A story in the NY Times called How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect outlines a new theory about how the mind can work better after being exposed to nonsense or illogical situations. Near the end of the story is this conclusion: "The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence."

I immediately thought of religion, where the "quality of the evidence" is extremely poor indeed.

The story points out that even when we are exposed to situations that make no sense at all, the mind will impose some sort of order on top of it--"the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense," the story states. A major thrust of the story is that exposure to an illogical situation can sharpen and focus the mind in general, resulting in better comprehension and pattern recognition in normal circumstances following the illogical stimulus. The drive to find meaning in the illogical spills over to the logical, at least for a time.

This idea, if true, could be a fascinating insight into how religions got a foothold in humanity's history. Maybe people looking for answers to events in their life could not find obvious answers, which resulted in myth stories and religion. The stories were rarely challenged until the last few centuries because there was no real need (and a fear of punishment or death).

Now that the human race has started to find real answers elsewhere, the need for myths and superstitions to provide order to our lives will begin to evaporate. There's more to it, of course. But the idea put forth in this study is intriguing.

(Note: the story does not mention religion at all.)

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Comment by Doug Reardon on October 6, 2009 at 7:00am
Unfortunately, expecting rational and reasonable behavior from irrational and unreasonable people is highly improbable. Besides, if they did happen to give up their religious delusions, they would just find others pseudosciences and superstitions to replace them, remember bio-rhythms?
Comment by Shine on October 6, 2009 at 8:34am
Great article. I agree that an innate distaste for the unknown drives people to seek order and sometimes grasp at dubious answers Although the unexplained facets of life can lead to improved observation as the article implies, the unknown can also prompt fantasy and fabricated connections like religious lore and mythology. As Doug said, removing religion does not remove the problem; many people who give lip-service to critiquing religious faith remain entrenched in fabricated answers. Proponents of the autism-vaccine myth, many of whom are critical of traditional religion, nonetheless remain steeped in fabricated causal connections prompted by a desire to explain a condition that they don't understand. Pseudoscience is the new religion in many ways.


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