Everyone has religion. From the brightest, emotionally secure to the dullest, brutally psychopathic, religion is part of our DNA. It is an intractable part of our species. It is the base mental and emotional engine from which all understanding emerges. Further, every religion has three components: belief (theology), responsibility (doctrine), and practice (ritual). From the most brutal, child sacrificing voodoo cult to the elaborate doctrine of the Holy Roman Catholic Church to the Eastern state-of-mind religions and even Zen and atheism – all have belief, responsibility and practice.
When one has no comprehension, no experience and no skills, that is when belief is most influential. Consider the four-year-old who believes in monsters, magic, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. These beliefs provide order and value to an otherwise unknown reality.
As the child grows older, especially during periods of learning and acquiring new skills, belief must change to accommodate what still remains unknowable but by necessity is more elaborate and abstract. Learning is more influential when a person is young. The brain has acquired a budding sense of self eager to find out more about how the self fits into a widening reality. How the self fits into reality is the source of responsibility, a code of behavior attached to a set of values; in religious terms, that’s called doctrine.
Armed with the newness of belief and responsibility, one is eager to invoke proper practices; another way to say that is eager to be an advocate. Consider the new young Congressional Representatives eager to establish the untarnished principles of democracy; consider any person new on the job – new on the job of life – and the accompanying zeal and commitment to advocate their responsibilities. Older, less eager folks may call them naive or say it’s time for them to grow up.
The tendency to leave advocacy behind is part biology and part experience. On the one hand, our body stops growing and begins slowing down; on the other hand, one learns that being proactive in most cases doesn’t change anything. One seeks a stable status quo.
As a person grows older, the complexity of reality stabilizes. Daily life commands attention at a very pragmatic level. One does not have the time or energy or need to continuously pursue new or unknowable elements of reality. One develops a shorthand version of responsibility and practice. It is called ‘habit.’
Acquiring habitual behavior is an important function of the brain. It is a real, proven physiological phenomenon. If the Frontal Cortex had to start from scratch learning what to do in every situation, identifying value systems, determining functionality and crosschecking personal worth, it would require a much larger number of brain cells to keep track of everything as if it had never happened before. Fortunately, the brain has a way to compress and automate many experiences especially if they are redundant. These compressed procedures are called habits. There is a trigger in the Frontal Cortex that signals which habit to invoke so the brain doesn’t have to think about what’s going on.
And that’s the down side – the brain doesn’t have to think anymore. The three dimensional life experience that fosters advocacy is no longer there to provide energy, focus and commitment to responsibility (doctrine). The value system that is supposed to direct practice (ritual) disappears.
In the Christian religion (and relevant to all religions), followers in this state are called ‘pew Christians.’ The minimalist application of habitual behavior forgets the power of love (theology), the requirement to spread that love through selfless action (doctrine) and the act of interpersonal advocacy (ritual) and are not part of the practice. The habit remembers that it is Sunday, dress differently, take a few dollars, be at the church on time, etc. But do unto others in person? That’s for the young advocates.