motivation, action & faith

I was just reading an article about 'Jihad Jane', Colleen LaRose.  According to the article:

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has questioned the religious devotion of alleged converts like LaRose, given her live-in boyfriend and apparent failure to ever pledge her faith at a mosque.
"Maybe it's not the Islamic faith that is making them do this; maybe it's just their personal demons," said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for CAIR.

This statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of religion in society.   Yes, "personal demons" provide the motivation for action.  Motivation for action almost defines what it means to be an agent --- an individual who acts in the world.  But what religion and society more generally provide is a set of possible actions to choose from.

The search for the next action you might take could be an infinite task taking infinite time, given the number of combinations of muscle movements you could possibly make.  But we don't choose from every possible action.  Many, perhaps most of our ideas for actions come from social learning.

If you have faith in someone or something, you take that as an authority which should bias your selection of actions.  Technically, religions (like other conduits of culture) provide a set of affordances that their followers might otherwise have never conceived of as possible actions, thus increasing the probability that these actions will occur.  Of course, various religious speakers will also try to influence the probability of some actions over others by directing the motivational attention of their followers to one set of affordances or another.

Different people will deal with these affordances differently, depending on their individual motivations and the rest of their cultural and physical environment.  But putting ideas into the mind in the first place is certainly part of the problem, particularly if those ideas are backed by revered figures.  Anyone who tells people to put their faith in sacred and immutable texts, and tells them that the actors in those texts are holy, is likely to have trouble solving that problem.
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