Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 1

Right Belief is the Heart of Christianity.

Cognitive Science 1 of 8 - I BelieveMy father died in a climbing accident when he was 59 and I was in my mid twenties.  In one of our last deep conversations before his 1000 meter misstep, he expressed his abiding hope that I would “get right with God.”  Dad was the son of Italian immigrants, all Catholics, who got converted by door-to-door Pentecostals some years after their arrival in Chicago.    As far as I know, he never questioned his belief that the Bible was the literally perfect word of God and that Jesus died for his sins.  And yet of his six children three of us, by Evangelical standards, are now slated for eternal torture.

Religious belief is one of the most powerful forces in our world.  Believers think that it has the power to save us all.  Increasingly, doubters fear that the opposite may be true.  Almost half of Americans insist that humans were created in their present form sometime within the last 10,000 years because the Bible says so.  In the Middle East, Sunnis and Shias split over theological differences that seem trivial to the rest of us but that in their minds create tribal boundaries worthy of lethal conflict.

Why is belief so wide-spread and powerful?  The traditional Christian answer is:  because it’s true!  People who haven’t hardened their hearts against God recognize this.  Anyone who doesn’t is simply in rebellion.

But cognitive science offers a new way to look at this question, not from a moral or theological standpoint but from a practical standpoint.  What is the mental machinery that lets us form beliefs? What does evidence and reason have to do with it? How is it that six devoted Christian kids can turn into three devoted Christian adults and three agnostics?

The more we learn about the hardware and operating systems of the human brain–the more we understand about human information processing–the more we glean bits of insight into the religious mind:

  • How does the structure of human information processing dispose us to religious thinking?
  • How do we know what we know?  What is the relation between reason, evidence, and our sense of knowing?
  • How do conversion experiences work?  What makes religious conversion transformative?
  • How does our social group influence or even control our religious beliefs?
  • Why do missionaries target children?
  • What makes beliefs resistant to change?  When are people open to reexamining religious assumptions?

Before looking at these questions, it is helpful to understand why belief is so important in Christianity.  For traditional Christians— belief is the heart of the Christian religion.  Our beliefs matter enormously to God.  “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your house.”  Belief is the toggle that sends people to heaven or hell.  No matter how kind and compassionate your life may be, no matter that you strive to love your neighbor as yourself, no matter what great things you may accomplish in the service of humanity or the world at large – if you believe wrong you are doomed.  Only if you believe correctly do virtue and service become relevant. Creedal councils, the canonization of scripture, inquisitions, purges and centuries of conversion activities can be understood only in this context.

This focus on belief is not characteristic of all religions.  In the Ancient Near East, the birthplace of Christianity, pagan religions placed little emphasis on belief.  The existence of a supernatural world was broadly assumed because there seemed to be little other way to explain the good and bad things that happen to people or natural events like storms, earthquakes, illness, birth and death.  But the point of religion wasn’t belief; it was to take care of the gods so that they would take care of you and your community.  The word “cult” (Latin cultus, literally care) is related to the word “cultivation.”  We talk now about cultivating ground so that it will bear fruit.  Nonprofits talk about “cultivating donors.”  That was what the gods cared about, and so it was the heart of religious practice.

From the beginning, Christianity was different.  Jesus worshipers cared tremendously about right belief, also known as orthodoxy.  Bart Ehrman’s book, Lost Christianities, offers a fascinating window into the struggles that went on during the first and second centuries as groups with different beliefs about Jesus criticized and competed with each other, and one of them won out.  Some of groups (for example the Ebionites) believed that Jesus was a fully human Jewish messiah and that Jesus worshipers must follow the law.  Others (such as the  Marcionites) believed that Jesus looked human but wasn’t.  Still others (known as Gnostics) believed that the human Jesus was inhabited by a divine “Eon” during the years of his ministry—revealing to his followers secret knowledge that would let them escape this corrupt mortal plane.  Others, now known as proto-orthodox or Roman, had ideas about Jesus that lead to the views of Christians today.  (“Roman Catholic” means Roman universal.)  What all of these groups agreed on was that it was tremendously important to believe the right thing about who Jesus was and what Christianity should be.

This emphasis on right belief was and is unique to monotheism.  It existed in a rudimentary form in Judaism, but even today Judaism is more concerned with living right than believing right.  Christianity’s exclusive truth claims and emphasis on right belief helped it to out-compete other religions in the Roman Empire.  Polytheists often are quite agreeable to adding another god to their pantheon.  Christians could persuade pagans to add the Jesus-god and then could wean them off of the others.  Today, in India, for example, Evangelical missionaries tend to target Hindus rather than Sikhs or Muslims who would have to immediately abandon their primary religion in order to embrace the idea of Jesus as a god.

Eastern religions don’t share Christianity’s concern with belief.  The emphasis is more on practice or “praxis” –spiritual living, self-renunciation, insight or enlightenment.  Ordinary people practice a sort of cult or caretaking of the gods like that practiced by ancient pagans.  Right belief isn’t what lets you move up through cycles of reincarnation or attain nirvana.  Nor is it what gets you divine favor.

Just as biological organisms have many different adaptive or reproductive strategies, so religions compete for human mind-share in different ways. An emphasis on marketing belief, in other words, evangelism and purity of belief, which we call orthodoxy, is only one combination.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, a movement called modernism emerged within Christianity.  Modernist theologians began reexamining traditional orthodox beliefs in light of what we now know about linguistics, archaeology, psychiatry, biology, and human history.  In this light, traditional Christian certainties looked less certain, and many modernist Christians are more like members of Eastern Religions in that their primary concern is with spiritual practice rather than belief.  But a backlash emerged in response to modernism.  People who proudly called themselves “fundamentalists” insisted that no-one was a real Christian who didn’t hold the traditional beliefs. Evangelicals inherited the fundamentalist torch, and even some of the more inquiring denominations have reverted back toward emphasis on right belief.

This is the mindset that dominates Christianity in the public square.  It is the mindset that sends Christian missionaries out into the world seeking converts in impoverished corners of the planet.  It is the mindset that prints Bibles to be distributed in Iraq and has organized to establish control of the American military hierarchy, seeking to create an “army of Christian soldiers.”  To understand Christianity it is helpful to understand the psychology of belief.

Essential Reading:  Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities

Read Part 2 of this series. 


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles can be found at


About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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4 Responses to Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Christianity Belief Through the Cognitive Lens of Science by Valerie Tarico | God Discussion

  2. Ted says:

    Great stuff!


  3. L Leslie Hardy says:

    Why do we turn over the most basic of human rights (the ability to think for ourselves) to others? I simply do not understand.


    • Sha'Tara says:

      Quote: “Why do we turn over the most basic of human rights (the ability to think for ourselves) to others? I simply do not understand.”

      The “understanding” happens only, and I mean [only!] through an individual’s efforts to become self-empowered. That is the key that unlocks the first door to understanding why “Earthians” (my terminology as the people of this world remain pseudo-human in that they continue to refuse to interact “humanely” among themselves and with other denizens of this world) are so easily dummied-down. One of their great failures is putting their faith in any number of System-promoted concepts, be it god and its priests or science and its pundits. I found self-empowerment through this little simple but empowering concept as applied to my daily life: “Believe all things, believe in nothing.” From that I was able to evolve a whole new philosophy of life that sent me all over the cosmos looking at alternative viewpoints, concepts, interactions between sentient beings (Yes indeed, you are not alone!). Amazing what’s out there; amazing how small, limited and straight-jacketed is man’s life on this world when everything calls him to break out of his so uncomfortable comfort zone and take a chance on alternate craziness. What sent me out there? I no longer desired to be a part of a species that thrives on gratuitous violence against others. I no longer wanted to see that “fickle finger of fate” pointing at me when I realized that daily, over 40,000 Earthians, most of which are mothers, their babies and young children, are murdered (dead from preventable causes) on the altars of monetary profit, ego and massive lack of empathy.

      This isn’t just the fault of the military-industrial complex, military dictatorships (including most so-called democracies) and their prostituted scientists, it is the crime and associated guilt of an entire species. The shock-waves of that on-going crime are going to be seriously felt by man in the not distant future. Whom, I wonder, will “he” blame then for his troubles? The victims?


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