Christian Belief as a Natural Phenomenon

Christian Belief as a Natural Phenomenon June 28, 2009

Since May, Valerie Tarico has been writing a six part series of articles called “Christina Belief as a Natural Phenomenon.”  Part 5 was just released last night.  I highly suggest reading through all the articles and would love your feedback in our comments section.  Your ideas from there might lead to future blog posts.  So please offer them to me!  I’ve selected a few key paragraphs from each to give the main ideas for those who’d rather skim first (or only).

Part 1 is called, “Why Cognitive Science is essential to understanding Christianity.” The emphasis of part one is on Christianity distinguishing itself from other religion by being a belief-centric religion, for which right belief mattered more than in previous religions.

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.

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 (i.e., evangelism) and purity of belief (i.e., orthodoxy) is only one of those.

Part 2 is called “Why God has a human mind.”

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 modal 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 our facial recognition machinery 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.

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.

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.

Part 3 is called “I Know Because I Know” and here are some key paragraphs:

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.

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.

Our brains make up reasons to justify our feeling of knowing. 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.”

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.

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.”

Part 4 is called “The Born-Again Experience” and it resonates with me tremendously having grown up in Evangelical Christian camps and having been a counselor at such camps as a late-teenager and in my earliest 20s, and in all these contexts seen, been subjected to, and participated in so much of this sort of well-intentioned manipulation.  Also being at an Evangelical Christian college watching waves of freshmen convert this description resonates in that context too.

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.”(Conway, 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 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.

Part 5 is called “How Viral Ideas Hook Us”:

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. 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.

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