Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Religious Belief and Other Beliefs

T.M. Luhrmann lays out some of the research that shows people hold religious beliefs in a different way than they hold factual beliefs about the physical world:
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. . . .

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.
I have often thought about this with regard to evolution. Natural selection is the view of biology you end up with if you reason with the same parts of your brain you use for fixing the plumbing. Nobody can seriously dispute that evolution happens using their rational brain centers. The dispute is really over whether that is the right way to think about human origins; fundamentalists believe that rationality is simply not the right way to approach a question that they regard as divine, so rational arguments have no effect on them.

And, really, whether people believe in evolution is not all that important to how life goes on in our century. The great danger is that people can move all sorts of beliefs to the sacred modules of the brain, where they become impenetrable to factual refutation. We are seeing this happen all around us with regard to climate change. (On both sides, I would say -- the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is good but far from perfect, and I am just as suspicious of predictions of this or that climate catastrophe as I am of outright denial.) Certain cranky conservatives seem convinced that paper money is some kind of scam, and that the economic policies of the Fed are criminal acts. Even bits of mundane politics like tax rates or health insurance exchanges can be turned into Beliefs, people holding views that have nothing to do with what is actually happening in the world. When that happens, any notion of politics as a conversation breaks down, and we are left shouting at each other, and counting votes.

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