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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter Two--Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science

Continuing my review of The Christian Delusion, today I explore chapter two: "Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science," by Dr. Valerie Tarico. Valerie is a psychologist, author and former evangelical Christian. She is a graduate of Wheaton College (Billy Graham's alma mater)  and the author of an interesting book entitled: The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth.  She has a new book, which I am anxiously anticipating,  coming out in July, called: Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light.  She is currently on a trip throughout Africa and India. You can read about it on her blog.
In The Christian Delusion, Valerie explores what we have learned from neuroscience about faith. She writes:

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. For example:
  • We humans are not rational about anything, let alone religion.
  • Certainty is a feeling, not proof of knowing. It can fail to materialize even when evidence is enormous, and can manifest itself independently of any real knowledge.
  • The structure of thought itself predisposes us to religious thinking. Given how our minds work, certain kinds of religious beliefs are likely and others are impossible.
  • The "born again" experience is a natural phenomenon. It is triggered by specific social and emotional factors, which can occur in both religious and secular settings (p. 48).
Elaborating on the first bullet point, Valerie says:
Our brains have built-in biases that stack the odds against objectivity, so much so that the success of the scientific endeavor can be attributed to one factor: it pits itself against our natural leanings, erects barriers across the openings to rabbit trails, and systematically exposes faulty thinking to public critique. In fact, the scientific method has been called "what we know about how not to fool ourselves" (p. 50).

It is easy for us to distort the evidence in our own favor, in part because we aren't so great with the evidence in general. One of the strongest built-in mental distortions we have is called confirmation bias. Once we have a hunch about things work, we seek information that fits what we already think. It's like our minds set up filters . . . (p. 51).
She is exactly right. I am told that one of the reasons so many average people have trouble with evolution is that it seems counterintuitive. Our minds rebel against the idea of natural selection but the science confirms it.

In reference to the second bullet point, she explains: 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 (p. 53). Valerie give the example of the Capgras Delusion, in which a brain injured person cannot be certain in recognizing the face of his own mother. Although he says it looks like her, he believes it is really an impostor because the damaged portion of his brain, which is used for "knowing," is malfunctioning. She cites neuroscientist Richard Burton, (On Being Certain , p. xi), who says: Certainty and similar states of knowing what we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason (p. 54).

So the feeling of certainty, according to the latest neuroscience, seems to be just that, a feeling. This may explain why some Christians get angry when debating with ex-believers. It's not that they may not have an adequate answer and therefore get frustrated (although I think that explains much of it). It could also be that the part of the brain which produces the feeling of certainty is being challenged and this is also the part of the brain which controls emotions.

 Valerie's third point is that our religioius conceptions of god naturally take on human characteristics. Man has to explain his god in terms of what he knows. He knows about human relationships and therefore God is a father and has a son. She quotes the old adage: "If dogs had a god, god would be a dog, if horses had a god, god would be a horse." She explains:
All of this builds on the idea that 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 (p. 58).
The fourth bullet point deals with the born again experience.
Valerie points out, however, that the religious experience described by evangelical Christians is not unique to them. Virtually all religions have similar experiences that can result in a transformation of life as well. These experiences can be understood and explained psychologically. The resulting change in lifestyle can be explained sociologically as the person becomes part of a new group and essentially gains a new identity. One does not have to suppose a supernatural explanation for this phenomena.
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. . . . This experience, more than any other, creates a sense of certainty about Christian belief and so makes belief impervious to rational argumentation (p. 60).

Valerie concludes her essay by saying:

Cognitive research does offer what is rapidly becoming a sufficient explanation for belief. More and more, we can explain Christian belief with the same set of principles that explains supernaturalism generally. This is a serious blow to orthodoxy--to a religion based on right belief. In the past, one of the arguments put forward by believers was that there simply was no explanation for the "born again" experience, the healing power of Christianity, the vast agreement among believers, or the joy and wonder of mysticism, save that these came from God Himself. We now know this not to be the case. Humans are capable of having transcendent, transformative experiences in the absence of any given dogma. We are capable of sustaining elaborate systems of false belief and transmitting them to our children. We are capable of feeling so certain about our false beliefs that we are willing to kill or die for them (pp. 62-63).
I am looking forward to more insights from the field of cognitive science. More advances have been made in this field in the last 10 years than in any other field of study I can think of. This is going to be a serious problem for believers as what they once thought was unique to their particular religion, and could only be explained on the basis of the supernatural, is really something that all human beings, regardless of their religion or lack of religion, may experience.


  1. Great stuff, Ken.

    I've read Valerie's entire book. It is very in-depth and well done. Highly recommended!

    Incidentally, I happen to know her and know that the other book you mentioned is a re-publication of "The Dark Side" with probably very few changes or additions.


  2. Howard,

    Thanks. I didn't realize it was the same book. I noticed the publisher on the new book is an outfit you are involved with, isn't it?

  3. Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

  4. the Human Condition in a nutshell?