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Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter Three--The Malleability of the Human Mind

Today, I continue my review of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (ed. John Loftus). Chapter three of the book has an article by Dr. Jason Long, entitled: "The Malleability of the Human Mind." Jason is a Pharmacist and a former evangelical Christian. He is the author of two books, Biblical Nonsense: A Review of the Bible for Doubting Christians and The Religious Condition: Answering and Explaining Christian Reasoning Some critics have questioned Jason's credentials for writing against Christianity because he is a pharmacist and not a biblical or theological scholar. I think this is misguided. Jason is a bright young man whose mind has been sharpened through the study of scientific disciplines and he applies that sharp mind to the question of religious belief.

He begins the chapter by stating:
It is a curious thing that most of us ardently believe that we solved the ultimate question of the universe before we even learned how to tie our shoelaces. If philosophers, theologians, and scientists have struggled with the concept of existence for millennia without arriving at a definite solution, our naïve assessment from childhood that a divine entity simply wished it were so certainly requires a reevaluation (p. 65).
Why do people believe in their religion? This is the question that Jason Long attempts to answer in this chapter. He maintains that people believe because of 1) indoctrination, 2) psychological defenses against changing beliefs; and 3) emotional involvement and entanglement with the beliefs.

He points out that most people adopt the religion of their parents. He writes:

It should not be a shocking discovery that parents pass on their religious beliefs through their children. Muslim parents tend to have Muslim children; Christian parents tend to have Christian children; Hindu parents tend to have Hindu children. . . . Likewise, the parents are probably members of their religion because their parents were also members. How far back does this blind tradition continue? . . . people simply bury their heads in the sand and continue to believe whatever religion their ancestors thought they needed, or were perhaps conquered with, centuries ago. They were instilled with the beliefs as children, and they will maintain them as adults (pp. 66-67).
Why are so many people unwilling to seriously question their religious beliefs? Long answers: As humans, we simply are not comfortable considering the notion that we might be wrong. We enjoy being right. Rather than entertaining the possibility that we might be wrong, we strive to convince ourselves that we have followed proper avenues of thought (p. 68). Psychologists refer to this as Intellectual Attribution Bias.

Furthermore, as Long argues, skepticism is not attractive.

The realization that rational skepticism is not as interesting, promising, or comforting as optimistic romanticism is perhaps more formidable than any other obstacle. It’s only human to believe in things that make us happier. . . .Skepticism does not appeal to most people because humans have an innate tendency to search for patterns and simple explanations in order to make sense of the world. Such a practice results in an incorporation of elements that fit into an understandable answer and a neglect of elements that do not. Psychologists often use this phenomenon to explain the reason people believe in clairvoyance, horoscopes, prayer, and other such foolishness. Individuals remember when these methods “work” and forget when they do not (p. 70).

Another psychological defense employed against changing one's beliefs is Cognitive Dissonance , the unpleasantness of holding contradictory beliefs. Long explains:
People simply become increasingly sure of their decisions after they have made them by rationalizing their choice of alternatives, which serves to reduce the cognitive dissonance produced by foregoing the good features of the unchosen alternative and accepting the bad features of the chosen alternative. When it comes to religion, a believer will defend his faith and attack the alternatives in part simply because he has already rendered a decision on the matter (p. 71).
Finally, people continue to believe because of the emotional involvement and entanglement they have with their belief system. Long explains:

The Christian is interested in feeling comfortable with his beliefs, not in dispassionately evaluating them. People want to feel reassured that they are correct in their beliefs, especially when there is a lot of emotion, personality, history, and identity at stake. If the Christian were genuinely interested in the truth, he would analyze the argument critically and thoroughly to see if it adequately addressed the points of the skeptical objection. But he is not questioning; he is defending (p. 72).
Long continues:
People with a high involvement are more resistant to contrary persuasion than less involved persons because any given message has a greater probability of falling into the rejection region. Psychologist Drew Westen was among those who empirically demonstrated, using MRI scanning, that people who were strongly loyal to one candidate in presidential elections did not use areas of the brain associated with reasoning to resolve contradictory statements made by their candidate. The supporters instead relied upon regions of the brain associated with emotion to justify their personal allegiances (p. 74).

If a questioning believer should want to investigate his beliefs, he will probably be directed to the writings of a professional apologist for answers. The apologists, however, have an agenda and that is to prove the credibility of their religion no matter what. As Long asks:

Should we honestly believe that a biblical apologist who began with the notion of an inspired Bible would readily consider the possibility that his holy book is fundamentally flawed? Many of the top Christian apologists even admit that when the data conflicts with the text, we should trust the text. . . . What’s the point in listening to people like this? Such is the problem with all religious apologists, regardless of the specific belief. They will begin by presuming certain premises are true and mold explanations to patch the apparent problems, no matter how insulting the explanations are to common sense. This is how religions thrive in the age of scrutiny and reason (p. 75). 

So, as Long argues in this chapter, it is actually quite easy to understand how religion thrives in our culture. People are indoctrinated into their religion, they have psychological defenses that keep them from seriously questioning their beliefs, and the emotional involvement with the belief system prevents them from contemplating a change.


  1. And (I would add to your conclusion), their religion serves them well enough that such cognitive sacrifices are sufficiently rewarded.

  2. Thanks Ken. I think Jason Long explains a great deal in his chapter. I am so happy that Eller, Tarico and Long wrote their chapters. Combined, they have a crushing effect on the believer's sense of self-certainty, which is the point.

    Like well shot cannon balls they break through the walls of the Christian castle so that the rest of the troops can march in.

  3. Learning how we fool ourselves was one of the main reasons that caused my falling away from Christianity. I think I would enjoy this chapter, I will have to buy John's book now.

  4. On one of the more open, progressive Evangelical (not QUITE a contradiction in terms) blogs, Rachel Held Evans', I argued a couple times that ideally, no one should (or would) settle into any religious beliefs until age 35 or so. If that could somehow be set up and followed, a great deal of orthodox religion (of any variety) would quickly fall away!

    Any ideas for a movement toward that???

    By the way, no one ever commented, either not getting the point, or not appreciating it. But no one reacted against it either... maybe it DID sink in a bit.

    Howard Pepper

  5. Yes we fool ourselves into false beliefs but while we might need to clear the hard drive one we are aware what are some programs you would suggest to install to keep the hardware running smoothly, optimistically, and ethically? Is Nihilism the answer and the multitude of choice which should liberate us research indicates is paralasizing too.
    Secondly,Is false hope alot worse than no hope in the scheme of things?