After more than ten years of blogging away at this here Church of the Churchless, I've ceased being surprised at how strongly religious believers hold onto their beliefs.
Partly because I understand the attraction of faith-based believing, since I was into this myself for thirty-five years. It feels good to consider that you are part of a special group that's especially beloved by God, and are privy to cosmic secrets unknown to others.
And partly because I've seen so many examples of religious believers discounting good arguments, solid facts, and other reasonable evidence that should, one would think, cause them to question whether what they believe is actually true.
A piece by T.M. Luhrmann in the New York Times, "Faith vs. Facts," helped me to better understand why religious beliefs are so resistant to change, even in the face of persuasive arguments to the contrary.
Basically, Luhrmann says, faith is connected to a whole different set of psychological features than facts. Which makes sense, since God, spirit, soul, angels, heaven, Jesus, miracles, and the like aren't observable things, but thoughts related to feelings and moral sentiments.
Most of us find it mind-boggling that some people seem willing to ignore the facts — on climate change, on vaccines, on health care — if the facts conflict with their sense of what someone like them believes. “But those are the facts,” you want to say. “It seems weird to deny them.”
And yet a broad group of scholars is beginning to demonstrate that religious belief and factual belief are indeed different kinds of mental creatures. People process evidence differently when they think with a factual mind-set rather than with a religious mind-set. Even what they count as evidence is different. And they are motivated differently, based on what they conclude. On what grounds do scholars make such claims?
First of all, they have noticed that the very language people use changes when they talk about religious beings, and the changes mean that they think about their realness differently.
You do not say, “I believe that my dog is alive.” The fact is so obvious it is not worth stating. You simply talk in ways that presume the dog’s aliveness — you say she’s adorable or hungry or in need of a walk. But to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive” signals that you know that other people might not think so. It also asserts reverence and piety. We seem to regard religious beliefs and factual beliefs with what the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls different “cognitive attitudes.”
Second, these scholars have remarked that when people consider the truth of a religious belief, what the belief does for their lives matters more than, well, the facts.
We evaluate factual beliefs often with perceptual evidence. If I believe that the dog is in the study but I find her in the kitchen, I change my belief. We evaluate religious beliefs more with our sense of destiny, purpose and the way we think the world should be. One study found that over 70 percent of people who left a religious cult did so because of a conflict of values. They did not complain that the leader’s views were mistaken. They believed that he was a bad person.
Interesting. This seems roughly right, the 70 percent figure. In my experience, true or false usually isn't as important to a religious believer as good or bad.
A skeptic can point out all the reasons why their religious beliefs are almost certainly wrong, and the believer's faith will remain firm. Whereas, as Luhrmann says, they would readily change their mind about a factual issue that they were wrong about-- such as where their dog is at the moment.
Religious beliefs meet different sorts of needs than factual understandings. One's religion can be eminently satisfying even if it is completely wrong.
Feeling part of a close-knit religious community; being told that a divine being is taking care of you; having an assurance that death isn't the end, but the beginning of a new form of existence; not having to worry about making moral decisions, because the religion makes many of them for you -- these are strong motivations to keep on believing even when the facts argue otherwise.
Finally, scholars have determined that people don’t use rational, instrumental reasoning when they deal with religious beliefs. The anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues have shown that sacred values are immune to the normal cost-benefit trade-offs that govern other dimensions of our lives.
Sacred values are insensitive to quantity (one cartoon can be a profound insult).They don’t respond to material incentives (if you offer people money to give up something that represents their sacred value, and they often become more intractable in their refusal). Sacred values may even have different neural signatures in the brain.
...People aren’t dumb in not recognizing the facts. They are using a reasoning process that responds to moral arguments more than scientific ones, and we should understand that when we engage.