Never Going to Give You Up

I’ve posted before about common logical fallacies. But we humans have some other bad habits and in-built tendencies that we often fall into. These include the sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion. These are both parts of the tendency of people to stick to their guns even when it’s not in their best interest. I think that it is unfortunate that humans (including me) have these, as they keep us from moving forward.

I think that these tendencies help religions keep adherents. I’m not by any means saying these are they only ways that religions make it hard to change course. Other things such as confirmation bias, peer pressure, fear of punishment, loss of promised rewards, and risk of social ostracism seem to also be involved. But let me try to lay out a scenario where these specific tendencies could influence one to stay in a religious tradition despite doubts.

Religions take a lot of work.  Lots of people study the faith traditions of their religion, or at least show up and spend hours at a time at church events. If you grew up in a tradition, these sunk costs could have piled up fast. If you have spent years in formal religious training, they could be astronomical. You also have deep respect for others in your religion and see all the time and effort that these people have sunk into a the same religion. You see all these sunk costs, all this precious time spent and treasure expended.  You think, “There is no way that all my effort and all the efforts of people I love and respect have been based on something untrue. I must be wrong in my doubts.” The amount of effort expended becomes part of the “evidence” that what you are doing is correct.

The problem with this is that people do make mistakes.  If you are religious, think about all the religions that are now gone.  For generations people worshiped gods that you think don’t exist or are evil spirits.  Should they have kept going because it was the tradition of their family and friends?  Think about your children and the people that love and respect you.  If you keep going down a path that is wrong or based on faulty reasoning, those people in the future will have an even harder time changing course, because the traditions and sunk costs will be even greater. New evidence comes to light all the time. You likely know things that earlier people did not. You may know more of the world, other religions, or science than they. Sunk costs are not justifications.

Many people see the sunk cost fallacy as a matter of pride.  People make a decision to do something, and won’t give up because of their pride or concern for that others think about them, or that it will be an admission to themselves of their fallibility. Loss aversion can be chocked up to fear of the unknown.  It is hard to let go of something familiar when you don’t know what will replace it.

But sometimes it needs to be done.  Sometimes you have to admit that you don’t have all the answers, give up on a wrong path, and try a new one. Truly some people may think less of you for not being firm to a tradition, or for abandoning something that they themselves believe.  But if you do otherwise, will you still respect yourself?

Recovering from Religion
The Clergy Project


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