Friday, June 04, 2004

The Truth Behind Religion

I just came across a really fascinating article which delves into the psychological underpinnings of religious beliefs and concepts.
[P]eople do not have beliefs because they somehow made their minds receptive to belief and then acquired the material for belief. They have some beliefs because, among all the material they acquired, some of it triggered these particular effects.
I've often thought that I really don't have any choice about not being religious - the whole thing just strikes me as nonsensical, and I can't help that. So if God were real, he surely couldn't justly blame atheists for their honest disbelief. Yet some Christians seem to do just that; they think that if we just 'opened our minds' to religious possibilities, then we would see the light. Hmph.

But I guess it goes both ways. Perhaps it is unreasonable of skeptics to disparage religious people for their credulity and irrational superstitions. At least, blame seems inappropriate. But I don't think most skeptics do blame theists, in any case. Rather, I think the idea is that people should be encouraged to critically examine their beliefs - and I don't think the article provides any good reason to doubt the worth of this goal.
[E]xperimental tests show that people's actual religious concepts often diverge from what they believe they believe... For instance, psychologist Justin Barrett showed that Christians' concept of God was much more complex than the believers themselves assumed. Most Christians would describe their notion of God in terms of transcendence and extraordinary physical and mental characteristics. God is everywhere, attends to everything at the same time. However, subtle experimental tasks reveal that, when they are not reflecting upon their own beliefs, these same people use another concept of God, as a human-like agent with a particular viewpoint, a particular position and serial attention. God considers one problem and then another. Now that concept is mostly tacit. It drives people's thoughts about particular events, episodes of interaction with God, but it is not accessible to people as "their belief." In other words, people do not believe what they believe they believe.
That's a very interesting (and surprising) finding. But hasn't that judgement I put in bold, got the conclusion exactly backward? They've shown that, deep down, most Christians conceive of God as merely a super-powerful invisible man. Surely this is far less complex than their professed notion of God as transcendent, omni-present, and capable of multiple (indeed, infinite) simultaneous thoughts.
Although people often state that their moral rules are a consequence of the existence (or of the decrees) of supernatural agents, it is quite clear that such intuitions are present, independent of religious concepts. Moral intuitions appear long before children represent the powers of supernatural agents, they appear in the same way in cultures where no one is much interested in supernatural agents, and in similar ways regardless of what kind of supernatural agents are locally important. Indeed, it is difficult to find evidence that religious teachings have any effect on people's moral intuitions.

Religious concepts do not change people's moral intuitions but frame these intuitions in terms that make them easier to think about. For instance, in most human groups supernatural agents are thought to be interested parties in people's interactions. Given this assumption, having the intuition that an action is wrong becomes having the expectation that a personalized agent disapproves of it. The social consequences of the latter way of representing the situation are much clearer to the agent, as they are handled by specialized mental systems for social interaction. This notion of gods and spirits as interested parties is far more salient in people's moral inferences than the notion of these agents as moral legislators or moral exemplars.
So much for religion being the source of all morality!
That second part is interesting too. I wonder if the notion of 'God' arises from our tendency to anthropomorphise? In particular, I wonder if 'God' is really just the concept which results from humans applying their theory of mind to nature itself. That is, we could be thinking of Nature (or perhaps Society) as just another agent (albeit with some fairly special properties added on!). The key point, then, would be that religious reasoning involves the same mental modules we use to reason about other people. In the case of religious morality, it seems that we might just be personifying the society at large, and then asking whether this society-person ('God') would approve of our actions or not.

The article is basically suggesting that religious concepts arose by co-opting pre-existing (non-religious) mental modules, and applying them to a new situation:
To sum up, we can explain human sensitivity to particular kinds of supernatural concepts as a by-product of the way human minds operate in ordinary, non-religious contexts. Because our assumptions about fundamental categories like person, artifact, animal, etc., are so entrenched, violations of these assumptions create salient and memorable concepts...

Although the [supernatural] agents are said to be very special, the way people think about interaction with them is directly mapped from their interaction with actual people...

A variety of mental systems, functionally specialized for the treatment of particular (non-religious) domains of information, are activated by religious notions and norms, in such a way that these notions and norms become highly salient, easy to acquire, easy to remember and communicate, as well as intuitively plausible...

People do not adhere to concepts of invisible ghosts or ancestors or spirits because they suspend ordinary cognitive resources, but rather because they use these cognitive resources in a context for which they were not designed in the first place. However, the "tweaking" of ordinary cognition that is required to sustain religious thought is so small that one should not be surprised if religious concepts are so widespread and so resistant to argument. To some extent, the situation is similar to domains where science has clearly demonstrated the limits or falsity of our common intuitions. We now know that solid objects are largely made up of empty space, that our minds are only billions of neurons firing in ordered ways, that some physical processes can go backwards in time, that species do not have an eternal essence, that gravitation is a curvature of space-time. Yet even scientists go through their daily lives with an intuitive commitment to solid objects being full of matter, to people having non-physical minds, to time being irreversible, to cats being essentially different from dogs, and to objects falling down because they are heavy.
Paul Kurtz's article on The Science of Religion is also interesting, though less insightful, IMO.

Update: Cf. Mixing Memory's evidence that human and God concepts diverge from a very young age.


  1. [Copied from old comments thread]

    Boyer's excellent article is a summary of all the ideas in his amazing book, 'Religion Explained'. Another good one is Stewart Guthrie's 'Faces in the Clouds'. (There are known problems with some of details, but Guthrie's main idea is valuable and the book is well worth reading.) You might also enjoy my own (unpublished) article, 'Don't worry, no one really believes in God', available here.
    Roy Sablosky | Homepage | 6th Jun 04 - 2:37 am | #


    "Now that concept is mostly tacit. It drives people's thoughts about particular events, episodes of interaction with God, but it is not accessible to people as "their belief." In other words, people do not believe what they believe they believe."
    I too find that interesting, but I don't find it at all surprising - more like confirming. That seems to me to be exactly the way believers do think about God - one way in ordinary unreflective thinking and a different way in more formal thinking. I've noticed that many, many times. If you question people about their ideas of God you run up against this discrepancy very quickly, at least in my experience.

    "But hasn't that judgement I put in bold, got the conclusion exactly backward? They've shown that, deep down, most Christians conceive of God as merely a super-powerful invisible man. Surely this is far less complex than their professed notion of God as transcendent, omni-present, and capable of multiple (indeed, infinite) simultaneous thoughts."

    Well in one way yes, but in another way no, not really. Because the thing about the second notion is that it is simple, because it just answers difficult questions by fiat. How can God be both benevolent and omnipotent? Because he is, by definition, that's why. End of subject. It's a simplification device. Whereas the everyday one answers prayers, watches the sparrow, takes sides in wars, condemns the sinner, etc etc - does a million inconsistent things a second. Quite complicated really...
    Ophelia Benson | Email | Homepage | 6th Jun 04 - 7:29 am | #


    Roy - Thanks for the link, you're right, I did enjoy reading it. Though I'm not entirely convinced by your argument that their 'beliefs' have no content whatsoever.

    Your example proposition "All circles are actually square" is (I think) generally considered by metaphysicians not to be meaningless, but rather, a necessary falsehood (it's an example lecturers often give alongside "1+1=3").

    You briefly mentioned the (im)possibility of beliefs about fiction, is certainly very interesting, but I think it's still quite a controversial matter in itself (there have been some discussions about this sort of thing at Fake Barn Country and elsewhere). So I'm not sure if it really helps your argument.

    Ophelia - thanks for dropping by, it's great to hear from you! I do agree that, in a sense, a person is actually far more complex than the abstract uber-God.

    But I took 'complex' in this context to be judged from the subjective perspective of human experience (rather than aiming for a more objective judgement). So, based on our understanding of things, conceiving of God as "just another [quasi-human] agent" does strike me as far simpler (less of a 'conceptual leap' is involved) than conceiving of some entirely different form of divine mind which is capable of unlimited parallel processing.
    Richard Chappell | Email | Homepage | 6th Jun 04 - 12:24 pm | #


    Richard, a pleasure, very nice blog you have here.

    Yes, I know, that's why I said in one way yes. I'm terrible about that - that 'in one sense this, in another sense that' stuff. But then again I suppose especially with the God subject that does seem to be how things work. Endless ground-shifting.
    Ophelia Benson | Email | Homepage | 7th Jun 04 - 1:07 pm | #

  2. the blog. To all of you who have responded, I like your honesty with the views you hold. I personally want to appologize for all the 'christians' you have run into throughout your lives...we haven't done things right... we are judgemental and tactless. I hate the term 'christian', to be labled as one is humiliating. The term has become so derogatory. I am a believer in Jesus Christ, I'm sure his name alone stirs up anger in you because of the way we have portrayed him, and you need not justify your anger...we give you reason...

    Like I said, I am a believer is Jesus Christ. I believe that he is the image of the invisible God you are trying to understand.(I say he is the image of the invisible God because this is what the Bible says) I have questioned God and his existence often, just like many other people throughout history. And like you said, we cannot prove God to be real. However, I have found it impossible to argue that Jesus Christ was real...this is the basis of my faith and who Christ was is exactly who God is and will always be.

    The problem that you are running into is a problem that I will never overcome until I die. I can't fully understand God. But that brings me comfort.

    I guess thats all I have to say...I would love to hear what you guys think...but I'll leave you with some scripture that helped me...

    "And may you have the power to understand as all people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it."

    Perhaps understanding wasn't meant to be. 

    Posted by Tyler


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