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?