The human brain and its tendency to believe irrational things

The last two interviews on the Angry Atheist podcast have got me thinking a lot about whether the human brain is predisposed to believe in religion, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, etc.

Firstly Craig James, author of The Religion Virus, talked about religion in terms of evolution, explaining how religions have adapted and progressed, and the strongest strains survive because of their ability to take hold in our brains. Our brains are the ecosphere in which these ideas live. Craig explained that the ideas that survive are the ones that appeal to us (someone is looking out for us, you’ll get to meet your dead relatives in heaven and be happy forever) as well as things that people are afraid of (fear of making God angry, eternity in hell, for example).

It made me start to wonder: what has atheism really got to offer? There’s no attractive warm fluffy appeal or fear factor to make it stick in people’s head. I guess it only really appeals on an intellectual level. Craig mentioned that most people don’t tend to continue to believe something once they realise that it’s not right, which could be an advantage for atheism. It also means that the anti-gay churches are going to struggle in the future as more and more people are realising that homophobia is not right. Those churches will either need to adapt or die.

The other interview was with DPRJones, youtube broadcaster and host of The Magic Sandwich chat show. Part of what DPRJones talked about was the question of why people buy into religion. A lot of it comes down to how we are brought up, which is interesting, but more interesting for me is the connection to the evolution of the human brain.

Homo Sapiens are very good communicators, and we understand that the evolution of large frontal lobes has something to do with that. DPRJones points out that we have the advantage of being able to imagine conversations with people before we have them. We can also imagine conversations with people who are dead, or don’t even exist. 50% of 4-year-olds have an imaginary friend who they talk to. It’s no wonder that, when children are told there is a God they can’t see who cares about them, they accept it without question. DPRJones also mentioned that 9-year-olds questioned about dead animals mostly had the notion that the animal, while it no longer needs food or drink, still has desires of some sort. It seems natural for us to believe in life continuing after death.

I’ve read similar ideas before. Richard Dawkins explains some elements of religion as a by-products of evolution. For example, most of us are inclined to obey authority. It is an evolutionary advantage for us, when told not to do dangerous things, to obey. Disobedience sometimes causes death. This evolutionary advantage “misfires” when we feel we must please and obey a God, much like moths who fly towards artificial lights because they evolved to navigate by the light of the moon.

These things help me to understand why i so naturally believed that Christianity was right, and why some of my beliefs continue to persist unnecessarily. If something goes wrong, my first thought is still to wonder if i’m being “punished” by God for some wrongdoing, until i remember that it’s an irrational thing to believe and then i feel liberated to find a solution to the problem.

Sometimes i still wonder though, whether i am really any better off now as a non-believer than i was as a believer. I still suffer the common faults in human thought patterns. I am not free of confirmation bias, of self-consistency bias, of herd mentality, of assuming that i am right. Isn’t it funny that everyone, no matter what they believe, thinks that they are right? Even when writing this post, i’ve had to try to stop myself from implying that atheism is the obvious conclusion to logical thought. I can picture myself ten years ago and know that i definitely would not have agreed!

I don’t think i believe in anything irrational now, but i only need to follow the patterns of the human psyche and extrapolate to realise that i probably do. It scares me that i have no idea what those things are.

One comment on “The human brain and its tendency to believe irrational things

  1. I think it depends exactly what you mean by atheism. To me, there seem to be three common senses, which often get mixed up in people’s heads – including atheistic heads:

    1) Not believing in a cosmic tyrant – who sees all, knows all, and judges all according to some arbitrary (and inconsistent) moral code.

    2) Not believing in anything supernatural or incredible – ghosts, reincarnation, telepathy, the illuminati, shapeshifting alien lizards, time travel etc. At least, until some decent evidence comes along, in which case they’re no longer fantasy.

    3) Believing that, if a problem is genuine and actually has a solution, whether it’s theoretical or practucal, empirical or moral, reason can find it, given sufficient evidence and opportunity.

    The third position is a kind of faith, and might be identified with humanism.

    Specifically, it’s faith based (inductively) on good but not perfect evidence – as opposed to faith based on no evidence, or weak evidence, or actually opposing the evidence. I wrote a lot of paragraphs about different kinds of faith, which I’ll spare you.

    It obviously can’t be proven than every possible real problem is rationally soluble, but given the vast evidence, it’s inductively very likely.

    You’re asking what benefits atheism has. I’d turn it around and ask what harm religion does.

    An atheist in the first sense is free to live without the fear of an invisible abusive parent in the sky. They live without cosmic Stockholm syndrome.

    The real world is a scary enough place, without inventing invincible demonic versions of real cultural barriers. Atheism here doesn’t exactly make you happy, but it does make you less sad, and less scared.

    An atheist in the second sense is a skeptic, or a rationalist – someone who’s cautious about what they believe, and so isn’t easy to fool or con. Again, skeptics don’t always make great decisions, but they make fewer foolish ones.

    GK Chesterton made a famous remark that ceasing to believe in god left one open to any other belief. It’s quite possible to be an atheist in my first sense, but a gullible believer in my second.

    I think the third position is, by definition, rationalism – in the broad, lower case sense, as opposed to the continental philosophy sense.

    It may indeed not provide the pleasant fuzzy sensations of an imaginary friend, but as soon as you’re required to make a practical decision, it’s a lot more reliable.

    Finally, there are plenty of sources of spiritual nourishment that don’t involve irrational belief. Music, literature, film and theater are I find quite sufficient, and come with fewer strings attached. And let’s not forget friendship, love and indeed sex.

    So in short: Atheism doesn’t make you happy, but is does make you sensible, and there’s plenty of other things to make you happy.

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