Episode 102: The Skeptic’s Psychology of Religion Toolkit

Over the past several years a number of studies have been published which purport to show the psychological benefits of religious belief. These studies are often plagued by shoddy design, inadequate controls and overreliance on self-report data–yet even the most careful skeptics can overlook these mistakes. For this episode Dr. Galen explains 10 of the most common errors to watch for in psychology of religion research.  Also, for this episode we examine contradictions in the story of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, and we take a look at Thor for another polyatheism segment.

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  1. felixmeister says

    Looking forward to this.
    One of my favourite subjects is the whys & wheres of religion.
    Why do we believe. How and where did religions come from.
    How they evolved and why certain ones survived and others didn’t.

    Far more interesting than apologetics or questions about the existence of a god.

  2. Kells says

    Fergus beat me to it, DAMN IT. Yea, “.za” is a site extension for South Africa (Zuid Afrika). As a native I felt obliged to put it out there too…

  3. nate says

    You guys sort of touched on it in the episode, but I wanted to elaborate a little more about the mormon statistic thing. There are SO MANY ex-mormons. In Utah, most of them end up moving to Salt Lake City(like me), a semi-oasis of political, social and religious sanity. The majority of them never bother going through the difficult process of requesting a formal removal of their names from the records. So the mormons still count them, they just prefer to call them “inactive”. (The “active” mormons are always diligently trying to reactivate them.)

    The other reason their numbers are so high is because of the huge family size. I come from a family of 18 (one marriage) and of the 6 of us whom are adults, half of us have “defected”. (It is not a coincidence that all three of us are males, but that’s another story) But the thing is, they baptize you into the religion at 8 years old. At that point you are counted as a member until you get your name removed. Their reasoning is that at age 8 you are old enough to make the decision on your own. That is ridiculous, obviously. When I was 8 years old I hadn’t the slightest idea that it was even an option that I could not get baptized. I hadn’t even read the book of mormon, it was just one of those things you do as a kid.

    When my older brother removed his name from the church records, it was basically as if he was convicted of murder. We weren’t allowed to be alone with him and we were told he was of the devil. He was disowned by half the family. Even though I hate the idea of them potentially getting tax benefits by counting me, I have chosen to delay going through the process for now. Mostly just for the sake of my parents’ health. As you can imagine, they don’t really need any more stress.

    I could honestly go on for hours about the problems I have with the problems I have with the LDS church and Utah culture. (Whats the difference?) But for now I’ll be done.

    PS About the part where you said that it is young people are becoming less religious. I’ve personally noticed that within this “hipster” movement thats going on right now that it is really not cool to believe in God or to be religious. Reason and philosophy are “in” right now, and those things don’t really work with religion. Of course, I live in Utah which is an anomaly. In college towns/religious strongholds like Provo you end up seeing a lot of young people trying to reconcile popular culture and their religion. But for the most part, I see a very obvious trend in young people rejecting religion, which makes that statistic not at all surprising.


  4. says

    Another Seinfeld analogy, when George wants credit for paying for Jerry’s girlfriend’s big salad. Much like giving Judas credit for the potter’s field!

  5. Brad says

    I’d just like to suggest a topic for discussion in a future episode, one which would be “topical” for this election year. How about discussing “personal revelation” in Mormonism? You might also discuss how the Mormon version of “God talks to me” differs from other versions of calls and callings from God, like those, say, of the Vineyard-type evangelical in terms of the church doctrines and practices that support these ideas.

    It seems to me that the Mormon version might be more problematic (an understatement for a president) because it seems to more often drive decisions and actions in opposition to reason and evidence, while the regular evangelical version more often seems sort of a post hoc rationalization. Would that be right?

    Here are the sources that got me thinking about these things:

    “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer, (which I think ought to be read or re-read by all voters this year).

    “When Giants Fail,” from the May 24, 2012 New Yorker magazine in which business consultant and professor Clayton Christensen is said to have found through prayer that the Book of Mormon is true.

    “…he decided he’d better figure out for sure whether his was the true church. Each night at eleven, he knelt down and told God out loud that he needed to know whether the Book of Mormon was true.

    “One evening in October, 1975,” he wrote later, “as I sat in the chair and opened the book following my prayer, I felt a marvelous spirit come into the room and envelop my body. I had never before felt such an intense feeling of peace and love. I started to cry, and did not want to stop. I knew then, from a source of understanding more powerful than anything I had ever felt in my life, that the book I was holding in my hands was true.”

    … the Latter-Day Saints, Christensen believed, had restored the true early Christian tenets, the ones that had come straight from Christ, such as the belief that there is a mother as well as a father in Heaven. But mainstream Christianity was a synthetic religion, its God a synthetic god.”

    “Romney’s Faith, Silent But Deep” In the May 19, 2012 New York Times, which includes this bit:

    “Mr. Romney also prays before taking action on decisions he has already made, asking for divine reassurance, a feeling that he is “united with the powers above,” Dr. Hassell said. Sometimes Mr. Romney would report that even though he had made a decision on the merits, prayer had changed his mind. “Even though rationally this looks like the thing to do, I just have a feeling we shouldn’t do it,” he would say, according to Grant Bennett, another friend and church leader.”

    And last, reviews in The New Yorker and the New York Times of ‘When God Talks Back,’ by T.M. Luhrmann, about Vineyard church members and their communications with God.

  6. Eldoon Feeb says

    Mormonism is a revolving door, not the fastest growing church in the US. Converts join then disappear. Many people born into the church grow into disbelief, some formally leave the church. Even sources friendly to the church say that two thirds to three quarters of the 14 million claimed members are either totally inactive or no longer consider themselves Mormons. Yet the church counts them all, unlike, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses who only count those who maintain a minimal level of involvement. There are also dead people among the 14 million. When people leave Mormonism, they don’t keep the church apprised of their whereabouts and whether they are still living. So the church assumes them to be alive (and a member) until their 110th birthday.

  7. says

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  8. RMJM says

    I have started listening to your podcast recently and find it quite interesting. However, listening to this episode #102 and your discussion regarding the finer points of diversion between various accounts of Judas’s ultimate fate and the details regarding the Field of Blood left me feeling a little frustrated. As you all discussed the conflicting accounts of Judas, I found myself frequently shrugging my shoulders and saying “So what?”.

    Then it struck me – you guys are just reading these accounts as strict literalistic historico-biographical accounts rather than the ancient biographical texts that these accounts are. This is exactly the same mistake made by Christian fundamentalists. Are you guys ex-young earthers of something? Because you were sure treating these ancient texts like someone from Answers in Genesis. Stop doing that and the discussion quickly becomes one of “Ehh, so what?”

  9. Jeremy B says

    RMJM, (this is Jeremy from the Podcast)

    We don not take a litteralist approach at all. As someone who teaches Bible as Literature for a living I am familiar with various methods of biblical criticism. We do not look at these as ancient biographies either. With the Judas segment what we are essentially saying is the literalists cannot harmonize the accounts because they are contradictory. But the “who cares” part is this…the contradictions are not random, nor are they the result of understandable discrepancies between different eyewitness accounts. Often times if you examine contradictions in the gospels more closely you will discover they are deliberate deviations from a shared source text or oral tradition to suit the ideological needs of the author. This is one of the fundamental insights of redaction criticism, which informs most of my own contributions to the show. If you want an overview of our take on source/redaction criticism the RD extra, “Which Jesus” and the two part series “The disunity of the bible” discusses this at length. On this show we only focused on the details of the Judas story but for long-time listeners who are familiar with our approach, they would have recognized the Judas story is one more example of a core narrative that was embellished to suit the gospel writers aims. I think you listened to this segment and thought we were essentially saying “hey the details contradict…checkmate theists!” but actually we continually speak out against that attitude. Our mantra is “contradictions are the key to understanding the Bible” as they are important markers of how the text evolved over time.


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