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The Christian Delusion 2: Christian Beliefs Through the Lens of Cognitive Science


It seems like this chapter is seeking to undermine “faith,” or at least the strength of people’s confidence in their beliefs. It highlights pretty undisputed psychological research on our cognitive biases, showing that there is no one reasonable, no not one. The danger here is of self undermining. If we’re all unreasonable, as the author states, doesn’t that make the conclusions we could draw from this chapter less strong? The answer is yes, we cannot have total confidence in really any conclusions because of the propensity and inevitability of biases. This is something that science, and good skepticism already take into account, but that those who have “faith” do not. The faithful often say they have 100% certainty, and that they cannot be convinced of anything. The author undermines that attitude, and applies the skepticism evenly, including to herself (I think).

Another way to approach this is to say that science undermines certitude being applied to really any positive ideology. It’s really hard to approach truth when the hurdles of bias present themselves so readily. That means metaphysical naturalists, the religious, ideologues of any strain ought to be a little more careful with their beliefs.

Kindle Notes:

We humans are not rational about anything, let alone religion (502).

Note: Not in anything? Doesn’t that pose a serious problem for this book?

I like to think of myself as fair-minded and reasonable. In fact, I pride myself on “following the evidence where it leads, whether I like the conclusion or not.” Integrity and truth seeking are near the top of my wanted-virtues list. The problem is-research on human cognition suggests that I am neither fair-minded nor reasonable (532).

Note: So she affirms the self defeating part. Can her point still stand?

In fact, the scientific method has been called “what we know about how not to fool ourselves” (536).

Note: To her, science is the answer to our biases.

Given what I’ve said about knowing, how can anybody claim to know anything? We can’t, with certainty. Those of us who are not religious could do with a little more humility on this point. We all see “through a glass darkly,” and there is a realm in which all any of us can do is to make our own best guesses about what is real and important (594).

Nonetheless, it is a healthy mistrust for our sense of knowing that has allowed scientists to reach beyond everyday life to detect, predict, and produce desired outcomes with ever greater precision (599).

Note: The argument is against certitude, and that is something that skeptics and good scientists already affirm. If religious people allowed the wedge of doubt in, a great deal of faith would be destroyed. The ability to change ones mind is a virtue, and that is what this essay supports, and it’s also what keeps it from undermining itself.

Symbologists, or scholars who specialize in understanding ancient symbols, tell us that the orthodox Jesus story, as it appears in our gospels, follows a specific sacred or mythic template that existed in the ancient Near East long before Christianity or even Judaism. In part this is due to the flow of history (606).

when faced with unknowns and ambiguities, our brains activate inborn information modules even when they don’t really apply (631).

Because our theory of mind is so rich, we tend to overattribute events to conscious beings. Scientists call this hyperactive agency detection (639).

This experience, more than any other, creates a sense of certainty about Christian belief and so makes belief impervious to rational argumentation. What most Christians don’t know is that these experiences are not unique to Christianity. In fact, the quotations that you just read come from two born-again Christians, a Moonie, and an encounter group participant. Their words are similar because the born-again experience doesn’t require a specific set of beliefs. It requires a specific social/emotional process, and the dogmas or explanations are secondary (665).

Note: Powerful emotional experiences occur in contexts we find either ridiculous or mutually exclusive. If one is evidence, all are.

Consider, for example, the apostle Paul, whose Damascus Road event (possibly a temporal lobe seizure) transformed his moral priorities and sustained a lifetime of missionary devotion (694).

Note: Is that a plausible explanation?

Despite these limitations, cognitive research does offer what is rapidly becoming a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of belief. More and more, we can explain Christian belief with the same set of principles that explain supernaturalism generally (700).

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