The seductive nature of emotionally satisfying answers

Many of the world’s religions and ideologies are ultimately grounded in the notion that their particular ideology has satisfying answers to life’s questions. And the popularity of those ideologies are a good measure of the degree of satisfaction. But what kind of satisfaction do those ideologies provide?

Consider the satisfaction many children derive from hearing their parents explain that good children get presents from Santa. It makes perfect emotional sense that there should be someone watching everyone, keeping track of their behaviors, and rewarding only those who have been good. If this were not true, there would be injustice in the world, and that is simply emotionally unacceptable. This emotional drive for justice is but one of the many emotional drives that encourage children to readily accept the notion of Santa. Others might include the emotional drive to have some transcendent realm of magic we can somehow interact with, and the affection of a forever kind grandfather figure. 

But can we call Santa an answer to the question of the source of presents simply because of all the emotional holes such an explanation plugs? Clearly not if we place any value on the truth of the answers we accept. An answer that is emotionally satisfying is no more true than an answer that is emotionally undesirable. If we are to be rational, we do not accept facts and ideologies that make us feel good. In fact, we are extra cautious of facts and ideologies that have emotional appeal. We instead accept facts and ideologies that we have honestly assessed to be true. 

Yet, most of the world’s religions provide “answers” that are merely unsubstantiated plugs for our natural human emotions. Some god is presented as able to alleviate fear, loneliness, injustice, meaninglessness, and the yearning for certainty, and then the emotional appeal of such a god is said to be evidence for that god. This is not the way truth is properly assessed. 

The honest seeker of truth first commits to following the evidence down whatever path it leads, even paths that are emotionally unpleasant. Emotions are not our friend in our assessment of what may be true. Our emotions too often lead us astray. And many religions and ideologies are far to ready to encourage us to filter claims through our emotions since their systems of belief are built on claims tailored to emotionally seduce us. 

Once we commit to following truth down whatever emotionally dark path it may lead, the next step is to acquire legitimate tools for assessing truth such as general rationality, an awareness of logical fallacies and cognitive biases, and a deeper understanding of probabilities, logic and standards of evidence. 

It is much easier to follow our emotions as do those who follow unsubstantiated religious claims. Basing truth on our emotions requires far less effort. Millions of people around the world “know” they are right because it feels emotionally right. But I personally prefer to have my beliefs filtered through the more demanding filters of rationality. The question is essentially whether we want our beliefs to be correct, or to simply make us feel good.


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