Showing posts with label psychology of belief. Show all posts
Showing posts with label psychology of belief. Show all posts

Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 5 of 6

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How Viral Ideas Hook Us

Did you know that Temple Baptist Church was built on land that sold for 57 cents, the amount saved by a little girl that had been turned away from their Sunday school? Did you hear about the guy who died in his sleep, killed by his own farts? Can you believe that racist jerk Elvis Presley once said: "The only thing a nigger can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes." And,guess what--Scholars at the Smithsonian have found Nostradamus predictions that relate to Barack Obama!

As you may have guessed, the above statements are false. But that hasn't kept them from circulating the internet for years. Each of them is part of a viral email message, which means that each has some quality that makes people forward it, over and over and over.


The first is a kind of message commonly known as "glurge," too-sweet-to-be-true stories that give people a warm feeling or even chills. The second makes us laugh and piques our sense of curiosity. The third plays with our contradictory fascination with celebrities, which includes a desire to tear them down. The fourth appeals to our yearning for magic. These stories all are drawn from the urban legends fact-finding site, Snopes.com. What is the common theme? Emotional arousal.

Comparing religion to chain mail seems crass, but the kinship is real. And as Francis Bacon said, "The eye of the understanding is like the eye of the sense; for as you may see great objects through small crannies or holes, so you may see great axioms of nature through small and contemptible instances."

Viral email has a variety of reproductive strategies. Like computer viruses, many chain mail messages contain explicit "copy-me commands." Some promise us good luck if we forward the message to ten people before the day is up - or a week of happiness, or even prosperity. Some threatens us with bad luck if we don't. Some tries to shame us: "If you care about your friends, you'll send this information about cervical cancer/visa fraud/brown recluse spiders . . ." But most viral emails simply contain something that makes us want to pass them on. They may make us laugh or feel validated and righteous. Many delight us. A few tap our sense of magic or mystery or transcendence.

The term "viral marketing" has itself gone viral recently, popularized by books like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, or Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. Corporations have discovered that their best sales staff are satisfied customers, and they've been experimenting. Can we figure out the formula for starting a fad? Can we seed the virus with a few hired hands who create buzz? The Heath brothers offer communications professionals a simple formula which they call the "Six Principles for SUCCESs:" SIMPLE UNEXPECTED CONCRETE CREDIBLE EMOTIONAL STORIES. Look at the formula. Now think back about what I said regarding the boundaries of supernaturalism and the born again experience. The fit is remarkably tight.

In the field of medicine, epidemiologists study patterns of contagion. They might track, for example, how an influenza virus spread across one region and how it jumped from country to country in the bodies of specific carriers. Based on the way infections fan out, they may even be able to identify the “epicenter” of a disease. Some of the tools of epidemiology are now being applied to study the spread of viral ideas. But whereas diseases spread passively, meaning people rarely try to infect each other, viral ideas, also known as “memes” spread by harnessing the human desire to share what we know and to learn from each other. Memes get transmitted through established social networks. They spread horizontally within a generation, and vertically from generation to generation. That is why specific religions are concentrated in one part of the world or another and children tend to have the same religion as their parents.

For developmental reasons, children are particularly susceptible to simply accepting the ideas of their parents and community. If a parent says stoves burn you, cars can squish you, and bathing keeps you from getting itchy, kids tend to do best if they simply trust what their parents say. Nature has designed children to be "credulous." This allows them to learn from the mistakes of their elders. It makes them more efficient in acquiring valuable information and adapting to cultural norms. It is also why evangelical parents are encouraged to convert their children. Research on identity development shows that if children can be contained within an enveloping religious community through their transition into young adulthood, few will ever leave. Bring up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

A successful religion needs to have the qualities of a successful virus. In a changing environment, this means it must have the ability to mutate and adapt. In the past, religions were spread largely by edict and conquest. This is how Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and into the Americas. Today, though, religion is perceived as an individual choice and religions must gain share by attracting adherents. This is why, today, the religions that are gaining mindshare are those that have good marketing, high birthrates, and what economists call “appealing club goods”. In the current environment, Christianity has been able to produce offshoots that need no edict or conquest.

Significantly, the religions that are growing right now are ones with strong copy-me commands. Evangelical Christianity is centered on what Christians call the Great Commission: "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost." In addition, just as the Roman church latched onto the strategy of competitive breeding (keep women home, sanctify a high birth rate), so Evangelicals have begun to explicitly add this form of copy-me command to the mix. By contrast, modernist Christianity is more often centered on what Christians call the Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your god with all your heart, soul and mind, and . . . love your neighbor as yourself." In a straight up competition, the copy-me command wins out, and in fact, evangelicals are gaining mindshare, while modernists are losing it.

One of the fastest changing aspects of our world is the growth of information. As knowledge grows, some varieties Christianity accept new scientific or historical findings and reinterpret their sacred texts and traditions in light of our best understanding of the world around us. Tangentially, this is the approach taken by Tibetan Buddhism. The 14th Dalai Lama has said, "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview." This kind of adaptation is common for forms of Christianity that, like Buddhism, are more centered in praxis (practice) than belief. For those that are centered in belief, adapting to new knowledge is more difficult, and the survival strategy more often is a sort of fundamentalist retrenchment. Karen Armstrong's book, The Battle for God, describes this retrenchment in the Abrahamic religions.

The need to adapt may seem at odds with the recent success of fundamentalism, but in actual fact, fundamentalism is an adaptation to a changing world. Rather than revising dogmas, fundamentalists develop stronger defenses against external threats to a traditional homeostasis. An extreme example of this can be seen in the case of the Amish or Hassidic Jews: the belief system sustains itself relatively unchanged by engaging people to re-create an ancestral environment in which the belief system emerged.

But most theological fundamentalists have a more hybrid approach. They protect their children from external influence by home schooling or parochial schools, but don't mind accessing creationist materials from interactive websites. They expand in-house social services that include pop psychology. They promote hierarchy and sexism but are willing to have women and children as spokespersons for these views. They play up the risks of inquiry and doubt and use scientific findings and follies to make their arguments convincing. Fundamentalist populations resist ideological change, but they have learned to exploit popular culture, best business practices, new technologies, and even scholarship itself to maintain the survival of their beliefs.

Since a virus and host fit together like a lock and key, understanding viral ideas helps us to understand the human mind, and vice versa. Retro-viruses and influenza mutate rapidly, which makes it hard to develop immunizations against them. On the spectrum of religions, Christianity shows a similar flexibility, regularly spinning off new sects, denominations, and even non-denominational renegades. And yet each of these taps a familiar range of emotions and social mechanisms and is constrained by the cognitive structures that place bounds on human supernaturalism. Christianity has adapted to a broad range of human minds and cultures, a strategy that has resulted in success beyond the wildest visions of the patriarchs.

Learn More:
Memetic Lexicon
Richard Brodie - Virus of the Mind
Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made to Stick:Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (New York: Random House, 2007), 253-257.

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Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 4 of 6

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IV. The Born Again Experience

I prayed harder and just then I felt like everything I was saying was being sucked into a vacuum. When I stood up, I felt like thin air; I had to brace myself. I felt this energy, it was a kind of an ecstasy.” --Cathy “Something began to flow in me—a kind of energy . . . Then came the strange sensation that water was not only running down my cheeks, but surging through my body as well, cleansing and cooling as it went.” --Colson “It was a beautiful feeling of well-being, warmth and loving . . . I went home and all night long these warm feelings kept coming up in my body.” --Jean “I felt something real warm overwhelming me. It was in just a moment, yet it was like an eternity. . . . a joy, such a joy hit me with such a tremendous force that I jumped . . . and ran.” --Helen. (From Conway & Siegelman, Snapping, pp 24, 32, 12, 31)

For many Christians, being born again is unlike anything they have ever known. A sense of personal conviction, yielding or release followed by indescribable peace and joy – this is the stuff of spiritual transformation. Once experienced it is unforgettable, and many people can recall small details years later. In the aftermath of such a moment, an alcoholic may stop drinking or a criminal fugitive may hand himself in to the authorities. A housewife may sail through her tasks for weeks, flooded by a sense of God’s love flowing through her to her children. A normally introverted programmer may begin inviting his co-workers to church.

This experience, more than any other, creates a sense of certainty about Christian belief and so makes belief impervious to rational argumentation. A believer knows what he or she has experienced and seen. Even converts who don’t feel radically transformed after praying “the sinner’s prayer” may feel overwhelmed by God’s presence during subsequent prayer or worship. Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity that are gaining ground around the world particularly emphasize emotional peaks such as faith healing or speaking in tongues. Worshipers may get caught up in exuberant singing, shouting, dancing and tears of joy.

What most Christians don’t know is that these experiences are not unique to Christianity. In fact, the quotations that you just read come from two born again Christians, a Moonie, and an encounter group participant. Their words are similar, because the born again experience doesn’t require a specific set of beliefs. It requires a specific social/emotional process, and the dogmas or explanations are secondary.

Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman have written an excellent book on what they call sudden personality change, or “snapping.” The first edition of their book, Snapping focused on small countercultural cults and self-help groups that sprang up in the 1960’s and 1970’s such as Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation, EST, Mind Dynamics, Unification Church, Scientology, and others. When asked about whether Evangelical Christianity might fit the pattern, Conway and Siegelman were reluctant to say yes. Today they admit, “In America today, increasingly, that line [between a cult and a legitimate religion] cannot be categorically drawn. . . . Our research raised serious questions concerning the techniques used to bring about conversion in many evangelical groups.”(p. 37).

Conversion is a process that begins with social influence. As sociologists like to say, our sense of reality is socially constructed. We will come back to this later. Suffice for now to say that missionary work typically begins with simple offers of friendship or conversations about shared interests. As a prospective converts are drawn in, a group may envelope them in warmth, good will, thoughtful conversations and playful activities, always with gentle pressure toward the group reality.

In revival meetings or retreats, semi-hypnotic processes draw a potential convert closer to the toggle point. These include including repetition of words, repetition of rhythms, evocative music, and Barnum statements (messages that seem personal but apply to almost everyone-- like horoscopes). Because of the positive energy created by the group, potential converts become unwitting participants in the influence process, actively seeking to make the group’s ideas fit with their own life history and knowledge. Factors that can strengthen the effect include sleep deprivation or isolation from a person’s normal social environment. An example would be a late night campfire gathering with an inspirational story-teller and altar call at Child Evangelism’s “Camp Good News.”

These powerful social experiences culminate in conversion, a peak experience in which the new converts experience a flood of relief. Until that moment they have been consciously or unconsciously at odds with the group center of gravity. Now, they may feel that their darkest secrets are known and forgiven. They may experience the kind of joy or transcendence normally reserved for mystics. And they are likely to be bathed in love and approval from the surrounding group, which mirrors their experience of God.

The otherworldly mental state that I refer to as the domain of mystics is known in clinical settings as a "transcendence hallucination", but this term fails to reflect how normal and profound the experience can be as a part of human spirituality. The transcendence hallucination is an acute sense of connection with a reality that lies beyond and behind this natural plane. It typically lasts for just a few seconds or minutes but may leave profound impression that lasts a lifetime. For a Christian it may be interpreted as an encounter with a supernatural person -- Jesus, or an angel. A fan of the paranormal might be convinced of an encounter with space aliens or ghosts. More often, the person has a disembodied sense of connection accompanied by intense feelings of joy, wonder, peacefulness or alternately terror, depending on the context.

A transcendence hallucination can be triggered by neurological events like a seizure, stroke, or migraine aura; or by a drug such as psilocybin, but it also can be triggered by over or under-stimulation of the brain. Some mystics from the past have described or even drawn these events with such impressive detail that a diagnostic hypothesis is possible. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic created scores of drawings that show the visual field distorted in keeping with a migraine aura.

In modern times, author Karen Armstrong describes the seizures that she first thought to be triggered spiritually. In discussing an altered state known as Kundalini awakening, one migraine sufferer commented, “I usually don't follow any of the mystic/esoteric stuff, but I must say it is kind of strange to see all my symptoms lined up like that outside of a western/medical context." I should emphasize, though, that these altered states don’t depend on some kind of neurological damage or pathology. They can be unforgettable, peak experiences for normal people, long sought by those who care about the spiritual dimension of life. Sensory deprivation, fasting, meditation, rhythmic drumming, or crowd dynamics have all been used systematically to elicit altered states in normal people.

Such a powerful experience cannot go unexplained, and being meaning makers, humans immediately begin interpreting altered states. “Lacking understanding and with no reliable method for investigating the phenomenon, people through the ages have grappled imaginatively with their experiences, looking to some higher order and ascribing these abrupt changes in awareness to a source outside the body. They have been explained as messages from beyond or gifts of revelation and enlightenment, personal communications that could only be delivered by a universal being of infinite dimensions, a cosmic force that comprehends all space, time and earthly matter.”(Conway, 30)


In a conversion context like missionary work or revival meetings, from the moment snapping occurs, religious interpretations of the experience are provided. These explanations become the foundation stones on which whole castles of beliefs will be constructed. The authorities who triggered the otherworldly experience are trusted implicitly, which gives them the power to now transform the convert’s world view in accordance with their own theology.

The conversion process, as I have described it sounds sinister, as if manipulative groups and hypnotic leaders deliberately ply their trade to suck in the unsuspecting and take over their minds. I don’t believe this is usually the case. Rather, natural selection is at play. Over millennia of human history, religious leaders have hit on social/emotional techniques that work to win converts, just as they have hit on belief systems that fit how we process information. Techniques that don’t trigger powerful spiritual experiences simply die out. Those that do get used, refined, and handed down.

Conversion activities can be harmful, primarily because they go hand in hand with exclusive truth claims and tribalism. But with few exceptions the evangelists, from mega-church ministers to “friendship missionaries” genuinely think they are doing good. After all, they have their own born again experiences to convince them that they are promoting the real thing. Conversion feeds conviction, and conviction feeds conversion. What decent person wouldn't want to share the secret to healing, wholeness, and happiness?

Essentials:
Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change.

Sharon Begley. "Your Brain on Religion," Newsweek May 7, 2001.

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Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 3 of 6

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I Know Because I Know

On a warm afternoon in June, two men have appointments with a psychiatrist. The first has been dragged to the office by his wife, much to his irritation. He is a biologist who suffers from schizophrenia, and the wife insists that his meds are not working. “No,” says the biologist, “I’m actually fine. It’s just that because of what I’m working on right now the CIA has been bugging my calls and reading my email.” Despite his wife’s skepticism and his understanding of his own illness, he insists calmly that he is sure, and he lines up evidence to support his claim. The other man has come on his own because he is feeling exhausted and desperate. He shows the psychiatrist his hands, which are raw to the point of bleeding. No matter how many times he washes them (up to a hundred in a day) or what he uses (soap, alcohol, bleach or scouring pads) he never feels confident that they are clean.

In both of these cases, after brain biochemistry is rebalanced, the patient’s sense of certainty falls back in line with the evidence. The first man becomes less sure about the CIA thing and gradually loses interest in the idea. The second man begins feeling confident that his hands are clean after a normal round of soap and water, and the cracks begin healing.

How do we know what is real? How do we know what we know? We don’t, entirely. Research on psychiatric disorders and brain injuries shows that humans have a feeling or sense of knowing that can get activated by reason and evidence but can get activated in other ways as well. Conversely, when certain brain malfunctions occur, it may be impossible to experience a sense of knowing no matter how much evidence piles up. V. S. Ramachandran describes a brain injured patient who sees his mother and says, “This looks like my mother in every way, but she is an imposter.” The connection between his visual cortex and his limbic system has been severed, and even though he sees his mother perfectly well, he has no sense of rightness or knowing so he offers the only explanation he can find (Capgras Delusion).

Neurologist Robert Burton explains it this way: “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of knowing what we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” (On Being Certain, xi) This “knowing what we know” mechanism is good enough for getting around in the world, but not perfect. For the most part, it lets us explain, predict, and influence people or objects or events, and we use that knowledge to advantage. But as the above scenarios show, our ability to tell what is real also can get thrown off.

Burton says that the “feeling of knowing” (rightness, correctness, certainty, conviction) should be thought of as one of our primary emotions, like anger, pleasure, or fear. Like these other feelings, it can be triggered by a seizure or a drug or direct electrical stimulation of the brain. Research after the Korean War (e.g. R Lifton) suggested that the feeling of knowing or not knowing also can be produced by what are called brainwashing techniques: repetition, sleep deprivation, and social/emotional manipulation. Once triggered for any reason, the feeling that something is right or real can be incredibly powerful--so powerful that when it goes head to head with logic or evidence the feeling wins. Our brains make up reasons to justify our feeling of knowing, rather than following logic to its logical conclusion.

For many reasons, religious beliefs are usually undergirded by a strong “feeling of knowing.” Set aside for the moment the question of whether those beliefs tap underlying realities. Conversion experiences can be intense, hypnotic, and transformative. Worship practices, music and religious architecture have been optimized over time to evoke right brain sensations of transcendence and euphoria. Social insularity protects a community consensus. Repetition of ideas reinforces a sense of conviction or certainty. Religious systems like Christianity that emphasize right belief have built in safeguards against contrary evidence, doubt, and the assertions of other religions. Many a freethinker has sparred a smart, educated fundamentalist into a corner only to have the believer utter some form of “I just know.”

Does this mean that rational argumentation about religion is useless? The answer may be disappointing. Religious belief is not bound to regular standards of evidence and logic. It is not about logic and it is not obliged to follow logic. Arguments with believers start from a false premise—that the believer is bound by the rules of debate rather than being bound by the belief itself. The freethinker assumes that the believer is free to concede; but this is rarely true. At best the bits of logic or evidence put forth in an argument go into the hopper with a whole host of other factors. And yet each of us who is a former believer (we number in the millions) reached some point in our lives when we simply couldn’t sustain our old certainties. Our sense of knowing either eroded over time or abruptly disappeared. So sometimes those hoppers do fill up.

Given what I’ve said about knowing, how can anybody claim to know anything?
We can’t, with certainty. Those of us who are not religious could do with a little more humility on this point. We all see “through a glass darkly” and there is a realm in which all any of us can do is to make our own best guesses about what is real and important. This doesn’t imply that all ideas are created equal, or that our traditional understanding of “knowledge” is useless. As I said before, our sense of knowing allows us to navigate this world pretty well—to detect regularities, anticipate events and make things happen. In the concrete domain of everyday life, acting on what we think we know works pretty well for us. Nonetheless, it is a healthy mistrust for our sense of knowing that has allowed scientists to detect, predict, and produce desired outcomes with ever greater precision.

The scientific method has been called “institutionalized doubt” because it forces us to question our assumptions. Scientists stake their hopes not on a specific set of answers but on a specific way of asking questions. Core to this process is “falsification” – narrowing down what might be true by ruling out what can’t be true. And to date, that approach has had enormous pay-offs. It is what has made the difference between the nature of human life in the Middle Ages and the 21st Century. But knowledge in science is provisional; at any given point in time, the sum of scientific knowledge is really just a progress report.

When we overstate our ability to know, we play into the fundamentalist fallacy that certainty is possible. Burton calls this “the all-knowing rational mind myth.” As scientists learn more about how our brains work, certitude is coming to be seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken. Humans will always argue passionately about things that we do not know and cannot know, but with a little more self-knowledge and humility we may get to the point that those arguments are less often lethal.

Essentials: Robert A. Burton, On Being Certain
V. S. Ramachandran (TED talk), A Journey to the Center of Your Mind

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Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 2 of 6

Why God has a human mind.

Jesus was a human, fathered by a god and born to a virgin. He died for three days and was resurrected. His death was a sacrifice, an offering or propitiation. It brings favor for humans. He lives now in a realm where other supernatural beings interact with each other and sometimes intervene in human affairs.

Gradually the mainstream of the American public is becoming aware that none of these elements is unique to Christianity. Symbologists or scholars who specialize in understanding ancient symbols, tell us that the orthodox Jesus story, as it appears in our gospels, follows a specific sacred or mythic template that existed in the Ancient Near East long before Christianity or even Judaism. In part this is due to the flow of history. Religions emerge out of ancestor religions. Though the characters and details merge and morph, elements get carried through that allow us to track the lineage. The Gilgamesh and Noah flood-hero stories are similar because the Hebrew story descended from the Sumerian story . The same can be said of the Sumerian “Descent of Inana” and the Christian resurrection story. Even religions that exist side by side borrow elements from each other -- a process called syncretism.

But another reason for similarities among religious stories is that all of them are carried by human minds. To quote cognitive scientist, Pascal Boyer, “Evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. (p. 4) . . . All human beings can easily acquire a certain range of religious notions and communicate them to others” (Religion Explained, p. 3) Our supernatural notions are shaped by the built-in structures that let us acquire, sort, and access information efficiently, especially information about other people.

You may have heard the old adage: If dogs had a god, God would be a dog; if horses had a god, God would be a horse . . . . Humans are more inventive than dogs and horses, and not all human gods or magical beings have human bodies. They do, however, have human psyches—minds with quirks and limitations that are peculiar to our species. Philosopher John Locke believed that the human mind was a tabula rasa, a blank slate. We now know this not to be the case. (Leda, Principle 4). Because we need to learn so much so fast, certain assumptions are actually built in. This allows us to generalize from a few bits of data to a big fund of knowledge. It lets us know more than we have actually experienced or been told.

Let me give you an example that will illustrate the point. If I tell you that my "guarg," Annie, just made a baby by laying an egg and sitting on it, your brain says: Guargs (not just Valerie’s guarg) are non-human animals that reproduce by laying eggs. You have different categories in your brain for animal reproductive systems, and putting one guarg in the egg laying category puts them all there. To oversimplify, we have a built in filing system. Most of the labels actually start out blank, but some of them don’t. The preprinted labels appear to include: human, non-human animal, plant, man-made object, natural object.

A large percentage of our mental architecture is specialized “domain specific” structures for processing information about other humans. We homo sapiens sapiens are social information specialists; that is our specialized niche in this world. Our survival and wellbeing depend mostly on smarts rather than teeth, claws, stealth or an innate sense of direction, and most of the information we need to survive and flourish comes from other humans. Our greatest threats also come from our own species--people who seek to out-compete, exploit or kill us. For this reason, our brains are optimized to process information from and about other humans.

How does all of this affect religion?

Here is a concrete example. Our brains have a specialized facial recognition module. Studies of infants and brain injuries have taught us much of what is known about the inborn structures of our minds, and we know about the facial recognition module from both. Shortly after birth, babies are uniquely attracted to two round circles with a slash beneath them. Later on, brain injury or developmental anomalies can produce a disorder in which people cannot recognize faces, including their own(!)—even though other kinds of visual processing are perfectly intact. This is called prosopagnosia. Most of the time, though, our facial recognition module overfunctions rather than underfunctioning. In ambiguous situations—looking at clouds, rocks, lumps of clay, or ink blots--we have a tendency to see faces. Our brains automatically activate the facial recognition scanner even though it doesn’t really apply. Through history people have seen gods, demons, ghosts looking at them. Christians, whose interpretation of hazy shapes is further shaped by belief in specific supernatural persons see Jesus, the Virgin Mary, an angel, a demon, or even Satan.

This illustrates a broader point that cannot be overemphasized in understanding the psychology of religion: when faced with unknowns and ambiguities, our brains activate inborn information modules whether or not they fit. We take unfamiliar situations and even random data and perceive patterns that are inherent, not in the external world, but in our own minds. Furthermore, our pattern recognition systems err on the side of being overactive rather than underactive. This is called apophenia. It is alarming to look at a face and not see it immediately as a face; it is quite common to see a face in an array of leaves or shadows.

When we look at the world around us, we instinctively see more than faces. We also “see” kindred conscious beings. Humans (and some intelligent animals) have developed a capacity called “theory of mind.” We not only have minds, we imagine that others have them, and we think about what they might be thinking. To guess what someone else might do (or to influence what they might do) it is tremendously helpful to think about what they want and what they intend. Theory of mind is so important in navigating our way through society that we can think about it several steps removed: I can imagine what Brian is thinking about how Grace intends to respond to Janet’s preferences. Furthermore, because our brains process information about minds differently than information about bodies, we can imagine human minds inside of all kinds of bodies (think stuffed animals, pet rocks or cartoon characters) or without any body at all, (think evil spirits, poltergeists or spirit-gods).

Because our theory of mind is so rich, we tend to over-attribute events to conscious beings. Scientists call this hyperactive agency detection. What does that mean? It means that when good things happen somebody gets credit and when bad things happen we look for someone to blame. We expect important events to be done by, for and to persons, and are averse to the idea that stuff just happens. We also tend to over-assume conscious intent, that if something consequential happened, someone did it on purpose.

This set of default assumptions explains why the ancients thought that volcanoes and plagues must be the actions of gods. Even in modern times, we are not immune from this kind of attribution: Hurricane Katrina happened because God was angry about abortions and gays; the Asian tsunami happened because he was disgusted with nude Australian sunbathers. If gods are tweaking natural events, then we want to curry their favor. Around the world, people make their special requests known to gods or spirits by talking to them and giving them gifts. Athletes huddle in prayer before a game, just in case those random bounces aren’t random. After a good day at the casino, a thank-you tip may go into the offering basket. Or it may be that the offering goes into the basket beforehand.

All of this builds on the idea that gods or other supernatural beings are akin to us psychologically. They have emotions and preferences. They take action in response to things they like and dislike. They experience righteous indignation and crave retribution. They like some people better than others. They respond to our loyalty by being loyal to us. They can be placated or cajoled. They like praise, affirmation, and gratitude. They track favors and good-will in a kind of tit-for-tat reciprocity.

Abstract theologies are a fairly recent invention in the history of human religion, and they tend not to govern religious behavior. Even people who describe their god as omniscient or who insist that everything is predestined actually behave as if they need to communicate their desires and can influence future events by doing so. The god of Christian theology and the god that ordinary Christians worship are two different creatures.

If the structure of our minds predisposes us to certain kinds of religious beliefs, it also precludes others. Nowhere in the world is there a supernatural being who exists only on alternate Tuesdays, or who sees everything but forgets it all in ten minutes, or who rewards us for ignoring and disobeying him. Nowhere is there a god who knows the future, but only the next hour, or a god who starves people to death whenever he is pleased with them, or who is exactly like an ordinary person in every way. Some ideas are simply not interesting to us. They may be counter-intuitive in ways that make them forgettable instead of “sticky.” Maybe they don’t make good stories or maybe we don’t have good places to file them in our index of memories.

According to Pascal Boyer, a good religious concept must strike a balance between being interesting and expected. It must activate an existing ontological category (let’s say “river”), add some counterintuitive tag (when dark and bubbling river turns to blood and heals people), and retain the default assumptions of the category except those that are otherwise specified (river is wet, flows, is longer than it is wide, has a bottom, etc.) We start with a familiar class of being or object then tweak it to pique our interest but leave intact our other basic assumptions about that kind of object or being. If the supernatural thing we are discussing is a conscious being, it also needs to have a basically human mind. Only under these conditions will it stick and get passed from one person to another. (Religion Explained)

Christian beliefs are highly successful at getting retained and transmitted. They fit our information processing structures and yet are counterintuitive in intriguing ways. They capitalize on our tendency to attribute events to human-like causal agents who have minds much like our own. They allow us to take machinery that is designed for processing social information and apply it to the problems of understanding inanimate objects and natural phenomena. They leverage our tendency to see patterns in ambiguous or random events. Consequently they are intuitive and broadly applicable and are easily remembered.

But if our brains allow for a wide range of religious concepts, how come so many people believe exactly the same thing? And what makes them so sure that those ideas are not only interesting—they are true? As we shall see in future articles Christian beliefs don’t just fit our mental categories. They also leverage powerful emotions and social relationships so as to become the core reality for those who believe.

Essentials: Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained .
Andy Thomson, Why We Believe in Gods; American Atheists, 2009.

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Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 1 of 6

Why Cognitive Psychology is Necessary for Understanding Christianity

My father died in a climbing accident when he was 59 and I was in my mid twenties. In one of our last deep conversations before his 300 meter misstep, he expressed his abiding hope that I would “get right with God.” Dad was the son of Italian immigrants, all Catholics, who got converted by door-to-door Pentecostals some years after their arrival in Chicago. His mother lived out her life in the Assemblies of God denomination that had recruited them all, while Dad settled into a closely allied form of Evangelical fundamentalism without the speaking-in-tongues bit. As far as I know, he never questioned his belief that the Bible was the literally perfect word of God and that Jesus died for his sins. And yet of his six children three of us, by Evangelical standards, are now slated for eternal torture. We are on the wrong side of a battle being waged on a spiritual plane, a battle in which those who are not on the side of God are agents of evil. If Dad were alive, our lack of belief would grieve him.

Religious belief is one of the most powerful forces in our world. Believers think that it has the power to save us all. Increasingly, doubters fear that the opposite may be true: a tribal mindset, unaccountable to ordinary standards of reason and evidence but armed with state of the art weapons may hasten our extinction. In the United States, religious affiliation is the best predictor of political party alliance. Almost half of Americans insist that humans were created in their present form sometime within the last 7000 years because the Bible says so. In the Middle East, Sunnis and Shia split over theological differences that seem trivial to the rest of us but that in their minds create tribal boundaries worthy of lethal conflict.

Why is religious belief so wide-spread and powerful? The traditional Christian answer is: because it’s true, and people who haven’t hardened their hearts against God recognize this when God’s plan of salvation is presented to them.

But the recent explosion of knowledge in cognitive science offers a new way to look at this question, not from a moral or theological standpoint but from a practical standpoint. What is the mental machinery that lets us form beliefs? What does evidence and reason have to do with it? How is it that six devoted Christian kids can turn into three devoted Christian adults and three agnostics?

The more we learn about the hardware and operating systems of the human brain--the more we understand about human information processing--the more we glean bits of insight into the religious mind.

This article is the first in a series of six. Each takes a look some part of our mental machinery, how it relates to our tendency toward religious belief. The articles will focus on the following questions:

· How does the structure of human information processing pre-dispose us to religious thinking? Given how our minds work, what kinds of religious beliefs are possible and what kinds are we immune to?
· How do we know what we know? What gives us a feeling of certainty? What is the relation between reason, evidence, and our sense of knowing?
· How do conversion experiences work? What makes religious conversion transformative?
· How does our social group influence or even control our religious beliefs? How do beliefs get transmitted from one person to another?
· Why do missionaries target children? How does religious identity develop in childhood? How is belief in childhood different from belief acquired as an adult?
· What makes beliefs resistant to change? What causes people to lose belief? When are people open to reexamining religious assumptions?

Before looking at these questions, it is helpful to understand why belief is so important in Christianity. For traditional Christians, belief is the heart of the Christian religion. It is the toggle that sends people to heaven or hell. In the final analysis, believing that Jesus Christ died as a “propitiation” for your sins is the thing that matters to God. No matter how kind and loving your life may be, no matter that you strive to love your neighbor as yourself, no matter what great things you may accomplish in the service of humanity or the world at large – if you believe wrong you are doomed.

This focus on belief is not characteristic of all religions. In the Ancient Near East, the birthplace of Christianity, pagan religions placed little emphasis on belief. The existence of a supernatural world was broadly assumed because there seemed to be little other way to explain the good and bad things that happen to people or natural events like storms, earthquakes, illness, birth and death. But the point of religion wasn’t belief; it was to take care of the gods so that they would take care of you and your community. The word “cult” (Latin cultus, literally care) is related to the word “cultivation.” We talk now about cultivating ground so that it will bear fruit. Nonprofits talk about “cultivating donors.” That was what the gods cared about, and so it was the heart of religious practice.

From the beginning, Christianity was different. Jesus worshipers cared tremendously about right belief, also known as orthodoxy. Bart Ehrman’s book, Lost Christianities, offers a fascinating window into the struggles that went on during the first and second centuries as groups with different beliefs about Jesus criticized and competed with each other, and one of them won out. Some of groups (e.g. Ebionites) believed that Jesus was a fully human Jewish messiah and that Jesus worshipers must follow the law. Others (e.g. Marcionites) believed that Jesus was a being from the spirit world who only took on human likeness. Still others (Gnostics) believed that the human Jesus was inhabited by a divine “Eon” during the years of his ministry—revealing to his followers secret knowledge that would let them escape this corrupt mortal plane. Others, now known as proto-orthodox or Roman, had ideas about Jesus that lead to the views of Christians today. (“Roman Catholic” means Roman universal.) What all of these groups agreed on was that it was tremendously important to believe the right thing about who Jesus was and what Christianity should be.

This emphasis on right belief was and is unique to monotheism. It existed in a rudimentary form in Judaism, but even today Judaism is more concerned with living right than believing right. Christianity’s exclusive truth claims and emphasis on right belief helped it to out-compete other religions in the Roman Empire. Polytheists often are quite agreeable to adding another god to their pantheon. Christians could persuade pagans to add the Jesus-god and then could wean them off of the others. Today, in India, for example, Evangelical missionaries are much more likely to target Hindus than Sikhs or Muslims who would have to immediately abandon their primary religion in order to embrace the idea of Jesus as a god.

Eastern religions don’t share Christianity’s concern with belief. The emphasis is more on practice or “praxis” –spiritual living, self-renunciation, insight or enlightenment-- and among ordinary people, a sort of cult or caretaking of the gods like that practiced by ancient pagans. Right belief isn’t what lets you move up through cycles of reincarnation or attain nirvana. Nor is it what gets you the favor of gods.

Just as biological organisms have many different adaptive or reproductive strategies, so religions compete for human mind-share in different ways. An emphasis on propagating belief (ie. evangelism) and purity of belief (ie. orthodoxy) is only one of those.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, a movement called modernism emerged within Christianity. Modernist theologians began reexamining traditional orthodox beliefs in light of what we now know about linguistics, archaeology, psychiatry, biology, and human history. In this light, traditional Christian certainties looked less certain, and many modernist Christians are more like members of Eastern Religions in that their primary concern is with spiritual practice rather than belief. But a backlash emerged in response to modernism. People who proudly called themselves “fundamentalists” insisted that no-one was a real Christian who didn’t hold the traditional beliefs. Evangelicals inherited the fundamentalist torch, and even some of the more inquiring denominations have reverted back toward emphasis on right belief.

This is the mindset that dominates Christianity in the public square. It is the mindset that sends Christian missionaries out into the world seeking converts in impoverished corners of the planet. It is the mindset that prints Bibles to be distributed in Iraq and has organized to establish control of the American military hierarchy, seeking to create an “army of Christian soldiers.” To understand American Christianity specifically or Western religion more broadly, it is necessary to understand the psychology of belief.

Essential Reading: Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities.

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