Why people behave irrationally ?


In algorithms course we learn about the concept of dominating function. For example a function f(x) = x^2 + x can be viewed as some of two separate functions x^2 and x. In this case we say x^2 dominates x for sufficiently large values of x. In lay man’s language value of f(x) depends more on x^2 than x.

It is an interesting concept with some interesting real world analogies. For example, we often see that at our workplace or in our neighborhood people of different religions are often good to each other despite all the differences in their religion. Yet, when political issues comes up or during religious riots the same people somehow start slitting each others throat. Why do we behave so well when it comes to inter-personal relationships and behave so badly when it comes to any communal issue ?

Well, here the concept of dominating function comes into picture. How we treat different people, is a function of sum of several factors. For example when it comes to my neighbor, I know that he is likely to be the first responder if I am ever in trouble. Hence this factor dominates more when I am dealing with him than the fact that he is of different religion. Typical factors involved in how we deal with other people depend on their looks, appearance, relationship to us, past experience with such people, stereotypes, how long we have have known these people etc. etc.

Religion also happens to be one of the factor. Generally when dominating factor is a rational one, we see that people tend to be far more peaceful. For example, a Hindu shopkeeper treats all his customers nicely irrespective of their religion because dominating factor in his mind is profit which is a very rational factor.

When dominating factor is a rational one, both the parties tend to understand each other’s motives well and reciprocal actions tend to be far more deterministic. For example, in a classroom if the dominating factor is purely academic performance, then the teacher knows that the student will work hard to gain more marks and the student knows that if he gets all the answers correct teacher will award him full marks. This deterministic nature helps both the parties co-operate well without conflict even if the student fails or performs exceptionally well.

On the contrary in a traffic accident, a minor accident leads to heated arguments and eventual manhandling because both parties often think that it is other person’s fault and deliberately take irrational stand. The party which loses the argument then tries to escalate the engagement to a different dominating factor. When you clearly see that it was other person’s fault but if that person simply refuses to accept that you think that may be by physically hitting the person you might be able to force him to agree to your viewpoint. It only gets more complicated from there.

Is it ever possible that we could peacefully treat each other with religion as a dominating factor ? I haven’t found any example that suggests that it is possible. . The differences in all religions are so wide that it is impossible for people to reconcile with religion as the dominating factor. A good example is of recently concluded India Ideas Conclave, a Norwegian bishop who was otherwise a thorough gentleman was asked “Do Hindus go to heaven?”. He refused to say yes. Here was a case of a Hindu and Christian engaging with each other with religion as dominating factor and one party got antagonized to quickly.

Sarvdharm-samabhava hence is a myth. People can not have same outlook towards all religions because they are different and have conflicting fundamentals. On other other hand making religion a dont care term seems like the best bet to promote communal harmony. This only means, religions issues and religion factor should get less and less importance in public discourse and people should be encouraged to engage at non-religious levels more and more.

We should apply the same framework for Islam. Unlike other religions, Islam insists that religion cuts through all aspects of life. Islam makes it very difficult for its followers to engage with others at any other level than the one dominated by religion. The core teachings of Islam touch every aspect of life, from how we dress to how we behave in bedroom.

One of the reason why Islam probably finds itself combating everyone else is because of this reason. Compared to other religions, Islam seems to promote a mindset among its followers where the dominating factor is religious identity. Even while ordering the food in restaurant, it matters whether the animal he is eating was killed by a Muslim or not. Thus faithful Muslims tend to act more and more irrationally in all sphere of life thus leading to conflict, isolation and economic loss.

What is wrong with religion as dominating factor ?

What is wrong with religion is that it is eventually an irrational concept. It is fine if an individual indulges in irrational belief. It becomes a serious problem when he lets those irrational beliefs guide him in real world which is either rational or irrational in completely different way. Thus such human being will be at peace only among those people who share the exact same irrational beliefs with him.

For example, I go to great length to ensure that my food does not contain beef and pork. The christian cooks and waiters find this weird. Of course, they are doing business and for them the dominating factor is customer satisfaction and hence they put up with my tantrums. On the other hand when a local church evangelist knocks on my door telling me I should accept Jesus as my savior to assure myself of a place in heaven, I shut the door on his face. I not only find his belief irrational I too treat him with my own religion as the dominating factor in my mind. Thus I treat him far more worse than a stranger knocking on my door.

Same goes with Communism which itself was an atheistic in nature. Yet, the core principles of communism were so much against basic human nature that they only promoted mistrust and misery for their fellow beings.

The fringe elements

Each religion will have a small % of people for whom dominating factor will always be the religion. For example someone like Pravin Togadiya or Nun Teressa, the dominating factor was always religion. Thus their stands on most issues sound irrational and stupid and lead to controversies.

If any particular religion explicitly mandates that religion be dominating factor in all aspects of life the % of such people in that religion will increase. Leading to a much degraded image of their religion.

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