“Reality,” a therapist friend once remarked…

…is what goes on OUTSIDE the patient’s head

The Bible is revelation, so we’re told. The word of God, the mind of God, can be discovered in its pages. Holy men of old—tuned in to God—put pen to paper (well, whatever they used at the time) and created a monumental record of the Almighty’s outreach to humankind.

Really? A long time ago serious thinkers began to suspect that it’s not that simple. Don’t we have to wonder: as the ancient author was scrawling the words onto the scroll, were those words sparked from his own brain, rather than through his brain from a divine source? That is, were those words the product of imagination or hallucination, rather than inspiration? And how in the world can we tell the difference, so many centuries later? I actually posed this question in seminary, of all places. I suggested that we ran the risk of giving mundane stuff divine status—and thus taking it too seriously (and misleading people). I was basically saying, Aren’t we taking a big risk, preaching the Bible as “the Word of God”? One of my seminary pals ridiculed me for not being bold enough to take the “risk of faith.”

Many years later I found that Christian author Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer saw the problem quite clearly, in his 2001 book Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus:

“The Bible is also a dangerous book because we often ascribe divine will to the many human distortions it contains. We undermine the sacredness of the Bible and fuel its dangers whenever we fail to discern the difference between distortions and revelation, whenever we give its words and its writers too much authority, or whenever we abandon or fail critically to examine the contents of its pages. Simply stated, the Bible can inform our religious experience, but it is often wrong about God.”

Nelson-Pallmeyer saw that faith could be corrupted by the Bible, “…whenever we fail to discern the difference between distortions and revelation.” But, alas, he didn’t go on to tell us how to do that, because, of course, there is no way to tell—and ‘trusting the holy spirit’ is perhaps the most feeble epistemology imaginable.

Now, so many years after my seminary experience, David Eller sheds valuable light on the problematic role of the human brain, in his essay, “The Mind Is a Terrible Thing: How Evolved Cognitive Biases Lead to Religion (and Other Mental Errors)” in John Loftus’ most recent anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion (2016).

There is so much in our heads that garbles almost everything, and Eller brings home this point with full force in this essay. As a young seminarian I was skeptical that the 3-4 pound lump of tissue in our skulls was capable of channeling communication from a deity. Just how would that work? And how could we be sure that the divine message was free from distortion? That was really naïve: distortion in what our brains do best. Eller notes that our brains come with a lot of evolutionary baggage, i.e., their reptilian and mammalian frameworks are still intact.

“Not the least of these primitive characteristics are emotions and instincts, along with or for the purpose of quick, even unconscious, life-saving action. To be sure, a layer of conscious analytical, potentially logical or rational thought was later added in the prefrontal cortex, but much human brain activity continues to occur at those lower levels.”

Vital for human survival—i.e. this in one of evolution’s gifts to us—is an acute sense of agency detection. The earliest humans who assumed that a rustling in nearby bushes was the wind didn’t survive as well as those who reacted as if a threatening agent (i.e., a dangerous animal or enemy) were nearby. The seeds of religion might well be here: lightening was attributed to an agent: there were gods at work. It’s not a stretch to see gods at work all over the place, and humans have engaged in extravagant definitions of the gods: “…‘advanced’ monotheisms,” Eller notes, “continue to put forth a god who is a ‘person’ and who is distinctly human-like in personality (e.g., prone to love, anger, jealousy, etc….”

So how can we suppose that a brain that functions this way can be trusted that it bears messages from the gods? Eller’s warning: “In a word, the human mind promiscuously projects other minds whenever there is the slightest encouragement to.”

He also references the work of Gary Marcus (Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, 2008), who chose the word “kluge” because it means “a poorly assembled collection of parts that, while inelegant, inefficient, clumsy, or patched together, succeeds in solving a specific problem or performing a particular task.” That’s the brain, according to Marcus, and “…that which is clumsy is rarely reliable.”

Vital for Atheists to Pay Heed

While most religious folks don’t put their faith under close scrutiny, atheists commonly assume that their own views are evidence-based, anchored to rational thinking. But not so fast. Our brains are not any better that their brains, and Eller’s essay provides a handy guide to the pitfalls that we all face.

Thus the heart of the essay is a detailed description of four categories of cognitive biases that our brains leave all of us liable to.

Social Biases; he lists seven of them, e.g., the herd instinct, “the inclination to accept the opinions and examples of the majority.”

Memory Biases; he lists four of them, e.g., hindsight bias, which “reimagines the past through what we know today, making the past seem more obvious and predictable than it was.”

Decision-Making Biases; he lists eight of them, e.g., irrational escalation, “the inclination to use past rational decisions to make or justify further irrational ones.”

Probability Biases; he lists nine of them, e.g., the frequency illusion, “the comico-tragic situation where people learn or believe something and subsequently begin to see it everywhere.”

Eller concludes, “Our evolved history has left us with a thinking organ of unparalleled power and of frustrating fragility. We can use it to great advantage, but we must use it carefully and always be chaste about what it thinks it knows.” The implications for religion are profound, and should give religionists pause, more so—I dare say—than atheists. We are not making elaborate claims, based on the wispiest epistemologies, about beings that can’t be shown to even exist. When you’re out on that kind of limb, obviously you should be wondering if the mind might be playing tricks.

“Religion,” Eller states, “is only the most conspicuous and bizarre case of faulty reasoning, which is then institutionalized and packaged as an intellectual and social good.” Citing Loftus, Eller cautions thinkers to watch out for the vivid, the personal, and the anecdotal: “This means, to a large and painful extent, using your brain against your brain. The reward is better economic decisions, fewer unwise wars, and less religion.”

I recommend, by the way, reading Eller’s essay in conjunction with the one by Valerie Tarico, “Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science” in Loftus’ first anthology (2010), The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.

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.