How Our Brain Treats Religious Beliefs and Actual Facts October 3, 2009

How Our Brain Treats Religious Beliefs and Actual Facts

Sam Harris (yes, that one) and colleagues recently published a paper titled “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief.”

The main finding is that both factual beliefs and religious beliefs are processed in our brain the same way. Whether we think Xenu brought people to Earth on his spacecraft (a belief) or that 2 + 2 = 4 (fact), the information is treated identically by the brain.

Lisa Miller summarizes the study in Newsweek:

Our believing brains make no qualitative distinctions between the kinds of things you learn in a math textbook and the kinds of things you learn in Sunday school. Though the existence of God will never be proved — or disproved — by an fMRI scan, science can study a thing or two about the neurological mechanisms of belief. What Harris’s study shows is that when a conservative Christian says he believes in the Second Coming as an undeniable fact, he isn’t lying or exaggerating or employing any other rhetorical maneuver. If a believer’s brain regards the Second Coming the way it does every other fact, then debates about the veracity of faith would seem — to the committed believer, at least — to be rather pointless.

However, the debates won’t end even if no one is likely to change their mind. Because apparently, we all enjoy seeing the other side torn to shreds, and we also enjoy proving attacks on us wrong. As the researchers say in their paper,

… there were several regions that showed greater signal in both groups in response to “blasphemous” statements (i.e. those that ran counter to Christian doctrine). The ventral striatum signal in this contrast suggests that decisions about these stimuli may have been more rewarding for both groups: Nonbelievers may take special pleasure in making assertions that explicitly negate religious doctrine, while Christians may enjoy rejecting such statements as false.

Is there any hope for compromise, common ground, or for people to change their minds? Conversions do happen often, after all…

There is a slight chance, says Miller. According to the research, while the religious people treated beliefs and factual information the same way in their heads, they did hesitate a bit before saying the religious statement was true for them. The atheists also hesitated when saying a religious belief wasn’t true.

So while the brain may treat the info the same way, we may not be as certain about religious beliefs as we are undeniable facts. That leaves some room for atheists to spread seeds of doubt into the minds of religious friends and family members. It also gives the religious reason to think we can be coerced into God belief…

What other implications do you see from this research?

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  • Broper

    Did they take into account the possibility that people hesitate when making assertions about religion? I know I do, independent of what I think is a load of crock or not. I would most likely hesitate because of being afraid of offending someone when I could avoid the situation. It’s a gut reaction.

  • Miko

    The conclusion isn’t surprising. If the brain treated the two differently, we’d have to be constantly reevaluating evidence every time we thought about something, which would take an impossibly long time. Instead, we think about things once and then throw them in the “fact” bucket if they pass our screening mechanisms, whatever those mechanisms may be.

    The interesting thing is that the average person probably believes that “2+2=4” for pretty much the same reasons that the average fundamentalist believes in the Second Coming: they’ve been told that it’s the case and never thought to question it. Both beliefs were probably acquired at a young age, justified at most by examples and analogies rather than proof, and reinforced by positive feedback and reward. The fact that “2+2=4” is a provable statement doesn’t really matter to most people, since they haven’t seen the proof.

    A more interesting study would look at what was going on in the brain when those beliefs were first acquired, although that study would unfortunately be nearly impossible to conduct.

  • I can’t say I’m all that surprised either. Still interesting to see it in a study though.

    Who makes a habit of questioning beliefs anyway? I can think of dozens of nutty ideas I had when I was young that I wholeheartedly believed were facts. Only through travel and experience and learning did I finally have to admit I was a dummy in those cases. And I may still be a dummy in some cases now…

  • Er…

    “Nonbelievers may take special pleasure in making assertions that explicitly negate religious doctrine, while Christians may enjoy rejecting such statements as false.”

    Couldn’t anyone have told them that?

    Maybe this is Onion material.
    “Study finds religious people enjoy saying non-religious people are wrong, and vice versa.”

    I haven’t read the study yet, but I’m hoping something more interesting comes of it.

  • The main finding is that both factual beliefs and religious beliefs are processed in our brain the same way.

    No, it looks to me like they only proved that factual beliefs and religious beliefs are processed in ways which are indistinguishable by fMRI. It is suggestive, but it does not imply that they are exactly the same.

    I am reminded of a segment in What the Bleep?! in which one of the talking heads says that when people see a picture, and when they recall a picture, the same regions of the brain light up. He claims that this means that the brain can’t tell the difference between what it sees now and what it remembers. The fallacious reasoning should be apparent.

  • I’d be more interested in whether the study found a difference in the way we treat 2+2=4 and 2+2=5. From reading just Hemant’s post, it seems to me like maybe all they found was that the brain treats all declarative statements similiarly, which doesn’t strike me as all that surprising.

  • Zerotarian

    Sorry, but studying 15 people who describe themselves as “committed Christians” and 15 nonbelivers, then claiming to have found any kind of general conclusions about how people think about religion, seems like pretty sloppy science. What about non-Christians? What about Christians who claim to see religion as “a metaphor” or in terms of “non-overlapping magisteria”? I can’t help but suspect that a group of 15 people who self-describe as “committed Christians” would have been unlikely to contain many John Shelby Spong fans, Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and so on. Or if you think those groups are too insignificant to be worth studying, then what about your average Christmas-and-Easter mainline Protestants and Catholics? Or, again, what about anybody other than Christians?

    It actually would have been a lot more illuminating, I think, to do the study on a completely random sample of the population, rather than seek out participants of preselected religious persuasions.

    On top of that, where is the comparison to how the brain responds to non-factual statements such as metaphors or fictional stories? Without that in the mix, how can we draw any meaningful conclusion about just how similar factual and religious beliefs are, relative to each one’s similarity to other kinds of cognitive activity?

  • Alec

    They’re just now coming to this conclusion…even though it’s already been proven true…

    The Thomas Theorem states: If a person perceives something to be true, then by definition, it is true in reality to that person as well.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    belief acquisition isn’t the whole story

    Sorry, I don’t buy the results — they’re too sweeping and they deal only with assertions (statements, propositions) in ordinary language — not with reasoning.

    And, you can change minds with reasoning, marshaling of evidence — it’s done in law courts every day. Why even some fundies can learn how to reason and deprogram themselves.

    Statements in ordinary language get treated by the brain in one manner, using mathematics (reasoning with mathematical symbols) in another. Reasoning in ordinary language also differs from acquiring so-called propositional knowledge, but not to the extent that reasoning in mathematics does. (See: J. Aitchison. The Seeds of Speech. Cambridge. 2000. p. 90)

    Assume ‘2+2=4’is presented as a fact — that is, it gets treated by a parent as a statement in ordinary language, ‘two plus two is four’.

    Then, it will be no different in kind from some empirical statement of fact ‘Water boils at 100 celsius’ or some false statement like ‘God is good.’ When one is young or very credulous, the statements are all believed to be true based merely on authority — what xians call ‘faith’.

    Reasoning in mathematics using symbols (not geometric constructions) is a very late invention — neither the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks nor Romans managed it.

    We owe that advance to Indian and Moslem geniuses who beginning about 800 CE created the concept and symbol of zero, the decimal system notation (0,1,2,3…) and algebra (the ‘al’ tells us the name itself is arabic.)

    So, no one knew that ‘a+0=a’ was true for all a in ordinary arithmetic — that is 0 is the additive identity element — until there was a system rich enough to make its expression possible.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  • Kate

    Sorry, but studying 15 people who describe themselves as “committed Christians” and 15 nonbelivers, then claiming to have found any kind of general conclusions about how people think about religion, seems like pretty sloppy science.

    Sorry, but this sample size is normal for fMRI studies. Do you have any idea how expensive they are?

  • Richard P

    I think this has a much wider implication than just what religious and non religious process. In a quick summary what this test says is your brain will process fantasy and fact with very little pause if the person believes it as true. That their beliefs make it a true reality for them.

    This is how people kill doctors and stand up before people being proud of their actions, among many other things.

    If the brain functions in this way does it not make you stop and wonder what beliefs you could hold that have been accepted as fact to you, but may not be? I am not talking about religious stuff, but it does seem to suggest the need for more vigilance when doing things like jumping to assumptions about what other people are thinking, or motives behind what they do.

  • muggle

    I think it’s far too narrow too. Too many questions and too many assumptions. Isn’t it also true that the brain doesn’t know the difference between a real event and the vividly imagined? (Don’t remember where I heard that so if I’m wrong don’t take me to pieces but, personally, my dreams are so vivid, they are like I’m really experiencing them until I wake up and I’ll get as engrossed in a movie or a work of fiction in the same way, as if I’m experiencing it in my head.) Doesn’t mean we don’t know the difference.

    One thing struck me too. Is this entirely left out skeptical thinking. Let’s face it. Some of us naturally question everything and some of us just don’t.

    Skeptics may accept science as fact but only because we hear the research on it. When we learn about gravity in grade school, we’ll ask but how exactly does that work? Personally, I was one of those kids who said uh uh, I can jump in the air, forcing the teacher to also have to explain thrust.

    Others don’t. They’ll accept what’s told them unless it’s shown to be false in some manner.

    I think a more interesting study would be why are some of us natural skeptics and others naturally trusting.

  • llewelly

    What other implications do you see from this research?

    Water still wet, sky still blue.

  • RBH

    Here’s some interesting background from a primate study

    Single neurons in the ventral striatum of primates carry signals
    that are related to reward and motivation.

    The ventral striatum is deep in the brain, a phylogenetically old structure. I’m a little dubious of making inferences about elaborate cognitive functions based on activity down there.

  • Edmond

    Everyone’s coming down so hard on this study, keep in mind that this is still a very early step in a research field that has great potential for understanding this function of the brain, if we encourage and cultivate it properly. We’re still MONTHS away from a pill that will cure theism.

  • A study that identifies why some people de-convert from Christianity, I being one of them, would be interesting.

    In my case I think my brain could not reconcile the differences between science and math logic versus Christian logic.

    But why does my brain even identify the differences and attempt reconciliation resulting in the rejection of Christian logic?

    That is something I have wondered about because de-converting and admitting to Atheism is not a fun process. There was much discouragement and anger from family.

  • muggle

    Larsen, are you deconverted from childhood indoctrination like I am?

    Because it took me 10 years all told to break free from a rather rabidly-believing Christian to Atheist (I went through Judaism and Agnostism in that 10 years first) but looking back, I think of things I questioned when I was small and almost think, as painful and hard as it was to undo the brainwashing, it was almost inevitable that I would. The irony is reading the Bible to get closer to God and understand him better was what started the process. But, even that, though sincere was a sign. Why did I feel I needed to understand God better if I didn’t have a subconscious problem with him?

    Like I said above, it’d be more interesting to see the skeptical mind versus the trusting.

    My mother went the other route, even more extremely religious than my grandmother (grandfather died before I was born) who believed in the pretty strict Dutch Reformed faith but was nowhere near the holy roller my mother was and I’ve never once heard her voice judgment or disapproval of even nonbelivers. She died when I was 17 so I’ll never know how she would have reacted to my loss of faith but she was nowhere near as extreme as my mother.