Social activities that lead you outside your comfort zone.

These are some activities that are strongly endorsed by many religious groups: Believers are often encouraged to consider stepping outside their ‘comfort zones’ to engage in these recommended activities, including those that cause discomfort and reluctance. Why are so many of the activities endorsed by religions discomforting or difficult to carry out?

Let’s examine each in turn:
Singing and dancing
Acts such as singing and dancing require skill- without a good voice or motor ability, it's easy to embarrass yourself. However, since this is done primarily to please God, rather than to impress other people, participants can take comfort in the knowledge that their efforts are appreciated- even mediocre attempts are beautiful in God’s eyes.

With enough practise and support, skills can, after all, improve significantly. If you work hard at it, and the output eventually becomes aesthetically pleasing to other people as well as to God, then that's icing on the cake.

How do people, especially those who do not enjoy singing or dancing, overcome their initial inhibitions in the first place?

It helps when there's a chorus of other worshippers around to drown out your voice. Newcomers can sing along softly, or just mouth the lyrics silently. Eventually, though, other believers might expect you to demonstrate your fevour by turning up the volume.

The same goes for dancing- at first, newcomers may stand stock still or move very slightly. With time, they feel more comfortable swaying or raising their hands, and engage in more vigorous displays. It all comes with practise and getting used to the situation.

Peer pressure helps a lot. Technically, people may not be able to make you sing and dance during a religious ceremony against your will, but they can use gentle persuasion and encouragement to draw some action out of you. If everyone else around is doing it, and they expect you to follow them, then it's much easier to join in and blend with the group.

The settings play a crucial role as well. Religious groups often have the means to adjust the environment in which believers meet, through the architectural design, interior decoration, sounds, visuals, temperature, and other factors. This eases their followers into an appropriately religious state of mind, and helps to elicit desired behaviour from them.
Praying aloud
The same goes for prayer and any other form of public speaking.

Good speakers are articulate, have useful content to deliver, and present it well. Not everyone is born with this skill.

Prayer is an act of communication between oneself and God. For many believers, this dialogue is deeply personal, and in order to proclaim one’s thoughts aloud in public, one has either to overcome inhibitions about sharing one’s innermost beliefs, or to adjust the content to make it slightly less personal- an act which itself requires some skill and quick-thinking.

Despite the challenges, there's real power in the ability to pray well, although people may not always realise it. If, for example, a speaker is verbally expressive and strikes the right note among a group of listeners, then the listeners immediately feel as if they're transported to a deeper level of communication with God- the prayer that they're listening to becomes their own.

As payer is one’s verbal communion with God, it's considered sacred, in a sense- under the vast majority of circumstances, it's simply unacceptable to criticise or mock somebody else’s prayers.

On the contrary, listeners are expected to maintain a respectful silence, punctuated only by murmurs of agreement and support, while the speaker is praying. Generally, people do not interrupt or distract the speaker, ask questions, point out flaws in logic, or ask the speaker to hurry up- at least not till the prayer is over.

This is because prayer is perceived as an intensely spiritual act, and people feel that when someone is praying, that person's in the midst of being guided by God and eliciting God’s approval. While statements from the speaker’s lips may not be regarded as the word of God per se, they are certainly often thought of as being ‘of God.’ Listeners naturally feel reluctant to intrude upon that sanctity.

Even after the prayer is concluded, a perception of godliness persists in the air, and people are more hesitant to challenge the content of a prayer than that of a secular speech, or even a sermon.

Thus, statements made during a prayer can be used to deliver subtle messages to listeners, and speakers are less likely to encounter criticism. It's far from uncommon for listeners to chafe silently at veiled hints, rebukes, and critiques (however well-intentioned) that they hear in the prayers of their fellow believers.

The same principle applies for anything uttered in the name of God, such as sermons, announcements, song lyrics, and theatre scripts. By asserting that the creation of a text was God-inspired, you place a protective shield around it and make it less vulnerable to criticism.
Sharing testimonials
Many religious institutions encourage believers to share their experiences and describe the ways in which God has affected them.

Such exchanges may take place in intimate settings that involve just a few people. They may also play out in public, in front of a congregation, and be well documented and widely distributed, in the form of video clips or podcasts posted on the internet.

This is considered highly beneficial for all concerned: the audience receives encouragement and is given proof of God’s presence and power, while the speaker is given the opportunity to glorify God publicly and repay some of God’s generosity.

Let's examine these components in more detail.

When audiences gather to hear about the work of God in somebody's life, they're in a particularly receptive state.
  • Firstly, they want to demonstrate their support and encouragement, by empathising closely with the fellow believer who's giving the speech.

  • Secondly, they're eager to learn as much as possible from the speaker’s experience, and use that knowledge to enhance their own relationship with God.
Thus, even before the speaker begins, the audience members are determined to extract gems of wisdom from the testimonial, ready to give the speaker benefit of the doubt if there's some ambiguity, and willing to withhold judgements and suppress their scepticism where necessary.

Underlying this enthusiasm is a desire to give God the credit for all good things. Regardless of how brilliant or how flawed the speaker’s words may be, as long as praise is ultimately directed at God, then a primary purpose of the meeting has been met: God's glorification. Quibbles over little details are likely to come across as petty and disruptive, or inconsequential at best.

How exactly does the act of testifying result in the promotion of one's deity?

As human beings, we take others’ opinions very seriously. We rely on recommendations and references to assess the quality of products, claims, and people. When others make statements in public, declare them forcefully, and make no effort to conceal their identity, we're persuaded to place our faith in the speakers because people generally avoid making strong statements unless they're convinced about what they're saying. If anything goes wrong with their predictions, others will hold them responsible. The speaker knows that his or her reputation is at stake.

The same goes for claims that attest to the magnificence of God. If we hear someone talking about the profound role that God played in their life, our reaction tends to be that of amazement and awe. If we ever feel incredulity, this can usually be surpassed by our eagerness to praise God, encourage the speaker, and fit in with our fellow listeners by giving the speaker an enthusiastic and God-fearing response.

In any case, statements about the role that God had in events cannot be proved or disproved- only believed or disbelieved. In a religious context such as this, there's a surplus in willingness to believe, and a surfeit of healthy scepticism.

Believers who've been asked to talk about their experiences in public know that this is quite an honour. If they accept, they're responsible for presenting God in the most favourable light possible. After all, God is so magnificent that no human praise could succeed in doing Him real justice- we just have to try our best.

One way to do this is by periodically thanking and praising God. For instance, when describing trying times in one’s life, you could include statements such as, ‘I decided to surrender to God’s will’ and ‘I just had to stop questioning everything, and trust God once and for all.’

Self-deprecation and attribution of glory to God are highly effective ways of eliciting approval from listeners. Humility is an attractive attribute, used in the right amounts. Besides, when you assign all glory to God, you allow all believers to bask in the warm reflected glow. Non-believers, by implication, are the ones who do not get to partake of this glory.

Sometimes, speakers are uncertain about their ability to deliver testimonials- they may be unprepared, or feel uncertain that their experiences are really caused by God. However, if they can be persuaded to take a stand and overcome their doubts, the process of preparing and delivering a speech helps to nudge their beliefs in the required direction.

Firstly, when you actively imagine God’s hand running through all the events in your life, you find it easier to believe that each event was indeed shaped by God. As you reiterate this notion to yourself, these associations are reinforced, and you feel more convinced that God played a direct role.

When you share these discoveries with fellow believers, the act of verbalising your thoughts in public serves to cement these conclusions. When you receive enthusiastic feedback and whole-hearted support from your audience, you feel vindicated, jubilant, and all the more grateful to God for having brought about such a successful outcome.

Once your words have gone out amongst the people and cannot be easily retracted, you have strong incentive to hold firm to your testimony and repeat it confidently and persuasively if the subjects crops up in the future. Thus, when audiences watch fellow believers proclaim God’s grace in public, they are shielded, to some extent, from the uncertainty that may have ebbed under the surface.

Some speakers, of course, are fully convinced about the truth of what they're saying from the beginning, while others take pains to describe their initial doubts and the events that helped to make them more certain. However, on average, across speakers, levels of certainty witnessed by audiences are higher than those felt by speakers prior to their talks.

Regardless of the speaker’s confidence level before the process began, it should have increased by the time the speech has ended, just by virtue of the fact that they went through the motions of delivery.

In summary, audiences are strongly persuaded to accept the logic of their speakers. The speakers themselves are more likely to believe in what they are saying, and to maintain confidence in their beliefs. As a result, the religious institution receives accolades for the strong relationships that are evidently present between its believers and God, and wins approval for having provided the opportunity for its followers to share their testimonies for the benefit of all.
Participating in group discussions
Discussions allow believers to exchange opinions about their religion, interpret its texts, and figure out how its doctrines fit in with their daily lives.

As they contribute to the debate, followers are required to take a stand, substantiate and defend their claims, listen to input from others, and basically sharpen their thinking skills, in God’s name. As with prayer and testimonial sharing, listeners are in a receptive, encouraging mood, though there is additional room for critique and disagreement here.

Believers feel that with God's grace and wisdom, they will be able to gain insights through their discussions, and experience breakthroughs in understanding that they could not achieve on their own. The likelihood of a successful, productive outcome is boosted by the fact that members believe in the power of what they are doing, and are eager to cooperate for the sake of the group. This yields benefits that are very similar to prayer.

(For more on the psychological benefits of praying with a group of believers, refer to the section on Praying for Others.)
Taking on leadership roles
Group leaders play a crucial role in many institutions, as they're the ones in charge of moderating discussions and guiding their flock. They're experienced and knowledgable enough to offer others solid advice, and must be able to relate well to people and deal with the varied personalities of individual group members.

Group leaders share many characteristics with other figures of authority in the organisation. They should be the most knowledgeable among their group, in order to command respect. They should possess unwavering faith, and any doubts that might compromise their faith should be subdued as swiftly as possible.

Above all, they're chosen by God to lead their fellow believers, and their appointment- no matter how contentious- is generally hard to dispute, because their election is seen as being part of God’s ordained plan. In the rare event that a leader proves to be sorely inadequate for the job, the members of the organisation remind themselves that the fault was due to human weaknesses on the part of the leader, not due to poor choice on God's part. If something happens to go terribly wrong (e.g. a leader is caught embezzling funds, or molesting children), the shocked congregation reminds itself that the crisis that results is all part of God’s character-building strategy.

Not all leaders occupy their position equally willingly. Some people are naturally adept and possess the right qualities. Others are persuaded to take on the role, and gain confidence with time and practice. As with the acts of praying, proselytising, and sharing testimonies, the more you verbalise your beliefs and rationales, the more you reinforce your beliefs.

Once someone has used a position of authority to make claims and convince others about God, it's hard for that person to voice uncertainty about the validity of those claims later on. Leaders feel responsible for the influence they exert on their followers. It seems unfair to persuade people of something, then to backpedal and leave one’s followers stranded, so to speak.

Thus, leaders are faced with a decision each time they make a claim about God- since God leads them to act in the best interests of all their disciples, the statements made by leaders can be thought of, essentially, as insights from God. Once they make strong claims, their statements can take a more or less permanent hold in the minds of the listeners. Yet, the leaders, after all, are still human.

When leaders try to decide whether or not to make a statement, they struggle for two reasons:
  • Firstly, their claims must be accurate and enduring.

  • Secondly, they should be confident in their judgments, because this confidence is a testimony to their belief in God, as well as to the power of God in their lives.
Since mistakes are hard to repair, the best option for leaders would be to say ‘I don’t know,’ when they are uncertain. Too many confessions of uncertainty, however, erode fellow believers’ trust in the leader, and therefore in God.

Some leaders find themselves confronted with questions that they’re simply at a loss to answer, and harbour too many doubts than can be suppressed. At this point, they may realise that their faith in God is less steadfast than previously thought. Advice offered by others in the religious institution is not enough to restore their confidence levels. These individuals have outgrown their religious beliefs and need to look for answers outside their religion.
Speaking in tongues
What exactly does it mean, to ‘speak in tongues?’

According to religious institutions that promote it, this is a God-given ability to deliver spiritual messages in a language that is alien to the speaker. While this commonly-heard explanation tells you what the act of speaking in tongues is supposed to mean when interpreted within the context of religion, it doesn’t tell you what the act actually is.

Speaking in tongues happens when one lets go of one’s inhibitions and babbles aloud in front of fellow believers. This babbling may be structured in a way that resembles a real language, and may contain phonemes that sound plausibly as if they come from a real language. Essentially, it’s a series of made-up syllables, strung together and delivered with as much confidence as one can muster.

People who are new to this technique have not had the chance to practise making up strings of sounds in this manner. To carry it off successfully, they tend to imitate those around them, and thus use similar rhythms, sounds, stresses, and inflections to those of their companions. This is met with general encouragement.

When people simultaneously decide to shrug off their inhibitions and participate in an activity that might typically be viewed as absurd, comical, or at the very least, somewhat pointless, they forge a bond amongst themselves and take comfort from the fact that they have company. This is a natural human tendency- after all, we are social animals and derive pleasure from shared activities (even ones that seem slightly odd to a newcomer).

(Click here for more on the subject of Speaking in Tongues.)
Making predictions, claiming God’s gifts
Believers are sometimes encouraged to make predictions about the future and speak in an assertive manner about their expectations and aspirations, in private prayer to God, as well as in public amongst fellow believers.

This is to demonstrate one’s faith in God’s great plans. Most of the time, people are instinctively averse to making such claims because if their predictions turn out to be inaccurate, this failure would reflect badly on them and on God.

Why, then, is this practise encouraged?

For one, the act of making such statements is a motivating factor in itself- when we hear ourselves making assertions, our levels of confidence are raised and we feel greater incentive to meet our goal, and thus work harder to achieve it.

In addition, prediction-making trains our minds to think carefully about what we are saying. We are required to choose our words such that our aims are somewhat challenging but not impossible, so that success is not certain but still quite likely.

It forces people to think ahead. By verbalising one’s goals, we take an initial step towards implementing a definite line of action.
Planning events
When religious institutions organise and hold events, the key difference between their activities and those of secular organisations is the maintenance of a belief in God. (For more on the range of activities held by religious organisations, refer to the section on Community.)

Most of the time, events have a specific purpose and set visible targets, such as providing children with education, supplying food to the needy, and raising money. Their methods are largely identical to those used by non-religious groups, and success can be measured using similar criteria.

At other times, the goals of an event are primarily God-centred: To worship God, to strengthen the faith of the members, and to promote spiritual development. Such events include prayer meetings, concerts, rallies, and healing sessions. This raises the issue of how to assess the success of the event.

The main criterion would seem to be the levels of spiritual satisfaction of believers. How can this be done, when spiritual growth occurs predominantly within believers’ minds?
  • One can examine the feedback obtained after the event, using written forms or verbal queries, and calculate the proportions of positive and negative feedback.

  • One can sense people’s moods during the event, and gauge the levels of enthusiasm, awe, and jubilation among the members. These observations can be made before and after the event, to check whether people appear more motivated and spiritually mature after having participated.

  • The amount donated to the institution is another key indicator.
Any undertaking of a large enough scale is bound to be challenging and involve uncertainty, because no one can tell for sure whether things will go as one hopes.

If spectacular, undeniable failure results, this tends to diminish faith in God. At least, during event planning and execution, believers can summon up their faith, and proceed with confidence, knowing that they have the Almighty on their side.

Regardless of the type of event, the organisers and participants can congratulate themselves and God when it turns out well. Rather than attributing success to the efforts of human individuals, followers believe that God gave them the wisdom, courage, and determination to pull things off, and that without God, the event would have been pointless.
Putting on performances
As with event planning, God's in the details when it comes to performances, such as plays, musical concerts, dances, exhibitions, and movie screenings, which are put on by religious institutions.

The aim is to increase believers’ faith in God, while possibly attracting non-believers to the religion through creative media.

Viewers may appreciate the skill with which the material is presented and feel closely engaged. Remember, however, that the tools and resources employed by religious organisations, from props and stage backdrops to sound systems to movie editing techniques, are essentially no different from those used by secular organisations. The technology is the same- it’s only the message and assertions about the existence of God that are different.

Although believers attribute their talent and achievements to God’s divine intervention, it is human endeavour that yields such spectacular results, and it would be more accurate to claim that it was their belief in God (rather than His actual existence) that motivated them.
Proselytising, inviting friends to religious ceremonies
Most religious institutions are keen on spreading their messages and bringing new believers into the fold. Sharing of one’s faith with others and invitation of non-religious friends to ceremonies is encouraged and expected by many religious institutions (though not all).

Reluctance to talk about your faith with others stems from several main factors:
  • Claims about God cannot be objectively substantiated.

  • When you share your beliefs and try to convince others of their veracity, you’re implicitly claiming that the non-believer’s belief system is wrong. This is often annoying for the non-believer, especially when such claims cannot be verified.

  • Religious teachings touch on sensitive topics, including those of sin, morality, and eternal life. Religions tend to advocate a more restrictive moral and behavioural code of conduct than that to which non-believers are typically accustomed. This can make you, the believer, come across as preachy.

  • You may not feel confident about your faith, or feel unable to address the non-believer’s questions satisfactorily. This means that you might emerge from such discussions with even lower levels of certainty than you had at the beginning- not good for your relationship with God! Believers often dislike such questioning, and want to avoid situations that might lead to a dent in their faith.
If believers bite the bullet and manage to start evangelising to others, then the level of commitment to the faith is raised. The knowledge that you've made attempts to evangelise in the past and survived can serve as motivation to keep going. The same goes for any other activities that take believers outside their comfort zone.

Once you've shared your beliefs with a non-believer and persuaded that person to attend a meeting, you've paved the way for God to enter your friend’s consciousness and carry out divine works in that person’s life with greater ease than before.

Your efforts shouldn't end there- people tend to be stubborn and disbelieving, and even after hearing God’s message, they may refuse to heed these words of wisdom and undergo conversion. Therefore, with the help of fellow disciples, you're to make every effort to repeat God’s messages, and convince the visitor of the importance of a formal conversion.

You're supposed, for instance, to bring your friend along to services. It's all very well to participate in religious ceremonies alongside fellow believers. In the presence of a non-believing friend, however, things are slightly different. The friend doesn't yet share the same assumptions and underlying beliefs about God and religion. Neither is the friend likely to be very familiar with religious proceedings.

You are expected to take part in rituals that they seem bizarre from an outsider’s point of view, in front of your bemused friend. Fortunately, the spiritually-charged surroundings and the devout attitudes of fellow believers help to make participation in religious rites seem ordinary.

When you bring guests to religious meetings, the institution benefits in several ways:

Firstly, the institution has a higher likelihood of retaining existing members.

The more often believers proclaim their faith, the harder it is for them to change their minds later on. This is especially so when non-believers are aware of your faith. This is because your participation in religious practices is no longer confined solely to the religious side of your life- by inviting someone from outside and giving that person a glimpse into their religious life, you're demonstrating the strength your beliefs in the secular domain.

If the only people who know about one’s beliefs are fellow believers, it’s hard to express doubts and consider changing one’s views, but at least you can retreat to the safety of the secular world, where no one will question the renunciation.

If, on the other hand, you’ve discussed the topic openly with non-religious friends, and have confidently proclaimed the extent of your faith despite the admission that there’s no hard evidence to back it up, then it becomes trickier for a believer to switch sides later on and admit that the beliefs might have been unfounded.

All I can say is that despite the initial embarrassment, in the long run, it might be in one’s best interests to come clean with and reveal any change of perspective as soon as possible. Having to constantly suppress your true opinions can be demoralising and stressful.

Secondly, the institution might gain new members, if one’s friends are convinced by the teachings and decide to convert.

When newcomers are immersed in a new environment, surrounded by fervent worshippers, and regaled by displays that are designed to awe the viewer with depictions of God’s glory, they may feel surprised and impressed by the proceedings themselves, independently of any evocation of God.

Believers inform them that this sense of awe is ‘the presence of God.’ This suggestion may cause newcomers to misattribute their sense of awe to the intervention of an external deity, when it in fact arises from their impression of the rituals themselves.

Other factors may attract them to the religious organisation, such as the welcoming atmosphere of the services, the uplifting and enjoyable songs, the words of the speaker, the authoritativeness of the leaders, and the general novelty of the experience. (See the sections on Personal Prayer, Community, and Forgiveness for examples of the benefits that religion brings.)

Newcomers may not have thought much about concepts involving God, eternity, and sin, before, or may not have established a theoretical framework within which to consider these issues. Religion claims to address many questions regarding morality, the purpose of life, and the existence of higher levels of consciousness and understanding of the universe than our own.

Teachings offered by religion appear to provide some answers, and non-believers are likely to be intrigued by the claim that religion can explain the meaning of everything. Once non-believers start to engage with the ideas proposed by a religion, and receive partial explanations, and are told that there is more to discover, they are likely to keep asking, hoping to satisfy their curiosity.

This continues either until they are satisfied with the answer they receive and they are willing to commit to the faith, until they decide that the conclusions reached by the religion are incorrect and inadequate, or until they simply lose interest.

Religion does provide answers to many of these existential questions. What it fails to provide are answers that are consistently logical and credible. For many people, the fact that religious teachings address these issues at all and do so with great confidence, is enough to win them over and fuel their commitment to the faith.

Some believers will never feel the need to explore these claims in greater depth, whereas others, given enough time, will take the time to examine the proposed concepts in detail and understand the implications behind each claim.

When they start exploring some key assumptions underlying their religion, they find that no further answers exist, under the tenets of the religion, and the deeper issues to which their attention now turns remain unaddressed. Instead, they are met with statements that cannot be substantiated, and dogma that is repetitive and essentially meaningless.

(For more on why some believers keep up their attendance of services faithfully, while others drop away, refer to the section on Attendance. For more on how the social aspects of religion keep us tied to our affiliations, read the section on Community.)
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