Psychology of Belief

I’ve been discussing the relative merits of a scientific world view versus faith, with Lesley over on her blog. To clarify my view, basically how I get to my world view, I’ve added a couple of posts on this blog:

Contingency of Knowledge – How I get started, about what I can know.

Human Fallibility – Why we have to be careful about what we conclude.

Lesley has responded today with this post on Human Fallibility.

The distinction I would make, between our two positions, is as follows.

What Lesley is describing are the effects of actually believing, some of which are good, but others bad. The problem is that choosing to believe on faith leaves people open to persuasion or even indoctrination, and the way that goes, good or bad, seems to be the luck of the draw. If it goes the wrong way then faith can be used to justify awful behaviours.

The other side of the distinction between religion and a scientific approach is that the critical thinking that is promoted on the science side encourages self-analysis to an extent that faith doesn’t – some Christians being exceptions rather than the rule.

As a result of this, another bad effect of faith is that it provides justification for avoiding the effort to think too much. This can be carried over to other areas of human interaction, where it’s easy to let a view on marriage, sex, law, education, or politics, be so guided by one’s religion that it’s natural to just decide on the basis of what your own religion or you local or personal spiritual leader says. But this is often disguised by the fact that some critical thinking does go on, but only within the framework of the faith – the faith trumps reason.

Further, though each religion may recognise the existence of other religions it tends not to scrutinise them too publicly, too critically, particularly in a multi-cultural society like ours, because, I think, that there is genuine apprehension about exposing it’s own inconsistencies. This leads to an odd form of cultural relativism within religions that is somewhat like the left wing secular cultural relativism – where for the latter, you say anything goes, and for the former, you keep quiet about uncomfortable differences because of the uncomfortable similarities. We end up with daft compromises, like Rowan Williams on Sharia, in order to maintains one’s own privilege.

Here is a guide that demonstrates potential problems with thinking processes, with particular reference to belief in God. It’s a little bit geeky, but if you can get through it, it should shed light on what I think is wrong with religious thinking.

Psychology of Belief, Part 1: Informational Influence

Psychology of Belief, Part 2: Insufficient Justification

Psychology of Belief, Part 3: Confirmation Bias

Psychology of Belief, Part 4: Misinformation Effect

Psychology of Belief, Part 5: Compliance Techniques

Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations

And, here’s another quick guide.

Top 25 Creationist Fallacies

Like all theories based on psychological research there are often controversies and new research results, but generally these modes of influence on thinking are well recognised, and identifiable in much religious discourse. Some of the above are also associated with logical fallacies in reasoning.

Of course this requirement for critical thinking applies to our side of the debate too. We too are human and not immune to error, and have to listen to criticism fairly.

25 thoughts on “Psychology of Belief

  1. Hi Ron,Watched all your videos. Psychology is one of my favourite subjects and so some of those phenomena were known to me.I broadly totally agree with everything you have put in your post and totally agree with all that the videos say.I despise religion that uses manipulation. (You may say I do – I would be interested in that). Broadly- I do dissent – I do express doubt- I don't want to convert you- I listen in preference to preach- I don't subscribe to there being a 'right answer'..However, are atheists guilty of falling into some of these traps? I was from an unbelieving family and my folks and brother were horrified about my faith. Are atheists allowed to express dissent? Do atheists have a confirmation bias?

  2. Hi Lesley,Atheists are as susceptible as anyone. That's why having an education that encourages critical thinking is so essential, yet mostly so absent. Some philosophers, like Steven Law, are promoting the teaching and use of methods of critical thinking in schools, and thankfully this is starting to take place, though no doubt not enough.So, yes, I'm sure that there are many atheists who have reached that position by default, or who have been turned off religion for some reason, or who simply aren't convinced. Perhaps they do maintain that position without thinking about it too critically. Perhaps they should be encouraged to train themselves in thinking about the problem critically, so that they have a stronger foundation to their understanding of the issues rather than relying on gut feelings and confirmation bias to get them through.The trouble is I don't see any intellectual explanation that would persuade me to consider faith as a good choice for deciding the value of something.

  3. Out of interest, what do you make of quotes like that of Lord Mountbatten saying of Gandhi that one unarmed man had been more effective in the Punjab than 50,000 troops. Do you not think his faith had any bearing on this?

  4. Hi Lesley,I supposed you've stirred me into action :)My last paragraph was part of my response about the possibility of atheists having biases and falling into other traps. If they do, then the solution is to look at their own thoughts more critically. Any such path of thought would generally conclude that relying on faith isn't a good idea. So, even if a biased atheist corrected his biases, they'd be no more inclined to see the reason for faith.Mountbatten's statement was one of observation. In that case the man of faith was more persuasive than foreign troops. But we know the faith can be persuasive – how else could you persuade someone to become a suicide bomber? So, that doesn't make it always beneficial, and it doesn't make the beliefs true.

  5. Hiya,:) I like stirring.. one of my many fine attributes. You may have noticed that I have stolen most of your recent postings and put them on my blog so I guess it is mutual.I meant this bit "The trouble is I don't see any intellectual explanation that would persuade me to consider faith as a good choice for deciding the value of something."So do we agree that faith can be a massive force for good or ill? Hence, can faith in itself be an entity of worth irrespective of the God dimension? For instance, I am pretty ignorant but I don't think Buddhists have gods but they do have faith…

  6. Hi Lesley,Another tricky word, 'faith'. When a scientist has 'faith' in his pet theory he means he has followed the evidence that supports it, has reviewed any opposition, has currently concluded that it won't be falsified, so he has 'trust' in it. If I were to say I have 'faith' in the theory of evolution (which I specifically avoid doing for this reason) than I would mean that from all I've read about it, I 'trust' it. Just as I trust or have faith that Japan exists, even though I've not been there. This appears to me to be quite different from what a theist calls 'faith'. So, with that in mind I don't know what to make of your understanding that Buddhists have 'faith'. What do they have 'faith' in, and does that just mean 'trust' or 'confidence'?"So do we agree that faith can be a massive force for good or ill?" – Not unless you agree with the following. I think the fact that many people 'have faith' can be a massive force for good or ill, but that says nothing of the worth of the particular faith. It's the human personal and cultural psychology behind the possession of a commitment to something that I think often holds sway for good or bad. That in itself is an interesting point quite separate from a faith in a God, or a person like Stalin. In that way I think that a 'faith' in (or trust in, or commitment to) in honesty, morality, etc., that is a 'faith' in humanity, is generally a force for good, otherwise we could find it hard to put trust in each other at all – so in this case this 'actual' 'faith' or 'trust' is good. But I don't see any inherent good in the any particular religious faith – though I agree that some people may shape their behaviour into a good behaviour and attribute it to a particular faith, which I think is mistaken.

  7. Interesting question.. never really thought about it, so thanks. I think what I mean by 'faith' in this context has to do with committing to a world view that incorporates some core beliefs about transforming the world and ourselves for the better, and this is done in the context of communities who will together hold the core beliefs.On a pragmatic level, I feel this is very important – if one's faith is sick, and can be observed to produce fear and hatred then I would make a value judgement on the worth of that faith. likewise if it transforms individuals and communities I would say it is a good thing. I would say humanism is a form of faith because my observation of it is that there is a belief in good overcoming bad by the power of human endeavour and a duty to act in ways that promote this.

  8. Hi Lesley,I could say that based on intellectual considerations alone, observing human behaviour, appreciating the evolved human nature upon which we construct our morals, it would be possible to construct a humanism that offers a guide for behaviour that provides the most common good.However, being more pragmatic, we know how inconsiderate humans can be towards each other, to the extent that in some situations it wouldn't be too irrational to come to a more pessimistic view of humanity's future. But in spite of this potential pessimism, a more optimistic outlook could suppose that there is the potential to achieve something more, better, than that of the pessimistic view, expecting, hoping, wishing that an effective humanism could be developed.This is about as far as I can go in having any tendency towards what I would call a faith; in this faith in human nature. But in the context of our discussions I would be wary of it being misconstrude as something like a faith in God. God I see as a fiction – purely because of the lack of evidence for a God, and the lack of evidence that we can will something into anything approaching a meaninful existence, just by faith. And despite all your own uncertainties I still feel that what you describe when you describe your religious experiences and faith in God does require some form of existence. I don't see how that can be avoided when you speak of God's love, for example. To be an active agent having love for us would require some form of independent existence that goes beyond the way I have described God – as a fantasy, an abstract concept.My faith in human nature I see more as a wager. From what I know about human nature I would wager that we will eventually improve our condition to a point were we understand how to control our own development (as a species) in order to progress further without some of the dangers we have faced in the past and still face today. I would even be prepared to say that my faith in human nature is wishful thinking, because based on evidence the chances of a good outcome aren't certain. I think our experiences of the good in human nature is sufficient for an optimistic wager, it's just that the dangers are great – runaway greenhouse, dirty wars, religious fundementalism, etc.This then is the extent to which I see humanism as a faith – a wager, a hope, a wish, a desire, an intention, that we will overcome the problems and eventually make progress so that we are no longer a danger to ourselves. But still, this doesn't seem anything like what I perceive your faith to be.

  9. Incidentally, your first paragraph, begining at "I think what I mean by 'faith' in this context…" is close to an atheist humanist view. There's no explicit mention of God, and I would agree with it on that basis. Much of what you say leaves me with the impression that you are not quite a theist, but not quite an atheist. And agnostic doesn't fit in this context. I guess the only theism I see in your views are when you actually say you have faith in God, and say you have religious experiences – but that clearly isn't atheism.

  10. Hi Ron,It would be possible to construct a humanism that offers a guide for behaviour that provides the most common good.Ok, this is a hope, an aspiration. Now consider this. Lets say that you met with a dozen like-minded people each week and expressed this desire to each other, and chose to pool your collective humanity and your collective hope. You started to use methods of meditation, included exercises in NLP, read about how small people have achieved great things. Each week you became more inspired and jabbered to your friends about it. A movement starts.. You meet for an hour and a half at the weekend and meditate and share stories of how you feel you are changing for the better. You do some social action, some here in your town and some further afield. One evening a week you study an inspirational book – perhaps you start with Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, and you get far more out of it than you did reading it alone. NOW you have seen the power of meeting to change lives, to change the world.. your hope (faith?) becomes stronger. Once your movement has reached a certain size, humanism becomes a world religion. In that time some really inspiring leaders have helped the movement and shaped the movement. They have written down what they have learned and what they have experienced. In that time you have found half a dozen really helpful meditation methods that have been written down and one of the six tends to be used at meetings. In that time a few principles have become important, a few phrases are written down. When you doubt – when you lose hope, you go to the meeting and remember the hope you once had. Or when you lose hope you remember the phrases that are written down and how meaningful they have been in the past. At the end of your life, you look back and are pleased that humanism has changed you and changed your world.Is this and different to Buddhism or Confucianism? It is or could be a faith. And it could be a movement that rocked our world, that pushed us back from the brink of self destruction, that put us back in equilibrium with the environment. It could be – if you had faith.And despite all your own uncertainties I still feel that what you describe when you describe your religious experiences and faith in God does require some form of existence.Yes, but the thing is that I think before my 'abyss' that was important, now it isn't – you tell me that God doesn't exist and I don't mind that much. You tell me that my faith is just as I described above – the power of people meeting together and I shrug. Of course, deep down I don't believe it. It could be that 'God' is the sum of the human subconsciousness, again I doubt it. I do know Christians who don't believe in an external God and still speak of a relationship with God. But still, this doesn't seem anything like what I perceive your faith to be.Probably not – no. I do believe that there is a Beneficial agent who loves us all and who empowers us to do good.

  11. Incidentally, your first paragraph, begining at "I think what I mean by 'faith' in this context…" is close to an atheist humanist view. There's no explicit mention of God, and I would agree with it on that basis. Good – always pleased when we find something to agree on. I think defining what we actually mean by certain words is essential – thanks for asking the question. Much of what you say leaves me with the impression that you are not quite a theist, but not quite an atheist. And agnostic doesn't fit in this context. You said yourself that atheist is a word that really means a fairly convinced agnostic (or something like that). On your current life experiences that leads you to the conclusion of atheism. Surely the same is true for theists (don't like that word but will put up with it).. it means fairly convinced agnostic in the same way..?I guess the only theism I see in your views are when you actually say you have faith in God, and say you have religious experiences – but that clearly isn't atheism. I defined faith in the way I did because I don't want to discount Buddhism or Confucianism. Maybe I should, but to be perfectly honest, if you look at the god of Islam, it is totally different to the god of Christianity and that is totally different to the god of the Jews. And those are similar faiths.. now look at the eastern gods and all the rest.. and I wonder whether if I throw the word God into my definition of faith then it will just be interpreted as believing six impossible things before breakfast. What would it actually mean? Now I could describe faith more narrowly and include only Christian faith in that, but how arrogant would that be?

  12. Hi Lesley,The developing humanism you describe would indeed be another religion, but that's what the humanist movement is trying to avoid."committing to a world view that incorporates some core beliefs" – If the commitment is a strong faith that takes these core beliefs as a starting point then there is a danger that they evolve into a juggernaut that can't be questioned. The momentum is so great that no matter how much it is challenged it effectively ignores the challenges, because it can."started to use methods of meditation, included exercises in NLP" – I'd want to determine that any methods I use would be shown to be reliable. NLP does not meet this requirement. Meditation can be used for relaxation and controlling the activity of the mind, but there is no evidence it actually shows us anything informative. I certainly wouldn't want these as serious group activities because they would likely take on a life of their own and become self affirming processes. I'd much rather value separate individual reasoning and the bringing together of disparate ideas to examine many possibilities. I'd be more interested in dissent than "meditate and share stories of how you feel you are changing for the better", which I think is a recipe for confirmation bias."One evening a week you study an inspirational book" – Why would we do this, as opposed to holding any data up for examination, provided it was within a certain topic area. This isn't a book club, of a feel good club. It would have to be a serious endeavour to look for useful ideas."Goleman's Emotional Intelligence" – Why would I use this book? See criticisms here."NOW you have seen the power of meeting to change lives" – i.e. to influence by persuasive means, not by objective analysis of what is good or bad."to change the world.. your hope (faith?) becomes stronger." – Perhaps misguidedly so, since there's no academic peer review of any strong criticism. The whole objective under this scheme seems like an exercise in self-delusion by group affirmation – i.e. religion – which isn't something I think is helpful."Once your movement has reached a certain size, humanism becomes a world religion." – A terrifying thought. We have enough religions.

  13. "In that time some really inspiring leaders have helped the movement and shaped the movement." – Through typical application of charismatic presentation to gullible uneducated masses."They have written down what they have learned and what they have experienced. In that time you have found half a dozen really helpful meditation methods that have been written down and one of the six tends to be used at meetings. In that time a few principles have become important, a few phrases are written down. " – They have created a dogma."When you doubt – when you lose hope, you go to the meeting and remember the hope you once had." – You either re-affirm your belief or have it re-affirmed for you. Wouldn't want anyone getting independent ideas? But this is precisely the wrong way to go."Or when you lose hope you remember the phrases that are written down and how meaningful they have been in the past." – You re-affirm, convince yourself they were right, rather than challenging them, questioning them, criticising your very core beliefs."At the end of your life, you look back and are pleased that humanism has changed you and changed your world." – Self satisfaction in what is thought to be the full and complete story – the religion. This is so opposed to science where the inquiry continues."It is or could be a faith." – Sounds like it, but I wouldn't want it."It could be – if you had faith." – Commitment to something that appears to be beneficial but achieves its end through obfuscation, self-delusion, lies, would be too high a price to pay."I do know Christians who don't believe in an external God and still speak of a relationship with God." – In that case my question remains – what does that mean? How is it not a relationship with the self? How is it not fantasy and delusion?"I do believe that there is a Beneficial agent who loves us all and who empowers us to do good." – But what is it? To say this seems to go against all common sense and against all science. It is a claim that some agent exists, but is never visible, never present, never evident, except in the mind of the believer claiming it."Now I could describe faith more narrowly and include only Christian faith in that, but how arrogant would that be?" – I don't think it arrogant because although we are talking about faith in general I would expect you to be able to relate to your faith experiences. I suppose I do make generalisations sometimes, but that's because I'm not sure what applies and what doesn't in any particular fiath.

  14. I think it all depends whether you see a religion or movement as something bad or good. The point I am making is that it can be good, it can change people and situations for the better.I don't think I believe that it has to achieve its end through obfuscation, self-delusion and lies. Perhaps I parodied too much and the point was lost.I do think that there is such a thing as wisdom – that people find certain things helpful and those things are passed on. Probably psychology can tell us why in the end, but rather than wait for the explanation we can be pragmatic and call upon the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Any movement can be good or bad and go through periods of being both – take the Labour party. I think I am saying that religion can be a concerted effort plus a passed down wisdom and I think this is a good thing. I think it shows in the world that many inspirational people are from faith groups because they have the advantages of these things.

  15. "I think I am saying that religion can be a concerted effort plus a passed down wisdom and I think this is a good thing. "I do agree with the sentiment, but I do think a lot of what is passed down isn't wisdom, it's dogma, and therein lies the problem for religion. As I've said, religion could turn itself into a force for good by giving up the dogma, incorporating what we have learned since Christianity came about, and move on without the need for God and claims about miracles.

  16. I would agree with you, although I am not sure myself which bits are dogma. I suppose in a very small way I am trying to sift on my blog what is good to keep and what definitely needs to go.I think a pragmatic tool is needed and religions need to be seen to be good for society. For instance, I too share your disgust about the issues of control of sex over the years by the church. Being a bit older and wiser now I have experienced divorce and known good and bad relationships. I think if I had been an upper class celibate priest I may well have had no understanding of things sexual and relational.I want to post something on Spong and theism.. I'll do that soon..As for believing in an external God, I am not sure why it matters that much. I want to start a movement where we love one another well, treat each other well, treat our world well, become at peace with ourselves. I want the collected wisdom and inspiration of the ages as part of that and the sense of being community and doing the work together.For me this can be achieved through the Christian faith, and I think Jesus was really only concerned with bringing in the Kingdom of God which I interpret as the above. Belief in a deity is incidental to this, but helpful to me and a stumbling block to you.

  17. Part of the dogma is the insistence on a deity, Jesus as son of God, the ressurection, etc. These seem imoveable objects in the Christian faith, and are therefore dogma: a specific tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down, as by a church: the dogma of the Assumption.I think the deity, the supernatural, and the language such as the Kingdom of God would be a show stopper for may agnostics and atheists who might otherwise want to be part of a community – i.e. the good stuff. It would have to be a bit of a schism, because it would alienate many Christians who believe in the real existence of an entity God.I know there are many Jewish atheists who remain part of the Jewish community and take part in religious traditions. They just take the religious stuff with a pinch of salt.By the way, have you seen the Mr Deity series? This is my favourite, where God and Jesus try to figure out the trinity. This might be a good one for your blog. I love the bit where they lapse into Abbott and Costello's Who's On First 🙂

  18. Part of the dogma is the insistence on a deity, Jesus as son of God, the ressurection, etc. These seem imoveable objects in the Christian faith. yep.. they are, but I don't see them as potentially harmful.In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a 'higher power' referred to. Agnostics and atheists simply believe this to be the power of the group, or the power of good in humanity. But I agree and understand that most of what I teach would be a showstopper. I wonder whether it would be good to have a community that is good for believers, agnostics and atheists. I am very in favour of this idea. I sort of thought humanism was this when I first found out about it.The problem I have with Dawkins type of humanism is precisely that it tears down all expressions of faith. I know full well that fundamentalism is bad and wrong, but I also see wisdom and altruism in large degrees in faith communities. Let's be discriminating in what we tear down and what we build up. I know there are many Jewish atheists who remain part of the Jewish community and take part in religious traditions. They just take the religious stuff with a pinch of salt. And Catholics and Muslims. Interesting you mention Jews though, when I did different religions on the course it seemed to me that the woman who came to speak to us was an atheist, her definition of the faith was the continuation of traditions, and that was it. I feel perhaps the hardships that the Jews have suffered have perhaps contributed to this.By the way, have you seen the Mr Deity series? This is my favourite, where God and Jesus try to figure out the trinity. This might be a good one for your blog. I love the bit where they lapse into Abbott and Costello's Who's On First 🙂 You bad boy, it is very funny and yes I am posting it. Are you trying to find out what it looks like when a Christian gets mashed by fellow Christians for heresy?btw did you see I plugged your blog today. Hope you didn't mind the stubborn comment

  19. "yep.. they are, but I don't see them as potentially harmful." – That's the bit I see as 'potentially' harmful. If there's any part of it that can't be seriously challenged then that can be held up as reason to follow bad interpretations. Whereas if science had some bad interpretations, e.g. eugenics, it can be challenged without the resistance of dogma. Of course this doesn't work as well as it should, because there can be dogmatic resistance to change in science sometimes (e.g. to tectonic plate theory), but the answer is more scepticism, better scientific method, not less of that and more dogmatism.AA was started by Christians so it has a religious flavour. The psychological trick here is to overcome one very destructive state of mind (not just psychological but physiological *) by the use of indoctrination methods put to a good use – the lesser of evils. But as a general principle I'd be opposed to indoctrination."The problem I have with Dawkins…" – Herding cats again. I can see why religion is better at community, but I still think it would be better to lose the fiction."Are you trying to find out what it looks like when a Christian gets mashed by fellow Christians for heresy?" – It it leads to self-examination (i.e. church examining itself not just on the personal level) then that must be a good thing, surely?Thanks for the mention. Don't mind the comment – say it like it is. And, for a moment I thought you'd discovered the perfect religion: The Distillery Church. Wasn't quite what I had in mind. Some interesting blogs there though. I'll try and have a more detailed look.

  20. Also, pinning down faith in God (from twitter, more space here)Pre-existent – evidence?benevolent – requires an agent – evidence?other than me – could be self-induced or externally induced but otherwise subconscious perceptionsbeyond my description – that's the get out of jail card. But if beyond description how can you know stuff about God?intervenes mostly by hunches/nudges – could be self-induced or externally induced but otherwise subconscious perceptions

  21. I suppose I do think they can be challenged. I do know one house group that has met for 20 years now and over half are now atheists. That doesn't bother me at all.. I am with you – everything must be up for challenge, however, I think it is tricky to call it Christianity without these beliefs..Yeah, having been married to an addict I did the 12 steps from the -Anon side and I dropped out because the dogma was too strong. I am just using it as an example of a group that means different things when using the same word – in this case 'higher power'. (I too am in favour in this case of these methods, but not in general).It is fiction to you but not to me. And realistically we aren't either of us ever going to be sure.:) I'm jesting – it is all good.. just some people take offence.Perhaps we call our humanist community 'The distillery'Not sure there are many that would float your boat.. I do quite a lot of flippant – you might have noticed

  22. ok, to your twitter space comment.. broadly no evidence, combination of experiences that point towards these things, feelings that point towards these things and a pragmatism that it works for me.Sooty knows some stuff about you. But you are broadly beyond her/his description or comprehension cos you sit typing all day for apparent reason, for a start. Same with us and God, I believe we have some understanding but it is pretty limited.And yes, I could be wrong, and I am happy to be persuaded.

  23. But Sooty occasionally gives me a nip, just to let me know he has physical reality, and I then tap him on the nose to do likewise.He doesn't get a feeling I exist and sit by his bowl praying for food; he finds me and plays merry hell 'till I feed him.It's an evidence based relationship.

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