Reborn Losers: Christian Cosmology and Worldview Are a Setup to Failure

Christian cosmology and worldview are complicated, stressful, and impossible. Trying to comply with them is a set up to failure. That failure begins with the concept of who we are as human beings living in human bodies.

I was a Christian, now I’m not. Sometimes I find it useful to write about what I believed then and compare it to what I don’t believe now. I try to express it simply, avoid religious assumptions and overtones, resist the urge to cringe at what I used to think and exalt in what I think now. Instead, I try to lay aside judgment, notice what comes up, and wonder about it. That’s the ideal, anyway — sometimes it’s more difficult than others to remain dispassionate. Today was one of those.

I wrote about cosmology (how the universe is organized) and worldview (how life works on Earth). Reading it afterward, it seemed that the Christian beliefs, institutions, and culture that dominated my life — and have dominated Western thought for two millennia — are about equal parts quaint and fantasy. I didn’t see it that way when I was immersed in them, but my last several years of study– especially neuroscience, psychology, and history — have upended my former cosmology and worldview, and taken my self concept with them.

I previously understood “reality” and my place in it by reference to a Truth outside of me. Today, I’m aware that everything I experience – including what I believe or not – is processed within my biological being.[1] My new sense of self and reality are now physical, not spiritual.

That shift has brought new clarity, simplicity, decisiveness, energy, focus, hope, joy, freedom, gratitude, and lots of other new dynamics I really like. By contrast, what struck me most about my former beliefs was how complicated they were, how stressful to maintain, and ultimately how generally impossible. Clinging to them was a setup to failure – I especially like being free of that.

The Trouble Starts With A Soul

Approaching life here by reference to a Truth out there leads us to believe in things that exist outside of us– in people, in ideas, in entities, in institutions…. That kind of thinking derives naturally from another foundational belief: that each person has an independent existence — a soul living inside their body – that sorts through available belief options and chooses this one over that.

“If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“This sense that we are individuals inside bodies is sometimes called the “ego theory,” although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’”[2]

My Christian worldview bought all that, and also held that the soul is our highest and best self, because it came from where Truth dwells. It also held that it’s hard on a soul to be in a human body. The doctrinal specifics vary – we deliberately chose to screw things up and our souls took the hit for it, our souls got damaged in transit or in installation, or there was a flaw in the source code that eventually moved them away from their ideal nature, etc. – but the end result is that the soul’s potential good influence is minimized or lost, leaving us in the throes of “sin” – falling short of the perfect divine plan for what our souls could have been if they hadn’t gotten fouled up. And since the soul’s waywardness is foundational, its problem isn’t just sin but “original sin” – the beginning of all our troubles. We don’t just struggle with garden-variety human nature, which is bad enough, but with “the flesh,” which is worse, in fact so dreadful that it puts our eternal destiny at jeopardy.

That’s where it all begins:  with a divine, timeless, perfect soul trapped in an imperfect human body. The result is a hapless human subject to all kinds of cosmic misfortune.

And it only gets worse from there.

The Cosmology and Worldview That Was (And Still Is)

It’s tricky to line up a flawed soul in a flawed body with an external perfect standard of Truth. As a result, we’re constantly screwing up our reality compared to Reality. Plus there’s the problem of perception and deception –-not seeing Reality clearly – and the problem of temptation – enticements plying on our fleshly nature that just aren’t going to end well. It’s hard to keep a clear head in the midst of those pressures, and for that we have experts – people we have to trust to know things about Reality that the rest of us don’t.

But sooner or later all fall down – experts along with everybody else. Birth is the soul’s doorway into its precarious life in the flesh, and death is the doorway out. It would be nice if the door had been designed to swing both ways so we could check in with Truth and get straightened out now and then, but it shuts firmly in both directions, and no peeking. Which means our attempts to live here by reference to what’s over there are always seriously handicapped.

Sometimes you hear about people who get a backstage pass to go there and come back, and then they write books about it and go on tour and tell us what’s it’s like. That makes them a special kind of expert, but their reports often are full of all sorts of universality, which makes them doctrinally suspect. Fortunately, there are superhuman beings– kind of like us, kind of not, but at least conscious like us, and able to communicate – to help us out. Sometimes they make the trip over here, sometimes they snatch someone from here and show them around over there and then send them back, sometimes they open up a clear channel to communicate with somebody over here, and sometimes — and this is the best – they can be born as one of us and not have a problem with losing their soul’s connection to Truth while they’re here. The point is, one way or another, when they really need to communicate with us, they figure out how.

The whole lot of them rank higher than we do: the human race is in charge of the Earth, but they’re in charge of us (and everything else). God out-ranks everyone, of course – He[3] created everything, including them and us, and although the whole thing sure looks like a mess to us it doesn’t look that way to Him – or to them either, I guess. God is the ultimate creator, communicator, executive, and enforcer, and He has more consciousness than all the rest of us combined.

“Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. In physical reality the tree fell, the storm bowled over a house, the man survived the car crash, the woman died prematurely, the earth orbits the sun, the cosmos exists. For many people these events, big and small, must have a consciousness and an intentionality behind them. God is that consciousness.”[4]

Of course, God is busy, which is why He has all these underlings. They’re arranged in a hierarchy – it just makes sense that they would be – and range from great big scary powerful cosmic superheroes who get to make great big scary visitations and announcements and cause all kinds of great big scary events, all the way down to petty bureaucrats, drones, and proles just doing their dull but necessary jobs (but even they outrank us in the grand cosmic scheme).

“When our anthropomorphism is applied to religious thought, it’s notably the mind, rather than the body, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods. In the diverse cultures of the world, gods come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they always share is a mind with the ability to think symbolically just like a human. This makes sense in light of the critical importance of theory of mind in the development of our social intelligence: if other people have minds like ours, wouldn’t that be true of other agents we perceive to act intentionally in the world?”[5]

These conscious beings from over there sometimes pick a human or a whole tribe of humans to mediate Truth to the rest of us. Those people get a special supernatural security clearance, and we give their key personnel special titles like prophet and priest.

So far so good, but even Truth – also known as Heaven – has its internal power struggles. There’s a war over there between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons, and other kinds of beings in the high places, and some of it spills over into reality on our side of the divide. We therefore need to be careful about which of our experts are authentic and which aren’t, who they’re really serving and who they aren’t. The stakes are high, and if we’re wrong we’re going to pay with a lot of pain and suffering, both in this life and forever when we go through death’s one-way door.

And just to make things more complicated, these other-worldly beings sometimes use human experts as their agents, and they can be undercover. Plus, to make things impossibly, incomprehensibly complicated for our by now totally overtaxed souls, God and the other good guys sometimes take a turn at being deceptive themselves. The Cosmic Screenwriter apparently thought of everything in a bid to make our predicament as over-the-top bad as possible. In fact, some of what’s going on behind the scenes, taken right out of the Bible, would make a modern fantasy series blush with inadequacy – for example the part about the war in high places[6]:

“Ask, for instance, the average American Christian – say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible – what gospel the Apostle Paul preached. The reply will fall along predictable lines: human beings, bearing the guilt of original sin and destined for eternal hell, cannot save themselves through good deeds, or make themselves acceptable to God; yet God, in his mercy, sent the eternal Son to offer himself up for our sins, and the righteousness of Christ has been graciously imputed or imparted to all who have faith…. Some details might vary, but not the basic story.

“Paul’s actual teachings, however, as taken directly from the Greek of his letters, emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels…

“The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. .. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph.

“For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God.

“In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

Okay then.

But despite all this vast, elaborate cosmic tangle, over there mostly keeps its own counsel about it all, while still not letting us off the hook. And, although it’s tempting, I won’t even get into all the subterfuge and confusion and (over here, at least) just plain stupidity about when the whole mess is going to resolve into that final day when “God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

And On It Goes (And it went on way too long already, but I wanted to make a point.)

Western culture has been living with all that for over two millennia. A couple hundred years ago, in a time we call “The Great Enlightenment,” some thinkers started trying to convince us that enough is enough, maybe we ought to try out a different cosmology and worldview, based on rational thought and not just fantasy and belief. There’ve been some takers, but overall the Great Endarkenment has rolled on. I’m not as old as Yoda, but I’ve personally seen, heard, and lived all of it. A whole bunch people in the States still do, and not all of them live in Texas.

The cosmology and worldview I just reviewed are complicated, fanciful, stressful, and impose impossible demands on that impaired soul seeing it all through a glass darkly. No wonder belief systems – both secular and religious – devolve into take-it-or-leave-it fundamentalism, where questioning is punished by both God and man, and you can delegate your cosmic responsibilities to the demigods in charge. Fundamentalism dispatches our impossible obligations and blinds us to what the Bible itself says is the final outcome of all our believing: The Big Fail.

The Big Fail

We really should have seen it coming – the Bible lays out the ultimate terms of what it means to believe all of this in brutally unmistakable terms. At the end of a much-quoted and much-beloved recitation of faith heroes, the Epistle to the Hebrews provides this summary of what it means to be your highest and best self:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”[7]

That’s how it ends: total failure — all promises broken, all expectations dashed, all frauds revealed … after it’s way too late for any remedy.

Can We Find a Better Way?

Yes, I am aware that there’s one last phrase in that passage:

“…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”[8]

What precisely is that “something better”? I’m clueless, but all the obvious difficulties don’t stop at least one thinker[9] from trying to preserve the value of the soul as our highest and best self, even if modern neuroscience has finally ended its sufferings. The key, he says, is to reinvent the soul to make it relevant to modernity:

“What is the point of gaining the whole world if you lose your soul? Today, far fewer people are likely to catch the scriptural echoes of this question than would have been the case 50 years ago. But the question retains its urgency. We might not quite know what we mean by the soul any more, but intuitively we grasp what is meant by the loss in question – the kind of moral disorientation and collapse where what is true and good slips from sight, and we find we have wasted our lives on some specious gain that is ultimately worthless.

“It used to be thought that science and technology would gain us the world. But it now looks as though they are allowing us to destroy it. The fault lies not with scientific knowledge itself, which is among humanity’s finest achievements, but with our greed and short-sightedness in exploiting that knowledge. There’s a real danger we might end up with the worst of all possible scenarios – we’ve lost the world, and lost our souls as well.

“But what is the soul? The modern scientific impulse is to dispense with supposedly occult or ‘spooky’ notions such as souls and spirits, and to understand ourselves instead as wholly and completely part of the natural world, existing and operating through the same physical, chemical and biological processes that we find anywhere else in the environment.

“We need not deny the value of the scientific perspective. But there are many aspects of human experience that cannot adequately be captured in the impersonal, quantitatively based terminology of scientific enquiry. The concept of the soul might not be part of the language of science; but we immediately recognise and respond to what is meant in poetry, novels and ordinary speech, when the term ‘soul’ is used in that it alerts us to certain powerful and transformative experiences that give meaning to our lives.

“Such precious experiences depend on certain characteristic human sensibilities that we would not wish to lose at any price. In using the term ‘soul’ to refer to them, we don’t have to think of ourselves as ghostly immaterial substances. We can think of ‘soul’ as referring, instead, to a set of attributes of cognition, feeling and reflective awareness – that might depend on the biological processes that underpin them, and yet enable us to enter a world of meaning and value that transcends our biological nature.

“Entering this world requires distinctively human qualities of thought and rationality. But we’re not abstract intellects, detached from the physical world, contemplating it and manipulating it from a distance. To realise what makes us most fully human, we need to pay attention to the richness and depth of the emotional responses that connect us to the world. Bringing our emotional lives into harmony with our rationally chosen goals and projects is a vital part of the healing and integration of the human soul.”

Full Acceptance

It seems honorable that someone would attempt this kind of synthesis, but I personally don’t see anything worth salvaging. Instead, I think this might be a good time to acknowledge something that Christianity’s troublesome cosmology and worldview have dismissed all along: human nature. In that regard, I find the following thoughts from a writer I particularly admire[10] to be bracingly clarifying, and in that, hopeful

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. .. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of conscientiousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others. [citing Gray, Straw Dogs]

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

We are not going to “conquer our humanness” by continuing our fundamentalist allegiance to a complicated, stressful, and self-negating cosmology and worldview. How about if instead we try full acceptance of our conflicted and flawed humanity, where we find not grandiose visions but simple hope for our small todays?

[1] I also believe there is an independent reality that is more than my brain’s construction of it. Not everyone thinks so. Maybe more on that another time.

[2] Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2012)

[3] We get that theoretically God, as a spiritual being, probably wouldn’t have a gender, but we’re generally more comfortable giving him the male pronouns.

[4] Graziano, Michael S. A., Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013)

[5] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

[6] Hart, David Bentley, Everything You Know About The Gospel Of Paul Is Likely Wrong, Aeon (Jan. 8, 2018). David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a philosopher, writer and cultural commentator, who recently published a translation of The New Testament (2017).

[7] Hebrews 11: 35-39.

[8] Hebrews 11: 40.

[9] Cottingham, John, What is the soul if not a better version of ourselves? Aeon (Mar. 11, 2020). John Cottingham is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Reading, professor of philosophy of religion at the University of Roehampton, London, and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford University.

[10] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

 

Debunking the Debunkers

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

The Who[1]

Debunkers believe we’ll be better off without all the bunk. If only it were that simple: the basic premise of debunking might not hold up, the “truth that lies on the other side of bunk is elusive, and there are strong social forces that oppose it. Plus, once free of it, we tend to replace old bunk with new.

UVA Professor Emily Ogden defines “bunk”:

“‘Bunk’ means baloney, hooey, bullshit. Bunk isn’t just a lie, it’s a manipulative lie, the sort of thing a con man might try to get you to believe in order to gain control of your mind and your bank account. Bunk, then, is the tool of social parasites, and the word ‘debunk’ carries with it the expectation of clearing out something that is foreign to the healthy organism. Just as you can deworm a puppy, you can debunk a religious practice, a pyramid scheme, a quack cure. Get rid of the nonsense, and the polity – just like the puppy – will fare better. Con men will be deprived of their innocent marks, and the world will take one more step in the direction of modernity.”[2]

Sounds great, but can debunking actually deliver?

“Debunk is a story of modernity in one word – but is it a true story? Here’s the way this fable goes. Modernity is when we finally muster the reason and the will to get rid of all the self-interested deceptions that aristocrats and priests had fobbed off on us in the past. Now, the true, healthy condition of human society manifests itself naturally, a state of affairs characterised by democracy, secular values, human rights, a capitalist economy and empowerment for everyone (eventually; soon). All human beings and all human societies are or ought to be headed toward this enviable situation.”

Once somebody calls something a “fable” you know it’s in trouble. Plus, there’s no indisputable “truth” waiting to be found once the bunk is cleared out.

“There is no previously existing or natural secular order that will assert itself when we get the bunk out… There is no neutral, universal goal of progress toward which all peoples are progressing; instead, the claim that such a goal ought to be universal has been a means of exploiting and dispossessing supposedly ‘backward’ peoples.”

The underlying problem with debunking seems to be the assumptions we make — about what’s true and false, what we’ll find when we sort one from the other, and most importantly, who’s qualified to do that. Debunking requires what cultural anthropologist Talal Asad has called “secular agents” – a species that may not actually exist.

“Secular agency is the picture of selfhood that Western secular cultures have often wanted to think is true. It’s more an aspiration than a reality. Secular agents know at any given moment what they do and don’t believe. When they think, their thoughts are their own. The only way that other people’s thoughts could become theirs would be through rational persuasion. Along similar lines, they are the owners of their actions and of their speech. When they speak, they are either telling the truth or lying. When they act, they are either sincere or they are faking it… Modernity, in this picture, is when we take responsibility for ourselves, freeing both society and individuals from comforting lies.”

I.e., secular agency is a high standard we mostly fall short of. Instead, we do our best to conform to social conventions even if we don’t personally buy into them. A sports star points to the sky after a home run, a touchdown, a goal, acknowledging the help of somebody or Somebody up there… a eulogy talks about a deceased loved one “looking down on us”… a friend asks us to “think good thoughts” for a family member going into surgery… We don’t buy the Somebody up there helping us, the “looking down,” or the “good thoughts,” but we don’t speak up. Instead, we figure there’s a time and place for honesty and confrontation, and this isn’t one of them.[3]

“Life includes a great many passages in which we place the demands of social bonds above strict truth…. [In] the context of some of the stories we tell collaboratively in our relationships with others, the question of lying or truth does not arise. We set it aside. We apply a different framework, something more like the framework we apply to fiction: we behave as if it were true.”

So what’s left of debunking? Well, it still has its place, especially when it’s used to call the Bunk Lords to account.

“What then is debunking? It can be a necessary way of setting the record straight. I’m by no means opposed to truth-telling. We need fact-checkers. The more highly placed the con artist, the more his or her deceptions matter. In such cases, it makes sense to insist on hewing to the truth.

“[On the other hand,] the social dynamics of debunking should not be overlooked …, especially when the stakes aren’t particularly high – when the alleged lie in question is not doing a whole lot of harm.”

To Play Along or Not to Play Along

When I was a late adolescent and lurching my way toward the Christian faith, a seminary student advised me that, “Sometimes you just need to act as if something is true. You do that long enough, and maybe it will actually become true” – which I took to mean that, even if you’re full of yourself right now, in the long haul you might be happier fitting in.

Maybe, maybe not. You might also feel that, since the things we believe are always in progress anyway, why not be real about what’s up for you right now.

“At these times, what is debunking? It’s a performed refusal to play along.… It’s the announcement that one rejects the as-if mode in which we do what social bonds require.”

Plus, there seems to be a countervailing urge that sometimes prevails over socially playing nice: when we feel like we finally got it figured out, the scales fell from our eyes and we can see clearly now, we can see life for what it really is,,, get to that beatific place, and you want to tell everybody, even it if steps on their toes – which it does, but being newly enlightened and detoxed, you can’t help yourself.

Thus the “as if” game becomes a choice: playing along preserves social currency, opting out drains it. Which do you want?

Why Bother?

There’s also the “Why bother?” issue. Debunking is often preaching to the choir while the unconverted stay that way – in fact, they never even hear what you have to say; it never shows up in their feed.

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”[4]

In light of all this cognitive self-preservation, not rocking the boat can seem like the more reasonable choice:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”[5]

But even if acting as-if is socially acceptable, sometimes you just can’t help but go after it.

Take “magical thinking” for example — a socially acceptable practice and favorite debunking target.

Magical thinking is based on a claim of cause and effect, and therefore offers a sense of predictability and control, It sounds scientific and reasonable, which makes it socially acceptable, but it’s neither; it’s faux science because you can’t test or verify it, and its not reasonable because there’s no logic to it, you can only believe it or not. The masquerade makes it a prime target for debunking.

Magical thinking [is] the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world. Examples include beliefs that the movement of the Sun, Moon, and wind or the occurrence of rain can be influenced by one’s thoughts or by the manipulation of some type of symbolic representation of these physical phenomena.

“Magical thinking became an important topic with the rise of sociology and anthropology in the 19th century. It was argued that magical thinking is an integral feature of most religious beliefs, such that one’s inner experience, often in participation with a higher power, could influence the course of events in the physical world.

“Prominent early theorists suggested that magical thinking characterized traditional, non-Western cultures, which contrasted with the more developmentally advanced rational-scientific thought found in industrialized Western cultures. Magical thinking, then, was tied to religion and ‘primitive’ cultures and considered developmentally inferior to the scientific reasoning found in more ‘advanced’ Western cultures.” [6]

Recent converts are notorious for their intolerance of whatever they just left behind[7] and therefore the least likely to play along with social convention. So, suppose you’re a recent convert from magical thinking and someone drops one of those refrigerator magnet aphorisms. You’ll weigh a lot of factors in the next instant, but sometimes there are just some things people need to stop believing, so you’ll go ahead and launch, and social peace-keeping be damned. You do that in part because you’re aware of your own susceptibility to temptation. This is from Psychology Today[8]

“How many times a day do you either cross your fingers, knock on wood, or worry that your good luck will turn on you? When two bad things happen to you, do you cringe in fear of an inevitable third unfortunate event? Even those of us who ‘know better’ are readily prone to this type of superstitious thinking.

“Further defying logic, we also readily believe in our own psychic powers: You’re thinking of a friend when all of a sudden your phone beeps to deliver a new text from that very person. It’s proof positive that your thoughts caused your friend to contact you at that very moment! … These are just a few examples of the type of mind tricks to which we so readily fall prey.”

The article provides a list of seven “mind tricks” taken from psychology writer Matthew Hutson’s book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, and invites us to “See how long it takes you to recognize some of your own mental foibles.” Here’s the list, with abbreviated commentary from the article:

  1. “Objects carry essences. We attribute special properties to items that belong or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, or has a particular quality we admire… the objects are just objects, and despite their connection with special people in our lives, they have no inherent ability to transmit those people’s powers to us.
  2. “Symbols have power. Humans have a remarkable tendency to impute meaning not only to objects but to abstract entities. We imbue these symbols with the ability to affect actual events in our lives.
  3. “Actions have distant consequences. In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our unpredictable lives, we build up a personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts.
  4. “The mind knows no bound We are often impressed by the apparent coincidence that occurs when a person we’re thinking about suddenly contacts us. For just that moment, we believe the event “proves” that we’re psychic.
  5. “The soul lives on. [Why] do adults hold on so stubbornly to the belief that the mind can continue even after its seat (the brain) is no longer alive? The answer, in part, comes from the terror that we feel about death.
  6. “The world is alive. We attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones. We read into the faces of our pets all sorts of human emotions such as humor, disappointment, and guilt. If our latest technological toy misbehaves, we yell at it and assume it has some revenge motive it needs to satisfy.
  7. “Everything happens for a reason. The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us… For the same reason, we believe in luck, fate, and chance.”

Magical thinking is one of my personal bugaboos, therefore my personal list would be longer than seven.[9] Those things make me twitch. You?

And speaking of mortality…

Miracles: Magic Gets Personal

We can (and do) make up all kinds of things about what it’s like “up there,” but we can’t really imagine it any more than we can our own death. There’s a lot of research about why that’s so[10], but as a practical matter we have to imagine death while we’re still alive in the here and now, but to do it properly we’d have to be there and then — a problem that explains the popularity of books that some call “heavenly tourism,” about people who go there and come back to tell us about it.[11]

We want our heroes and loved ones looking down on us because we miss them. Losing them makes us feel small, helpless, and powerless — like children. So we draw pictures of clouds and robes and harps and locate them there. Childish? Sure. But preferable to the idea that “they” vanished when their body and brain stopped biologically functioning. Why we like one over the other isn’t clear if we can step back and think about it, but we don’t. Instead we’re so freaked about the trip down the River Styx that we follow convention.

For the same reasons, praying for a miracle that staves off death persists in the face of little to support it.[12]

“Writing Fingerprints of God, my 2009 book about the science of spirituality, gave me an excuse to ask a question that I never openly considered before leaving Christian Science, one that was unusually freighted: Is there any scientific evidence, anything beyond the realm of anecdote, that prayer heals?

“It turns out, the evidence is mixed. Beginning in the 1980s, we’ve seen a rash of prayer studies. Some seemed to show that patients who were prayed for recovered more quickly from heart attacks. Another study found that prayer physically helped people living with AIDS.

“But for every study suggesting that prayer heals a person’s body, there is another one showing that prayer has no effect — or even makes you worse. Does prayer help people with heart problems in a coronary care unit? Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found no effect. Does it benefit people who needed to clear their arteries using angioplasty? Not according to researchers at Duke. In another study, prayer did not ease the plight of those on kidney dialysis machines. And don’t even mention skin warts: Researchers found that people who received prayer saw the number of warts actually increase slightly, compared with those who received no prayer.

“The most famous study, and probably the most damaging for advocates of healing prayer, was conducted by Harvard researcher Herbert Benson in 2006. He looked at the recovery rates of patients undergoing cardiac bypass surgery. Those patients who knew they were receiving prayer actually did worse than those who did not know they were receiving prayer.

“In the end, there is no conclusive evidence from double-blind, randomized studies that suggests that intercessory prayer works.

“Prayer studies are a ‘wild goose chase that violate everything we know about the universe,’ Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and author of Blind Faith, told me: ‘There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody’s thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person. None.’”

“And yet,” the author continues, “ science has embraced a sliver of my childhood faith, a century after Mary Baker Eddy ‘discovered’ Christian Science in the late 1800s. If scientists don’t buy intercessory prayer, most do agree that there is a mind-body connection.” She also finds some connections in “another new ‘science,’ called ‘neurotheology,’” citing how the stimulation of certain brain areas can deliver the same sensations as meditation, contemplative prayer, spiritual ecstasy, and even out-of-body experiences. As a result, she wonders if the brain might act as a kind of radio: “Is the brain wired to connect with a dimension of reality that our physical senses cannot perceive?”

“Researchers have tried to replicate such out-of-body experiences, which are always after-the-fact anecdotes that cannot be tested. These experiences, they say, suggest that consciousness can exist separate from the brain — in other words, that there may be a transcendent reality that we tap into when brain functioning ceases.

“I am not asking you to believe that consciousness can continue when the brain is not functioning, that there is a God who answers prayer, or that people who pray or meditate connect with another reality. I’m not asking you to believe that all mystical or inexplicable experiences are simply the interaction of chemicals in the brain or firings of the temporal lobe. That’s the point: You don’t have to choose. Because neither side possesses the slam-dunk argument, the dispositive evidence that proves that there is a God, or there isn’t.”

I.e., she’s saying that the impermeable curtain of death means we can’t prove or disprove either the brain-as-a-radio theory or the materialist belief that when your body stops so do you. Thus we’re free to choose, and one’s as viable as the other. Obviously, unlike the Psychology Today writer, this ex-Christian Scientist is not a committed debunker. On the other hand, her reference to the lack of “dispositive evidence that proves that there is a God, or there isn’t” takes us to straight to the ultimate debunking target.

Debunking God (or not)

God is the ultimate debunking target (patriotism is a close second), and the “New Atheists[13]” are the ultimate God debunkers. They’ve also been roundly criticized for being as fundamentalist and evangelical as the fundamentalists and evangelicals they castigate.[14] That’s certainly how I respond to them. I discovered them when I was fresh in my awareness that I’d become an atheist. I put their books on my reading list, read a couple, and deleted the rest. I’d left the fighting fundamentalists behind, and had no desire to rejoin the association. On the other hand, I am grateful to them for making it easier for the rest of us to come out as atheist – something that current social convention makes more difficult than coming out gay.[15]

From what I can tell, there are lots of people like me who didn’t become atheists by being clear-thinking and purposeful[16], it was just something that happened over time, until one day they checked the “none” box beside “religious affiliation.” Atheism wasn’t an intellectual trophy we tried to win, it was a neighborhood we wandered into one day and were surprised to find we had a home there. As one writer said,

“My belief in God didn’t spontaneously combust—it faded.

“I wasn’t the only kid who stopped believing. A record number of young Americans (35 percent) report no religious affiliation, even though 91 percent of us grew up in religiously affiliated households.

“Our disbelief was gradual. Only 1 percent of Americans raised with religion who no longer believe became unaffiliated through a onetime “crisis of faith.” Instead, 36 percent became disenchanted, and another 7 percent said their views evolved.

“It’s like believing in Santa Claus. Psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Jaqueline Woolley have found that children’s disbelief in Santa Claus is progressive, not instantaneous. First kids think that the Santa in the mall or library is real, then they think he’s not real but still magically communicates with the actual Santa, and so on, until they finally realize that Santa is composed of costumed actors. “Kids don’t just turn [belief] off,” Goldstein says.

“Likewise, losing faith happens in pieces.”[17]

It seems fitting we would exit religion that way, since it’s the way many of us got into it in the first place. Yes, some people seem to have those Damascus Road conversions[18], or maybe a less dramatic “come to Jesus meeting,” as a friend of mine says, but more often religion just kind of seeps into us from the surrounding culture.

“I used to love this illustrated children’s Bible my mom gave me. Long-faced Jonah inside a yawning blue whale felt warm and right. My brain made these feelings. When we enjoy religious or associated experiences, like snuggling up with Mom reading the Bible, our brain’s reward circuits activate. Over time, religious ideas become rewarding in and of themselves. This is a powerful, unconscious motivation to keep believing.

“When I began to see my colorful Bible as boring and childish, those same reward circuits likely became less active. Religious experiences produced less pleasure. This happens involuntarily in people with Parkinson’s disease, which compromises the brain’s reward centers. [That is why] people who develop Parkinson’s are much more likely to lose their faith.”[19]

The New Magic – Or, maybe I’m just skeptical about skepticism.

But then, it’s common that having been debunked of religion, we transfer that same commitment to something else – maybe magical thinking or some other unverifiable belief system. Turns out there’s a neurological reason for that: the neural pathways that ran our old belief system are still there, so we just load them with new content:

“For many years I believed in both creationism, with a God whose hand I could shake, and evolution, a cold, scientific world that cared nothing about me. Because when we lose faith, our brain’s preexisting belief networks don’t dissolve. They’re updated, like a wardrobe. ‘Even if someone abandons or converts [religions], it’s not like they’re throwing out all the clothes they own and now buying a whole new set,’ says Jordan Grafman, director of brain injury research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and a professor at Northwestern University. ‘You pick and choose what you leave and what you keep.’

“New beliefs join the same neurological framework as old ones. It’s even possible that an existing belief network paves the way for additional beliefs. [Another researcher] has found that kids who believe in fantastical beings are more likely to believe in new ones invented by researchers. “I think it’s because they already have this network that [the new belief] kind of fits into,” she explains. Sometimes the new beliefs resemble the old ones; sometimes they don’t.

“Most non-religious people are ‘passionately committed to some ideology or other,’ explains Patrick McNamara, a neurology professor at Boston University School of Medicine. These passions function neurologically as ‘faux religions.’”[20]

And then, having been newly converted to our new faux religion, we’re set up for another eventual round of debunking.

Meet the new boss.

Same as the old boss.

[1] Here’s the original music video of We Won’t Get Fooled Again. Watching it draws you all the way back into the turbulent, polarizing 60’s — if you remember them, that is — and the tone feels eerily similar to what we’re living with today. By the way, who said, “If you remember the 60’s, you really weren’t there”? Find out here.

[2] Ogden, Emily, Debunking Debunked, Aeon (Aug. 12, 2019). Ms. Ogden’s Aeon bio says she is “an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, and an author whose work has appeared in Critical Inquiry, The New York Times and American Literature, among others. Her latest book is Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (2018).” All quotes in this section are from this article.

nk’ means baloney, hooey, bullshit. Bunk isn’t just a lie, it’s a manipulative lie, the sort of thing a con man might try to get you to believe in order to gain control of your mind and your bank account. Bunk, then, is the tool of social parasites, and the word ‘debunk’ carries with it the expectation of clearing out something that is foreign to the healthy organism. Just as you can deworm a puppy, you can debunk a religious practice, a pyramid scheme, a quack cure. Get rid of the nonsense, and the polity – just like the puppy – will fare better. Con men will be deprived of their innocent marks, and the world will take one more step in the direction of modernity.

[3] This social convention has been around a long time: like the Bible (something else we might like to debunk) says, “There is a time for everything under heaven … a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”   Ecclesiastes 3: 7

[4]This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017):

[5]Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017).

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica.

[7] See Volck, Brian, The Convert’s Zeal, Image Journal (Aug. 22, 2019). See also this Pew Center report.

[8] 7 Ideas We Really Need to Stop Believing. Psychology Today (May 08, 2012).

[9] Mr. Hutson’s list is based on “a wealth of psychological evidence,” while mine comes from my own anecdotal judgment that magical thinking has led to all kinds of delusional decisions and disasters in my life. The irony of using my own subjective perspective to debunk my own life doesn’t escape me. – it ranks right in there with The Who’s resorting to prayer in the hope they won’t be fooled again.

[10] Doubting death: how our brains shield us from mortal truth, The Guardian (Oct. 19, 2019).

[11] Like Heaven is For Real, by Alex Malarkey. Yes, that’s his real name.

[12] The Science of Miracles, Medium (Feb. 7, 2019).

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Wikipedia.

[15] What Atheists Can Learn From The Gay Rights Movement, The Washington Post (Apr. 3, 2013). Coming out as atheist is even trickier if you’re in the public eye: ‘I Prefer Non-Religious’: Why So Few US Politicians Come Out As Atheists, The Guardian (Aug. 3, 2019); The Last Taboo: It’s harder in America to come out as an atheist politician than a gay one. Why? Politico Magazine (Dec. 9, 2013)

[16] Such as Andrew L. Seidel, an “out-of-the-closet atheist” and author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (2019).

[17] Beaton, Caroline, What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Believing in God: It’s like going off a drug Vice (Mar. 28 2017).

[18] The Acts of the Apostles 9: 1-9.

[19] Beaton, op. cit..

[20] Ibid.

“The Opium of the People”: Sex, Drugs, Rock n Roll, Gambling, and … Religion

dice

Religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. What happens next might surprise you.

Last time, we heard from Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, who says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“[N]eurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, another pioneer of “neurotheology.” agrees that the religion-brain link promotes social cohesiveness and morality.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’ says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discusson.'”

The Apostle Paul, whose pre-conversion theological training was ultra-legalistic, likened law-based belief to being under the care of a guardian:  we need something to keep us in line until we grow up enough to embrace responsibility along with freedom. Paul’s Letter to the Galations 3:22-24. Until we make that shift, the brain’s religious wiring is equally adept at promoting individual and communal health as their opposites. Dr. Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist that reflect the implications of this neurological indifference:

  • Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just 12 minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
  • Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
  • Fundamentalism, in and of itself, is benign and can be personally beneficial, but the anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
  • Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain—altering your values and the way you perceive reality.

In fact, the brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning”

“What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

These findings suggest a fascinating explanation for a wide range of religious behaviors — everything from charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and “fellowship” dynamics on one end to clergy sexual crimes and misconduct, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other. Shocking as it may seem, the whole spectrum qualifies for the brain’s addictive feel-good list, along with sex, drugs, music, and gambling.

More from neurotheology next time.