Why religious (and other) ideas are so persistent

When people are asked to explain the phases of the moon, the response given most frequently is that they are caused by the shadow of the Earth falling on the moon. They are not aware that this explanation holds true only for rare cases of eclipses, and not for the everyday phases.

When the people making these responses are asked to consider the alternative (and correct) model in which the phases are caused by one part of the moon being in the shadow thrown by the other part (which can be easily seen by holding up any object to the light and seeing that parts of it are in its own shadow), such people quickly recognize that this alternative self-shadow model is more plausible than the Earth-shadow model.

So the interesting question is why, although the correct model is not hard to think up, people stick for so long with their initial erroneous model. The answer is that they did not even consider the possibility that the Earth-shadow explanation they believed in was just a hypothesis that ought to be compared with other, alternative, hypotheses to see which was more consistent with evidence. They simply accepted uncritically as true the first hypothesis they encountered and stayed with it. Why is this?

Tim van Gelder, writing in the article Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science (College Teaching, Winter 2005, vol. 53, No. 1, p. 41-46), looks into why this kind of critical thinking is rare among people and his article (summarizing the insights gleaned from cognitive science research) sheds some light on my own puzzlement as to why it took me so long to question the implausible aspects of my beliefs in heaven and immortality.

van Gelder points out that critical thinking does not come naturally to people, that it is ‘a highly contrived activity’ that is hard and has to be deliberately learned and cultivated. He says that “[e]volution does not waste effort making things better than they need to be, and homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive, while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.”

But if we are not by nature critical thinkers, what kind of thinkers are we? To answer this question, van Gelder refers to Michael Shermer’s 2002 book Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time and says:

We like things to make sense, and the kinds of sense we grasp most easily are simple, familiar patterns or narratives. The problem arises when we do not spontaneously (and do not know how to) go on to ask whether an apparent pattern is really there or whether a story is actually true. We tend to be comfortable with the first account that seems right, and we rarely pursue the matter further. Educational theorist David Perkins and colleagues have described this as a “makes-sense epistemology”; in empirical studies, he found that students tend to

act as though the test of truth is that a proposition makes intuitive sense, sounds right, rings true. They see no need to criticize or revise accounts that do make sense – the intuitive feel of fit suffices.

Since for most of us, the religious ‘explanations’ of the big questions of life, death, and meaning are the ones we are first exposed to as children, and they do provide a rudimentary explanatory pattern (even if in a selective and superficial way), we tend to accept them as true and thus do not actively look for, and even avoid, alternative explanations.

But what happens when alternative explanations thrust themselves on us, either in school or elsewhere? Do we then go into critical thinking mode, evaluating the alternatives, weighing the competing evidence and reasoning before forming a considered judgment?

Alas, no. But the reasons for that will be explored tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: That bad old AntiChrist

I wrote before about the new video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Their website has an interesting FAQ page which says:

The storyline in the game begins just after the Rapture has occurred – when all adult Christians, all infants, and many children were instantly swept home to Heaven and off the Earth by God. The remaining population – those who were left behind –-are then poised to make a decision at some point. They cannot remain neutral. Their choice is to either join the AntiChrist – which is an imposturous one world government seeking peace for all of mankind, or they may join the Tribulation Force – which seeks to expose the truth and defend themselves against the forces of the AntiChrist.

So the goal of the AntiChrist is to create a one world government seeking peace for all of mankind! What a dastardly plan. So naturally they must be massacred in the name of Jesus to prevent this awful fate from occurring.

For those who might be concerned that this game goes counter to the message of love preached by Jesus in the Bible, Jesus’ General thoughtfully provides the relevant text of the inexplicably overlooked Gospel of Left Behind, which provides the justification for the violent philosophy of the game.

Also, don’t forget to check out the animation “Don’t dis Elisha!” which shows the story of how the prophet Elisha cursed children who teased him, who were then killed by bears sent by god. (Again, thanks to the ever-vigilant General.)

Who knows, the Elisha story could form the basis for another video game marketed in Christmas 2007 by the same people behind the Left Behind: Eternal Forces game. In the new game the players could represent bears and the goal is to attack and kill as many children as possible.

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