The coping mechanism that is religion

I’ve always wondered why Steven Pressfield’s books, The War of Art and Turning Pro, struck such a profound chord within me, and within many others. But now, I know why.

The urge to procrastinate. The desire to sabotage your dreams and ambitions in an attempt to lighten the burden of responsibility. The fits of anger, frustration and despair. He called them The Resistance. He gave a name, and consequently, a face, to something that had always been shapeless and formless.

After all, the things that Pressfield talked about fighting are not new. They’ve been around for as long as humanity has been striving for achievement and progress. But only recently have they been collected, named, labelled, personified.

Pressfield also makes liberal use of the idea of the Muse. Again, the idea of an external force that visits us and fills us with inspiration, energy, audacity and purpose is not new. But naming it, calling it The Muse, talking about this abstract notion as if it is a physical entity provokes a powerful response in our hearts and mind.

Essentially, we humans find something easier to handle when we name it, when we assign it an image or outline. Think of how a horror movie builds dramatic tension. The early scenes where you don’t see the monster or the villain, where all you see are the effects of his actions, these are the most tension-filled and terrifying. But that tensions and terror is dissipated as soon as we see the man behind the mask, as soon as we see the character of the monster. 

It’s the same when we seek to endure trials. People—me included—find it easier to deal with difficult and traumatic events if we attribute them to some kinda-human entity. It’s easier to bear pain and suffering if we tell ourselves that Fate or Lady Fortune is testing us. Without such a construct—when we refuse to recognise an organising force or will behind the hands of reality—we struggle.

It’s as if life without these illusions is too chaotic, too uncontrollable, too difficult to comprehend. It’s as if the only way to survive and thrive amidst its chaos is to impose some imaginary humanity or consciousness upon it, to bind together disparate events, feelings and impressions under the banner of a creature or force. 

Perhaps that’s the main, originating purpose of religion: a coping mechanism for the inevitable chaos of our existence. A hedge against the high probability that we will encounter things that we are unable to understand and organise.