The psychology of religion, part III

Our own brains trick us into believing nonsense for various reasons

Religion and the sunk cost fallacy are brothers in arms. The sunk cost fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. Religious people are predisposed to go against evidence that contradicts the beliefs about the world they have invested in. This predisposition applies to all people, but it is particularly sticky in the devout.

Human brains are rife with cognitive biases that impact our ability to act rationally and make good decisions about our well-being and that of those around us. Fallacies, which are flaws in logical thinking, go hand in hand with cognitive biases. Fallacies are errors in reasoning that lack evidence. The Abrahamic religions are chock full of fallacies. All knowledge claims are subject to demands for evidence, and anytime someone makes one, we should ask for supporting evidence. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism, which all build on the ones that came before, cannot meet any evidence-based standards. Therefore, the adherents of these religions get stuck in a faith-based existence loop. Faith-based existence forces people to defend ideas even though there is no compelling, evidence-based reason to believe those ideas.

Cultural forces, community values, and peer pressure substitute for actual evidence in faith-based lifestyles. Faith-based lifestyles are dangerously irrational. Faith always boils down to “I want to believe” and is never based on actual data. That’s insane, and it kills people by causing them to make choices that are non-reality-based. Q-anon, vaccines as a government conspiracy, flat earth, get rich selling multi-level crap — all related to faith-based living.

If I met you on the streets of your town or city and introduced myself as the creator of the universe, you would either run away or demand evidence that my claim was true. Other possibilities include you calling 911 to report a mentally ill person wandering the streets. If I told you that I could walk on water, multiply food, or resurrect myself, that same set of options would probably occur to you. These are all claims made about Jesus by the Christian religion. When looked at through a rational lens, most people are going to be dubious. Because the Christian faith is culturally dominant in many areas of the world, people in those areas are likely to take Christianity’s fantastic and improbable claims at face value. After all, they have been inundated in those amazing and unprovable claims for a lifetime.

Because of biases and logical fallacies, believers take these rather extraordinary and implausible supernatural stories in stride. They do not demand evidence, require pictures or videos, or ask for other proof. That is what faith is: belief without a shred of evidence. Faith is making claims without having any valid data to back those claims up. I can hand you a book claiming that I am the President of the world, but that does not make it so. The most common fallacy believers engage in is assuming that their holy texts are inerrant based on the text itself making that claim. Anyone can write a text claiming it is the perfect instruction manual for life, but that doesn’t mean it is.

The Christian bible derives much of its authority not from being inerrant but because a billion people think it is an instruction manual handed down by the creator of everything. Those believer numbers would go way down if everyone who believed in it was required to take a critical thinking class. Critical thinking explains the fallacy called argument from authority, which has been used to justify slavery, for instance. Apologists have to constantly defend against reality because of their poorly written holy texts. Take for example, this nonsense:

“When we read verses like Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, and 1 Peter 2:18, we hear the common English translation ‘slave’ in light of our own historical context. We typically think of race-based, chattel slavery in which the slave is the property of the master and lacks any legal rights. This kind of slavery is manifestly among the most despicable institutions ever to disgrace human civilization. It is not, however, what is in view in these texts. The Greek word (doulos) can be translated ‘slave,’ or sometimes ‘servant’ or ‘bondservant,’ and often referred to people who had a surprising level of legal and social status in the first-century Greco-Roman world. Most were not ‘slaves’ from their birth, or for their whole life, or because of their race — for instance, the Roman jurist Gaius (second century) claimed that most slaves were prisoners of war who actually would have been slaughtered if not made slaves.”

This weak argument attempts to paint slavery during ancient history as surprisingly enlightened compared to the harsher, recent American version of slavery. Aside from being bullshit, the discussion never addresses the fact that Americans who held slaves used the bible to justify their more evil version of keeping humans as property. Nor does the apologist excuse-making address why their deity allows people as property in the first place.

You might as well publish a comic book called Six Degrees of Slavery: Some, Like Bible Slavery, Were Pretty Darn Great! Bible slaves should be grateful for their enslavement, don’t ya know! Except that’s precisely the argument the South made to justify brutally enslaving millions of Africans not too long ago. There is no fundamental difference between making a prisoner of war your slave instead of slaughtering them or buying someone captured on another continent and forcing them to pick cotton. And the bible says it’s OK to do either. That should be the obvious takeaway, but apologists are too invested in the sunk cost fallacy to admit it.

Unfortunately for the real world, once a human being has decided that a religion is factual, they become infected with the myside bias. This bias involves our psychological tendency to evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward our own prior beliefs, opinions, and attitudes.

There is growing evidence that indulging in conspiracy theories predisposes people to reject scientific findings, from climate change to vaccinations and AIDS. And researchers have now found that teleological thinking also links beliefs in conspiracy theories and creationism.

Political stance and religiosity are related. The higher one’s attachment is to religious beliefs; the more susceptible one becomes too falling for conspiracy theories. That’s what we’ll unpack in part IV of this series.