A very interesting study, led by Sam Harris, came out this week demonstrating that the way that believers’ brains process their beliefs is the same as how they process facts.
Rather than summarize, I thought I would just respond today. Here’s the basic conclusion from the abstract:
Our study compares religious thinking with ordinary cognition and, as such, constitutes a step toward developing a neuropsychology of religion. However, these findings may also further our understanding of how the brain accepts statements of all kinds to be valid descriptions of the world.
One of the things that is central to why I write this blog is my sense that religious belief is immune to challenge in our society. It’s considered rude to say, “Why do you believe that?” or “How do you substantiate that belief?” We’re just supposed to respect people for having a belief and leave it at that.
I’ve always said that’s never good enough, and the findings of this study validate it. Unlike popular belief, our brains think about beliefs in the same way they think about facts. Now, your first impression might be, as mine was, that this finding is a blow to nonbelief. If beliefs can be considered fact by the brain, they must be that special and it must be that important to humanity. But if you think about it, the opposite is true!
If our brains think about beliefs like they do any other information, that actually demonstrates that religious beliefs don’t have any special distinction. In other words, it confirms that religious beliefs don’t serve the brain in any uniquely connected way than other information. So, we gain nothing from religious beliefs and thus we don’t need them either.
The problem is that our brains are flawed. We’re not perfect, and the preponderance of religious belief is the proof. If our brains are willing to accept all kinds of different information that is delivered in the same way, then we have an obligation to exercise our brains’ critical thinking skills with more priority. This is exactly what evolutionary psychologist Hank Davis advocates in Caveman Logic, a book I highly recommend everybody reading!
I hope believers really take the time to think about the implications of this study. Your beliefs aren’t special. So why do you hold them, and hold them with such importance?
I think the point the researches make is pivotal. There is no good reason that we do not have an adequate study of the neuropsychology of religion. Because of all the religious privilege that prevails in our society, I think researchers are afraid of asking the questions and believers are nervous about what the answers might be.
I applaud Harris and others for this kind of research. The more we learn about our world and our existence, the more reason we have to move away from misguided beliefs. I hope this study builds some momentum for further research!
This new finding makes Hot Atheist Chick’s new video that much more compelling…