How Beliefs Resist Change

This is from Part 5.5 of 6: How Beliefs Resist Change in the series called Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science over at the HuffingtonPost. Apparently it wasn’t a fully thought out series since Valerie’s resisting closing this series with part 6 of 6. I’m not sad though because she’s presenting a lot of good information and understanding about belief that is very much worth your consideration.

This part of the series concerns the staying power of belief in a changing world. It all starts with indoctrination of the young and continues through a believer’s life. Quoting from Valerie:

To make things even more complicated, each religion has what can be called an immune system. Because traditional Christianity is centered on orthodoxy, meaning right belief, the immune system consists of a set of teachings that guard against other beliefs or loss of belief. Christianity’s immune system includes the following teachings:

· Doubt is a sign of weakness or temptation by Satan, the father of lies.
· False teachers (those whose theology differs) should be cast out.
· Believers should not be unequally yoked (partnered) with nonbelievers.
· Nonbelievers have no basis for morality, so their motives are suspect.
· If Christians act badly, the flaw is in the persons, not the religion.

Given that core beliefs are naturally resilient and given the power of messages such as these, it will come as no surprise that people go to extreme lengths psychologically to defend religious dogmas.

The article continues with the topic of cognitive dissonance and confirmatory thinking that explain a great deal about why people continue to think what they think despite contradictory evidence. I do agree that a lot of this boils down to group identity and our personal filters. Are you reading this because you already believe in a freethought philosophy such as Agnosticism or Atheism or are you truly operating outside of your own religious filter and reading things you don’t agree with?

Even outside our personal information filters is a set of ring defenses: our communities. Who forwards you email? What magazines do you subscribe to? What shows do you watch? Because confirmation is so satisfying and contradiction is so uncomfortable, we surround ourselves with friends and colleagues and coreligionists who think like us. Often, we join groups that do the filtering for us: Democrats for America, The Nature Conservancy, Assemblies of God, The National Rifle Association. These groups provide a steady flow of information confirming and elaborating what we think we know–and ensuring that a lot of contradictory information never makes it anywhere near our brains. They let us short-cut. Instead of weigh the quality of arguments and evidence – we look at the source and either raise or lower a draw bridge.

In an even more impervious form of this, we form a group identity: I’m a Catholic. I’m a Republican. I’m an American. I’m a Woman. I’m Hispanic. I’m a Calvinist. Each of these identities creates what I call a tribal information boundary (TIB). TIB’s are remarkable efficiency devices, allowing us to weave coherent story lines about the world around us. But for someone seeking to understand complicated realities, they can be tremendously costly.

When we actually allow ourselves to bump up against the limitations of our world view, when we acknowledge we’ve hit a wall and then find a way over or around it–that is when growth is most likely to occur. In the 1998 comedy, The Truman Show, the protagonist, played by Jim Carrey, pushes past an information boundary and realizes he is living in the artificial world of a television set. From childhood, Truman has accepted the explanations and roles offered him. But he is confronted with small discrepancies, and one day he ignores his own fears and barriers that his community has erected, and punches through to the world outside. The movie’s message to us all: It is possible.

Are you in an information and belief dome? Can you break through that wall and open yourself up to the possibility that there is much more out there that you and I just do not and cannot understand?

How Viral Ideas Hook Us

This is from Part 5 of 6: How Viral Ideas Hook Us in the series called Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science over at the HuffingtonPost. Why do people forward chain e-mails that are too-good-to-be-true urban legends? Why do people get sucked in by emotional responses that when you examine things critically just don’t hold up? The article starts with the chain mail idea but then moves to the more plausible reason as to why religions survive so well even though they are filled with unbelievable stories. Religions are actually more like a virus, a virus of the mind. I’ll again quote from Valerie:

But whereas diseases spread passively, meaning people rarely try to infect each other, viral ideas, also known as “memes” spread by harnessing the human desire to share what we know and to learn from each other. Memes get transmitted through established social networks. They spread horizontally within a generation, and vertically from generation to generation. That is why specific religions are concentrated in one part of the world or another and children tend to have the same religion as their parents.

For developmental reasons, children are particularly susceptible to simply accepting the ideas of their parents and community. If a parent says stoves burn you, cars can squish you, and bathing keeps you from getting itchy, kids tend to do best if they simply trust what their parents say. Nature has designed children to be “credulous.” This allows them to learn from the mistakes of their elders. It makes them more efficient in acquiring valuable information and adapting to cultural norms. It is also why evangelical parents are encouraged to convert their children. Research on identity development shows that if children can be contained within an enveloping religious community through their transition into young adulthood, few will ever leave. Bring up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

A successful religion needs to have the qualities of a successful virus. In a changing environment, this means it must have the ability to mutate and adapt. In the past, religions spread largely by edict and conquest. This is how Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and into the Americas. Today, though, religion is perceived as an individual choice and religions must gain share by proselytizing or attracting adherents. For any religion to grow now, it must be something that people are motivated to transmit to each other one on one or in small groups. This is why, today, the religions that are gaining mindshare are those that have strong proselytizing mandates and high birthrates. In the current environment, Christianity has been able to produce offshoots that need no edict or conquest.

Significantly, the religions that are growing right now are ones with strong copy-me commands. Evangelical Christianity is centered on what Christians call the Great Commission: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost.” In addition, just as the Roman church latched onto the strategy of competitive breeding (keep women home, sanctify a high birth rate), so Evangelicals have begun to explicitly add this form of copy-me command to the mix. By contrast, modernist Christianity is more often centered on what Christians call the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your god with all your heart, soul and mind, and . . . love your neighbor as yourself.” In a straight up competition, the copy-me command wins out, and in fact, evangelicals are gaining mindshare, while modernists are losing it.

It’s me again. Agnosticism, Atheism, or any of the other freethinking viewpoints don’t have a strong copy-me command. Our viewpoints can be shared with others but they are not intentionally spread to others as a component of the viewpoint. I do feel that “unknown” is the right answer for humanity and I feel peace for acknowledging my own simplicity and ignorance about the supernatural that is beyond my understanding. I do feel a sense of righteousness but it is only enough to passively share my ideas on the web and not something where I want to push a viral idea that I feel others must adopt. Religions are based on the idea that since this works for me this must work for you too since it is a universal truth. I believe I have found a universal truth in Agnosticism but it’s not something I feel is what everyone must have to live a proper life. Back to Valerie’s article:

But most theological fundamentalists have a more hybrid approach. They protect their children from external influence by home schooling or parochial schools, but don’t mind accessing creationist materials from interactive websites. They expand in-house social services that include pop psychology. They promote hierarchy and sexism but are willing to have women and children as spokespersons for these views. They play up the risks of inquiry and doubt and use scientific findings and follies to make their arguments convincing. Fundamentalist populations resist ideological change, but they have learned to exploit popular culture, best business practices, new technologies, and even scholarship itself to maintain the survival of their beliefs.

Since a virus and host fit together like a lock and key, understanding viral ideas helps us to understand the human mind, and vice versa. Retro-viruses and influenza mutate rapidly, which makes it hard to develop immunizations against them. On the spectrum of religions, Christianity shows a similar flexibility, regularly spinning off new sects, denominations, and even non-denominational renegades. And yet each of these taps a familiar range of emotions and social mechanisms and is constrained by the cognitive structures that place bounds on human supernaturalism. Christianity has adapted to a broad range of human minds and cultures, a strategy that has resulted in success beyond the wildest visions of the patriarchs.

The underlying motiviations of those that actively push religions are too varied to get into and to me don’t actually matter since some motivations are really good and valid. Despite the person’s motivation, the truth is what matters to me and I know the religions of the world do not have that. They are simply viral ideas that have caught fire and are about as useful to me as any other virus. Just because an idea spreads and is popular it doesn’t make it right just like if many people have a virus it doesn’t mean we all should have it.