Revealing the Reasoning of the Believer: A Review of Jason Long's Book, The Religious Condition

I really liked fellow team member Jason Long’s book, The Religious Condition: Answering and Explaining Christian Reasoning. In some ways he has done for the average person what I have done in my book for the college student, and for that I can only congratulate him. His book begins by taking a good hard look at why people believe and what believers must do in order to defend their beliefs. This encompasses the first half of the book, or 94 pages (5 chapters). The second half of his book (5 chapters) through to page 248 deals with answering a wide range of specific Christian objections, most of which came from believers who emailed him about his previous book, Biblical Nonsense.

I like his approach very much. In the second half of his book Long’s answers to Christian objections are solid and convincing for the most part (which provides many specific examples of what Long claims in the first half about how Christians reason). If you’ve read his first book you need to read this one just to see how he effectively deals with the many objections Christians have made against it. Even if you haven't read his first book this is a good read with intelligent answers.

But the first half of Long’s book intrigued me personally the most, especially since I was very familiar with the objections Christians make to our arguments. In this first half Long gives us many examples of how people come to believe strange things and how they in turn defend them, from Virgin Mary healings to UFO sightings to ghost hunters to Mormons to Muslims. Here he includes Christian beliefs as well, since people who adopt a religious faith usually do so based on when and where they were born. One of the lessons of this first part of his book is that “Human beings are unbelievably gullible and illogical creatures. The ability to think skeptically is not innate; it requires practice.” (p. 84). In this first part I believe Long made this point very effectively and it should cause all believers to question their faith, subject it to scrutiny and demand hard evidence to believe.

But what usually happens is that rather than “initiating an honest and impartial analysis” of any new evidence, believers “simply bury their heads in the sand and continue to observe whatever beliefs…their ancestors thought they needed thousands of years ago.” (p. 12). When looking at new evidence believers get into a defense mode where they seek to defend what they believe rather than trying to impartially weigh it, Long rightly charges. Impartiality might be an elusive goal, of course, but we should at least try to look at the evidence. Consider this example from Long: “If you wanted safety information on a used car, would it be wiser to trust the word of a used car salesman or the findings of a consumer report?” (p. 23). I think the answer is obvious. But Christians routinely will only trust other Christians for their information. They don’t trust outsiders. Why? If I were interested in car safety information I want an outsider’s perspective to get a different, more objective opinion. Sometimes I’ll even get a second opinion from doctors or dentists. Why is it that Christians will not read Long's book or mine for a second opinion? I challenge them to do so, even if they might eventually disagree. At least they would be honestly looking at the other side. That’s why I’ve initiated the Debunking Christianity Challenge in the first place. Start with Long’s book if you will. It’s as good of a place to start as any, especially if you are an average reader and you think you have impartially weighed the available evidence.

In this first half of his book Long clearly articulates concepts like “Cognitive Dissonance,” “Impression Management Theory,” and "Psychological Reactance Theory” and shows how believers defend their beliefs when faced with evidence to the contrary. One story he tells from the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology is about an evangelical group who believed there was going to be a nuclear attack so they went into a bomb shelter for 42 days before coming out to find no nuclear attack had happened. So what did they conclude? Not that they were wrong. No sirree Bob. “Rather than accepting the obvious conclusion that they had erred in their prediction, group members proclaimed that their beliefs had been instrumental in stopping the nuclear attack.” (p. 48).

Citing from the most authoritative books on persuasive psychology, one written by Robert B. Cialdini, titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and another one written by Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo, titled Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches, Long proffers several other examples of this kind of thinking among people who do the same thing with regard to everyday examples. Human beings truly are “unbelievably gullible and illogical creatures.” We’re more likely to buy unusual items when priced higher; we’re more likely to buy items that offer coupons even though there is no price advantage; we’re more likely to agree to absurd requests if preceded by ones of greater absurdity; we’re more likely to consider attractive people to be more intelligent; and we’re more likely to agree with the crowd we hang around because we want to fit in; and so on, and so on. (pp. 84, 88-89)

All believers must do is look at these things to realize that as humans we MUST be skeptical about what we believe! In my opinion these studies reinforce my claim that the default position is skepticism. To embrace this default position is to be an adult mature thinker with regard to what we believe. Instead of being mature, Long shows us that Christians do not seek to be skeptical about what they have been taught from their parents. They seek rather to defend what they believe. They are resistant to any contrary evidence. They seek to ignore it or look for any answer that might solve the cognitive dissonance this new evidence creates just to maintain their comfort zone, even if it is a non-answer, a glib answer, a far fetched answer.

Long tells us that we believe both because of emotional reasons and because of logical reasons and he illustrates this with two people, one who has the fear of heights and another who thinks old skyscrapers are not as safe as newer ones. (pp. 76-77). The latter person has intellectual doubt about the older skyscrapers and must be given reasons to think otherwise. But the former person who has a fear of heights has an emotional problem. He knows people go up to the top of the skyscraper and come down safely. So we cannot convince him by showing him the steel beams, or the safety ratings of that building. He must face his fears. He must get to the first floor and look around. When he’s comfortable on the first floor he must then go up to the second floor, and so on until he gets to the top. This may take a long time and he must be willing to face his fears. This, Long argues, is the plight of the believer, since he thinks there isn’t any good evidence to believe in the first place, and I agree.

Believers think we’re wrong about this but I challenge them to consider the possibility they are wrong for a moment. Consider a more objective perspective coming from two former believers who have investigated the reasons to believe and found them seriously wanting. Given the overwhelming psychological data Long presents you’ve got to at least consider this as a real possibility, and if that’s the case then Long says that to free you from your religious indoctrination “we must delve into the history of the individual’s beliefs to find the avenue from which they originate.” (p. 77) This echoes what I've said about the Outsider Test for Faith. When testing your beliefs as an outsider you need to revisit what the reasons were for adopting your faith in the first place. What were they? Most of them were clearly emotional, weren't they? Were they intellectual? If so, when looking back on these reasons do you now consider those initial reasons less than persuasive? Would those same reasons convince you to believe today or are they much too simplistic? What I argue is that you initially adopted your faith for less than good reasons but from that moment onward you see the world through colored glasses by which you now analyze and examine the evidence. YOU NEED TO TAKE THEM OFF, is what Long and I argue, as best as you can. Then do what Julia Sweeney told us she did. She put on her “No God Glasses” for just a few seconds and looked around at the world as if God did not exist. Then she put them on for a minute and then put them on for an hour, and then a day. To me this would be just like climbing up that skyscraper Long wrote about. That’s one way to face your fears.

But fears they are, Long says, especially since believers think they have a “mind-reading god” always present who monitors their every thought. (p. 74). With such a mind-reading God, believers are just too fearful of being honest with themselves about their doubt. So they refuse to truly look at the evidence to the contrary. To such people Long suggests telling God you are sincerely going to look at the evidence “to determine if the Bible is really his word. Ask forgiveness in advance if you feel you must…” This is great advice. If God really cares he should allow you to be intellectually honest with yourself.

All in all, as I said, I really liked this book and I highly recommend it. It is unusual to other comparable works because it seeks to articulate the real reasons why people believe and reveals the mental gymnastic contortions needed to defend ignorant and comfortable beliefs. This type of book just may go a long way to help Christians be honest about their delusional beliefs.


Oh, and if you really want to test whether petitionary prayer works, and not just play games, Long offers a unique test that should surely go down in the books (something about arsenic and prayer, but I don't think any Christian should try it. pp. 86-87)