FAITH: Not Wanting To Know What Is True

Sunday Thoughts: Faithless
by Fiona

faith [feɪθ] n 1. strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp without proof or evidence 2. a specific system of religious beliefs the Jewish faith 3. (Christian Religious Writings / Theology) Christianity trust in God and in his actions and promises 4. (Christian Religious Writings / Theology) a conviction of the truth of certain doctrines of religion, esp when this is not based on reason 5. complete confidence or trust in a person, remedy, etc. 6. any set of firmly held principles or beliefs  – Free online dictionary

Another way of thinking about faith …

atheism faith

But faith is nice, it feels good, or so people tell me. What’s the problem?

Atheism faith1

The thing most likely to get in the way of open-ended collaboration, is faith. The resistance to considering new information, or willingness to relinquish our beliefs in the face of new evidence.  Faith makes us inflexible.

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Not only does faith make your brain stiff and inflexible, it also impacts on other people! When people are not permitted to question, or to pursue their search for evidence, something is terribly wrong!

atheism faith2

Sometimes people are told their whole lives that it’s important to “just believe”and that there is something wrong with them if they have doubts,  People who are taught to rely on faith may struggle when they are not able to maintain their beliefs.

atheism faith10

atheism faith7

The ability to question, to think, to reason is an essential part of human-kind’s intelligence …

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So go on, doubt.  Question. Seek evidence. Develop your capacity for critical thought, for reflection. Make friends with reason and logic. Doubt away.  After all …

atheism faith9

The Heretics: Adventures With The Enemies of Science

Book review: The Heretics by Will Storr
NOAH HAD dragons on board his ark.
By: Rob Crossan
The-Heretics-is-an-accessible-and-absolutely-compelling-read         The Heretics is an accessible and absolutely compelling read

Homosexuality leads to paedophilia. Las Vegas is full of aliens in wigs playing the gaming tables. We have eyes in the back of our heads.
These are just some of the beliefs, ranging from the farcical to the toxic, explored in journalist Will Storr’s utterly engrossing series of interviews.
Laced with self doubt and, at times, intense irritation with his subjects, Storr sets out to discover why individuals nurture beliefs that fly in the face of scientific evidence, from climate change denier Lord Monckton to the late UFO believer and Harvard professor John Mack.
Yet this is no Louis Therouxstyle “let’s laugh at the oddballs” narrative as Storr delves deep into the world of neuroscience. He grapples manfully with attempts to explain how our brains can deceive us and selectively create a universe that slots in with our belief system, despite a lack of consensus among the disciplines that research the workings of the mind.
“Intelligence is no protection against strange beliefs,” Storr tells us.

He admires the raw IQ of such heretics as David Irving and creationist John McKay while failing to be remotely convinced by their arguments.

On the other hand, when speaking to the internationally renowned doyens of science, rationality and reason Richard Dawkins and James Randi (an opponent of anyone who believes in the paranormal and the occult), Storr discovers an astonishing amount of subterfuge and skulduggery at work to prevent their own beliefs being tested too rigorously.
There never seems to be any danger of Storr buying too deeply into the polemics of any “enemies of science” but he also mounts a considerable attack on the smugness and arrogance of those who attack believers in homoeopathy, past-life regression and creationism.
At one point, Storr takes part in a mass public overdose of homoeopathic medicine which claims to “prove” the uselessness of the products and he is amazed by the participants’ lack of knowledge. “Have you ever read any scientific studies into homoeopathy?” Storr asks one of the organisers of the overdose. “Not personally,” is the response.

            Storr sets out to discover why individuals nurture beliefs that fly in the face of scientific evidence

This kind of complacency and hubris irritates Storr who, not unreasonably, suggests that perhaps the high-handed approach of the sceptics is masking a deeper insecurity. How else, he asks, can one explain James Randi’s belligerence? He takes part in a series of last-minute dodges to avoid participating in scientific tests with people who believe they can prove the existence of paranormal power under controlled conditions.
Perhaps predictably, many of these “heretic” believers turn out to be rather damaged individuals. The motley crew of racists, conspiracy theorists and fantasists who join Nazi historian David Irving on a concentration camp tour are granted the opportunity to expand upon their opinions. The result is an achingly heavy vista of dead air punctuated by bigotry, self loathing and personal loneliness.
Despite the appalling personal characteristics of many of the people he bravely manages to engage, The Heretics is an accessible and absolutely compelling read, Storr leaving us with a distinct lack of trust in the verity of our own beliefs. The most dangerous thing anyone can do is dismiss as stupid the beliefs of fringe extremists.

The Believing Brain

The Believing Brain


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IN THIS, HIS MAGNUM OPUS one of the world’s best known skeptics and critical thinkers Dr. Michael Shermer—founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and perennial monthly columnist(“Skeptic”) for Scientific American—presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. This book synthesizes Dr. Shermer’s 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. In this book Dr. Shermer is interested in more than just why people believe weird things, or why people believe this or that claim, but in why people believe anything at all. His thesis is straightforward:

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.

Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he callsagenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation. Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.

Interlaced with his theory of belief, Dr. Shermer provides countless real-world examples of belief from all realms of life, and in the end he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality.


The Believing Brain is divided into four parts. Part I, “Journeys of Belief,” includes personal narratives of belief, including that of the author; Part II, “The Biology of Belief,” bores into the brain and explains how the mind works to form beliefs, from thoughts and ideas down to neurons firing across tiny synaptic gaps as they talk to one another chemically; Part III, “Belief in Things Unseen” applies my theory beliefs to the afterlife, God, aliens, and conspiracies; and Part IV, “Belief in Things Seen,” examines the role of beliefs in politics, economics, and ideologies, explains how belief confirmation works to assure that we are always right, and then explores the history of scientific exploration, from the world to the cosmos, and how science works to overcome the power of belief.

The Believing Brain begins with three personal belief stories. The first story is about a man whom you will have never heard of but who had a profound and life-changing experience in the wee hours of the morning many decades ago that still haunts him to this day and drives him to search for ultimate meaning in the cosmos. The second story is about a man whom you will most definitely have heard of as he is one of the greatest scientists of our age, and he too had a life-changing early-morning experience that confirmed his decision to make a religious leap of faith. The third story is Dr. Shermer’s own passage from believer to skeptic, and what he learned along the way that drove him into a professional career of the scientific study of belief systems.

From narrative stories Dr. Shermer turns to an architecture of belief systems, how they are formed, nourished, reinforced, changed, and extinguished, first conceptually through the two theoretical constructs he developed called patternicity and agenticity, and then delve deeper into how these cognitive processes evolved and what purpose they served in the lives of our ancestors as well as in our lives today. Dr. Shermer then bores deeper into the brain, right down to the neurophysiology of belief system construction at the single neuron level, and then reconstructs from the bottom up how brains form beliefs. Then we shall examine how belief systems operate with regard to belief in religion, the afterlife, God, extraterrestrials, conspiracies, politics, economics, and ideologies of all stripes, and then consider how a host of cognitive processes convince us that our beliefs are truths. In the final chapters we will consider how we know any of our beliefs are believable, which patterns are true and which false, which agents are real and which are chimera, and how science works as the ultimate pattern detection device.

In the end, all of us are trying to make sense of the world, and nature has gifted us with a double-edge sword that cuts for and against. On one edge, our brains are the most complex and sophisticated information processing machines in the universe, capable of understanding not only the universe itself but of understanding the process of understanding. On the other edge, by the very same process of forming beliefs about the universe and ourselves, we are also more capable than any other species of self-deception and illusion, of fooling ourselves while we are trying to avoid being fooled by nature

It’s Irrational To Be Religious

Jared Diamond: It’s irrational to be religious

Supernatural beliefs might not make sense, but they endure because they’re so emotionally satisfying


Jared Diamond: It's irrational to be religious
(Credit: Reuters/Enny Nuraheni)

Virtually all religions hold some supernatural beliefs specific to that religion. That is, a religion’s adherents firmly hold beliefs that conflict with and cannot be confirmed by our experience of the natural world, and that appear implausible to people other than the adherents of that particular religion. For example, Hindus believe there is a monkey god who travels thousands of kilometers at a single somersault. Catholics believe a woman who had not yet been fertilized by a man became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, whose body eventually after his death was carried up to a place called heaven, often represented as being located in the sky. The Jewish faith believes that a supernatural being gave a chunk of desert in the Middle East to the being’s favorite people, as their home forever.

No other feature of religion creates a bigger divide between religious believers and modern secular people, to whom it staggers the imagination that anyone could entertain such beliefs. No other feature creates a bigger divide between believers in two different religions, each of whom firmly believes its own beliefs but considers it absurd that the other religion’s believers believe those other beliefs. Why, nevertheless, are supernatural beliefs such universal features of religions?

One suggested answer is that supernatural religious beliefs are just ignorant superstitions similar to supernatural non-religious beliefs, illustrating only that the human brain is capable of deceiving itself into believing anything. We can all think of supernatural non-religious beliefs whose implausibility should be obvious. Many Europeans believe that the sight of a black cat heralds misfortune, but black cats are actually rather common. By repeatedly tallying whether or not a one-hour period following or not following your observation of a black cat in an area with high cat density did or did not bring you some specified level of misfortune, and by applying the statistician’s chi-square test, you can quickly convince yourself that the black-cat hypothesis has a probability of less than 1 out of 1,000 of being true. Some groups of New Guinea lowlanders believe that hearing the beautiful whistled song of the little bird known as the Lowland Mouse-Babbler warns us that someone has recently died, but this bird is among the most common species and most frequent singers in New Guinea lowland forests. If the belief about it were true, the local human population would be dead within a few days, yet my New Guinea friends are as convinced of the babbler’s ill omens as Europeans are afraid of black cats.

A more striking non-religious superstition, because people today still invest money in their mistaken belief, is water-witching, also variously known as dowsing, divining, or rhabdomancy. Already established in Europe over 400 years ago and possibly also reported before the time of Christ, this belief maintains that rotation of a forked twig carried by a practitioner called a dowser, walking over terrain whose owner wants to know where to dig a well, indicates the location and sometimes the depth of an invisible underground water supply. Control tests show that dowsers’ success at locating underground water is no better than random, but many land-owners in areas where geologists also have difficulty at predicting the location of underground water nevertheless pay dowsers for their search, then spend even more money to dig a well unlikely to yield water. The psychology behind such beliefs is that we remember the hits and forget the misses, so that whatever superstitious beliefs we hold become confirmed by even the flimsiest of evidence through the remembered hits. Such anecdotal thinking comes naturally; controlled experiments and scientific methods to distinguish between random and non-random phenomena are counterintuitive and unnatural, and thus not found in traditional societies.

Perhaps, then, religious superstitions are just further evidence of human fallibility, like belief in black cats and other non-religious superstitions. But it’s suspicious that costly commitments to belief in implausible-to-others religious superstitions are such a consistent feature of religions. The investments that many religious adherents make to their beliefs are far more burdensome, time-consuming, and heavy in consequences to them than are the actions of black-cat-phobics in occasionally avoiding black cats. This suggests that religious superstitions aren’t just an accidental by-product of human reasoning powers but possess some deeper meaning. What might that be?

A recent interpretation among some scholars of religion is that belief in religious superstitions serves to display one’s commitment to one’s religion. All long-lasting human groups — Boston Red Sox fans (like me), devoted Catholics, patriotic Japanese, and others — face the same basic problem of identifying who can be trusted to remain as a group member. The more of one’s life is wrapped up with one’s group, the more crucial it is to be able to identify group members correctly and not to be deceived by someone who seeks temporary advantage by claiming to share your ideals but who really doesn’t. If that man carrying a Boston Red Sox banner, whom you had accepted as a fellow Red Sox fan, suddenly cheers when the New York Yankees hit a home run, you’ll find it humiliating but not life-threatening. But if he’s a soldier next to you in the front line and he drops his gun (or turns it on you) when the enemy attacks, your misreading of him may cost you your life.

That’s why religious affiliation involves so many overt displays to demonstrate the sincerity of your commitment: sacrifices of time and resources, enduring of hardships, and other costly displays that I’ll discuss later. One such display might be to espouse some irrational belief that contradicts the evidence of our senses, and that people outside our religion would never believe. If you claim that the founder of your church had been conceived by normal sexual intercourse between his mother and father, anyone else would believe that too, and you’ve done nothing to demonstrate your commitment to your church. But if you insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was born of a virgin birth, and nobody has been able to shake you of that irrational belief after many decades of your life, then your fellow believers will feel much more confident that you’ll persist in your belief and can be trusted not to abandon your group.

Nevertheless, it’s not the case that there are no limits to what can be accepted as a religious supernatural belief. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer have independently pointed out that actual religious superstitions over the whole world constitute a narrow subset of all the arbitrary random superstitions that one could theoretically invent. To quote Pascal Boyer, there is no religion proclaiming anything like the following tenet: “There is only one God! He is omnipotent. But he exists only on Wednesdays.” Instead, the religious supernatural beings in which we believe are surprisingly similar to humans, animals, or other natural objects, except for having superior powers. They are more far-sighted, longer-lived, and stronger, travel faster, can predict the future, can change shape, can pass through walls, and so on. In other respects, gods and ghosts behave like people. The god of the Old Testament got angry, while Greek gods and goddesses became jealous, ate, drank, and had sex. Their powers surpassing human powers are projections of our own personal power fantasies; they can do what we wish we could do ourselves. I do have fantasies of hurling thunderbolts that destroy evil people, and probably many other people share those fantasies of mine, but I have never fantasized about existing only on Wednesdays. Hence it doesn’t surprise me that gods in many religions are pictured as smiting evil-doers, but that no religion holds out the dream of existing just on Wednesdays. Thus, religious supernatural beliefs are irrational, but emotionally plausible and satisfying. That’s why they’re so believable, despite at the same time being rationally implausible.

Printed by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. from “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”by Jared Diamond. Copyright © Jared Diamond, 2012.

Why Do People Believe Weird Things!

Why do people believe weird things?

There are a lot of weird things that people believe. This has puzzled me most of my life. It is a puzzle I take very seriously. I have trouble dismissing it off hand by crediting the innate stupidity of people or the inadequacy of education. Michael Shermer, in his book Why People Believe Weird Things sums it up as a combination of wishful thinking, need for simple, uncomplicated explanations and immediate gratification. I have in the past believed some pretty weird things (and sadly, probably still do).  I have known many thoughtful and intelligent people to believe weird things too, some of them quite complex. And apathy doesn’t seem to be the issue either. Many times the weirdest things people believe are the ones they are most passionate about and care about the most. But I think this I think offers a clue.

The world is complex. There is a lot going on. We cannot personally verify every idea, statement and opinion that we run across. Even if it were possible it may seem like a ridiculous waste of time. There are so many things that are of little importance or relevance to our lives. As a result we adopt heuristics or short cuts to allow ourselves to be reasonably sure of most things without being overwhelmed by the details. This, of course, leaves us susceptible to promotion and propaganda, myths and conventional wisdom. This tendency occurs even if we assume the purpose of belief is somehow related to knowledge or truth.

From what I have seen, the purpose of belief has very little to do with truth. I suspect the more important function of belief is social cohesion. Widespread agreement and connection within social groups is probably more critical to our success and survival than veracity and reason. Totems, and our modern equivalent, branding, provide a basis for self-identification and social structure. These clusters of ideas tell us who we are and how we fit into the world. They are the building blocks of armies, churches and corporations; of railroads, atom bombs and the internet.

Sometimes these clusters include some rather odd ideas, but it is easier for us to accept a few peculiar wrong ideas than to risk our social cohesion. Intelligent design is equated with strength of character, morality and reverence. Climate change denial supports the values of hard work, responsibility and patriotism. Colon cleanses demonstrate our concern for social justice, sustainable economy and our environment. We cannot check everything—and more importantly that social cohesion is usually more valuable than being right—so we tend to accept the whole basket of beliefs that define our groups, rather than sorting them out individually.

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What Is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation Bias


Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs. For example, if you believe that during a full moon there is an increase in admissions to the emergency room where you work, you will take notice of admissions during a full moon but be inattentive to the moon when admissions occur during other nights of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens your belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents and other lunar effects.

This tendency to give more attention and weight to data that support our beliefs than we do to contrary data is especially pernicious when our beliefs are little more than prejudices. If our beliefs are firmly established on solid evidence and valid confirmatory experiments, the tendency to give more attention and weight to data that fit with our beliefs should not lead us astray as a rule. Of course, if we become blinded to evidence truly refuting a favored hypothesis, we have crossed the line from reasonableness to closed-mindedness.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that people generally give an excessive amount of value to confirmatory information, that is, to positive or supportive data. The “most likely reason for the excessive influence of confirmatory information is that it is easier to deal with cognitively” (Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life). It is much easier to see how data support a position than it is to see how they might count against the position. Consider a typical ESP experiment or a seemingly clairvoyant dream: Successes are often unambiguous or data are easily massaged to count as successes, while negative instances require intellectual effort to even see them as negative or to consider them as significant. The tendency to give more attention and weight to the positive and the confirmatory has been shown to influence memory. When digging into our memories for data relevant to a position, we are more likely to recall data that confirms the position.

Researchers are sometimes guilty of confirmation bias by setting up experiments or framing their data in ways that will tend to confirm their hypotheses.

More: Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking: confirmation bias.

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Belief in Elves vs Belief in Gods?

Belief in Elves vs. Belief in Gods – Is One More Reasonable or More Rational?

Is Belief in God More Rational than Belief in Elves?

By , Guide

Comparisons to belief in elves or fairies to belief in gods are frequently used by atheists either as an argument about why belief in gods is unreasonable or as an explanation for why they don’t believe in gods. Theists frequently complain that this is a disrespectful and disparaging comparison because belief in elves or fairies is obviously ridiculous while belief in gods is found among reasonable, educated adults.

That’s not a valid rebuttal or response. Even on a theoretical level, there is nothing about belief in elves or fairies that makes it more obviously unreasonable than belief in gods. Far more significant, though, is the fact that belief in elves or fairies isn’t always as uncommon as apologists for theism seem to presume. If it were, they might have a point, but in at least one culture even today belief in elves is rather common: Iceland.

Huldufólk in Iceland

In Iceland, the normal term for elves is “Huldufólk,” an Icelandic word meaning “hidden people”. There is some question about whether the huldufólk is identical to elves, but the general consensus is that they are and that usage of huldufólk (rather than álfar, the direct Icelandic translation of “elves”) out of a desire to avoid using the elves “real” name.

Belief in elves is not something limited to “theory.” It’s not limited to a mental realm without implications for the material world. Building construction in Iceland can be limited according to what local residents think the elves desire. It’s forbidden to disturb rocks where elves are thought to live — even including just picking up and throwing the wrong rocks.

Some people claim to be able to communicate with the elves, transmitting the wishes and intentions of the elves to human beings. Such mystics may be consulted about construction projects, road projects, and more. People believe in reliability of such mediation on behalf of the elves as much as they believe in the elves themselves.

Early Surveys of Belief in Huldufólk in Iceland

Erlendur Haraldsson, a professor and psychologist, conducted in 1975 what has become a landmark survey on Icelandic beliefs. In this survey, Haraldsson found that belief in the existence of elves was fairly strong — there were lots of people who thought the existence of elves was impossible or at least unlikely, but a much larger percentage of Icelanders thought that there existence was at possible:

  • Impossible: 10%
  • Unlikely: 18%
  • Possible: 33%
  • Probable: 15%
  • Certain: 7%
  • No opinion: 17%

So 28% of Icelanders regarded the existence of elves at being at least unlikely but 55%, a strong majority, thought the existence of elves was at least possible; nearly a quarter of Icelanders though the existence of elves was at least probable. Only 10% rejected the existence of elves completely.

As with belief in the existence of gods in America, there was a negative correlation in Iceland between education and belief in the existence of elves. Among those with a college education, these were the responses to the same question:

  • Impossible: 24%
  • Unlikely: 38%
  • Possible: 26%
  • Probable: 5%
  • Certain: 0%
  • No opinion; 17%

Obviously belief in elves in Iceland has been a lot less common than belief in gods in America, but far more Icelanders have believed in elves than I think many realize. What’s more, there were still quite a few educated people who at least allowed for the possibility that elves exist, even if few were certain of it.

Contemporary Belief in Huldufólk in Iceland

More recent surveys of belief in Iceland have produced similar results. Pétur Pétursson did a survey in 1995 which only asked questions of people who believed in alternative medicine or who followed some sort of alternative belief system. Among this segment of Iceland’s population, 70% believe in the existence of elves, 23% were unsure, 6% didn’t believe in elves, and 1% were uncertain.

The most recent survey on the subject was done in 2006 and published in 2007 by Terry Gunnell, an associate folklore professor at the University of Iceland. Gunnell found that doubt in existence of elves had grown a bit, but so had belief in the existence of elves — it was only the numbers of those who had no opinion about the existence of elves which had dropped. Thus the overall ratio of belief to disbelief has remained relatively constant over the the past three decades.

When asked what best described their opinion on the existence of elves, Icelanders answered:

  • Impossible: 13%
  • Unlikely: 19%
  • Possible: 37%
  • Likely: 17%
  • Definite: 8%
  • No Opinion: 5%

Notice that the number of people who simply allow that the existence of elves is possible is higher than those who consider the existence of elves unlikely or impossible. The number of people who think that elves likely or definitely exist comes in at 25%, a quarter of the entire population. That’s higher than in the 1975 survey done by Erlendur Haraldsson and this is not a trivial number of people by any stretch of the imagination.

The same survey found that many Icelanders believe in ghosts:

  • Impossible: 7%
  • Unlikely: 16%
  • Possible: 41%
  • Likely: 18%
  • Definite: 13%
  • No Opinion: 4%

This suggests that supernatural and paranormal beliefs are popular in Iceland generally. So it’s not just elves that Icelanders believe in and perhaps belief in elves is part of a larger package of supernatural beliefs. Even so, not every culture or nation has so much belief in elves, no matter how much paranormal belief there is.

Terry Gunnell’s research has fueled the debate over whether huldufólk are exactlythe same as elves. Of those he surveyed, 54.6% said they didn’t differentiate between huldufólk and álfar, but 20% said they would and 25.4% were uncertain. Whether they are exactly the same in everyone’s mind, though, doesn’t alter the fact that they are all supernatural creatures of similar sorts.

Belief in Elves vs. Belief in Gods

It would not be reasonable to critique belief in gods by comparing it to some other belief that is trivial and unquestionably the domain of children. It is, however, reasonable to critique belief in gods by comparing it to a supernatural belief which is either currently popular somewhere or which was popular in the past.

There are two key characteristics which make such an analogy valid. First is that the belief involves something supernatural or paranormal. This separates the belief from the empirical realm of science and scientific investigation. Second is that the belief is common enough to become embedded in popular culture, politics, and society. That’s not a belief for children; instead it’s a belief that’s taken for granted and is thus found among people who consider themselves education, rational, reasonable, etc.

Belief in elves or fairies fulfills both of these criteria easily. Such beliefs would fit these criteria even without the example of Iceland, but the existence of a nation where so many people believe in elves todayand where beliefs about elves have become embedded in popular culture makes the analogy even stronger and more difficult to dismiss.

Apologists for Theism vs. Belief in Elves

Just because the analogy between belief in gods and belief in elves cannot be legitimately dismissed does not mean that apologists for theism won’t try. They will continue to insist that belief in elves is too trivial or too obviously unreasonable to qualify as a valid analogy. In all such responses, though, apologists will unwittingly undermine their own defense of theism.

Their problem, which they will have trouble recognizing, is that their argument relies heavily on what does and does not qualify as “obvious” when it comes to what is and is not reasonable. For many Icelanders, it’s not “obvious” that belief in elves is unreasonable; for most Americans, it is obvious. For many theists in America, it’s not “obvious” that belief in gods is unreasonable; for most atheists, it is obvious.

Apologists for theism thus end up assuming the truth of what they are trying to prove. They assume that belief in elves is unreasonable while belief in gods is reasonable. It is this, however, which atheists are trying to challenge when they raise the analogy in a discussion or debate.

The point is to introduce an issue (elves, fairies) which theists are not already emotionally, psychologically, or culturally committed to in order to draw attention to how certain beliefs are privilegedsimply because they are culturally familiar. Privileged beliefs are deferred to and granted respect without their having to meet the same standards as other ideas and that’s what atheists are challenging.

If belief in elves really is obviously unreasonable, then apologists for theism must be able to explain how and why there are so many people in Iceland — including quite a few college educated Icelanders — who believe in elves anyway. What’s more, they must be able to explain why atheists shouldn’t treat theists the way theists are treating Icelanders who believe in elves.

If, however, belief in elves isn’t so unreasonable, then they should be able to explain why they don’t bother believing themselves and what role culture is playing in whether or not people believe. This would better help them understand why atheists don’t believe in theists’ gods, even when theists are convinced that their beliefs are at least reasonable.

What science says about religious conversion

What science says about religious conversion

by James R Coffey


For many, religious experiences lead to religious conversion. While conversion need not stem from such an experience, per se, many convertees have cited religious awakenings as leading to a new spiritual perspective. But while science accepts a religious experience/conversion relationship, conversion alone is often attributed to other causes: preexisting psychological disturbances (as cited by Freud), bad parenting, low self-esteem, an escape from a perceived reality that has proved insupportable, or an attempt to resolve unconscious inner conflicts. And more often than not, there seems to have existed a “burning desire to know, to find answers, to embark on a kind of search . . .” which the Buddhists refer to as “great doubt.” But, this raises the question as to what spawns this desire in the first place. Does it arise from the creative imagination? Does it lie in common, human curiosity? Is it an irresistible urge spurred by the God-spot?

The Convertee Profile

Psychological data suggests that although “melancholics” and unstable introverts are most susceptible to stress and most likely to undergo dramatic religious conversion, stable extraverts and introverts are more likely to retain new beliefs after conversion. Studies show that among those with spiritual beliefs, maturity of personality goes with the attitude of religion which is undogmatic and nonrestrictive, and more interested in seeking the truth behind religious teachings. (These findings seem to support renowned psychologist Maslow’s assertion that ‘self-realization’ is hindered by involvement in religious beliefs that traditionally go unchallenged.) Therefore statistically, conversion is seen far more often among middle-aged and older adults.

Conversion and Acceptance of Supernatural Events

Historically, religion has been linked to the supernatural and the acceptance of supernatural events. So the next question of interest is whether religious individuals (especially converts and those experiencing religious occurrences) are more likely to accept the possibility of supernatural events-even if they break the laws of science. Studies show that this question may best be addressed from an examination of predisposed childhood beliefs and experiences-which set the stage for future spiritual experiences or conversions. In a study by German psychologist Friedemann Thun (a recognized expert in interpersonal and intrapersonal communication conducted) in 1959, five areas of spiritual belief were identified in children 6-10: mystical thinking, readiness for religion, capacity for religious experiences, a dependence for religious ideas upon influential others, and changeableness. Thun’s conclusions highlighted either the “road to religious maturity” or to “neurotic self-defense or indifference,” suggesting that mystical thinking is a childish way of misinterpreting the world, a form of thinking normally left behind. When it is not, the door to believing in the supernatural is left open-and sometimes supported by further religious experiences.