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Subject: The neurological and psychological explanations of faith rss

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Commander Harris
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I came across this presentation on youtube:



It's a talk by Andy Thomson, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist where he talks about the underlying cognitive processes that could explain why people believe in gods.

I wouldn't recommend watching this particular talk, as the information can probably be gotten elsewhere and the self-congratulatory smugness of the organized atheists is off-putting. I never understood why you would want to organize as atheists, but anyhow...

He argues that religious thinking is a byproduct of earlier existing neurological structures and psychological biases. Just as he says that writing is a byproduct of visual, motor and language skills. "There is no writing center in your brain". Although Thomson doesn't say it nor imply it, that could mean it is adaptive.

Religious thinking according to doctor Thomson is a combination of a number of biases and cognitive processes, among them pattern recognition, detection of agency, motivated reasoning and the ability to think of someone while they are not present.

Motivated reasoning is only in there if you don't believe it, but the other skills are necessary whether G/god(s) are real or not. It could still go either way. So then maybe motivated reason comes back in again, to determine what you make of all this.

So although this might not be conclusive either way, it does offer an explanation for those who don't believe in any deity other than the religious being crazy, stupid, delusional or any combination of those. Not that I needed this information to not think religious people crazy, stupid or delusional, but it makes for interesting stuff.
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Of course it's not conclusive and as a physicist I get highly annoyed when crap like this is presented as if it were really science.
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Commander Harris
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whac3 wrote:
Of course it's not conclusive and as a physicist I get highly annoyed when crap like this is presented as if it were really science.



I will grant that what he infers is still a hypothesis and although he says (paraphrasing) "we are close to a neurological map of religious beliefs", he should be more cautious. He should posit it as a hypothesis that he intends to test.

There is a lot of literature on the effect of psychology in religion and vice versa. Connections can be made between certain character and psychological traits and religiosity, the mentioned biases are all well established. You can form hypotheses on which traits will predict religiosity and test those. So it's not coming out of thin air what is being said.
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Can't watch this video right now but I always assumed that faith was a 'backfiring' of children doing what they are told more often than not.

If a child is born who willfully ignores 'Don't jump off that cliff' they won't live to an age where they have children. So sucessful societies will have descendants whom are both genetic and memetic programmed to listen without question. Therefore those children will also accept faith more readily without question.
 
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scott3387 wrote:
Can't watch this video right now but I always assumed that faith was a 'backfiring' of children doing what they are told more often than not.

If a child is born who willfully ignores 'Don't jump off that cliff' they won't live to an age where they have children. So sucessful societies will have descendants whom are both genetic and memetic programmed to listen without question. Therefore those children will also accept faith more readily without question.



*weary sigh*

The idea that faith is something held by people who don't "question" things is not only wrong, it is as petty and narrow-minded a view as any held by the backwards hidebound simpletons you imagine when you assert such a view.

People of faith are no more or less likely to question things than any other group of people that has a large enough sample size to contain a typical diversity of personality types.

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Meerkat wrote:
scott3387 wrote:
Can't watch this video right now but I always assumed that faith was a 'backfiring' of children doing what they are told more often than not.

If a child is born who willfully ignores 'Don't jump off that cliff' they won't live to an age where they have children. So sucessful societies will have descendants whom are both genetic and memetic programmed to listen without question. Therefore those children will also accept faith more readily without question.



*weary sigh*

The idea that faith is something held by people who don't "question" things is not only wrong, it is as petty and narrow-minded a view as any held by the backwards hidebound simpletons you imagine when you assert such a view.

People of faith are no more or less likely to question things than any other group of people that has a large enough sample size to contain a typical diversity of personality types.



Adults maybe but as children in general you don't question authority.

I'm not saying that all religious people are mindless drones. Instead I'm saying that religious belief is much easier to indoctrinate into little children because they don't question authority as much as an adult might. Not every religious person was taught religion as a child but the vast majority were. I wonder how long religion would last in a horrible barbaric society that excluded children from all adult intervention until they were 16.

 
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scott3387 wrote:
Meerkat wrote:
scott3387 wrote:
Can't watch this video right now but I always assumed that faith was a 'backfiring' of children doing what they are told more often than not.

If a child is born who willfully ignores 'Don't jump off that cliff' they won't live to an age where they have children. So sucessful societies will have descendants whom are both genetic and memetic programmed to listen without question. Therefore those children will also accept faith more readily without question.



*weary sigh*

The idea that faith is something held by people who don't "question" things is not only wrong, it is as petty and narrow-minded a view as any held by the backwards hidebound simpletons you imagine when you assert such a view.

People of faith are no more or less likely to question things than any other group of people that has a large enough sample size to contain a typical diversity of personality types.



Adults maybe but as children in general you don't question authority.

I'm not saying that all religious people are mindless drones. Instead I'm saying that religious belief is much easier to indoctrinate into little children because they don't question authority as much as an adult might. Not every religious person was taught religion as a child but the vast majority were. I wonder how long religion would last in a horrible barbaric society that excluded children from all adult intervention until they were 16.



While we're at it, let's discuss how the arts might be affected by leaving kids to themselves until they are 16. What about society in general... what kind of system of laws and social consciousness might develop in that way?
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Commander Harris
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It (again) doesn't prove anything either way. Of course you want children to be receptive to things they are told, if they would question everything then we would end up with (as you said) dead kids at worst or a race of relativistic nihilists.

You still need to hear about the word of God to believe. As with all things taught at a young age, if you are primed in a particular way it is hard to shed those core beliefs. Be those beliefs secular or religious.
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YOUR answers.
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Junior McSpiffy
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b a n j o wrote:
Meerkat wrote:
scott3387 wrote:
Can't watch this video right now but I always assumed that faith was a 'backfiring' of children doing what they are told more often than not.

If a child is born who willfully ignores 'Don't jump off that cliff' they won't live to an age where they have children. So sucessful societies will have descendants whom are both genetic and memetic programmed to listen without question. Therefore those children will also accept faith more readily without question.



*weary sigh*

The idea that faith is something held by people who don't "question" things is not only wrong, it is as petty and narrow-minded a view as any held by the backwards hidebound simpletons you imagine when you assert such a view.

People of faith are no more or less likely to question things than any other group of people that has a large enough sample size to contain a typical diversity of personality types.



It's not that people of faith don't question anything, but rather that they don't always accept the answers.


Now entering the ring in the tag-team condescension championship match....
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b a n j o wrote:



It's not that people of faith don't question anything, but rather that they don't always accept the answers.


I've accepted lots of answers about the universe, and I've questioned everything, including my own faith.

There is yet answers to some of the questions I have, and have yet to meet a person capable of those answers.

Not all of us of faith are so attached to written dogma of questionable content, and still have a faith of something else, something beyond of that which we scurry around in the dirt and what we can see in the skies.
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b a n j o wrote:
Jythier wrote:
YOUR answers.


No. The answers provided by science.


First Science isn't some pure fountain of truth. As a Scientist who LOVES science with a passion I say this.

Second science, REAL SCIENCE, makes no claims about the existence of God one way or another. People may use some information generated by science to support their positions (aka beliefs about the world), but science itself draws no such conclusions.
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I think that the big fault line isn't 'science vs. religion'.

Rather, its 'reasoned' vs. 'blind' faith- of anything.

This includes science, as well as religion. Its not what you believe that matters, but how you come to believe it.

Darilian

(FWIW, that was my 14,000th post!!!)
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scott3387 wrote:


Adults maybe but as children in general you don't question authority.


Again a wholly untrue statement. Children in general don't DEFY authority, but that doesn't mean they don't question it.

Do you have kids?? Have you not ever heard of the "Why" stage toddlers go through? Do you honestly think that Toddlers question and adults question but there is some magical middle zone where kids accept all things mindlessly?

I challenged my parents and teachers often, especially when given some unsatisfactory answer to a question I posed. I challenged my Sunday School Teachers just as often.

Quote:

I'm not saying that all religious people are mindless drones. Instead I'm saying that religious belief is much easier to indoctrinate into little children because they don't question authority as much as an adult might. Not every religious person was taught religion as a child but the vast majority were. I wonder how long religion would last in a horrible barbaric society that excluded children from all adult intervention until they were 16.



Certainly the religious culture one is raised in will affect how one grows up. But that is true of ALL Cultural influences. Americans value independence and self reliance more than most cultures. The Japanese value group identity more. This cultural difference raise up people who tend to be very different in terms of how they respond to many life situations. But labeling either group, especially individuals from those groups, as universally X does a grave disservice to all of humanity. Yes we are all products of our culture up to a certain point. But beyond that point we are all individuals capable and RESPONSIBLE for our personal Character and life choices.
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Before this thread spins off to multi-pages of bickering over faith, I want to toss in this link since I think it is relevant to the OP.

Written by Tanya Marie (“T.M.”) Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist and the Watkins University professor in the department of anthropology at Stanford University in Stanford, California.

If you hear God speak audibly you (usually) aren't crazy

The whole article is worth reading... but here are a few snips.

Quote:
There’s an old joke: When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.

Except that usually it’s not.

Hearing a voice when alone, or seeing something no one else can see, is pretty common. At least one in 10 people will say they’ve had such an experience if you ask them bluntly.

...

And if you ask them in a way that allows them to admit they made a mistake, the rate climbs even higher. By contrast, schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental disorders, is pretty rare. Only about one in 100 people can be diagnosed with the disorder.



The Article Concludes


Quote:

Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard. But it can tell us that many of these events are normal, part of the fabric of human perception. History tells us that those experiences enable people to choose paths they should choose, but for various reasons they hesitate to choose.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, in the winter of 1956, terrified by the fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery bus boycott, he said he heard the voice of Jesus promising, “I will be with you.” He went forward.


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I hear a child all the time, crying and asking for it's mother.

I live next door to a woman and a child, but the two cannot be linked.
 
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Some comments on the video:

1) I don't think any Christian will deny that faith of some sort is the default setting for human beings. The Bible itself says as much, after all. Do I find it particularly surprising that parts of the brain related to social activities and abstract thought are active when answering questions about religion, since that, after all, is more or less what you're doing. There's definitely a strong reductionist assumption throughout that video- Dr. Thompson seems to think that if religion is a function of brain states than it must be only a function of brain states. That may be true, and it may not be true, but I submit that the evidence he presents is only threatening to religion if the listener shares that assumption. Why shouldn't my religious activities be reflected in my brain state? I am a physical being. If I am in fact doing something different in church than when I am not in church (and I don't think a Christian would deny that), then why wouldn't it make sense for the difference to be reflected in my brain? Similarly, when he speaks of "overread purpose", his statements are true only if there is no purpose to material things. In other words, to copy his example, if a river was put there by chance it is overreading its purpose to state that it is there so humans can float boats. But if the river was in fact put there so humans could float boats there is not overreading. To say the former is true and the later is not is a reductionistic statement at its core.

2) Dr. Thomas gave a lot of discussion to the concept of "minimally counterintuitive ideas" and how that plays into religious ideas. I can't speak for every religion, but I submit that this is an inaccurate description for at least Christianity. I have looked into many religions, and practically all of them are more intuitive by human standards than Christianity is. If you ever read a systematic theology book about the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Incarnation, you will notice something odd. Every heresy which the church has historically condemned is far more logical and easier to understand than the actual doctrines to which the church clings. We can understand three gods or one god who adopts two different roles easily enough. But the claim that there is only one God who somehow exists in three persons, neither confusing them nor dividing the substance, is a logic bomb of the highest caliber. At every point, I find that Christianity subsumes human intuition. We tend to think ourselves reasonably good people. Well, Christianity tells us that we are bad. We can understand how God might allow evil if he is powerless to stop it or is evil himself. But the reply that Christianity actually gives- that God is good and in his sovereignty allows certain acts of evil, with a refusal to give any explanation besides, "I am the Lord!" is so counterintuitive that even Christians balk at it. If the natural state of the human brain is to believe in something, I think we must also believe that the "something" will be something other than Christianity.

3) Lastly, his focus on religion is overly narrow and deeply seeped in Western ideas. I would very much be interested in seeing the MRI study he referenced (full text of study is here, BTW) replicated in India or China. He seems to only consider "god" in the vague sense modern US culture does- a big, powerful, all-knowing man in the sky. This conception is an injustice both to the Christian idea of God and to the host of non-Christian religions in the world. So I am rather skeptical that any model he produces can be said to speak about religions generally, since so much of the breadth of religious ideas seems to have been excluded.
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I must thank you all for encouraging me to have a look at the scientific research on this matter. Some fascinating articles on it and I spent an hour reading various articles, mainly Trust in Testimony: How Children Learn About Science and Religion, Harris and Koenig, 2006.

I feel that I should highlight the following two paragraphs

Quote:
In conclusion, two different bodies of evidence
converge to indicate that children do not adopt a
conservative attitude of skepticism toward the testi-
mony supplied by other people. First, with respect to
various objective, but normally unobservable, fea-
tures of the world, children trust what adults tell
them, and indeed they appear to rework that infor-
mation into a coherent concept of the domain in
question, whether it is the role of the brain in mental
processes, the shape of the earth, or biological con-
straints on the life cycle.
Second, that trust is not confined to objective but
normally hidden properties of the world. Children
also accept the religious claims that adults make with
respect to the omniscience, immortality and omnip-
otence of God, the efficacy of prayer, and life after
death. In other words, it would be a mistake to
conclude that children’s trust in testimony simply
offers them a way to amplify or extend their own
powers of observation. Although in some domains it
does just that, it also leads them to be credulous to-
ward spiritual claims that are not ultimately
grounded in observational evidence.


Though it does also offer a multi-faceted approach to the topic which I cannot very well articulate here and obviously there is more to religion than just childhood trust.
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Commander Harris
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twomillionbucks wrote:
Some comments on the video:

1) I don't think any Christian will .....


True and I think there is probably too much still unknown about the brain to conclusively go with a reductionist view. It can work both ways for the case he is making.

Concerning the overreading of purpose, I do think he has a point. But I guess that also depends on your religious outset. Although I wonder how many Christians would go with that argument.

Quote:
2) Dr. Thomas gave a lot of discussion to the concept of "minimally counterintuitive ideas" and how that plays into religious ideas. ......


Although it is true that quite a few tenants of Christianity are very counter intuitive, that's not what I think he is getting at. The basics are "minimally counter intuitive". God being "just a guy" (just quoting here), in the sense that you can think about people who are not physically present and even attribute agency and thoughts to them. The pattern recognition, that is evolutionary set to have many false negatives (the smoke alarm principle) and the tendency to attribute agency. After that you get to the doctrinal stuff that might seem counter intuitive, but then you're already there. Moreover I doubt the number of people who actively wrestle with those things. My grandparents and my great uncles and aunts were all devout Catholics, but they never wrestled with the nature of the Trinity or the miracle of transubstantiation for example.

Quote:
3) Lastly, his focus on religion is overly narrow and deeply seeped in Western ideas.


I agree, but I think most religious people would fall under the same category. Most religious ascribe to a God or gods that set or keep the world in motion. I'm not an anthropologist but religion probably started with animism, where all those biases mentioned are very much in play.
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As I said, I don't think the evidence is conclusive either way. It still gives a plausible origin of religions and might give a glimpse as to how religious thought works, not taking into account the existence of deities.

I'm not religious and I am still eager to learn about religions and the difficult thing for me is to get into the mindset of a person who devoutly believes in one or more deity. I am still looking for an answer how some people become religious and some don't. It clearly has nothing to do with intelligence or sanity. So this does speak to me, as it explains it from properties that every human has and I don't believe religious and non-religious people are wired differently.

Although I realize it might still feel to religious people like an accusation of insincerity, I don't mean it like that at all. Because in the end either I don't believe in any deity despite it being evident to the majority of humanity or there has to be an explanation why the rest of humanity believes in something which is not true.

I'm not ruling out the first possibility, but to explain how the world works, as we all strive to do, I still need an explanation for the latter possibility. I'm no different after all.
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max89 wrote:

Moreover I doubt the number of people who actively wrestle with those things. My grandparents and my great uncles and aunts were all devout Catholics, but they never wrestled with the nature of the Trinity or the miracle of transubstantiation for example.


How sure of that are you, and even if you are personally sure I wonder if you are correct.

When we observe the older generations we observe the finished product of a lifetime, not the process that got them there.

I always found it fascinating to occasionally when hearing stories get hit with the realization that my "grandparents" had been very different people than the ones I knew and loved now.

20 years ago I was different than I am now, 40 years ago even more different.

If we wrestled with complex ideas, why would it seem unlikely that they did so in their youth?

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Meerkat wrote:
max89 wrote:

Moreover I doubt the number of people who actively wrestle with those things. My grandparents and my great uncles and aunts were all devout Catholics, but they never wrestled with the nature of the Trinity or the miracle of transubstantiation for example.


How sure of that are you, and even if you are personally sure I wonder if you are correct.

When we observe the older generations we observe the finished product of a lifetime, not the process that got them there.

I always found it fascinating to occasionally when hearing stories get hit with the realization that my "grandparents" had been very different people than the ones I knew and loved now.

20 years ago I was different than I am now, 40 years ago even more different.

If we wrestled with complex ideas, why would it seem unlikely that they did so in their youth?


I am sure they were different people at 80, 60, 40 etc... But in their case their religion was in a great deal tradition and something that was just part of daily life, without thinking about the details. My grandmother was born in 1920 and only in 1965 with the second Vatican council was mass no longer in Latin, which none of my grandparents or great uncles or aunts spoke. Bible studies aren't as big a part in the flavor of Catholicism in the Netherlands (I believe less so for most Catholics), so the question of the Holy Trinity or transubstantiation was not on their mind. There was no direct or personal bond with God, again I believe that's not central to Catholicism, God was an omnipresent being you prayed for and hoped he would help you.

So I think the relationship with God was less direct and personal and to the nitty gritty of the doctrine they took a "trust the expert" approach. Which is of course why we had the Reformation.
 
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max89 wrote:
Meerkat wrote:
max89 wrote:

Moreover I doubt the number of people who actively wrestle with those things. My grandparents and my great uncles and aunts were all devout Catholics, but they never wrestled with the nature of the Trinity or the miracle of transubstantiation for example.


How sure of that are you, and even if you are personally sure I wonder if you are correct.

When we observe the older generations we observe the finished product of a lifetime, not the process that got them there.

I always found it fascinating to occasionally when hearing stories get hit with the realization that my "grandparents" had been very different people than the ones I knew and loved now.

20 years ago I was different than I am now, 40 years ago even more different.

If we wrestled with complex ideas, why would it seem unlikely that they did so in their youth?


I am sure they were different people at 80, 60, 40 etc... But in their case their religion was in a great deal tradition and something that was just part of daily life, without thinking about the details. My grandmother was born in 1920 and only in 1965 with the second Vatican council was mass no longer in Latin, which none of my grandparents or great uncles or aunts spoke. Bible studies aren't as big a part in the flavor of Catholicism in the Netherlands (I believe less so for most Catholics), so the question of the Holy Trinity or transubstantiation was not on their mind. There was no direct or personal bond with God, again I believe that's not central to Catholicism, God was an omnipresent being you prayed for and hoped he would help you.

So I think the relationship with God was less direct and personal and to the nitty gritty of the doctrine they took a "trust the expert" approach. Which is of course why we had the Reformation.



Ok, but even back then didn't they have to go through Confirmation which included Catechism?

That is always in the language people speak growing up. And the Trinity is pretty standard in that. I would expect transubstantiation to be as well.

 
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I have to agree with Commander Harris as my experience growing up and my interaction with Church-goers now fits his.

Some people, such as people who like to argue about religion on the internet, will be really interested in the details of what exactly the Trinity is or how literal transubstantiation is. Many other Church goers probably will know what you are talking about if you bring these things up, but they aren't very important to them.

For good reason too. I don't think they are that important either, for probably the same reasons.
 
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Dolphinandrew wrote:
I have to agree with Commander Harris as my experience growing up and my interaction with Church-goers now fits his.

Some people, such as people who like to argue about religion on the internet, will be really interested in the details of what exactly the Trinity is or how literal transubstantiation is. Many other Church goers probably will know what you are talking about if you bring these things up, but they aren't very important to them.

For good reason too. I don't think they are that important either, for probably the same reasons.


I don't understand what you mean by thinking they are important.

One of the main reasons that many people in mainstream Christianity think Mormonism is a heresy is that they don't teach/believe in the Trinity.

As soon as you say that to the average church goer their response tends to be "Seriously, how can they get THAT so Wrong".

Now if your stance is they accept the Trinity without pondering it too deeply, maybe you might have a point... but I remember not only pondering it but discussing it with others my age when I was growing up and getting old enough to really examine my beliefs. And nobody said, hey I never think about that junk, I just accept what they tell me. Most of my friends were contemplating these deeper concepts as well.

Now 30 years later I cannot tell you a whole lot about the details of what I pondered anymore than I can tell you exactly how I finally grasp some of the concepts in Calculus. Some things once you "grok" them, you forget how you got there, but it all make sense now.

Just for fun though I will share one bit that hit me when I really "groked" the Trinity.

Some of the things Jesus said seem like forwarding the impossible to make a point. But when you take into account the Trinity... they aren't as extreme as they sound. One of the interesting things that hit me in my Teens when I was pondering the "Trinity", is that God really can "Not let his left hand know what his right hand is doing".


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