Is Religion for the Gullible?

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by Neil Godfrey

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_coverIt is easy enough for us atheists to mock religion (and much of it is indeed “mockable”) but we cannot ignore the fact that some very intelligent and well-educated people hold these beliefs. So is it really gullibility that is responsible for people believing that they go to a heavenly paradise or agonizing hell when they die, that some other-worldly power made the universe for his own and our benefit, and even that he made it in six days only a few thousand years ago, and so forth?

I can’t forget how humiliated I felt after finally realising that much of what I had for long believed was nothing but a make-believe fantasy. Yet at the time preceding my conversion I was studying in one of the more reputable universities, and subsequently I studied at a post graduate level the processes of indoctrination and propaganda without my personal faith suffering the slightest dent. Crazy!

But are we crazy?

In my efforts to understand the scholarly research into extremist religious and political movements and behaviour, I have inevitably been led to try to grasp the nature of religion itself more clearly in the light of recent studies. I still have much to learn but in the meantime I think the following is worth sharing. It is from Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001).

Boyer observes that religious beliefs are restricted to a certain range of beliefs. People don’t just believe any impossible thing and make it part of their religion. That fact should alert us to something, he says. It may not be gullibility that is the responsible party. Maybe it is something about those specific types of beliefs that strike a plausible chord in many people. If so, we need to study what it is that distinguishes those beliefs from other types of nonsensical concepts and also, of course, the way the brain works in relation to beliefs generally.

Boyer sums up the main points of his argument on this specific question in three points:

• The sleep of reason is no explanation for religion as it is. There are many possible unsupported claims and only a few religious themes.

• Belief is not just passive acceptance of what others say. People relax their standards because some thoughts become plausible, not the other way around. 

• A different angle: We should understand what makes human minds so selective in what supernatural claims they find plausible. (p. 31)

He begins the question of gullibility by summing up his earlier discussion of other suggested reasons often posited for the origins of religion (my formatting) — pages 31-34:

If religion is reassuring, why does it create much of the anxiety it cures?

If it explains the world, why does it do it with such baroque complication?

Why does it have these common, recurrent themes rather than a great variety of irrefutable ideas?

Why is it so closely connected to morality, whereas it cannot really create morality?

As I said several times, we cannot hope to explain religion if we just fantasize about the way human minds work. We cannot just decide that religion fulfils some particular intellectual or emotional needs, when there is no real evidence for these needs. We cannot just decide that religion is around because it promises this or that, when there are many human groups where religion makes no such promise.

We cannot just ignore the anthropological evidence about different religions and the psychological evidence about mental processes. (Or rather, we should not; we actually do it quite often.)

. . . . . 

The main problem with our spontaneous explanations of religion lies in the very assumption that we can explain the origin of religion by selecting one particular problem or idea or feeling and deriving the variety of things we now call religion from that unique point. Our spontaneous explanations are meant to lead us from the One (religion’s origin) to the Many (the current diversity of religious ideas). This may seem natural in that this is the usual way we think of origins. The origin of geometry lies in land-tenure and surveying problems. The origin of arithmetic and number theory is in accounting problems encountered by centralized agricultural states. So it seems sensible to assume that a “one thing led to many things” scenario is apposite for cultural phenomena.

But we can approach the question from another angle. Indeed, we can and should turn the whole “origin” explanation upside down, as it were, and realize that the many forms of religion we know are not the outcome of a historical diversification but of a constant reduction. The religious concepts we observe are relatively successful ones selected among many other variants.

. . . .To explain religion we must explain how human minds, constantly faced with lots of potential “religious stuff,” constantly reduce it to much less stuff.

Concepts in the mind are constructed as a result of being exposed to other people’s behavior and utterances. But this acquisition process is not a simple process of “downloading” notions from one brain to another. People’s minds are constantly busy reconstructing, distorting, changing and developing the information communicated by others. This process naturally creates all sorts of variants of religious concepts, as it creates variants of all other concepts. But then not all of these variants have the same fate. Most of them are not entertained by the mind for more than an instant. A small number have more staying power but are not easily formulated or communicated to others. An even smaller number of variants remain in memory, are communicated to other people, but then these people do not recall them very well. An extremely small number remain in memory, are communicated to other people, are recalled by these people and communicated to others in a way that more or less preserves the original concepts. These are the ones we can observe in human cultures.

Boyer’s book is an explanation of how variants of religious concepts are created and constantly eliminated in our minds. I’ve long hoped to post more about his research and the studies he relies upon, but I’m still in the process of reading more recent studies. As I’ve probably inferred already, Boyer’s study is at the psychological level and based on a raft of studies.

The notion that what we find in cultures is a residue or a precipitate of many episodes of individual transmission is not new. But it became very powerful with the development of formal mathematical tools to describe cultural transmission. This happened because anthropologists were faced with a difficult problem. They often described human cultures in terms of “big” objects, like “American fundamentalism,” “Jewish religion,” “Chinese morality,” and so on. Anthropology and history could make all sorts of meaningful statements about these big objects (e.g., “In the 18th century, the progress of science and technology in Europe challenged Christian religion as a source of authority.”) However, this is a very remote description of what happens on the ground, in the actual lives of individuals. After all, people do not interact with such abstract objects as scientific progress or Christian authority. They only interact with individual people and material objects. The difficulty was to connect these two levels and to describe how what happened at the bottom, as it were, produced stability and change at the level of populations.


I find Boyer’s point interesting. It makes sense to me. It is one thing to joke about starting up a new religion and introducing lots of bizarre beliefs, but the fact is that such jokes are clearly recognized as jokes. They don’t go on to become major social movements like the Mormons or the Anglicans. So what is it about the human mind and certain types of beliefs?


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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “Is Religion for the Gullible?”

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that our psychology and deep principles of philosophy are connected in the production of belief in gods and spirits. The concept is quickly summarized. The fact that other people have minds cannot be independently derived a priori from any principle of logic. However, if it is actually true that other people have minds, it will be an evolutionary disadvantage to ignore the minds which do exist (because they will eat you). In order to avoid missing any actually extant minds, the human brain has developed so as to ascribe mindedness to essentially everything, whether or not it has a mind, as the costs of false positives are far less than the cost of false negatives. When our brain ascribes mindedness to things that don’t actually have minds, or put another way, purposiveness to things that don’t actually have a purpose, that is one biological pathway that leads to what we call ‘religion’ as a phenomenon.

    One neat side-effect of this argument is that it defeats the problem of solipsism using only the assumption that evolutionary processes work (which can be shown a priori). If there actually were no other minds, there would be no advantage to seeing them everywhere.

  2. I think we are often convinced by conviction. That is: it is the obvious reverence and conviction in others, their sudden reverent silence in the face of certain things, that cues us to pay attention.

    Or maybe, it is the instinct to be silent, when a large and dangerous animal might spot you.

    When threatening others are adamant or loudly dogmatic, assertive about their religion, that calls up our basic animal instinct, to be silent before loud people and animals. To hide, or do what they want, rather than face extreme conflict. “Fear of the Lord, is the beginning” as they say, of religion.

    In the case of cult leaders, it is probably a combination of both. It is their intimidating, adamant conviction, in precisely the strangest and most counterintuitive hings, that often attracts our attention, and often commands our silence. For at least a moment. And it is their threats too, as part of that. Threats of hellfire, and their own anger.

    So I’m still attributing religion to a couple of animal instincts. Especially intimidation from threatening animals. Which perversely grows into exaggerated respect for them.

  3. I was recently struck by the following sentence from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which may provide one small piece of the puzzle: “For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts.”

  4. Certainly good food for thought in Boyer’s work. And he also publishes extensively on the role of memory and culture for religion: a hot topic, I wonder if Ehrman’s upcoming book refer to him…….

    Boyer appears to take a psychological-evolutionary approach to the origins of religion. That is a fresh look at it, and may give new insights. I think it would have helped if Boyer had expanded more on 2 aspects:

    – what does he mean by ‘religion’. He seems to include both beliefs in supernatural phenomena, and complex moral-value systems in his understanding of Religion. But are these really aspects of the same psychological/cultural phenomena? I would agree with Boyer that is in the human nature to believe in some form of supernatural phenomena; even you and I do that to some extent, although we find it hard to admit….. But subscribing to a whole value/moral system (such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism etc.) is – for me – a different matter.

    – Boyer considers the psychological aspects of religion. But – to my surprise – he doesn’t include a single reference to Freud (who wrote a lot on this subject). Has Freud become so politically incorrect that we can’t refer to his work anymore, even if we disagree with aspects of it? In my view, Boyer would find some answers in Freud’s work to questions he raises and leaves open: why do some ‘proto-religious’ concepts stick, while others fade quickly? What about Freud’s thesis that religion is a reversion to childish patterns of thought, in response to feelings of helplessness and guilt? We feel a need for security and forgiveness, and so invent a source of security and forgiveness: God(s), projections of our parents who took care of us when we were small, and seem all-powerful and all-knowing at that time………

    1. Boyer is looking for a more general explanation of religion. Official religion, he writes, only addresses limited aspects of humanity’s religious beliefs and practices. Aspects that we take for granted — e.g. the desire for security and forgiveness — are not universal religious phenomena. Religion is associated with guilt feelings and helplessness among our major religions but are not universal. (If the desire for security gives rise to religion then we face the problem that religion often causes fear and insecurity, for example.)

      He explores what it is about the human mind, not just the religious or believing mind, that potentially gives rise to religious beliefs: supernatural agents — but all of very different kinds across human cultures.

      Some people have what we consider religion, but they themselves may have no separate concept of “religion” or think of their beliefs in any sense as what we would call “religious”. “Religion” tends to become a concept of its own where there are different religions living side by side and this is a special place, not a universal condition. Religion is just a convenient label, in Boyer’s book, “that we use to put together all the ideas, actions, rules and objects that have to do with the existence and properties of superhuman agents such as God.”

      I’d like to write more explaining his findings from the study of how the mind works, forms concepts, …. but am struggling to find a way to do this without being too detailed, lengthy, complex.

      1. Should we ask: what does “religion” or “religions” do for their adherents? A huge question that will range across different “faiths” and “faith communities” but maybe the best one to begin with.

        I suggest that first of all it offers an “answer” to the question “What [if anything] is human life all about, apart from the immediate needs of food, shelter and pleasure.”

  5. A cult is a small group who’s adherents are gullible and brainwashed. A religion is a cult that has grown to the point that its precepts are no longer seen as absurd by outsiders. If I was to tell you that the Flying Spaghetti Monster appeared to me in a dream and told me to spread the good news that if people would eat a twix chocolate bar on Thursdays, the chocolate, once consumed, would transform into a piece of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s body which would magically transport the people to a paradise of perfume and flying fish after they died, you would think that I am crazy. You would be right. In that sense, the Catholic practice of communion is just as nuts, it’s just been around for so long, and is believed by so many people, it seems normal.

    1. The idea of “brainwashing” of cult members originated with Cold War misconceptions and has come under heavy fire since. Brainwashing implies a one-direction take-over of a mind but in fact there is a negotiation between the two parties, the would-be convert and the “cult”, that leads to membership. It is a gradual process of negotiation and most people do not stay with the cult — another reason for suggesting the brainwashing idea is not really valid after all.

      The evidence is against people joining cults as a result of “gullibility” given the highly intelligent and educated character of many converts, and also given the fact that equally nonsensical ideas (such as a flying spaghetti monster) are never the objects of belief. We would expect a greater variety of kinds of beliefs if gullibility were the factor. Besides, some cults can have quite similar beliefs as those in mainstream congregations, and some mainstream groups can in fact also be very “cultish” according to standard definitions. Boyer looks at the evidence of experimental outcomes and I hope to discuss some of these soonish.

      1. Cults have always used strategies to indoctrinate the weak willed, like the way Jesus wanted to isolate people from their families (see Luke 14:26).

        1. There is nothing weak-willed about people who over time choose to defy societal conventions and expectations, even their own families (just ask the parents if they think their child choosing to leave them for a cult is weak-willed!), even to the point of sacrificing all and to the point of death. What is found in common is strong-willed idealism.

          If weak-willed gullibility were a factor it would be dead easy to extract people from cults and their supposed “indoctrination”. Families would have more power to persuade the weak-willed to abandon their decision to join a cult. People do not become zombies as a result of some hypnotic like brainwashing power over them. They negotiate their ways into cults over time. There is a need being met — on both sides of the negotiaion.

          I recommend picking up any of the books out there by those who are describing their past cult experiences and how and why they became members; or look out for the serious research into the question (some of which I’ve been posting about here.) The old idea of “indoctrination” and “brainwashing” goes back to Cold War misconceptions that have since been largely abandoned, I believe.

  6. There is a semantic issue here arising from known Maoist “re-education”/”self-criticism” methods, i.e. “xinao”.

    I have long been particularly familiar with the publications, history, beliefs, evangelism and members of the JW/Watchtower “cult”, in both London and Norfolk. They negotiate ideas with susceptible non-members, often with a persuasive lucidity and usually in reference to the sad condition of the world.

    But their beliefs are carefully and persistently reinforced internally on a scale and with an intensity rarely characteristic of members of other more “mainstream” congregations. They form a closed circle which has The Truth, cannot readily cope with unexpected and biblically-informed criticism, regarding alternative faiths or opinions as part of the deceptive empire of Satan that must be shunned, and persistent individual thinkers are “disfellowshipped”.

    Other “cults” or “sects” are even more closed to outside influences or knowledge, with companions, customs and facilities confined to a limited circle of same-believers. Their survival depends on unchallenged ideological allegiance not to some broad generalities but to a set of specific dogmas, and the exclusion of alternative ideas as the work of the Enemy and morally Evil. The memoirs of some communists reveal a comparable phenomenon – until the “god fails”.

    Unfortunately there is a similar development among some university students with “safe space” protections and “no platform” bans on access to ideas, arguments or information that contradict the currently prevalent doctrines of “race-gender-class”.

  7. Maybe the appeal of a cult, is that it offers a, to many, gripping story, a grand narrative. A story that purports to be the inside story about what is currently happening on earth, and even in the heavens. Furthermore, we are told that if we just buy into the story, we can be part of this great moment. In these stories, we can be heroes, martyrs. Dying for the truth. Fighting heroically against the rest of the evil world.

    1. In these heroic tales, we even can become immortal, and conquer our own deaths. In part since we have been part of a Truth – that will live on after us. And that will eventually, we are told, triumph.

      1. Very perceptive. The appeal of membership in mass movement in harmony with cosmic/historic forces to change the world in a Utopian direction can attract heroes and make martyrs even without the promise of any personal heavenly reward after death.

    2. You might be interested in some of the research findings into the attraction of cults: http://vridar.org/2016/01/27/who-joins-cults-and-how-and-why/

      Cult members, from my own experiences and readings, do see themselves as a chosen elect, but not as swashbuckling heroes. The process is very gradual and involves a gradual reshaping of one’s identity, not starry-eyed excitement. The appeal is idealism, not adventure. A few do join extremist political groups for the adventure, however, as we have seen from the findings of McCauley in Friction.

      1. I have downloaded your referred important article for my files.

        There are similarities with political “cults” in life-risking battle situations (like the Nazis, the Imperial Japanese, the Bolsheviks, &c) – as noted by Michael Burleigh, Walter Laqueur, &c.

    1. Religious belief is reversely correlated with IQ, and extremely strongly reversely correlated with scientific education. The interesting question is whether early religious inculcation has a detrimental effect on rational ability.

      1. I find that hard to believe. Some cult leaders are clearly very intelligent in order to generate millions in annual revenue from a few thousand mostly lower-income followers. They run very successful media and propaganda movements. The 9/11 hijackers were well educated in the sciences and technology.

        The popular belief you express fails to explain why it is that only certain kinds of bizarre beliefs are embraced by the religious mind.

        Again from my own experience, I had a very strong interest in science and devoured many scientific books and magazines before I became involved in a cult. I got some pretty good grades in some of my school results, too. Standardized tests I took as part of personality and career counselling later showed I was certainly very intelligent. I don’t believe I was unique. I had many good friends who were likewise. Some, despite being cult members, held high positions in government administration, some were academics, professionals…

  8. Edward Dutton, “Religion and Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis” (London: UISR, 2014) may be a good start towards more careful and comprehensive future research in this field.

    Within the same broad cultural framework, one can see a difference between the Thomist or Brahmin philosopher and the superstitious peasant.

    Or take “astrology” – Hans Eysenck, Carl Jung, Percy Seymour and Nicholas Campion are among several modern intellectuals who have seen “something in it”, but they have operated at a different level than the daily natal sun-sign horoscope reader who “swears by” Jonathan Cainer or Russell Grant.

  9. The author seems fixated on adults and does not seem to address the indoctrination of children. Most youths are indoctrinated into their religion and their religious beliefs are set before they become adults. (They may change later, but changing from one religion or church to another is far more common than one religion to no religion … because they “believe.”) Why are the young indoctrinated in concepts they cannot possibly understand? I see three main components of an answer, one of which is that the young trust (mostly) their parents and since their parents endorse these beliefs, then there must be a “there” there.

    Second, we are primed by evolution to learn through story telling and religion does this in spades. For the young, everything is wrapped into a story. The Bible is basically a story book.

    Third, is that young people are born gullible. This is why we protect them and educate them.

    So, yes, gullibility does often play a role in establishing religious beliefs. The author seems to be discussing whether gullibility plays a role in sustaining their beliefs.

    1. The focus on the frequent presumption of “adult gullibility” when it comes to religion is mine. Boyer indeed discusses children, and the different psychological stages we go through. My point was to address a common criticism levelled at believers: why do adults who are smart in so many ways still clinging on to certain (not all) things they were taught as children or why do some as adults embrace them for the first time?

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