Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

If No God Exists, Then Why Do So Many Believe in One?

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on October 22, 2008

weirdThere are numerous theories as to why people believe things that are irrational or that have absolutely no evidence to support them. A brief explanation of this phenomena, that has its roots in evolutionary psychology, is found in the introduction to Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things. He begins by discussing the ideas of cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, and then uses this as a starting point to describe his own theory. Shermer points to Pinker’s use of the term “mental modules” to refer to the parts of the human brain that have evolved to solve adaptive problems. Shermer goes on to explain that:

the “module” is a metaphor, and is not necessarily located in a single spot in the brain. A module, says Pinker, “may be broken into regions that are interconnected by fibers that make the regions act as a unit.” A bundle of neurons here connected to another bundle of neurons there, “sprawling messily over the bulges of and crevasses of the brain” might form a module (pp. 27-31). Their interconnectedness is the key to the module’s function, not its location. (Introduction XXIII)

Shermer then launches into his discussion of the evolution of the human brain that results in the ability of intelligent people to believe weird things. He writes:

Instead of the metaphor of a module, then, I would like to suggest that we evolved a more general Belief Engine, which is Janus-faced–under certain conditions it leads to magical thinking–a Magic Belief Engine; under different circumstances it leads to scientific thinking. We might think of the Belief Engine as the central processor that sits beneath more specific modules. Allow me to explain.

We evolved to be skilled, pattern-seeking, causal-finding creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants. The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not. Unfortunately our brains are not always good at determining the difference. The reason is that discovering a meaningless pattern (painting animals on a cave wall before a hunt) usually does no harm and may even do some good in reducing anxiety in uncertain situations. So we are left with the legacy of two types of thinking errors: Type 1 Error: believing a falsehood and Type 2 Error: rejecting a truth. Since these errors will not necessarily get us killed, they persist. The Belief Engine has evolved as a mechanism for helping us to survive because in addition to committing Type 1 and Type 2 Errors, we also commit what we might call a Type 1 Hit: not believing a falsehood and a Type 2 Hit: believing a truth.

It seems reasonable to argue that the brain consists of both specific and general modules, and the Belief Engine is a domain-general processor. It is, in fact, one of the most general of all modules because at its core it is the basis of all learning. After all, we have to believe something about our environment, and these beliefs are learned through experience. But the process of forming beliefs is genetically hardwired. To account for the fact that the Belief Engine is capable of both Type 1 and 2 Errors along with Type 1 and 2 Hits, we have to consider two conditions under which it evolved:

1. Natural Selection: The Belief Engine is a useful mechanism for survival, not just for learning about dangerous and potentially lethal environments (where Type 1 and 2 Hits help us survive), but in reducing anxiety about that environment through magical thinking–there is psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in uncertain environments, medical evidence that prayer, meditation, and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health, and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

2. Spandrel: The magical thinking part of the Belief Engine is also a spandrel–Stephen Jay Gould’s and Richard Lewontin’s metaphor for a necessary by-product of an evolved mechanism. […] Gould and Lewontin explain that in architecture a spandrel is “the tapering triangular spaces formed by the intersection of two rounded arches at right angle.” This leftover space in medieval churches is filled with elaborate, beautiful designs so purposeful looking “that we are tempted to view it as the starting point of any analysis, as the cause in some sense of the surrounding architecture. But this would invert the proper path of analysis.” To ask “what is the purpose of the spandrel” is to ask the wrong question. It would be like asking “why do males have nipples?” The correct question is “why do females have nipples?” The answer is that females need them to nurture their babies, and males and females are built on the same architectural frame. It was simply easier for nature to construct males with worthless nipples rather than reconfigure the underlying genetic architecture.

In this sense the magical thinking component of the Belief Engine is a spandrel. We think magically because we have to think causally. We make Type 1 and 2 Errors because we need to make Type 1 and 2 Hits. We have magical thinking and superstitions because we need critical thinking and pattern-finding. The two cannot be separated. Magical thinking is a necessary by-product of the evolved mechanism of causal thinking. […] Believers in UFOs, alien abductions, ESP, and psychic phenomena have committed a Type 1 Error in thinking: they are believing a falsehood. Creationists and Holocaust deniers have made a Type 2 Error in thinking: they are rejecting a truth. It is not that these folks are ignorant or uninformed; they are intelligent but misinformed. Their thinking has gone wrong. Type 1 and 2 Errors are squelching Type 1 and 2 Hits. Fortunately there is an abundance of evidence that the Belief Engine is malleable. Critical thinking can be taught. Skepticism is learnable. Type 1 and 2 Errors are tractable. I know. I became a skeptic after being a sucker for a lot of these beliefs (recounted in detail in this book). I am a born-again skeptic, as it were.

Despite the optimistic conclusion to this excerpt (that the Belief Engine is malleable…) it is extremely difficult to stop exercising the magical thinking component of one’s Belief Engine–especially if that magical thinking has been reinforced throughout a lifetime of indoctrination. I remember commenting to one of the other contributors to this blog that very few missionary kids (MKs) escape their parent’s faith. The power of childhood indoctrination, in convincing people that magical thinking is perfectly rational, is unequivocally successful (chillingly so).

However, it probably also succeeds due to social pressure to avoid being seen negatively by one’s friends and family. MKs are members of an exclusive club that rejects all other modes of thinking besides the Evangelical Christian one. Even the pressure to vote for the Republican party (which Evangelicals overwhelmingly consider a Christian political group) on social networks like Facebook is astounding. With Christianity, in-group peer pressure is an especially insidious influence, since the rejection of magical thinking threatens one’s good standing with one’s family and friends. Even those MKs who do have their doubts about a magical, invisible world of spirits and who acknowledge to themselves that they have never heard the voice of an invisible God or witnessed a “miracle” more convincing than a neat coincidence–and certainly never an impressive “miracle” like the regeneration of an entire human limb–are unwilling to risk the negative fallout of exploring alternative frameworks for understanding the world. That fallout might include the gossip of their friends, family, and the extended missionary “family”–I discovered a few days ago that I have become quite a hot topic in some missionary gossip circles–or the grief of their parents who are convinced they will burn in a magical and invisible world of torture (otherwise known as Hell) for all eternity.

In my comments to my fellow blogger, I pondered whether those of us who had escaped from the magical and wishful thinking of Christianity and the MK world had something “slightly off” with us. By this, I meant that there must be something in us (besides the devil), or missing in us (besides God), that allowed us to ignore or overcome the pull of the in-group’s pressure. Perhaps a gene got triggered in the womb, something that predisposed us to not giving a damn about the in-group’s opinion, something that caused us to value being true to ourselves above the opinions of our family and peers. We probably wouldn’t have been very successful at passing on our genes in an earlier time in human history. Or, perhaps we would have been the leaders of the tribe. Who knows?


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