Religions use mental concepts such as final judgement, sin, salvation, redemption, condemnation, karma, purification of the soul etc. A person who has been indoctrinated for years with these concepts may have a hard time trying to let go of them. Feelings such as remorse, guilt, fear of hell, demons or other afterlife consequences can shape the mind of the believer.

Religions can also provide positive ideas and feelings such as love, truth (as in confessing your sins and not having secrets) and forgiveness which can have a positive impact in a civilized society and the practitioner's emotional and mental health.

Also the the promise of a better world in the next life and desire for a better existence or the idea of meeting again relatives or loved ones who "passed away" gives purpose, hope and reduces emotional pain which creates in the subject a deep seated need to believe.

Notice how to some religions the concept of faith which is believing without using your critical thinking skills, is mandatory in order to assimilate the system of beliefs and ideas of the religion. Some religions consider sin to even question God (or Gods) or the most important figures in the religion. In some religions "salvation" is only attained by believers; the rest are doomed, which makes you feel special and touched by the glory of God.

Who are the main philosophers or remarkable thinkers who understood religions as mental traps? Are there any authors who thought that religions prevent the individual from having a philosophical development or emphasize how emotional/psychological trickery is used to manipulate the devotee?

John 8:32 "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free"

"Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth", attributed to Joseph Goebbels.

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    "the concept of faith which is believing without using your critical thinking skills" Which religions do you think this applies to? – curiousdannii Oct 22 '19 at 12:00

See Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) and his Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity), 1841.

Feuerbach is one of the sources of Marx's theory of alienation.

The leading idea of Feurebach's work is ancient: that man created the Gods and that the Gods embody man's own conception of his own humanity, his own wishes, fears, needs, and ideals.

In a section of the preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity (1843), Feuerbach reveals that he had sought in this book to achieve two things: First, to attack the Hegelian claim for the identity of religious and philosophical truth by showing that Hegel succeeds in reconciling religion with philosophy only by robbing religion of its most distinctive content. Second,

to place the so-called positive philosophy in a most fatal light by showing that the original of its idolatrous image of God [Götzenbild] is man, that flesh and blood belong to personality essentially.

See also the Preface (English transl., 1855) :

I am nothing but a natural philosopher in the domain of mind. [...]This philosophy has for its principle, not the Substance of Spinoza, not the ego of Kant and Fichte, [...] not the Absolute Mind og Hegel, in short, no abstract, merely conceptional being, but a real being, the true Ens realissimum : man.

For ancient philosophy, see : Xenophanes and Lucretius.

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There are many people who live their lives within religion, including many who express themselves by religious terminology although they themselves feel skeptical or even disconnected. So it should come as no surprise that this feeling of being trapped appears within religious writing as well as it does outside of religion.

The apostle Paul included a long portion about this in his dissertation "to the Romans", which I will excerpt below. In order to understand this, it would be helpful to take up charitably the words "sin" (a human pattern of disobedience), "Law" and "commandment" (the specific writings in the Hebrew Torah, especially the subset of commandments in the Torah called "moral law"), "law" (lowercase: as a physical law; observed behavior), "spiritual" (of supernatural origin; under monotheism: presuming the supernatural to be perfect, 'spiritual' entails goodness and perfection), "holy" (anything that is perfect), and "flesh" and "members" (a person's material part(s): the body and the brain, as opposed to a person's soul).

...I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.

Romans 7:7b-23, NASB, emphasis mine.

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Surely the best descriptor for what you are talking about is meme, & Dawkins who coined the term specifically applied it to religions as mind viruses.

But, you have to take note that the idea (or actually, many ideas) of money is a meme, a virulent one. Languages. Tool use.. So pointing at religious ideas and saying they are infectious backfires, really. The real problem isn't transmittivity or stickiness, but a failure to mutate sufficiently to meet the emerging niche. That way lies extinction of the meme, as it becomes irrelevent and brings to bear behaviours for past times.

This article discusses this irrelevance issue as nihilism, lack of social glue, and as resulting from or brought to crisis by the speed of socoal change making previous eras heuristics 'illegible' https://aeon.co/ideas/whence-comes-nihilism-the-uncanniest-of-all-guests

This is reminiscent of Burke's Social Contract for the Ages, the idea that societies are formed fundamentally through maintenance of intergenerational pacts. Our own ideas will sound backwards, irrelevent and violent too no doubt, a few generations down the line, but to keep a society together they must share the means for generations to listen, to understand one another. Some rituals, some festivals, some pointing beyond our own selfish needs. Those that make societies stronger, are the successful memes.


Aren't you referring to Richard Dawkins infamous description of religion as a kind of virus?

One does not need to be a sceptic to note that Martin Luthor King was a Christian and that Gandhi was a Hindu to think that this is perverse and dogmatic way of looking at religion.

Nor does one need to be a sceptic to ask well, why stop there? Is science a virus, or how about language? Or even socialisation or sociability. And what about athiesm, is that a virus too? How does one demarcate the difference between ideas that are virus-like and ideas that aren't? Should one set up a tribunal? Perhaps Dawkins might distinguish between good viruses and bad viruses of the mind; between benign viruses and malign viruses.

Dawkins of course is being polemical. He's an athiest evangelising athiesm. Though like any evangeliser he's not evangelising, he is merely telling the truth and getting people to wake up to the truth. He's on a truth-telling mission. He's a misdionary of the truth. The question then is whether there is any truth to the matter. Well, we know what viruses look like. Natural history, Zoology, Biology and biochemistry are actually empirically based sciences and not ideological; eventually, through experiment, through serendipity and educated guesswork viruses were actually tracked down and shown to exist. You can look through a scanning electron microscope and actually see them.

There is no hope of that occuring with the viruses of the mind that Dawkins is talking about. I don't think any serious scientist can hold out such a hope. But of course Dawkins as a serious scientist knows that there are no such things; and he is merely using a vivid image to describe religion as a kind of 'mind-trap' as you've described; maybe he would describe it as a bad meme; the word he invented to describe a unit of culture in analogy to genes as a unit of genetic inheritence.

Daniel Dennett rather approves of memes - he says words are memes too; but the history and analogy seems to me to be all wrong; no-one knew what the unit of inheritence was once Darwin first published his theory of evolution and it took some time - over a century - before it was tracked down in Cambridge by Francis Crick & James Watson (apparently after 'borrowing' the data from Rosalind Franklin and then not crediting her - you wouldn't believe scientists to be that unethical, because, let's face it, scientists by their very nature are ethical, honest and sincere. To which, one might say, you're confusing scientists with science).

But with memes, words are right there in open view; and so are sentences, paragraphs, chapters, whole books and even libraries; there's nothing there to be really discovered. It's an ideology in the disguise of a science and it's worked too. People talk about memes, and it wouldn't surprise me if there is a centre devoted to the study of memes and a discipline called memology and people called memologists.

Daniel Dennett is also known to call for a serious study of religion; I'm sure he knows that religion have been studied for centuries now from many different angles; but I take it, mainly by religious people who are committed to religion; what he wants, it seems, is a study of religion to be undertaken in a serious manner by philosophers, and I think by this he means athiestic philosophers. He says he wants religion to be studied in a naturalistic manner. Instead of thinking of it as bizarre, strange, odd or a virus and a mind-trap or laughable, avatistic and infantile he's insisting that they take it seriously.

Though I do wonder how much of an insight can someone have if they have no real sympathy with their subject; after all, when I think of Richard Attenborough as a naturalist it's obvious that he takes real delight and wonder in all the manifestations of nature and it's that profound affinity he feels with nature that comes across in all the work he has done; and one would wonder, would he had been a tenth as good a naturalist had he not that affinity. Likewise too I think with religion.

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  • your point is quite interesting. My view is much more oriented to somebody who has been brainwashed or indoctrinated with ideas such us sin or salvation and then discovers nihilism which far from being bad is very liberating. That person would see religion as a mind trap – user22051 Jun 19 '18 at 6:47
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    @PbxMan: It seems to me that you're being as dogmatic as the very people you're accusing of being dogmatic; what you're talking about is essentially a conversion experience to athiesm. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 19 '18 at 6:55
  • @pbxman: And talking about athiesm as a kind of faith just shows how much affinity it has with the thing it despises - theism; and this means the whole notion of 'mind trap' as you keep so dogmatically putting it, holds no philosophical water; it's a very leaky concept, in fact, no concept at all. It's just a term of abuse and insult. Which is fine if you want to be insulting and abusive but dressing it up in fine philosophical language jot pretend that it is not really doesn't change the leopards spots. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 19 '18 at 7:01
  • @ Mozibur Ullah I'm not accusing anybody of anything. This is not about atheism. I'm just looking for authors who think that indoctrinating children with concepts such not using your critical thinking skills because it's sin it's a mind manipulation or mind-trap that handicaps the mind of the people. Perhaps you should ask yourself why you find this question that annoying because that's what's philosophy is about. – user22051 Jun 19 '18 at 7:01
  • other religions for instance Buddhism encourages you to ponder and question everything including god or reality itself. Buddhism could use another mind trap for instance "karma". – user22051 Jun 19 '18 at 7:04

I would say that most well-informed books on religion are concerned with identifying mental traps and helping us avoid them. The traps that you mention in the question are for the most part fallen into by believers rather than taught by their Church, and much religious writing is intended to help them escape from such traps.

The best 'trap-avoider' I've come across for Christian teachings is the book A Course in Miracles. The best example I know of a person who has fallen into all the traps is Richard Dawkins. He just dives straight in without a thought. It's like going on a trip back into the nineteenth century.

In Buddhism a vast proportion of the teachings are about avoiding mental traps and perhaps even all of them. The whole world would be a mental trap.

I'd suggest that the best approach to identifying and avoid the traps may be to read the gnostic literature associated with the religious tradition you're studying. Much of this will be devoted to debunking dogmas and countering ideas that are faith-based and not endorsed by logic or experience. This literature is more useful than that dogmatically-sceptical writings because it will not simply debunk ideas but also explain the misunderstandings and misinterpretaions.

For Christianity a useful book may be 'God: A Guide for the Perplexed by Keith Ward, in which he describes various naive ideas that have emerged since the Christian Church rejected the classical pre-Biblical teachings.

There are a million mental-traps in religious teachings since their message is in the eye of the beholder, but we don't have to fall into them. Usually writers who want to debunk religion fall into all of them, so I'd suggest sticking to those who do not merely debunk poor ideas but who also explain how they arise and deal with them by re-interpretation rather than just waiving them away as nonsense. This means finding writers who have not themselves fallen into the traps and this would usually mean studying the literature of mysticism, where most of the ideas you mention are explained, rationalised or debunked.

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  • Mostly Agreed. Buddhism can be taken as a philosophy see Kalama Sutta but you can also be indoctrinated by it. I guess It all depends on the each person. – user22051 Oct 22 '19 at 11:27
  • @PbxMan - Yes. It is often difficult to distinguish between what is actually taught by a religion and what is believed by its believers. This is true for Buddhism and for any difficult subject of study, but painfully true for the dogmatic religions since they deny the possibility of reliable knowledge, leaving us with a free-for-all of speculation.and endless opportunities for building our own mental traps. . . . – user20253 Oct 22 '19 at 11:33

Given the three paragraphs which posit sentences about religion rather than asking a question, I think it's appropriate to respond to the paragraphs in addition to the nominal question of "which philosophers have ..."

Notice how to some religions the concept of faith which is believing without using your critical thinking skills, is mandatory in order to assimilate the system of believes and ideas of the religion.

It is entirely possible, and probably common, for religious types to use this and any other means to manipulate people. This was the subject of the strongest condemnation uttered by Jesus:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble." -Luke 17:1-2 (NIV)

Christians, for one, are encouraged by many leaders to engage their critical thinking skills rather than silence them. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig reports:

...during the last quarter century, a flourishing dialogue between science and theology has been going on in North America and Europe. In an address before a conference on the history and philosophy of thermodynamics, the prominent British physicist P. T. Landsberg suddenly began to explore the theological implications of the scientific theory he was discussing. He observed,

To talk about the implications of science for theology at a scientific meeting seems to break a taboo. But those who think so are out of date. During the last 15 years, this taboo has been removed, and in talking about the interaction of science and theology, I am actually moving with a tide.

What is the Relation between Science and Religion? -William Lane Craig

This website was put together by Catholic writers Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl dedicated to answering tough questions about Catholic doctrine.

And a man named Hank Hanegraff, who once hosted a radio show called "the Bible Answer Man" in which members of the public called in with whatever question they could think of, recently moved to Eastern Orthodoxy from a Protestant church.

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  • I don't think this answers the question. It seems to me like you don't like what's being asked here and you just don't want to see "religions as mind traps" or mind manipulation because of your personal ideology and reasons which is fine. Those 3 paragraphs give real examples of how those ideas influence the mind of the believer. The impact the concept makes in the mind. Thanks for the effort though. – user22051 Jun 14 '18 at 7:47
  • @PbxMan - It doesn't answer the question, as you say, but it does address some of the issues raised in your question. I would say that almost all philosophers see the dogmatic monotheistic religions as an obstacle to clear thinking. hence the common adjective 'dogmatic' to describe them. But this is a small and shrinking part of religion. The world is growing up. – user20253 Jun 18 '18 at 12:28

Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.
George Bernard Shaw

Was Shaw only talking of religious people?

The unexamined life is not worth living

Easy to remember that Socrates said this. Harder to remember that he said it at his trial! ie he was prepared to die rather than become a 'non-examiner'.

How many people do you know who can carry the wish to not be 'mind-trapped' upto the point of being killed? Lets hear Shaw again

Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think.

And like Socrates, Jesus too: no rancour, no retaliation, no fleeing, no budging.

Whats the difference? And is the percentage of Jesus among the religious vs Socrates among the philosophers very different??

Dawkins wrote a book called 'The God delusion'. Nice! He was answered by The Science Delusion


Scientists ganged up and banned the talk from TED.

Does it remind you of the medieval popes' reactions to people like Galileo?

So what are the differences between the narrow mindedness of scientific and religious people?

Let me end with a Christian and a Hindu

  1. When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.
    G K Chesterton

  2. God created man; and man created God. They both are the creators of names and forms only. In fact neither God nor man were created.
    Ramana Maharshi

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