seemingly you, would hold that the man is simply failing to analyze the world around him. When you start with a bias against the reason of another person, nothing they say has any validity. You've won the argument by disqualifying your opponent from rational discussion. If you assume the person arguing against you is mad, why should you continue?

Your message got cut off from my view by the way, it stopped at "what real benefits does the group derive from its" and that's all I got. Perhaps you addressed my concerns, if so, my apologies.
Blogger MC Froehlich said...
just a quick note, there was a glitch in my css that caused the cut-off. fixed!

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