Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Christian Delusion, a book (chapter) review

I picked up this book a couple of weeks ago and I've been slow to get into it, partly because I don't need to be told that Christianity is silly. I just need to get older for religion to get sillier, it seems. I buy atheist books as a kind of vote for the cause. When arguing ad populum, some Christians will have to concede that atheism is indeed becoming more popular, based on book sales. After all, what other tool do we have to express our numbers? We have only a few organizations, and few of us bother to join them. A Christian parent might remind a grown child that membership in the church offers protection from Hell, but American Atheists offers a magazine and maybe a conference worth attending once in awhile. Atheists, on the other hand, don't need to argue ad populum. We have much better ammunition.

Unfortunately, women are still in the minority when lobbing the grenades. There are nine contributors to this book, and only one woman. She is Valerie Tarico, PhD, whose chapter is titled "Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science." My first thought was "Oh great, the only woman is a psychologist, not a heavy hitting physicist or philosopher" but as I thought more about it, the woman's point of view does tend to be psychological. And my personal take on atheism is informed by that female experience. We have been brought up to be nurturing, understanding, considerate, and emotive. The "male" perspective from the hard sciences doesn't seem to be winning many converts. They are collectively called the "New Atheists" in derisive tones. Perhaps Dr. Tarico's voice is just what we need. Her PhD is in counseling psychology. What better perspective for examining a "delusion?"

Her lens is a bit broader than just a narrow view through the psyche, though. She considers evolutionary psychology (without calling it that) and recent advances in the neurobiology of religious experience. But the main focus is the psychology of belief, the reason being that Christians place a greater emphasis on believing the right things than do pantheistic or Eastern religions.

After a brief history of Belief with a capital B in Christianity, she reduces the human habit of self-serving bias to a wonderful metaphor: "each of us is the protagonist in a custom-made Hollywood movie with the best possible camera angles." (p. 51) The goal is to get to a "coherent plot line." (p. 52) The human mind as storyteller is a great analogy. We like stories with plots, art that "looks like something" and songs that have a beginning, middle and end. Having studied anthropology and the arts, I learned through other means that there are very few universals in human culture, but there are universal patterns amongst human beings. Blind spots and irrationality in thinking are part of the package.

She brilliantly summarizes the biggest problem for Christianity thusly: "Arriving at a belief in an infallible God by way of an inerrant Bible requires an unwarranted belief in yourself."

Sometimes things go wrong in the brain and people "know" things that just aren't true. I've seen this in my family and in other people I've known. She offers some examples and stories for those who haven't been fortunate enough to see schizophrenia in action, then cites research on how people achieve "certainty," including brain-washing techniques. The Christian "just knows" they're right, while the scientist learns to have a "healthy mistrust for our sense of knowing." (p. 55)

Next she discusses what I have tried to argue with theists: that humans' evolutionary success has come from having a "mental architecture" that makes us what she calls "social information specialists," and that our greatest threats have been from other people.

The same facial recognition skill that makes it possible for babies to recognize their caretakers gets transferred to inanimate objects and creates gods, demons ghosts... (she doesn't mention Jesus on Toast or Mary on an Office Building but I wish she had!)

"Theory of mind" makes it possible for us to put a mind behind the faces we see and even into stuffed animals or disembodied spirits. We can then recognize and attempt to anticipate patterns. Usually this is a helpful skill, thereby surviving long enough to reproduce (she doesn't say this but it follows). Credit and blame can be falsely attributed thanks to hyperactive agency detection. We want things to make sense! Naturally, our gods tend to think and behave as we do. Otherwise we wouldn't recognize them, I guess.

The rest of the chapter explores "The Born-Again Experience." She's too polite to call this a mind-fuck, but that's my opinion of it. Perhaps you have to know people with psychiatric disorders to know when someone is describing a neurological phenomenon.

Anywho... I love to see my opinions validated by an expert: "Conversion is a process that begins with social influence." (p. 60) Yep. I've never seen anyone have a conversion to a religion that nobody else in the room practices. Clinicians call the emotional-mystical experience "transcendence hallucination.|" I would call it the orgasmic part of the mind-fuck. She points out that seizures, migraines, drugs, and strokes can trigger this experience. 1,000 years ago the victims of these experiences were either mystics or witches depending on whether they agreed with the group. Hildegard of Bingen's drawings indicate that the headaches accompanying her spiritual experiences were migraines. But these symptoms can also be brought on by drumming, sensory deprivation, fasting, and crowd dynamics. (61)

So... add our pattern-making, meaning-making minds to our socially-driven unusual mental experiences and the result is a spiritual experience. She adds another factor almost as a side matter, but I think it's important: the authority figure. Their beliefs gain credibility after such an experience. "The authorities who triggered the otherworldly experience are trusted implicitly." Charitably, she doesn't attribute sinister motives to the ministers who induce these experiences, since the ministers themselves have likely had them and may not even be aware of the neurological processes.

Her conclusion very specifically claims that cognitive research offers a "sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of belief." (I would have pluralized it to phenomena, because she lists several!)

The killer conclusion is one of my pet ideas. I feel so validated! It's that Occam's Razor applies here. "In fields of human knowledge other than theology, if we can find a sufficient explanation within nature's matrix, we don't look outside. We no longer, for example, posit that demons are involved in seizures or bubonic plague."

Exactly. Human psychology, neurobiology, sociology and anthropology have revealed enough to make possible a naturalistic explanation of religious experience without at all resorting to to fields of philosophy and 'hard' sciences at all. (well, neurobiology yes...)

These fields developed long after philosophy and physics had laid claim to the "Truth," or the ability to discern truth. Even today, these "old" fields are dominated by men, who tend to be (if I may overgeneralize) less interested in the social and psychological aspects of "reality."

The "famous" atheists today are still coming from physics and biology. Their arguments fall on deaf ears precisely because they appeal to "objective" reality and not the subjective realities of society, culture, and personality. Tarico points out that when backed into a corner the Christian often concedes by saying "I just know." That's an indication of the neurobiological "knowing." I've gotten a few into the corner using logic, & they said "It's a matter of faith."

This to me is proof that it's a matter of wanting to be part of a culture that says it "knows."


Anonymous said...

Lady Atheist said:

Perhaps Dr. Tarico's voice is just what we need. Her PhD is in counseling psychology. What better perspective for examining a "delusion?"

Thank you. I thought her chapter was wonderful as you said.

Keep in mind that as an editor I could not get just anyone to write a chapter for me, and I don't know of some of the heavy women hitters (just as I don't know some of the heavy male hitters).

But for the record I am as feminist as a male can be. One of the main motivators for debunking Christianity and religion as a whole is because of how religion oppresses women. I am adamantly against what religion has done to women and will continue doing what I do for women as long as I live, even though they are doing an excellent job of it without me.

LadyAtheist said...

Thank you for your reply. I think a range of opinions is good to have, and that's one thing I found appealing about your book. Argument from logic or science addresses only a few of the weaknesses in religious belief.

Anardana said...

Great blog.

Anna said...

While I am not an enemy of religion and don't agree with your negative view on faith, it is a good post.

Although "mind fuck" is meant as a derogatory, I like that you do recognise that 'conversion' is a social, emotional and spiritual experience.

Most atheist vs religion discussions are based on a philosophical 'evidence' based approach and is really a waste of time because, that is not what faith REALLY is about. As you say:

"The "famous" atheists today are still coming from physics and biology. Their arguments fall on deaf ears precisely because they appeal to "objective" reality and not the subjective realities of society, culture, and personality. "

'Scientific' (rubbish), philosophical discussions about faith eventually ends at the 'I just know' point for the religious person , because that is the core: faith.

I think you are right that

" add our pattern-making, meaning-making minds to our socially-driven unusual mental experiences and the result is a spiritual experience."

however, I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

If faith can ad value to people's life (and in my observation, it does), e.g.:

- make them honest to themselves ('you can't hide anything from God')

- make them trust that they have an almighty, good friend always at hand to protect them so they dare stand up for their values

- strengthen communities

- make people less selfish (charity, helping people in need, as the Bible says they should)

- beat materialism ('you can't take it with you'... 'it is harder for a rich man to get heaven'... the gold calf metaphor... etc)

- get people to be more tolerant to marginal or 'bad' persons (Jesus mingled with criminals and lepers)

- teach people to forgive more (Jesus promoted forgiving), for others and for their own sake...

... then I am all for it.

Above is a best case scenario. I am not saying that it always works like that, or even that it mostly does.

I am just saying that faith is not necessarily bad, evil or stupid. The spin-offs of religion can ad a great deal of cultural, social and sociological value. For all the arguments back and forth about what is the truth, I think those values are what really matters to people and what makes them choose to believe.

It also depends a lot on the available alternatives, of course. If the alternative can't offer the same qualities or even stands for what looks like a fragmented, community-lacking, cynical way of seeing life, then, given that people have their free will, then I can understand why that ideology shouts for deaf ears.

I agree with the guy on the link below on his perspective on new atheism

The New Atheism

It is my view that almost everybody are religious in one form or another. Atheists no less than others. It is just the objects of worship that differ... the burning conviction of knowing the 'final truth' and the lack of willingness to listen & change seems similar amongst fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims.. and fundamentalist atheists.

LadyAtheist said...

Whether religion adds to the stability of community and the well-being of its adherents is irrelevant to the question of whether a supreme being really exists.

If I decide to worship a squirrel-god because I need a fuzzy buddy in times of stress, that may be comforting to me, but it doesn't make squirrels supernatural entitites.

Likewise self-honesty and all the rest. Pedophile priests are the obvious argument against that (and they're not all Catholic, so confession and absolution aren't factors either)

If by "strengthen communities" you mean have small towns with one belief system that will drive out or keep out anyone who doesn't agree with them, I fail to see the goodness in that.

Diversity may be difficult but it's more rewarding. The adverse effects of diversity: listening to people talk with an accent. The adverse effects of religious hegemony in the name of "community:" lynchings, terrorism, ostracization, concentration camps, expulsions, shunning, stoning...

You'll have to work a bit harder to convince me to believe in an imaginary being in order to have a better "community."

Anna said...

As I said, I was looking at a best case scenario.

I don't deny that horrible things has been done in the name of God, or say that religion protects again bad behaviour. I does however encourage good behaviour and try to discourage bad behaviour in a way that is more personally and socially integrated (or should be) than just adhering to a society's set of rules.

The type of religious small town community you mention also exists in my home country. They tend to be ruled by either Jehovas Witness or Inner Mission and usually lies in dead flat, windy & desolate areas on the infertile west coast.

I think that in a community where people don't have a real choice as to whether they want to believe (because the social & psychological pressure is too strong), faith tends to be corrupted. I think if you dug down you would find much doubt and much shame about being doubtful, and I think could be why this type of communities come across as xenophobic and dishonest... People somehow looks like they are all hiding something, and they are not even aware of it. But everybody else who sees them are, e.g. if they are interviewed to the TV news or something.

I see such places as suffering from some sort of religious inbreeding. I don't even consider it real faith because there is no real choice.

However, it doesn't mean that it necessarily needs to be like that.