Harebrained speculation time!
I’ve been reading a little bit about a cognitive bias I hadn’t heard of before — the Just World Hypothesis, or the Just World Fallacy. It came up several times in the conversations about sexual harassment and victim-blaming — but it occurs to me that it may shed some light on religion, and why people believe in it.
In a very quick, over-simplified nutshell: This hypothesis asserts that human beings have a cognitive bias. We are prone to thinking that the world is fair, and that people get what they deserve — both good and bad. So if bad things happen to someone, we’re unconsciously inclined to think that it’s the consequences of their bad character or bad past behavior. Similarly, when good things happen to someone, we’re unconsciously biased towards thinking that they earned it. Studies show that our opinion of other people goes up when good things happen to them, and goes down when bad things happen to them — even when those events are entirely random. The obvious form that this bias takes is blaming the victims for crimes or disaster or illness — but it takes other forms as well, such as assuming that rich or privileged people have earned their wealth and privilege.
There are apparently a number of theories as to why we would have this cognitive bias. This bias may support our tendency to see the world in terms of agency, things being caused intentionally, rather than random chance. It may make it easier for us to see ourselves as having agency, and thus make us more likely to take action in our own lives. It may help us resolve our own guilt / cognitive dissonance if we think we share some responsibility for the harm being done — such as buying products produced by exploited and abused laborers — or the guilt / cognitive dissonance we may experience if we feel that we ought to intervene in the harm, but are choosing not to. (There are probably other theories about the reasons behind this bias as well: I’m not an expert in psychology, and I just found out about this thing the other day.)
So what does all this have to do with religion?
I bet you see where I’m going with this.
A question that often gets asked of atheists — and that atheists often ask of ourselves — is, “If religion isn’t true, why do most people believe it?” This is obviously a terrible argument for religion: for centuries, most people believed that illness was caused by demons and the Sun revolved around the Earth, and that didn’t make it true. But it’s still a question worth asking… especially for those of us who are trying to persuade people out of this incorrect belief. I personally think the answer is complex and multi-factorial — but I definitely think human cognitive biases are strong among those factors. Examples: Our bias towards seeing intention, even where no intention exists. Our bias towards seeing pattern, even where no pattern exists. Our bias towards believing what we already believe, and towards paying more attention to evidence that supports those beliefs while ignoring evidence that contradicts them. Our bias towards believing what we most want to believe. Our bias towards believing what we were taught as young children. Our bias towards believing what we’re told by authority figures. Our bias towards believing what other people around us believe. Etc.
And it occurs to me that this cognitive bias towards believing that the world is just could very likely be another of the cognitive biases that leads people to believing in religion.
If we’re biased towards believing in a just world, where bad behavior is punished and good behavior is rewarded — this supports religion in a couple of ways. First: Religion provides an imaginary mechanism through which this supposed justice supposedly happens. If you don’t believe in the supernatural, what other explanation can you give for how famine and drought just happened to hit those lazy jerks who most deserved it?
Second, and I think even more importantly: Religion lets people continue to believe that justice is being done… even when it conspicuously is not. Specifically, a belief in the afterlife lets people believe that justice will eventually be done, even when it’s conspicuously not… and that the only reason we don’t see it happening is that it’s going to happen later on, after we die, brought on by the hand of an invisible being or force, in an invisible world that will last forever. And because this invisible being or force is supposedly perfect and knows everything, and because the invisible world supposedly lasts forever, the invisible justice will trump any injustice that happens in the world around us.
A few years ago, a friend told me that she had just become an atheist — and she said that for her, the hardest thing about atheism was letting go of her belief in Hell. At first I was startled by this: to me, the doctrine of Hell is appalling and hideous on the face of it, and I found it hard to imagine that letting go of it would be anything other than a relief. But when I thought about it for a bit, I could see what she meant. I hate the thought of horribly wicked people living, and flourishing, and eventually dying just like everyone else, without ever suffering consequences for their wickedness. When Ken Lay died, it drove me nuts that he just died of a heart attack before we could throw his ass in prison. It reminds of something Julia Sweeney said in Letting God of God:
Then I thought, “Wait a minute, so Hitler, Hitler just… died? No one sat him down and said, ‘You fucked up, buddy?’ And now you’re going to spend an eternity in HELL!’ So Hitler just died.”
Yes. It can be hard to accept that the world isn’t just. It can be hard to accept that good things happen to bad people, and then they just die like everyone else. It can be hard to accept that bad things happen to good people — either at the hands of bad people, or just because of random chance.
But then I think of the next thing Julia Sweeney said:
I thought, “We better make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
If the world is not always just, I don’t want to deceive myself into thinking that it is. Mostly because it isn’t true, and I care whether the things I believe are true. But if the world is not always just, I want to take what action I can to make it more just. I don’t want to be complacent, and convince myself that God or karma or whatever is going to make it all magically balance it out in the end.
If there is any justice at all in the world, it happens because of people. I want to be part of it.