Does Christianity Make An Idol Out of the Human Brain?

Brain worshipDo some Christians worship belief itself?

Bible-believing Christianity requires an extraordinary degree of faith in the human mind or rather the whole chain of minds that have brought us the Bible and Christian teachings in their current forms. Evidence suggests that this faith is unwarranted.

Failure to Reach Agreement

Most of us feel pretty confident about our worldview most of the time. And yet, when it comes to the really big questions, like why we are here and what happens after we die, our best hypotheses about what is real diverge wildly. Over the course of the last 2000 years, the branches of Christianity alone have split into thousands of different denominations and non-denominations, with people in each one feeling convicted that theirs is the most right. Some even send missionaries to convert other kinds of Christians. (The Evangelical church that I grew up in taught that some other kinds of Christians like Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Mormons, were actually heathens in need of salvation.)

Outside of Christianity, there are thousands more variations on people’s “best guesses” about what is real.

What does this say to me? It says that people who care deeply and who spend their lives dedicated to understanding God and goodness have been unable to reach convergence about what God is and what he wants from us.

And the trend lines aren’t promising; Christianity is splintering at the rate of two new denominations per day. We humans now have convergence about whether the earth revolves around the sun, and we are moving toward convergence about the nature of the stars, but when it comes to the nature of God, if anything humanity is moving in the opposite direction.

The one thing we do know for sure is that no matter how you slice it, when it comes to our ideas about God most people must be wrong. Beyond a doubt, we, as a species, are prone to hearing something we think is the still, small voice of God, that isn’t. And yet despite this, people on all sides feel so certain that some are willing to die—or even kill—for their beliefs.

Psychology of Belief

There is a reason for that, and it has to do with the nature of faith and the nature of knowing.

If you are religious, think about how confident you feel that your beliefs are right. Now think about the experiences that have made you feel this way. Maybe what seems to be answered prayer. Maybe a feeling of God’s presence when you worship or an overwhelming sense of God’s love. Maybe you have studied the arguments in favor of your faith.

Here is why things get complicated: People in other religions have that exact same feeling of knowing. And it is based on very similar kinds of evidence and experiences.

Now, when I say that, your brain may not quite let you believe me. If your worldview teaches that there is One Way to get to heaven–belief in the Lord Jesus Christ–then your brain will automatically downgrade or dismiss other people’s faith-based experiences that contradict this theology. Your own experience of God feels absolutely real, and it has beliefs attached that say that a Hindu’s or Buddhist’s beliefs can’t be real, so their experience of God must be fake.

You might tell yourself that they are mistaken or, perhaps, misled by Satan or their own sinful nature. And, if challenged on this, you might line up logical or historical evidence for Christianity. But what do Christians say when logic and evidence seem to fall short? “I just know in my heart.” It feels real, I believe it, and that settles it. But members of other religions go through the very same cycle of gut feelings, then reasoning, followed by more gut feelings.

Obviously, human beings care a great deal about knowing what is real. And just as obviously, the human feeling of knowing is like Swiss cheese. Sometimes you poke it and there’s something solid there, and sometimes you poke and there’s just a bubble of air. That is a situation that is sobering at best. If we care about love and truth, it is a situation that calls for humility. At minimum, it should give us pause in situations where we feel justified doing something ugly or harmful in the service of our religious convictions.

This complicated, humbling state of affairs raises questions that, as a psychologist, I find fascinating! What is it about how we process information that lets us feel sure even when we are wrong? Are there patterns to these flaws? Is there any reliable way to identify our cognitive weaknesses and work around them? What kinds of safeguards might we put in place to keep from going down rabbit trails of falsehood?

Brain scientists have begun to investigate our sense of knowing—which, as it turns out is actually an emotion—and to analyze the patterns in our biases. One of the first consistent patterns of cognitive distortion that was discovered is something you have probably heard of called “confirmation bias.” Once some kind of experience triggers a sense of knowing, we selectively seek and attend to information that supports what we already think and feel. This is universally true. It affects me, you, all of us, and when we are aware of it we can sometimes catch ourselves in the act.

How Science Addresses This Problem

Confirmation bias used to be a huge problem in science. Science is an imperfect process conducted by imperfect people. It gets distorted by errors and biases of many kinds. Scientific knowledge moves forward despite this, largely because the scientific method has one feature, called disconfirmation or falsification, that obstructs our tendency toward confirmation bias. Human knowledge started changing when scientists started asking, “What are the questions that might show you wrong?” Those are the questions that research has to ask. Do you hear the stark contrast from how we usually think? We usually seek the evidence that could show us right.

This one concept—falsification–is why the modern scientific method, has been called what we know about how not to fool ourselves. It has made the difference between the Middle Ages and the Information Age. Self-doubt is one of the most valuable qualities a scientist can have.

By contrast, in religion, doubt is seen as a sign of weakness, a spiritual failing, while certitude is treated as a virtue. Faith allows—even asks us—to indulge in confirmation, to selectively seek stories and evidence that support a specific set of traditions. Belief in the absence of evidence or even in the face of contradictory evidence, is, in fact, the ultimate virtue—the one that sends you to heaven—and doubt, when followed to its logical conclusion, is the ultimate vice.

Human Perfection All the Way Down

Evangelical Christians believe that people get assigned to an afterlife based on faith. Believers know this to be true because the Bible says so–Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved—and they know that the Bible is true because a passage in the Bible itself seems to say so—all scripture is given by inspiration of God—and religious authorities define scripture to include the texts currently in the Bible.

But the more we know about neuroscience—specifically those aforementioned flaws and biases in the human quest for knowledge and the unreliability of our own sense of knowing—the more this belief seems like a peculiar basis for eternity. Saying that people deserve heaven or hell based on what they believe requires an unmerited degree of faith in faith itself—or, if you prefer, belief in belief itself—belief in humanity’s ability to know, instinctively and impartially, what is real.

To believe that belief itself is the ticket to heaven requires

  • belief that the Bible is the perfect word of God despite the many contradictions it contains, which requires
  • belief that the Bible writers acted with perfect knowledge (since they are the ones who chose the words)
  • and so did the Catholic councils (since they are the ones who decided which of many early Christian texts got into the Bible),
  • and so did the Protestant reformers (since they are the ones who reinterpreted those texts and rejected some),
  • and so did the 19th Century theologians (since they are the ones that shaped the very American versions of Christianity accepted today by most Bible believers).

And all of this requires an extraordinary level of belief in the infallibility of one’s own “I just know in my heart,” the gut feeling that tells a believer that all of these layers of decisionmakers perfectly recognized and conveyed the Word of God. Christianity preaches humility, as do all the world’s largest religions. But the level of faith believers are asked to entrust to their own sense of knowing—and that of their chosen religious authorities—is far from humble.

One Chinese creation myth says that the world rests on the back of a turtle. In a jocular story that you may have heard, a person asks what the turtle rests on and is told “another turtle.” But what does that one rest on? and the next? and the next? The answer comes back that it’s turtles all the way down.

In Christianity, what we are talking about is perfection rather than turtles at every step of the way. Biblical Christianity requires a whole Jenga tower of perfectly functioning human minds perfectly receiving and transmitting perfect messages from a perfect God.  That requires a rather surprising level of hubris I think. It makes an idol out of the human mind.

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 www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

 

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Cognitive Science and Christianity, Musings & Rants: Christianity, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Does Christianity Make An Idol Out of the Human Brain?

  1. tildeb says:

    Just so. But apparently we are to believe that it is rationalists – those of us that question basic tenets of religion and find them insufficient for confidence and trust – who are the ones that represent hubris and arrogance.

    And lending high levels of trust to any faith-based belief – meaning a belief without compelling evidence adduced from reality – includes no means to test it, no means to falsify it, no means to gain knowledge by its use.

    Anyone care for a testimonial?

    Well, quite simply, entrusting faith-based belief is a guaranteed recipe for fooling one’s self… as tens of thousands of contrary and incompatible religious belief systems testify. And that testimonial is ubiquitous… not to mention a clue about the likelihood that any particular religion is the case, is an accurate depiction of our shared reality.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. godfreydebouillon says:

    Valerie, you remind me what a blessing it is to grow up with a minimum, if even that, of religious baggage. I grew up in an agnostic/atheist household, started attending churches in college and eventually beginning to become a Christian. I still am becoming one forty years later.
    In all that time, from many pulpits, I never heard A SINGLE WORD of condemnation for any other variety of Christian nor, indeed, for any other faith or for honest dis-or unbelief! And nearly every cleric whom I either heard from the pulpit or sought private counsel from gave me friendly cautions AGAINST absolutizing whatever ideas about and images of God I might have. And none of them were Unitarians or New Agers or anything like that. Just ordinary Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans or Jews. Y’all freed fundies still got plenty catching up to do!

    Like

    • Perry says:

      “Y’all freed fundies still got plenty catching up to do!”

      I guess you didn’t learn much from those examples you gave of not condemning others. Just because you never heard condemnations of other Christians, other faiths, or unbelievers doesn’t mean there are not millions of evangelical Christians who do condemn others. I hear them all the time. I think it’s you who needs to catch up.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Greetings –
      A lack of exclusive truth claims does characterize many of the mainline denominations at this point. This is a contrast to the almost 2000 year history of Christianity and it was certainly not the position of the Bible writers, nor the Catholic councils that assembled and canonized the texts, nor the Protestant reformers. It is also a contrast to the traditional posture of the mainline denominations themselves. The fact that Christianity has succeeded in evolving relatively benign strains says little of the virulence of others.

      Liked by 1 person

    • allan martens says:

      there’s lots of condemnation in the christian world. some of it subtle , some not.

      Like

    • metalnun says:

      As a child I was forced to attend fundie religious schools enforcing exactly the sort of “belief” that Valerie wrote about in this article – which resulted in my becoming an atheist at age 12. Thirteen years later, in large part thx to my Hindu friends, I was willing to give God another try. I started attending the Episcopal church and as you describe, the difference from my fundie education was like night and day. It’s a whole ‘nother world. Although both traditions call themselves “Christian” they might as well be entirely different religions.

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  3. godfreydebouillon says:

    And oh yes: have you ever read Paul Tillich’s ‘Dynamics of Faith’? Had you done so, you might have learned doubt is NOT ‘the ultimate sin’ but, rather, the necessary strengthener of faith. ‘Faith’ that runs from doubt as opposed to meeting it and working it through is flabby, quickly turns brittle and dessicated and proves a counterfeit in the end. But it is the type of pseudo-faith that seeks state help in shoring itself up!

    Like

    • I am perfectly aware of the fact that Christians like Tillich frame doubt as something that strengthens faith. This is one of Christianity’s several ways of inoculating against the more obvious implications of doubt (ie that Christian beliefs themselves may be mistaken.)

      One form of inoculation theology teaches that doubt is from Satan and/or is a sign of weak faith. The other condemns doubt only if the waivering believer follows those doubts wherever they may lead rather than embracing them as a sort of spiritual challenge. Teaching Christians that doubt should pose no threat to faith for the true Christian creates a more robust and impenetrable kind of belief. It’s an insidious form of teaching people not to trust their own intelligence, and it probably works better on smarter people than simply teaching people to fear all doubt. That said, I see the Tillich approach to doubt as the spiritual equivalent of saying that it’s ok to masturbate as long as you never come.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Perry says:

    I too was once was an evangelical Christian, but am now an atheist. If I still was a fundamentalist, I probably would criticize your reprobate, carnal mind that needs ‘rewiring’ by quoting the following scriptures, among others:

    Romans 1:28 “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;”
    Romans 8:6,7 “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.”
    Romans 12:2 “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

    I was indoctrinated in a Christian cult to not trust my own mind, to disregard worldly knowledge and reject all I had previously learned. We even had a saying: “When you think, you’ll sink, because you stink”. It’s why many fundamentalist sects and cults forbid or minimize the need for higher education. For example:

    “Exclusive Brethren bans members from attending university”
    https://religiouschildabuse.blogspot.ca/2011/04/totalitarian-control-of-exclusive.html

    [Jehovahs’ Witnesses] “discourages more than the bare minimum education, advising that higher education is a waste of time”
    https://religiouschildabuse.blogspot.ca/2011/04/australian-starts-private-criminal.html?showComment=1465766354942#c7409081699331928941

    “The attitude to learning was what defined a Jew as Haredi, Rabbi Pinter said. ‘For the Haredi, higher education would be in Talmud or Jewish learning; in a modern Orthodox person it would be going to university. There is a difference in aspiration. For a modern Orthodox person getting a doctorate might be an aspiration in its own right; a Haredi person would say, “What do you need it for? You could be an authority in halacha [Jewish law] – why would you want a PhD in physics?””
    https://religiouschildabuse.blogspot.ca/2011/03/children-in-londons-ultra-orthodox.html

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Charles Dixon says:

    It must be instinct – see the Pew report on Muslim belief in the return of the Mahdi – In nine of the 23 nations where the question was asked, half or more of Muslim adults say they believe the return of the Mahdi will occur in their lifetime, including at least two-thirds who express this view in Afghanistan (83%), Iraq (72%), Turkey (68%) and Tunisia (67%).
    http://www.pewforum.org/2012/08/09/the-worlds-muslims-unity-and-diversity-3-articles-of-faith/

    Like

  6. Steve Ruis says:

    Idols of the mind, nice turn of a phrase. Since I believe most of the stories Christians tell themselves are made up, to serve a purpose, and they have come to believe their scripture, aka stories are the Word of God, then basically you are correct. Not only do they worship an idol of the mind, but a false idol at that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christianity is ultimately self-worship: A deity made in the image of man . . . A long lineage of church leaders and ordinary believers hearing their own thoughts and calling them the voice of God . . . Idolizing of belief itself (and by implication, the human brains that generates beliefs). The whole thing is utter narcissism with humility layered on top like chocolate icing on a dirt cake.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Perry says:

        “…believers hearing their own thoughts and calling them the voice of God.”

        This is something I struggled so much with as a believer. I was indoctrinated to believe that based on 1 Kings 19:11-13 you could actually hear God as a “still small voice” and thereby know his will. But when I prayed, I only heard my own inner voice. However, through that innoculation process you refer to above and peer pressure in a high demand, closed group I soon interpreted my own voice as God’s. That cognitive dissonance caused me great harm.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. A high degree of ignorance matched w/ an equally high amount of embedded fear (embedded from birth) explains the vast majority of faithheads very well. Anyone who can accept (and proselytize) the idea of talking snakes, talking donkeys and people being “raised from the dead” are in some way hopelessly neurologically impaired.

    I have more than my share of these nutbags in my family. There’s one thing, however, that they’ve taught me very well over these many years: never argue or debate anything w/ these simpletons. They’ll just drag you down to their level and beat you senseless w/ their own idiocy.

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  8. Thanks Valerie! As an evangelical, i was always a radical sitting at the edges, testing the fences. I wasn’t very good with “trust and obey, for there is no other way” BUT when i heard people “attacking my faith” i would become defensive, and the teachings about the deception of Satan, (“Screwtape Letters” would come to mind) and it would always drive me away from the fence and back into the arms of Christianity. One who doubts is like a child who wants to believe his abusive father loves him despite the evidence but concludes “he does”….or another child who says “ok, I’ve had enough,” dials 911, “that isn’t real love.” But when he sees his dad led out in handcuffs…he feels some hard to define love for his dad that he didn’t even know he had. Faith and emotions are tricky business.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. LAWRENCE BENTLEY says:

    Valerie Tarico:

    So, I was speaking to someone and they mentioned that their mother is watching over them.

    So asked what about during sexual relations, does your mother watch then?

    They said they would expect their mother not to watch and engage in voyeurism;

    I said if your mother watches, does that mean everybody can watch?

    They said you have to have a personal connection;

    I said is not the purpose of someone watching over you is that they do it all the time? And, how could a mother watch and not God, the Son & the Holy Ghost you have to have a connection with them as well. And if all people in heaven have connection to God, the Son & the Holy Ghost then doesn’t that mean all in heaven can watch?

    They said I don’t know;

    Bottomline: Your post rings true from the standpoint that this person wanted to know their mother was in heaven, and is watching over to keep them safe until they join her in heaven. Now me? I really don’t know, I have enough earthy facts to deal with, without creating ideas, dogma & beliefs…

    Lawrence Bentley

    Westford, MA

    >

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Perry says:

    “One who doubts is like a child who wants to believe his abusive father loves him despite the evidence but concludes “he does””

    Yes, religious belief is often very similar to domestic abuse, as this video describes. I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand quoted at the end but the video makes some good points similar to yours. https://youtu.be/jXgnpuKoWhU

    And its not just the relationship between the believer and the deity they believe in that’s the only problem. Often in patriarchal faiths where the man is the ‘head’ of the family, domestic abuse is an expected and accepted part of the relationship between a man and his wife and children. In my case, although I had been subjected to spiritual abuse and for awhile left the group I was in, when they professed to have changed their ways I believed them so returned myself to their control. The abuse got far more extreme after that, so when I finally escaped I found my shelter in university education and eventually atheism.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. koppieop says:

    Valerie, your articles always contain something to think about, thank you!
    Today, just two short comments:

    + … people who care deeply and who spend their lives dedicated to understanding God and goodness have been unable to reach convergence about what God is and what he wants from us…
    How can people ever be able to agree on products of their imaginations – that are different by nature? My question therefore is, why do people WISH to reach convergence anyway? I am what I would call a “self-made” unbeliever, but I wouldn’t dream of seven billion persons whose neurons form the same patterns as mine. There will always be religious people, and I am allright with them – as long as they don’t try to compell me to join their meetings or follow their politics, or die.

    + The other comment I would like to make, is why you find — why we are here — a ‘really great question’. I can’t imagine any answer that woud satisfy me. I think we are here: because.
    (sorry I don’t kow how to italicize or underline words), well: because. And that is not a minor assignment. The ultimate goal could be to make the world a better place to live in. It’s hard, so let’s try.
    Also, have a nice day!
    .-

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Both points well taken. I think we each get to choose the purpose and meaning in our own lives.

      Liked by 1 person

      • koppieop says:

        Right so! Although, I must say that my family and most of, if not all, their friends and in-laws in my very conservative Catholic environment, do their best to express the meaning of life helping others – either through Caritas or privately.-.”…and bless us, so we may always be at your holy service …” is how my son-in-law usually ends his sincere meal prayers.
        What I disapprove of, is their religious [I almost wrote ‘ridiculous’, which would not be such a big mistake!],expectation of reward in heaven, and their rejection of homosexuality. Well into the 21st century, they insist on it being a wrong choice, without realizing the harm caused by such unshaken judgement…
        .-
        .

        Like

    • Perry says:

      [I almost wrote ‘ridiculous’, which would not be such a big mistake!]

      Or Religulous. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religulous I love the film’s poster.

      Liked by 1 person

      • koppieop says:

        Love that “portmanteau” – a word I’m adding to my vocabulary. It seems to be impossible to see that film on youtube, because of an infringement of copyright.

        Like

    • ratamacue0 says:

      If some religion were true, and the diety wanted us to know it – as we reason a benevolent deity would – we’d expect convergence. The fact that we don’t have it serves as a point of evidence against religions’ claims.

      Like

  12. koppieop says:

    You said that it is reasonable to expect convergency with a benevolent deity. Well, my reaction was that the Christian Deity is more than benevolent but he definitely does not want his followers to know his religion, he doesn’t allow them to see him while they are alive. Convergence will be the privilege of their souls: they will know the truth of the religion. If I have misunderstood you, sorry, and thanks for explaining it in other words,
    .-

    Like

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