What to do…with the brains evolution gave us

Religion wins if we can’t teach our brains Good Thinking

In the musical My Fair Lady, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner punctured misogyny by showing it in full foolishness. Professor Henry Higgins is the ultimate “confirmed old bachelor” who is distressed by his attraction to Eliza Doolittle. He bluntly warns his friend Colonel Pickering, “I will never let a woman in my life.” Female heads, he declares, are “filled with cotton, hay and rags.” “Straightening up their hair is all they ever do. Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside?”

But Professor Higgins was only half wrong. That is, all human brains, male and female, are prone to the cotton-hay-and-rags syndrome. Throughout the millennia, humans have been wrong about so much, and—sorry, Professor Higgins—men have been the major culprits. We can blame the men especially for the monotheism represented in the Bible—a major mess of contradictions, if ever there was one. But the fault lies not with gender, but with the brains that we owe to the clumsy evolutionary process. We have to work hard to outsmart our brains.

Our intelligence has its origins in what Guy P. Harrison has called “this amazing three-pound electrochemical blob” that is housed in our skulls. And it is an uphill battle, Harrison urges, a major challenge, for us to come to terms with the brain’s capacity to fool us. Humans have proved so abundantly that it is easy for us to roll with wrong answers, religion being Exhibit A.

Some of us put a lot of time and energy into showing how and why Christianity has been falsified, but the first essay by Harrison in the most recent John Loftus anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion (2016), shows that one of the most important steps in weaning people away from religion is seducing them to the practice of Good Thinking. The title of the essay is “How to Think Like a Scientist: Why Every Christian Can and Should Embrace Good Thinking.”

I always try to coax believers back to the brutal truth that there are no data about god(s)—if we think like scientists, that's what we want—and poor reasoning leads them to make too much of personal feelings, visions and prayers to anchor claims about the divine realm. Please, think it through, people.

Of course, we should marshal all of the arguments we can to expose spurious religious claims (prayer, miracles, heaven, hell, etc.), but Harrison urges getting at the fundamental problem: “There will always be a hundred more wild claims ready to pop up in place of one just knocked down by a well-reasoned argument. Individual bricks matter, but less so than the foundation upon which they rest. Poor reasoning skills and ignorance about the human brain’s odd and unexpected ways are the root problem.”

The foundation that Harrison advocates he calls Good Thinking, which is “…my umbrella term for understanding, appreciating, caring for, and using the human brain in ways that enable one to better avoid lies, mistakes, and delusions, instead of repeatedly running toward them with open arms. Good Thinking reduces one’s error rate over a lifetime. It includes thinking like a scientist in daily life.” (The title of one of his books is Good Thinking: What You Need to Know to be Smarter, Safer, Wealthier, and Wiser.

One of the consequences of ignorance/denial of evolution is that folks don’t realize that our brains were not created perfectly by divine stroke from Eden’s dirt—how’s that for a fairy tale that has not served us well! Good Thinking has to be achieved despite the brain we have to work with: “…we are all born to be sloppy and inconsistent thinkers. This is normal. This is who we are. Perhaps we can think of it as the secular version of original sin. Unfairly, we inherit the cognitive limitations, biases, and misleading subconscious shortcuts of our ancestors…”

"The brain you host right now is virtually the same as our ancestors were packing in prehistoric Africa more than 100,000 years ago…We never evolved to be scientific thinking machines that instinctively apply critical thinking and skepticism when confronted with important experiences, claims, or choices”—especially those in the religion realm. Just a tiny bit of thought, for example, punctures one of the central tenants of Christianity, which is wiped out by Harrison: “No one seems to know why a god who makes all the rules and answers to no one couldn’t just pardon us and skip the barbaric crucifixion event entirely.”

This attachment to absurdities is a stark reality. When I bumped into fundamentalists when I was in college, I found it impossible to penetrate their worldview. Only years later would I hear it summed up so perfectly by Al Stefanelli: “Arguing with a creationist is like trying to teach calculus to a toaster.” Leave it to Harrison, however, to correctly analyze elements missing in their thinking—indeed in the thinking of all those who are locked into any doctrine or dogma, liberal or conservative.

In one major section of his essay, he presents seven “minimal requirements for Good Thinking.” Those of us who engage with Christian apologists can benefit from reviewing these points, if for no other reason than to enhance our own thinking skills and avoid the traps that our brains set for us.

I won’t list all seven—upon which he elaborates—but the first couple offer a glimpse at his practical approach: Know Basic Brain Structure and Function, and Appreciate How Brains Evolved. Harrison’s mantra is learning how to think like a scientist, and, citing the example of how careful people can be when they buy a car, he makes the point that this attitude should prevail when testing any idea.

Hence another major section of the essay is, “How to Think Life a Scientist Every Day of Your Life,” in which he describes five key components. Again, I can’t go sum them all up, but the first one gives you the flavor of what’s to come: Research, Observe, Gather Information. “This may seem like an obvious requirement for good decision making but very few people do it consistently. Instead they choose to rely on shortcuts such as a gut feeling, good story, tradition, or the word of some authority figure.”

Harrison, by the way, is one of the atheist authors whom I recommend the most. His 50 Reasons that People Give for Believing in a God is an outstanding classic. Anyone who is wondering what books on atheism to recommend, this is a good bet. Its calm tone and common sense approach are likely to move people in our direction.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.