Category Archives: belief

Religion’s Next Disruptive Innovation

The conclusion of researchers analyzing data on religious trends in 49 countries have found that from about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries have become less religious. Why? Has demand for the services that religions provide decreased? Demand for things like being part of a community, a sense of meaning and ways to overcome hardship? No, demand hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it’s likely that demand for these things are higher now than they have ever been. So why aren’t religions booming?

The researchers claim that it is a demand problem. “As societies develop from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, growing existential security tends to reduce the importance of religion in people’s lives, and people become less obedient to traditional religious leaders and institutions.” As existential security increases, demand for religion goes down.

I can see how this explanation makes sense in the case of countries that go from the brink of war to being war-free. If chance is all that stands between a bomb falling on your house or a neighbor’s house, relying on God for existential security seems very reasonable. But the most dramatic shift away from religion hasn’t taken place in countries recovering from war; it’s taken place in America.

“From 1981 to 2007, the United States ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries, with religiosity levels changing very little. Since then, the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data. Near the end of the initial period studied, Americans’ mean rating of the importance of God in their lives was 8.2 on a ten-point scale. In the most recent U.S. survey, from 2017, the figure had dropped to 4.6, an astonishingly sharp decline.”

My take on why belief in religion is decreasing is that it’s suffering from what business consultant Clay Christensen called “disruptive innovation.”

Religions with followers are at risk from the same threats as businesses with customers. Take Blockbuster video, for example. The movie and video game rental company went from an unchallenged empire in 2000 to bankruptcy in 2010. Was it a decrease in demand for movies and video games that killed Blockbuster? No. Just like religions, the demand for what Blockbuster was offering had never been higher. What killed Blockbuster was it’s inability to adapt its business models to incorporate the disruptive innovation of on-demand streaming.

As defined by the Christensen Institute: “Disruptive Innovation describes a process by which a product or service initially takes root in simple applications at the bottom of a market—typically by being less expensive and more accessible—and then relentlessly moves upmarket, eventually displacing established competitors.” I think the experience of renting a movie at Blockbuster was arguably better than streaming one on Netflix. Perusing the shelves of movies with a group of friends on a Friday night was fun—a lot more fun than the semi-hypnotic state of Netflix analysis paralysis. But Netflix didn’t win because it was better; it won because it was so easy and so inexpensive. As the Christensen Institute explains: “Disruptive Innovations are NOT breakthrough technologies that make good products better; rather they are innovations that make products and services more accessible and affordable, thereby making them available to a larger population.”

Religions, likewise, are good at what they do. A couple thousand years ago in the marketplace of religions, Christianity was the disruptive innovation. In his book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Bart D. Ehrman lays out the innovations that allowed Christianity to out-compete the competition of the time—paganism: Christianity wasn’t closed to women, it embedded social welfare into its doctrines, it claimed ultimate truth that foreclosed devotion to all other deities and also included proselytizing in it’s doctrine. The product on offer was that worldview we all privately crave—one of order and simplicity where you can be in possession of absolute truth and have a final side to stand on. Christianity sold this binary thinking and maintained their customers by positioning themselves as the definitive arbiters of “us versus them.” Religion use to be the source of constant anxiety by inculcating its followers with an ever-growing list of sins. Religion encouraged constant distraction in the form of prayer, scripture reading, required clothing, purity of thought and self-righteous signaling. But despite Christianity’s legacy of disruptive innovation, it’s now clear that it has given up on innovating, leaving the field ripe for the taking.

So what has co-opted these strategies to prey upon our psychological vulnerabilities, weaponizing them to a degree that has left religion in the dust? What is this new disruptive innovation that has stolen religion’s playbook, taken distraction and anxiety to new levels and stolen the hearts and minds away from religious believers? It’s politics.

It’s politicians who have increased the accessibility and affordability of religion’s “simplicity worldview.” Now it’s politics, not religion, that creates the unrest, resentment, and anger as a means to create a population constantly at war with itself, each side deeply believing that the other is not just wrong, but also a sincere threat to their very way of life and survival. It’s now politics that keeps people held down and mesmerized by a persistent parade of seemingly life-or-death debates, each one worth all of our emotional energy in a way religion only wishes it could. Religion invented the conditions for oppression, politics has perfected them.

Is participating in politics on social media better than participating in religion? Hardly. With religion at least you got beautiful architecture and nice music. Politics is simply less expensive and more accessible — no need to go to a church, no tithing payments and no prerequisite to believe in supernatural phenomena. Religion’s adherence to Satan as being the source of evil is laughably passé. Who needs a demonic supernatural being when you’ve got republicans and democrats?

While politicians are eating religion’s lunch, the managers (AKA clergy) of religions insist on playing the game the way it’s “supposed to be played.” The very decision-making and resource allocation processes that are key to the success of religions are the very processes that reject politicized social media: Religions don’t take input from their customers; their adherence to being in possession of “truth” makes the idea of listening to the needs of customers pointless. Truth comes from God, after all, not followers. Meanwhile, politicians constantly mine the data provided to them by social media to understand the fears and concerns of their constituents. With their fingers on the pulse of their opposing political party’s every move, politicians can constantly update their approach while religions refer to an “unchanging” and sketchy two-thousand year old book. While religions continue to feel the need to disparage Satan, politicians invent new sources of evil whenever they need to: immigration, China, gun control, abortion, rioters, whatever.

But, religion isn’t out of the game just yet. It still has a chance to make a comeback. The key to avoid being disrupted is understanding your customers and their needs and adjusting your business model as needed. In short, to not be disrupted you must become the disruptor.

First, religion needs to drop the supernatural stuff. Let go of virgin births, miracles, eternal damnation and an old man in the sky. It makes your offering too inaccessible to too many people. That stuff served its purpose when Religion’s main objective was to get people to collaborate by requiring that everyone prove their allegiance to the tribe by stating that they believed something preposterous (AKA faith).

Next, emphasize that which politics has totally given up on: charity, service, patience, virtue, honesty, integrity, and love. Religions already have a known track record with all of this. Politics is so heads-down on pumping fear and hate into their existing customers that they’ve left the huge under-served markets of compassion, empathy and understanding that are poised to have explosive growth.

The truth is, we need you religion. I need you. I don’t need some guy telling me he speaks for God while citing hermetic texts. I need a community of people coming together to practice kindness to each other fueled by the latest findings in psychology. I need something like those ancient philosophical schools of Greece and Rome, where teachers educated their students on how to live. What do I do about grief, guilt and disappointment? Nobody’s teaching it in schools. How do I cultivate humility, patience and understanding? It’s nowhere to be found on social media.

Religion, you might just be our last hope. Politics is going to ruin us. You got our species pretty far before. Now we need you to get us back on track using the ultimate unstoppable disruptive technology: love.

Why Does Pessimism Feel Good?

Jenny Odell, in her book How To Do Nothing, tells the story of Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer, philosopher and inventor of “do-nothing” farming. Fukuoka’s method of farming consisted of imitating nature: scattering seeds on the ground in the fall and then paying extremely close attention and doing everything at the right time. As it turns out, his methods produced more productive and sustainable crops than neighboring farms. Fukuoka sums up his insight that nature needs no interference by saying:

‘Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.’

I laughed out loud when I read such a blunt and pessimistic statement. It also made me feel good.

I’ve alway been a fan of angry and depressing music. I like movies where the ending isn’t all buttoned-up and happy. Seemingly paradoxical sayings like, “Cheer up, there’s no hope,” are those that I feel do the most good to remind myself of. Whatever the form it comes in, why does pessimism feel good?
Some answers to that question may be that:

  1. Hearing other people be pessimistic reminds you you’re not alone in your sadness. Suffering is compounded with the belief that everyone else is doing fine. Pessimism reveals that this concern is gloriously unfounded. Your sadness isn’t a departure from the norm, but actually the basic default mode of human beings.
  2. Pessimism makes us feel small in a way which alleviates us from that agonizing sense of self-importance and egoism which is otherwise clinging to us. An unruly ego turns the smallest inconveniences into assaults on one’s pride that must be thwarted at all costs. How exhausting!
  3. A culture of optimism says, Anything is possible! Here are ten steps to success! Anyone can win if they try hard enough! When we believe that we are in 100% control of our destinies then what we swiftly develop are problems of self-esteem. If everybody expects to achieve everything, then an awful lot of people end up feeling that something’s gone dramatically wrong with their lives when their dreams don’t materialize. Rather than encouraging blame, pessimism can relieve it.

Maybe there are some deeper reasons for pessimism.
I like Jordan Peterson’s idea of revering the Bible for its stories, reasoning that any stories that we have been telling ourselves for so long must be, in some important sense, true. The story of Adam and Eve is one such helpful story in understanding the tradeoffs we get with gaining self-consciousness. We, like Adam and Eve, are cursed and blessed by eating the forbidden fruit, i.e., consuming information. By learning about the real nature of life we became as the Gods, discovering the most pessimistic idea — that we will die — but also gaining wisdom on how to live.

After obtaining self-consciousness, the threat of pessimism is that it is a slippery-slope; that if we let ourselves be pessimistic we’ll end up thinking that life is meaningless suffering, utterly futile, to which the only rational response is nihilism. So to combat this impulse, we pursue the fabled state of removing suffering altogether — the objective of our culture’s obsession with optimism — that would have us believe that removing suffering is possible with enough effort, possessions, money or adherence to supernatural superstitions.

But there is a third way. Not avoidance, not denial; but transcending suffering. Pessimism need not be a slippery slope. What looks like pessimism can also be a mature state of accepting that life is suffering, we’re all doomed, and yet, recognize that there are some things in life still worth fighting for. Our job as mature adults is not to let the information of good and evil, that everything that lives must die, make us bitter and resentful or cover it up with vain pursuits. To ‘get back to the garden,’ in other words, is to become a fully conscious human adult. Pessimism feels good because it reminds us of that fundamental job. It reminds us that all of our efforts to distract ourselves enough to avoid suffering are futile so we can go back to the hard work of acceptance of what is. For the adult, pessimism doesn’t make you think that life is meaningless, it simply acts as a reminder to readjust your priorities. Most of the things that make us upset, consume our minds, cause stress and drain us of energy are inconsequential trivialities.

Give up, or don’t, we die either way!

Why Does Journaling Work?

In quarantine one of our biggest threats, outside of becoming infected, is deteriorating mental health. I’ve seen many articles lately offering lists of things to do to keep from slipping into depression; one such article, by astronaut Scott Kelly from the New York Times entitled, I Spent a Year in Space, and I Have Tips on Isolation to Share, points out a common recommendation:

“NASA has been studying the effects of isolation on humans for decades, and one surprising finding they have made is the value of keeping a journal. Throughout my yearlong mission, I took the time to write about my experiences almost every day. If you find yourself just chronicling the days’ events (which, under the circumstances, might get repetitive) instead try describing what you are experiencing through your five senses or write about memories. Even if you don’t wind up writing a book based on your journal like I did, writing about your days will help put your experiences in perspective and let you look back later on what this unique time in history has meant.”

Many studies have itemized further positive effects of Journaling, including, but not limited to:

  • Reduced Stress
  • Improved Immune Function
  • Sharper Memory
  • Boosted Mood
  • A greater sense of confidence and self-identity

What is it about journaling that makes it so effective? I think it has something to do with the way we find and make meaning. Day to day life gives us plenty of meaning without any conscious effort. But when something disrupts the pattern of day to day life we are forced to see things in a new perspective which threatens the whole meaning-making apparatus of our brains. 

We are pattern-seeking mammals. Natural selection has made human beings predisposed to pattern seeking because the observation of patterns—for example, the connection between crop growth and rainfall—is evolutionarily advantageous. And if we can’t come up with a good explanation we’ll come up with a bad one—for example, the connection between crop growth and prayer or animal sacrifice. Modern humans’s lives are mostly made up of bad ones—bad in the sense that they are invented, and as a result, much more easily upended. So when something upends the pattern, like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or, say, a global pandemic, the pattern is quickly ripped apart and the result reveals the pattern for what it is—a wholly invented paradigm. There wasn’t anything really meaningful there afterall. We were just playing make believe. A disruption in the pattern can call into question not just our confidence in a single belief, but our confidence in the entire act of believing.

Coming to terms with the idea that our lives have meaning only to the extent that we give them meaning allows us the ability to manufacture it when necessary. If daily life doesn’t provide the requisite amount of patterns for our brains to latch onto unconsciously, then we can consciously force the brain to notice the patterns we choose; i.e. journaling.  

It’s remarkable the extent to which we believe in what we think. Journaling is deliberate thinking and therefore, deliberate belief making. In a journal we create the world as we see it. We’re allowed to fabricate whatever version of that world we want to believe. As the author of your life’s story write down your struggles, passions and goals and be rewarded with meaning for all those things. You have the power to create whatever life you want. As the designer of your world, a journal lets you get as detailed in world-building as you want. In this sense the goal of journaling isn’t necessarily to make our beliefs more accurate; it’s to make them more functional. So either let the depressing world provide your meaning for you, or put your inbred meaning-making skills to good use by journaling a better world for yourself. 

Nature’s Role In Helping Us Succeed

Avoiding danger is a key survival skill for any species. One way our species accomplished this was by developing systems in our brains over tens of thousands of years that would make it unavoidable for us to not notice danger, and as a result, hopefully, respond to it. This system has been identified as the negativity bias by social scientists – “even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than neutral or positive things.”

Our modern-day brains are equipped with this finely tuned built-in brain apparatus that’s super-sensitive to negativity, but instead of using it to be hyper-aware of negative things like tigers stalking us or other tribes moving in on our territory, our brains dwell on no Facebook likes, being looked over at work, the aches and pains of an aging body or insults we received years ago.

Some people seem to be able to brush off these negative feelings effortlessly and move on with life while for others, the negativity turns into habitual thought patterns. But there’s no reason that the more negatively-inclined of us can’t learn to cope and even thrive with negativity bias and in fact, I think those who consciously learn to do so can turn it into an advantage.

First, consider another psychological finding called the “facial feedback hypothesis” which demonstrates how manipulatable the brain is. The “facial feedback hypothesis” is the idea that facial movement can influence emotional experience. Your brain doesn’t just look externally for stimulus but actually pays attention internally to what your body is doing. So, when it senses that a muscle, like those connected to smiling, are flexing, the brain attributes it to happiness, and then we feel happy. In other words, our brains can be manipulated by conscious physical effort.

Our physical bodies aren’t the only thing that can change our emotions – our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect emotions too. Thoughts can trigger emotions, like worrying about catching a flight, and they also serve as an appraisal of that emotion: as in, “this isn’t a realistic fear”. The former causes emotions, the latter dispels them.

So, you wake up and the body is stiff, your mind is cloudy, the alarm clock hurts your ears – all these physical stimuli are signals that the brain intends to give meaning to. These negative feelings remind you of a thought, “I hate my job, It’s the worst.” Now the brain has the proof it was looking for to justify the emotion – “You feel sad.” You take that sad feeling and apply further cognitive distortions to it, “I always feel sad and it will never get better.” Those thoughts are heard by the brain, it pushes the buttons and pulls the levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel worse. You take a long time to get out of bed and you choose to skip the gym and eat a pop-tart instead — these actions reinforcing negative thoughts causing more sad emotions. Repeat this enough mornings in a row and you’ll have a personal Rube Goldberg machine of entrenched thought patterns where “waking up” = “life is pointless”. This is one manifestation of depression.

What if you chose to attribute those negative feelings somewhere else? Stiff body, cloudy mind, alarm clock: Instead you think, “This feeling in the morning? This isn’t because of work. This is the prerequisite feeling before achievement is possible. This is how you know you’re on the right track. This is what winning feels like.” The brain believes you. And again starts to look for a way to justify those thoughts. You come up with the thought, “I’m making progress at work.” The brain pushes those buttons and pulls those levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel better. So you go to the gym and stick to your diet. Repeat and eventually “waking up” = “Life is full of possibilities.”

Apply this to every scenario where negative feelings occur:
That uncomfortable feeling of confusion isn’t proof of incompetence, but evidence of being on the threshold of learning something new.
That dissatisfaction isn’t proof of discontentment, but evidence of putting in the required amount of effort before achievement is possible.
That feeling of fear due to uncertainty isn’t proof of your incapableness, but evidence that you’re getting stronger

Exercising doesn’t feel great all the time which is why many people don’t do it. You have to come to learn that the negative feelings of exhaustion, discomfort and pain are actually good – no pain, no gain. Those feelings mean you’re doing it right and the reward is forthcoming.

Epicurus said,

“Give thanks to nature, the bountiful, because it has made necessary things easy to procure, while things hard to obtain are not necessary.”

Can one feel a near-constant sense of progress by taking what nature gives so readily and translate dissatisfaction, discontent, uncertainty and disappointment into something else? What if instead of considering those negative feelings as something to be avoided, we saw them as necessary and looked forward to them like sign posts informing us that we’re on the right track? Since those negative feelings will be there one way or another, I’d say might as well try to make the most of them.

All Stories Are False, But Some Are Useful

In his Book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari calls it the cognitive revolution. About 70,000 years ago a genetic mutation altered the inner wiring of Homo sapiens, enabling them to think and communicate in unprecedented ways. Humans began telling stories and share ideas and myths. We are the only species to have developed this capacity to comprehend ideas and events that we’ve never personally experienced. These stories, myths, beliefs, religions and ideologies enabled the cooperation needed for large groups to work together. The cognitive revolution laid the necessary groundwork for the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago, followed by the scientific revolution about 500 years ago.

The statistician George E. P. Box said,

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

In the case of the cognitive revolution that can be rephrased as, “All stories are wrong, but some are useful.”

The benefits of this ability to believe stories that enable cooperation surround us. Harai explains:

“At the heart of our mass cooperation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one-another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland, and the Serbian flag. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they all believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights—and the money paid out in fees.”

But of course, this cooperation superpower can also backfire. There comes a time when some story is brought out into the light and we see it for what it really is — not some absolute truth, but a mere antiquated social norm. Because beliefs run so deep, people get offended at the insinuation that their “way of life” is hurting others — to them it’s just the way things are and always have been, not a story they’re telling themselves.

For example, Anastasia Basil in her article, Relax, Ladies. Don’t Be So Uptight. You Know You Want It, delineates the movies, ads, and TV shows that have socialized sexism and misogyny in America for generations. Ideas, beliefs and behaviors once thought to be “ just the way things are” is in fact just a story — one that needs to change.

She says,

“No one thinks of themselves as a byproduct of a generation…You’re aware of the trends and social attitudes of your generation, but your thoughts, proclivities, and the votes you cast are entirely your own. Or are they?”
“We are all byproducts of a collective mindset. Those who question the mindset of their time and shine light on its moral defects are considered malcontents. And yet, it is malcontents like MLK who are (later) lauded as heroes — not for upholding America’s values, for shaping them. Here’s a fun game. Ask yourself: What strongly held opinion of mine will my grandchildren one day struggle to understand?”

It takes deliberate effort to look inside and question your motives, beliefs and worldview.
As Basil goes on to say,

“The 23 percent of Americans who supported civil rights in 1963 knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t accidentally do the right thing. They weren’t accidentally on the right side of history. Instead of bullheaded allegiance, they questioned, examined, and took a knee to the moral defects of their time.”

That deliberate effort required is something that needs to be experienced. The realization needs to come from within. You can’t cause it to happen to someone by providing them with information.

Monica Hesse in the Washington Post article He thought white men were vanishing from TV. I disagreed. So we conducted an experiment, writes, about a man on Facebook who felt white men were increasingly absent from TV, and he surmised that a push toward gender and racial diversity had shoved them out. So she tried to correct him by sending links to studies showing he was wrong. One, from San Diego State University, found only 24 percent of 2017’s films had a female protagonist. It didn’t work so instead they decided to make their own data by watching an hour of the same channel, coding ads by gender, by voice-over vs. on-screen appearance, main actor vs. extra. By the end of the hour he had changed his opinion, “In reviewing these statistics, I have to change my opinion. They do represent the population fairly well. There are some commercials that don’t have any white males in them, but this is to be expected.”

Hesse says,

“Our worldviews are shaped by our experiences. We all obsess over our own scars until we start to think they’re symbols for broader injustice. We believe what we feel. And then we believe our feelings are facts.”

This kind of change is available to all of us if we’re willing to be wrong, if we’re willing to accept that we may be part of the problem and if we’re willing to put in the hard work to uncover the stories we tell ourselves.

Making the habitual conscious and the conscious habitual

How much of your life is a result of unconscious beliefs and values?

We generally think that the things we feel, believe, perceive and the way we behave are some kind of natural essence of who we are. Further, we also tend to believe that all of that stuff just happens by itself and isn’t really in our control.

As a result, our emotions feel like they’re attached to our identities. Bad feelings make us think that we’re bad people. Negative identities lead to bad choices which further entrenches us in more bad feelings. This is a lot like what depression feels like – an inescapable spiral of slipping self-worth with no hope of change.

The way out is to realize that the way we react to things we feel, believe and perceive can be, to some degree, chosen. Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher, said,

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”

It’s difficult to choose feelings but you don’t have to take them seriously. Learning to question feelings leads to unraveling their source which, in turn, leads to an ability to relate to feelings differently.

By default we absorb the values and beliefs of our parents, culture, or society and tend to accept them unquestioningly (a tip on discovering your absorbed values: What gets questioned the least? The moment something is most widely accepted is the moment it should be questioned the most). Overcoming these tendencies and deliberately choosing the beliefs that are the most helpful to us is one of the biggest challenges of life. David Foster Wallace explains in his 2005 commencement speech that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
He goes on saying,

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

The challenge is to make the unhelpful, inherited values and beliefs that we habitually lean on conscious, and, after analyzing them, make the consciously chosen, helpful values habitual:

  1. Watch your mind without necessarily believing everything you think
  2. Discover your unconscious beliefs, examine them and their triggers
  3. Decide if they helpful or not helpful
  4. Create a plan so that when the trigger occurs you’ve got an alternative helpful explanation ready
  5. After enough practice, in any situation we’re in, we naturally feel the helpful emotion instead of the unhelpful one and do the right thing.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
John Gardner, Personal Renewal