I think it’s pretty apparent that some sort of religious impulse exists in many human beings. I don’t think there is any single definitive cause for this (though there may be). It seems to come from either a desire for outside authority, or a lack of self-confidence, or an intuition of a higher power, etc. Whatever the reason for the person in question, many of our fellow human beings seem to have the drive towards religion. I have been thinking about that lately, and wondering what benefits religions might provide for their followers aside from the fulfillment of this drive.
We all carry notions and ideas that are contradictory. These are the source of cognitive dissonance that’s a common occurrence in life. Examine what you hold to be true long enough and you will encounter these sources of contention. I know of no place in life where this is more apparent than in the scriptures of most organized religion. This is especially true when viewed by someone who is not a member of the religion in question. Those inside the religion tend to have some emotional armoring against such contradictions. However, any rational and objective examination of a religion’s scripture will call these contrary notions out.
That leads me to what I think might be one of the strange benefits of following a religion. Due to the contradictions inherent in most scriptures, the followers of the religion are compelled to pick and choose which directives to follow. Some leave this to others, and the priest cast tends to be the ones given the authority to make these calls. Different religions encourage a differing level of self-study. Whoever is compelled to pick and choose from the scriptures must face these contradictions head on. That type of decision making calls for critical thinking, and the development of critical thinking has many benefits.
Critical thinking skills appear increasingly rare in our world. Could it be that religions are a place where critical thinking is encouraged?
There are famous examples from most religions of people dealing with the paradoxes the scriptures extol. Zen is replete with students coming to the point of burning all of their books in order to free themselves from the tyranny of doctrine. In Judaism, there is a famous story of a renowned Rabbinical scholar who, in the middle of study, suddenly threw up his arms and declared, “There is no truth!” He then retreated to his chambers and did not emerge for some years. When he did, he picked up studying and teaching from right where he left off. Most people seem to think that facing the contradictions of the scriptures will always cause followers to abandon their beliefs. However, that Rabbi came face to face with the contradictions in the holy texts, and when he resolved those in his own mind his faith was strengthened rather than abandoned. Perhaps we could all learn a little something from his example.