Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Neil Van Leeuwen
Neil Van Leeuwen

I’m looking here at a thesis on the nature of religious belief, Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief, by Neil Van Leeuwen that was published in the journal Cognition last year. The author has also made his article publicly available on academia.edu. A commenter brought the article to my attention in the context of disagreements over the relationship between religious beliefs and Islamic terrorist attacks. One reason I am attracted to Van Leeuwen’s ideas is that they appear to be consistent with anthropologist Scott Atran’s views of the nature of religious belief that I have discussed previously.

First point to notice (and it is critical to the entire argument) is that Van Leeuwen chooses to speak of “religious credence” as opposed to “religious belief”.

Many philosophers and cognitive scientists have a habit of using the word “belief” as though it refers to one simple sort of cognitive attitude. . . . But, I will argue, if we examine the matter carefully, we will soon find empirical reasons to think this habit is a source of confusion. 

We tend to focus on differences in the content of “beliefs” (evolution, creationism; death is final, immortal soul) but in doing so we may be talking about distinctly different attitudes that fall under this one word. He draws the analogy of jade. In popular usage there may be only one kind of jade, but to chemists there are two distinct entities:

jade (2)

The general “taken for granted” assumption is that the only difference between a scientific and a religious belief is the content and that it is the different contents that guide behaviour.

Here is an adaptation of a diagram Van Leeuwen uses to portray the general understanding that there is only one kind of “belief” that is set against other cognitive attitudes. Belief (of any kind) by its very nature stands opposed to other forms of cognitive attitudes:


Van Leeuwen argues against this understanding of belief and believes that on closer inspection that religious “belief” has characteristics in common with other attitudes like imagining, hypothesising, acceptance in a context and conditional assumptions. Factual beliefs, he says, do not share these characteristics. To keep the distinction clear he uses “credence” when speaking of the cognitive attitude associated with religion:


So what are the characteristics that set religious credence apart from factual belief in Van Leeuwen’s view? And what is the relationship between factual beliefs and religious credence? Do they really have more than their content to distinguish them?

1. Factual belief is independent of its practical setting

I’m entering dangerous territory by distilling Van Leeuwen’s argument to a single point since I can imagine all sorts of questions and protests being raised in response. I can only plead that this is a summary outline of the thesis and I have linked to the original article online where one can see a host of additional scenarios the author uses to answer a range of “but what about” and “what if” potential objections and qualifiers. I also omit the scholarly research and publications to which Van Leeuwen points in support of his various claims.

Factual beliefs never desert one even when one’s imaginations catapult into fantasy. We can imagine a sofa and cushions are a spaceship but we will always treat our “spaceship” according to the realities of the sofa and cushions. I can imagine I am Napoleon and let the facts of Napoleon’s life guide how I act and speak, but once I no longer imagine I am Napoleon I do not lose or dismiss the facts of Napoleon’s life along with my pretence. Stage actors during performances never lose sight of the factual belief that they are on a stage in a theatre and not really in a castle in Denmark.

Contrast religious credence

In a religious ritual setting one might believe that an ancestor can see. In a naturalistic setting, however, the same person believes that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse. Even in the ritual setting the corpse is moved about and treated as a lifeless object.

Religious settings are widely varied. They are not necessarily confined to a sacred space and time. They can include

confrontation with death, birth, illness that can’t be explained otherwise, unexplainable coincidences that seem to change one’s life, challenges to one’s identity, and the like. 

These settings are the activators of religious credence. So the practical setting of religious credence is widely extended through one’s life experiences.

And since religious credences are part of one’s identity, many situations that challenge one’s identity or group allegiance can activate credences as well. 

If I may venture my own reflections here. . . .

I still recall moving my parents with my childlike innocence when I asked them why everyone was crying and sad at the death of my great grandfather. “But hasn’t he gone to heaven? Why is everyone sad? Why aren’t we all happy?”

Years later I myself was caught up in the heavy mourning for a close friend dying from cancer. I asked the minister of our church why it was that we felt this way despite our confidence in the resurrection. His reply was unhesitating, as quick as any flippant quip could be, “Death is the enemy!” But I knew that was not really true since our beliefs made it clear Death was no longer the enemy since it had been defeated by Christ. The minister did not wait around for me to raise this objection with him.

According to Van Leeuwen’s thesis as I understand it, the mourning we experience despite our firm religious credence is evidence that we are unable to deny deep down the factual belief that death really is death. We know this, regardless of death’s practical settings. Our religious credence, however, overlays and attempts to hide or reinterpret this factual belief.

I don’t believe it is adequate to say that we mourn because we don’t “really believe”.

Factual beliefs guide our actions in all practical settings.


2. Factual beliefs govern imaginings

Factual beliefs are the default background to our worldviews and when we are engaged in imaginary scenarios those background factual beliefs fill in the gaps.

So we know, as a fact, that Michelangelo’s statue of David is made of marble and that marble sinks in water. If we imagine Michelangelo’s David falling off a boat and into water, we will further conclude, because of our factual background knowledge, that the statue sinks.

We will never confuse which thought is fact and which is imagination.

When we read fictional stories we can sift out details that “could be true” from those that are clearly not. Details that are mathematical or scientific or socially conventional etc are singled out as true.

Experiments show that when confronted with incomplete stories and asked to supply an ending children prefer realistic endings even if the story had been fantastical. Adults opted to supply realistic endings for realistic stories and fantasy endings for fantastic stories.

In other words, “factual beliefs cognitively govern imaginings.” Moreover and most significantly, the reverse is not true.

Contrast religious credence

A Mayan tribe profess that some people can turn into animals. They never suspect that anyone eating a pig is guilty of cannibalism, however. This observation suggests that credences do not govern factual beliefs about what they eat.

What about young earth creationists who deny the facts of geology?

One objection to my claim that religious credences don’t govern factual beliefs is to point out the interference of credences in scientific thought. A young earth creationist, for example, denies facts of geology. If religious ‘‘beliefs’’ interfere with ‘‘factual beliefs,’’ so the objection goes, they must have governance over factual beliefs. This is an interesting objection. But the phenomenon to which it appeals (interference) does not actually show that credences govern factual beliefs; rather, it forces on me a testable hypothesis. My theory predicts that the young earth creationist who denies facts of geology has formed further religious credences with those denials as contents. She may feel compelled to form these further credences on account of felt challenges to her identity. But, I hold, she does not have

FACTUAL BELIEF: the world is not billions of years old.

Rather she has

RELIGIOUS CREDENCE: the world is not billions of years

So one testable hypothesis (or cluster of hypotheses) is that the attitude that encodes this content will lack characteristics that define factual belief.21 The attitude, for example, may lack evidential vulnerability. (My bolding)

And that footnote 21? . . .

21 Here’s a related example. On February 12, 2007, the New York Times reported about how Marcus Ross, a young earth creationist, had earned a PhD in Geoscience at the University of Rhode Island, having written about the extinction of dinosasaurs 65 million years ago, despite ‘‘believing’’ that the earth is younger than 10,000 years old. Importantly, his Baptist credences did not govern the scientific hypotheses in his dissertation, otherwise he could not have finished. So Ross gives us a clear example of credences that lack widespread governance.


3. Factual beliefs are vulnerable to evidence

You believe the cat is outside but when you hear a meow beneath the table the evidence contradicting your belief extinguishes your belief. You have no choice but to stop believing the cat is outside.

In 1999 many of us factually believed there was a Y2K problem — computer systems would crash or go crazy on January 1, 2000, because of the numbering systems used for their database calendars. But nothing much happened so the belief was forgotten as a misadventure.

Contrast religious credence

Doomsday cults set a date, the world continues on from that date as if nothing had happened, yet the cults do not lose their credence in the date. Their “clusters of beliefs” associated with that date do not vanish. Rather, the cult’s commitment is deepened. The date is still believed to have been a turning point. Faith is not shaken by the contrary evidence.

Research has indicated (the link points to the published research) that in 71% of cases, what triggers a member’s final exit from a cult is a conflict of values, not evidence contradicting dogmatic teachings.

Exiting cult members did not learn information that was evidentially relevant to the truth or falsity of their credences; rather, they found the guru to be immoral.


This suggests that the cult member’s “beliefs” are not held because of evidence. 

Further research (see also an online slide presentation of this paper) shows that

Individuals with a more analytic cognitive style . . .  are less likely to profess religious views.

Such persons are more inclined to detect conflict between, for example, statistical information and stereotypes. Those less inclined to detect such informational conflicts are “more likely to profess religious views.”

Thus the research indicates that there is a rough mapping between religious credences and those who “lack a certain form of evidence responsiveness (conflict detection)”.

This is not so much about ability as it is about style of thinking. One cannot conclude that the religious person lacks the same ability to detect conflicts in information.

Rather, those with religious credences hold them in a frame of mind in which analysis and evidence are just not what matters to them.

Ironically, people who have an analytic cognitive style may be the ones with an inability—an inability to enter a frame of mind where evidence doesn’t matter (Boyer, 2013; Luhrmann, 2012; McCauley’s (2011) perspective on autism spectrum disorders and religious cognition is also pertinent). (My bolding and formatting)

But some do follow the evidence . . . 

What do we make of those religious groups, factions and individuals who do take on board evidence that challenges their beliefs?

Van Leeuwen refers to such a splinter group from a Papua New Guinea tribe who regularly performed special rituals in the conviction that they would lead to the return of their ancestors. When their ancestors failed to return, however, the cult disbanded. So the beliefs were vulnerable, yes? Yes, indeed. And the cult vanished as a consequence. This demonstrates

why religious attitudes tend not to be evidentially vulnerable. . . . Religious “beliefs” that are evidentially vulnerable tend to get extinguished. . . .

There is also the case of my old cult, the Worldwide Church of God. When its founder’s replacement yielded to the evidence that its doctrines had been wrong then it changed. Membership plummeted. The church has since fragmented into over 500 sects.

But some die for their beliefs . . .

Does not the fact that religious “believers” make great sacrifices for their doctrines prove that they must “really believe” them? But as Daniel Dennett pointed out in Breaking the Spell this objection undermines itself. The fact that one prefers to die to denying what they “believe” religiously shows that there is something unusual about such “beliefs”.

Recollect here Galileo denying the earth moved around the sun to escape the Pope’s threats. As Van Leeuwen remarks,

If I had to choose either death or denying some ordinary factual belief, like leaves grow on plants, I’d deny the factual belief. 


Factual beliefs: the bigger picture

I select just a few lines here from the discussion on page 705 to 706 of Van Leeuwen’s article where he draws the above points together into a whole:

Philosophers often say ‘‘beliefs are the map by which we steer the ship.’’ But often imaginings, hypotheses, suppositions, assumptions for the sake of argument, acceptances in a context—and others without names—are cognitive inputs into behavior; they are maps too. Each practical setting toggles the mind to its own distinctive attitude: the setting of inquiry activates hypotheses; make-believe activates fictional imagining; argument settings activate assumptions for the sake of argument.

But even on stage, the actor represents the location of the trap door so she can drop through it. Even during hypothesis testing, the scientist represents meter readings and test tube locations. And even taking the sacrament, the devout Catholic is aware of the texture of the wafer. So some representations—typically encoding contents mundane or tied to perception—stay active across settings. These are factual beliefs.

I omit details of the discussion explaining why evidential vulnerability, practical setting independence and cognitive governance support each other, and other discussion examining different types of “beliefs” such as intuitive beliefs and whether or not scientists “believe” or “accept” their hypotheses, etc.


So far I have covered no more than half of the argument.

I’ll set out characteristics that apply only to religious “beliefs” and that are not associated with factual beliefs in the next post.


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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1”

      1. Atheists attacking atheists by the way, just plays into the hands of the faithful, the religious believers. Which they well know, and therefore ardently encourage.

        “Let’s you and him fight.”

    1. Let’s leave “street cred philosopher” Coyne out of this altogether until we first grasp the argument he claims to be rebutting. I read Coyne’s criticism co-authored with Boudry and it was evident to me that both authors missed the central points of Leeuwen’s article. Coyne I can understand, but Boudry? Again, one does have to wonder about peer-review issues.

      I would be surprised if you can identify ideas actually expressed here that Coyne explicitly addressed as opposed to avoided or talked around.

      And rather than draw up a list of who agrees and who disagrees — a pointless and lazy exercise and a mere appeal to authority — I’d rather examine the arguments themselves. And among the arguments that interested me are those that are open to revision, rebuttal, challenges, newly extended ideas and new applications.

      Have you actually read and engaged with the arguments and formed your own conclusions and questions?

  1. This sounds like the psychological concept of “de-centering”.

    If you’re controlling a toy car, with yourself facing north and the car travelling west, then you can see that for the car to avoid hitting the cat, it needs to turn left. But the left of the imaginary minuature driver of the car is different from your left with the control box. Around the age of five, children learn to put themselves in the place of the driver, and steer the car according to what the driver would see.

    When we imagine or hypothesise, we picture the world “as if” we had a different place within it. Putting oneself in the emotional place of another – feeling emotions that we suppose they would feel – seems part of the same thing. We call it empathy, and without it watching movies would be pointless.

    So, religious belief is a kind of fantasy – playacting, pretending, adopting a pose. But fantasy is a lot more exciting than reality, even the dark fantasy of being doomed to hell, or the victim of a global conspiracy.

    Your article raises another issue – that people leave cults (and I think, join them) for moral rather than epistemic reasons. In other words, we accept the teachings of our glorious leader because the leader is glorious. This applies even when we don’t understand the teachings – it’s enough to believe that we believe in a doctrine, even when we don’t know what the doctrine is.

    As a recovering ex-marxist, I can tell you that we discussed Marx’s hegelian “method” long into many nights, without any of us able to say what that method was, in spite of some having written books on the subject – without having read Hegel. I left when I did read Hegel, much like some christians lose their faith when they eventually read the bible.

    “Believe” and “love” share the same etymological root. Richard Carrier points out that neurologically, belief and disbelief are emotions. Perhaps Van Leeuwen’s “Factual Beliefs” are those which do not involve decentering, and do not have an emotional charge.

    1. I can relate to much here. I studied the church’s doctrines diligently before joining but I joined in the end even despite discovering some errors in their arguments. I reasoned that the details were not important in comparison with the “real truth” that was understood. And seeing the church as morally true in contrast to my old church (hypocritical, lukewarm, etc) was definitely a vital perception. When I left I looked back on it all as having been living in a dream, a make-believe fantasy story.

      How we approach facts varies, I think. NVL also discusses this to some extent. Do we “believe” them or merely “accept” them — do we vary our responses with different facts? They are all different emotions, but not the sorts of emotional longings to live on a higher moral plain “thank god”. What does motivate my ethical stance is a sense of identity that is derived from the facts of DNA, I suppose, but that’s not a response to belief in DNA.

  2. I left the fundamentalist “cult” that I was raised in for “epistemic” reasons, not moral. The dozen or so of my peers that I know well all did the same. We had no trouble with the basic morality taught, but big trouble with the counter-facts taught as truth (actual fact) when the actual facts intruded on religious credence held sacred. The age of the earth, the lack of speciation and many many more actual facts were denied as actual facts and substitute actual fact put in their place. I found this untenable.

  3. By the by, Y2K was quite real; though often exaggerated and misunderstood.
    There was no apocalypse because many IT people spent a lot of time and effort amending code.

  4. Thanks for this blog post! It’s cleared up a few ways I’ve been looking at the world and belief recently.

    I wrote about a similar separation of “believing” and “knowing” something to be true a few years ago (starting half way through this blog post – Gods and Platypuses: The Ignostic Non-Beliefer http://www.lukeburrage.com/blog/archives/1549 – from 2012). The conclusion being that I and other people only act on beliefs when it doesn’t really matter, and act on knowledge when it really does matter. I see now that “religious credence” and “factual beliefs” fit in a similar way, but have more rigorous thought behind them.

    1. So if one sees one injured and in need of medical treatment, one call’s 911 before organizing a prayer circle (unless one is a JW in which case credence has trumped factual beliefs).

      1. None of the JWs I know would be so silly. They don’t go in much for “miracle healing” in any case. I recently saw a UK TV program about Scientology and JWs in which some editor of a supposedly scholarly international publication on modern cults referred to the JW fear of Hell fire – of course, the non-existence of eternal punishment is one of their key dogmas and attractive to others. JWs also have a deserved reputation for honest and efficient work, so much so that there is an anecdote that if Himmler ever wanted his jackboots licked clean, he would always rely on a KZ Bible-banger to do the job properly.

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