Studying Religious Beliefs Without Understanding How Humans Work

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey


From http://www.nature.com/scitable/content/plasmodium-falciparum-life-cycle-14465535

Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have in a recent Youtube discussion and publication both explained how they studied religion, read lots of theology, before undertaking their anti-theistic critiques. Harris begins by informing us that in his twenties he read a wide range of religious traditions; Coyne tells readers he read much theology as he “dug deeper” into the questions that troubled him and as he did so he “realized that there were intractable incompatibilities between science and religion” that accommodationists “glossed over”. Heather Hastie has taken exception to a recent post of mine and pointed out that in her own research into terrorism she has downloaded a dozen issues of an online terrorist recruiting journal for study.

It is one thing to read what religious beliefs and claims are made by converts. It is quite another to study why they have embraced those beliefs, why those beliefs have the hold over believers that they do, and the relationship between those beliefs and claims and the extremist behaviours of adherents.

Gullible and weak minded?

There is a widespread perception among people who have never had much or anything to do with religious cults that people who join them are somehow the more gullible or weak-willed than average. Such popular perceptions are problematic. Some cult members demonstrate superior intelligence and knowledge in other studies in their life; and many of them are exceptionally strong-willed to the point of undergoing extreme sacrifices and hardship, even giving up their own lives and even the lives of loved ones when tested on their faith. That certain cults can generate a public presence beyond their actual numbers often shows they must have some extraordinary skills and determination to maximise the impact of their meagre human resources. The nineteen men who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks were far from having lesser intelligence and from being weak-willed.

Recently I have been sharing snippets from anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and in follow up comments have added a few more quotations addressing common views that people embrace religion because we they are seeking explanations to big or ultimate questions, or because they are gullible. In the past I have posted some explanations of how religious thinking differs from other types of thinking. (Understanding extremist religion; Religious credence part 1 and part 2; Science and religion; Fantasy and religion)

If we want to find a way to counter potentially dangerous extremist acts in the name of religion or simply wind back daily oppressive practices of some religions (e.g. choosing death over medical care, child abuse, denial of women’s rights) we will need to do more than simply present rational arguments. The converts do not shield themselves from opposing arguments; they are prepared for them and know how to counter them. Religious thinking does not work in the same way – we need to understand that.

I must thank Dan Jones for revitalising my interest in this question and providing me with new readings to follow up. I have already studied a few works on “how religion works” but need to do much more.

In the meantime, here is an alternative approach to what is required to understand how people acquire the religious mind. (Alternative, that is, to simply reading the theologies and ramblings of the religious texts themselves and thinking, “how bizarre!”, “how frightening!”).

The author, an anthropologist, would compare the methods of Harris, Coyne and Hastie to studying in depth the malaria pathogen — such a study alone will never explain how malaria spreads among some people and not others or the symptoms it produces.

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_coverAt about the same time as meme-accounts were devised to describe cultural transmission, Dan Sperber and some colleagues put together an epidemiological framework to describe the mechanisms of cultural transmission. . . . An epidemic occurs when a group of individuals display similar symptoms—when for instance people in a whole region of Africa get high fevers. This is explained as an epidemic of malaria, caused by the presence of mosquitoes carrying the Plasmodium pathogen. But note that what we call the epidemic is the occurrence of fevers and assorted symptoms, not the presence of mosquitoes or even Plasmodium. That is, to explain what happened you must understand the particular ways in which the human body reacts to the presence of this particular agent.

If you do not know any physiology, you will have a hard time explaining why only some animals catch malaria, why fewer people with adequate preventive treatment catch it than do others, or indeed how the disease spreads at all. We may well study the structure of Plasmodium forever; this will tell us nothing about its effects unless we also learn a lot about human physiology.

Mental representations are the effects of external vectors, mostly of communications with other people. But then the structure of the messages exchanged does not by itself tell us how the mind will react to them. To understand that, we must know a lot about human psychology, about the way minds produce inferences that modify and complete the information exchanged.

Boyer, P, 2001 Religion Explained, p. 46

I hope to write more on this question and to address the naive error made by some New Atheists who fail to grasp some of the most elementary principles of human behaviour and the way we rationalise our less honourable actions that have been driven by motivations and conditions of which we are sometimes only dimly aware.





  • John MacDonald
    2015-09-26 23:38:15 UTC - 23:38 | Permalink

    Interesting analogy by Boyer.

  • 2015-09-27 04:32:29 UTC - 04:32 | Permalink

    I have never believed or suggested that those with strong religious belief are more gullible or weak-minded than average. When I first wrote about Inspire on my website (which wasn’t when I was responding in the comments in relation to the ‘Cult’ post but here: http://www.heatherhastie.com/worry-of-the-week-13-september-al-qaeda/) I freely acknowledged the intelligence and organisational ability of those who wrote it. In the past I’ve written of the intelligence and other abilities of many in these groups too. In fact, I think cultural factors have much more to do with why people are involved in one religion or another. I even said that in the post I’ve referenced above.

    I think this is a very interesting topic and look forward to reading more about it in future.

  • anon
    2015-09-27 05:27:54 UTC - 05:27 | Permalink

    “the way we rationalise our less honourable actions that have been driven by motivations and conditions of which we are sometimes only dimly aware. ” —as well as our honourable intentions….

    Religion is not the only means of “making meaning”. A bunch of people could go to an open space and randomly kick a ball and then leave. But such an activity is usually unsatisfying—why? because there is no meaning or purpose to it—that is why we invent meaning and purpose and call it soccer.

    Or in a court of law—lawyers could debate the various neuro responses and biochemical reactions that caused—a homicide—but the reactions of human neuro/biochemisty is “without meaning” for us because it does not explain intentions/purpose—self defense, malicious intent, accident….etc is what “makes meaning”….

    The usual assumption is that meaning(intentions) comes before action—but perhaps there are also occasions when we take action and then rationalize/justify after…..?…

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *