December 6, 2009

Fantasy Feels Good But Makes Poor Substitute for Reality

Fantasy Art by George Grie
Fantasy Art by George Grie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Suppose someone were to tell you that he or she has a bit of a crush on a co-worker. This person knows full well that nothing is ever going to materialize but feels powerless to turn off the feelings. The other party has no idea of the crush, and this is how it needs to stay. Getting involved with someone at work would be a disaster on multiple levels. While the two seem compatible in many areas, there are at least as many where they would clash. And yet, the fantasy that something could happen someday seems so much more appealing than the reality.

I suspect most of us have found ourselves in situations like this at one time or another. I further suppose that situations like this might make it easier for us to empathize with religious believers at least a little bit. They have crafted what they consider to be a perfect god, and while what is left of the rational part of their minds may experience doubt at times, who wouldn't want such a god? Forget about all the reasons it cannot be true. Isn't it more exciting to ponder the possibility that it might be?

Sometimes I wonder if the feelings of excitement the religious believer reports while considering their god are really that different from those we experience when fantasizing about what might (but won't) be of a potential romantic situation. Do they not sometimes worry about losing themselves in the face of their passion just as we sometimes have to exert self-control not to do or say something we'd instantly regret?

And what about other pleasant fantasies that do not involve the possibility of romance? Wouldn't it be great to be smarter, stronger, better looking, or more talented than we really were? Wouldn't you stand in line for superpowers if they were being handed out? There are many types of fantasies that should help us understand part of the pull of religion.

I have encountered many religious people who respond to my objections with some variation of, "I don't care whether it is true or not; it makes me feel better to believe it." Fair enough. If they wouldn't have to take the next step of meddling in everyone else's lives, maybe we could all just allow each other our fantasies. Then again, we might recognize that some fantasies can be harmful.

Maybe the difference between non-religious fantasies and religious fantasies is that those of us who have non-religious fantasies can recognize that they are not real. We don't really believe that the other person is in love with us or that we have superpowers. We wish it was true while recognizing that it is not. We want to believe that we'll find ourselves in relationship bliss or be able to handle any villains that come our way. Daydreaming about such possibilities may feel better than facing reality at times, but we still realize that the fantasies are not real. If we were unable to do so, we'd be appropriately described as delusional.

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