The X-Files and The Psychology of Religion
As I watched the much anticipated return of The X-Files earlier this year, I started thinking about how the elements that make for a successful television series might also be at work in religion. That might sound like a stretch, but think about it for a minute. After 23 years, ten television seasons and two feature length movies, why has The X-Files endured? Good, well developed stories and acting aside, the simple answer is that we keep watching because we are rewarded for doing so. What we know from psychology is that particular behaviours are more likely to occur when closely followed by an outcome that is perceived as positive and less likely to occur when paired with an outcome that is viewed as negative. This is known as operant conditioning. If a dog receives praise and a food reward each time he sits on command, for example, then he is more likely to do so in the future. Rewards that stick Interestingly, behaviours that are the hardest to extinguish are those that are rewarded intermittently. The rewards still occur, but only occasionally, and you can never be quite sure when the next one will eventuate. Imagine you have a child who tantrums when they don't get their own way. Most of the time you are strong. You don't cave in. But every now and then a difficult day comes along. You might be in the supermarket and your child is having a tantrum about wanting a lollypop and, to avoid a scene, you buy the lollypop. That is an intermittent reward. Your child has just learned that if she perseveres for long enough she will eventually get what she wants. And that is the hardest behaviour to extinguish. So with The X-Files we are fed just enough new information at irregular intervals to keep us coming back for more. Thus, we keep watching the next episode (the desired behaviour) in the hope that this time we will receive the dopamine-releasing reward of that much craved for element of truth. Simple science really, but quite clever on the part of the producers.
The pull of religion Is it possible that much of religion operates in the same way? Small intermittent rewards with the hope of an ultimate payoff that keep people coming back for more? Author of the Mirror Bible translation, Francois Du Toit, proposes that religion relies on two things – distance and delay – in order to have return paying customers. That is, the desired deity is aloof and unavailable. He's gone away and we don't know when he might return. Does that sound familiar? So we continue with whatever rituals or beliefs we deem necessary to receive a few small payoffs along the way and hopefully hit the jackpot in the final analysis. Let's unpack this concept a little further within a Christian framework and, in the process, make a clear distinction between the eternally present Jesus and the religious scaffolding that we've built around him. Like many in the church today, the religious leaders in Jesus' day were looking for a future coming kingdom, but Jesus probably disappointed them when he told them that, actually, the kingdom was already here. WITHIN them in fact. Just not in the form they were expecting. Furthermore, Paul states in much of his writings that, through the victory of the cross, we are now in a blissful state of permanent union with a loving God. He emphasises that we are, in fact, already “seated with Christ in the heavenly realm” (Ephesians 2:6). It's a done deal. Distance and delay have been permanently cancelled through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is not on vacation Of course, it is possible to cobble together a bunch of Bible texts and make a case for almost anything, but this notion of our present mystical union with the risen Jesus is at the heart of the new covenant. Yet the pull of the intermittent rewards that come with distance and delay have us heavily invested in an absent Jesus. The result is a fatalistic eschatology that reads something like … “We live in a horrible, miserable world that is getting worse by the day, there is nothing we can do about it and it will only get better when Jesus returns and fixes everything.” Yet Jesus himself painted an entirely different picture of the kingdom of God in a number of parables about salt, leaven and seeds, for example. In these parables he describes the kingdom as something that, rather than deteriorating over time, starts out small, like a mustard seed, and grows into something wonderfully complete, like a mature tree full of birds. We're talking total permeation here. The salt flavours everything. The leaven infiltrates the entire lump of dough. The notion of “future apocalyptic Jesus” as the dominant paradigm unfortunately only serves to distance us from a loving, present creator whose kingdom is within us right now. No distance. No delay. Sadly, it is so easy to be focused on possible future end times scenarios with our charts and timelines that we miss the beauty of immediate presence and effortless union with the indwelling Christ. That's not to say that there won't be a physical return of Jesus to the earth, but are we so future focused that we miss the joy of now? Like Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, we can spend so much time looking for the truth that is “out there”, that we fail to see the glory that already resides within each one of us.
Mark Darling has a background in psychology and applied neuroscience. He is currently exploring the high country of grace and finding many delightful places of rest for the soul. Mark enjoys surfing, bush walking, making music, good food and laughter in the company of friends. He resides on Queensland's Sunshine Coast and has two grown children. See all previous articles by Mark Darling