Faith … or mental illness?

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Is faith a psychiatric disorder?

In my country, there are more godmen than scientists, more ashrams than hospitals. In my country, stone idols drink milk, dead men are brought back to life, snakes take human form, cats bring bad luck.

All my customers are scientists. Almost all of them have religious icons on their desks, and have their own weird superstitions. Like the organic chemist who gave me a “scientific” explanation on why one should not trim his fingernails after sunset. Or the physicist who would never start any experiment in his lab during Rahu kalam (an inauspicious time of the day). Or the brilliant professor who told me that her husband would die if she took off her mangalsutra even for a minute.

I’m no stranger to world-famous godmen. I’ve seen them up close, watched them perform their ‘miracles’, produce gold watches, drive their devotees into a religious frenzy. I’ve seen people getting ‘possessed’. I’ve seen a godman’s photographs generate nectar and holy ash.

Why do people consistently fall for such obviously crooked godmen? They call it faith. I call it something else.

Faith is their raison d’être.

They will not give up their faith. In the face of overwhelming evidence against their godman, they will still cling on to him. Show them a video that clearly shows their godman producing holy ash from a tube hidden in his sleeve, they will denounce the video as a fake. Explain to them that the “nectar” pouring out of the godman’s photograph is merely the product of a simple chemical reaction and show them how it can be done, they will yell at you and call you an agent of Satan.

The phenomenon has been extensively studied by psychologists. There’s a scientific term for it. It’s called persistence of belief. Or confirmation bias.

People will interpret data based on their own individual beliefs. When they are given evidence contrary to their beliefs, they will either disregard it outright or twist their interpretation of that evidence to fit in with their beliefs. This is why godmen get away with all kinds of crap. They have a deep understanding of how confirmation bias works. And they know that confirmation bias is contagious. In particular, parents can and do, pass on their confirmation bias to their children.

I lost my only child solely because of confirmation bias. Haven’t seen her in fifteen years. She believes that I am the embodiment of evil, because I stood against her mother’s godman. And mind you, the godman she worships died in 1918 – in Shirdi. Such is the contagion of confirmation bias that more than a hundred years after his death, his cult still continues to grow. And has become frightfully powerful.

Harsh experience has taught me to keep my scientific arguments to myself. There is just no point in explaining to people that blind belief in a godman does not constitute religion, and that talking against an obviously fraudulent godman is not blasphemy.

I have tried to explain this to my ‘rationalist’ friends. You know, those hopelessly misguided souls who rant against godmen and religion. They firmly believe their ranting will bring forth a new generation of enlightened humans who believe only in science. No matter what, they will not let go of that belief.

In other words, these “rationalists” suffer from confirmation bias – just like their non-rational counterparts.

I am fiercely proud of my country, the depth of her culture, the greatness of her philosophy, the vastness of her scriptures, her achievements in science, her ancient sagacity, her capacity to assimilate alien cultures and enrich them while doing so.

However, nowhere in her scriptures does She say that we should not use our common sense. Krishna in the Gita talks at length about ‘muda bhakti’, i.e. foolish, mindless devotion. You may read the Gita if you wish to. And whether you accept Krishna’s divinity is your choice. But the wisdom Krishna imparts in the Gita is practical and down-to-earth. If you take the trouble, you will discover that much of the knowledge in our ancient scriptures, like the Upanishads for example, is practical in nature. Contrary to what you may think, skepticism was encouraged in ancient India, debate was preferred over discourse, and evidence was a pre-requisite to belief.

Thanks once again to confirmation basis, we have been made to believe instead that our culture is based on ritualism and our scriptures are ‘mumbo-jumbo’ – this being the term favored by ‘rationalists’ and ‘free-thinkers’ (who are neither rational, nor free nor thinkers).

So. How do we deal with confirmation bias? We don’t. There is no real cure for confirmation bias.

Just as you cannot convince a devotee that he is wrong in his beliefs, you cannot convince a ‘rationalist’ that he is wrong as well. It may seem incongruous, but frequently ‘rationalists’ base their arguments on flawed evidence. And just like their superstitious counterparts, they will not accept that their evidence is flawed. Ironic, isn’t it?

Therefore, don’t bother. Just steer clear of both sides, smile and go about your life. You can use confirmation bias to your advantage, in your business and in your social life.

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There is a very good reason why first impressions always count. That reason is confirmation bias. If your customer (or potential lover) forms a favorable first impression of you, then confirmation bias will usually compel him to hold on to that image, even if you screw up later on. And vice versa. If someone forms a bad first impression of you, there is little you can do to correct it later.

Do your homework then, before that first meeting.

And don’t fall into the trap of confirmation bias yourself. Learn to look at both sides of the coin. Realise that even scientific evidence can be heavily biased. Understand that even renowned scientists have frequently been shown to be wrong – but rarely accept that fact.

If you do an internet search for the ill-effects of alcohol, for example, you will be presented with tons of research papers that conclusively prove that booze is bad for you. Do a search for the health benefits of alcohol, and behold, you will be presented with an equal amount of evidence that proves that booze is actually good for you.

You will have to use your own judgement.

As for me and my former daughter Sanjana, who believes I am the embodiment of evil, well, I consider her dead.

I have lost faith in her.

Srini.