Belief


Stuff I couldn’t stuff into the book,
but that I think is pretty interesting…

(mostly on the brain science around Belief)

The reason why Belief has to be one of the Eight Great Goods is simply because throughout human history so many of us have made so many decisions in life based on what we believe God—or some other cause—demands of us.

The conceptualization of Belief in the Eight Great Goods encompasses a variety of elements. Even those of you who are not the least bit religious or spiritual may find —when you really think about it—that Belief is your Greatest Good. Many have a deep and abiding Belief in God, spiritual powers, or a religion. But even those without religion or spirituality claim a strong Belief in virtues: like honesty or causes … holy or not.

According to this set of studies, our conceptions of God are nothing more than ways to solidify things we individually want to believe in anyway. Nevertheless, that still doesn’t answer two important questions:

1) Why do so many of us say we believe in God? and

2) How do you explain why people will actually sacrifice personal interests for what they believe to be a spiritual or noble cause?

God-related beliefs

In my surveys about the Eight Great Goods, respondents— not just those who attend church services regularly—often put Belief as their greatest good. This is really not surprising because those raised in Western religions have been taught from the time that they are young that God is always the first priority and everything else comes after that. The Ten Commandments of Judeo-Christian religions are an ordered set of rules and the first—and Greatest—of the ten is that God is without rival: no other priority should come before God. While the Quran does not delineate a ten commandments per se, the name of the religion itself “Islam” means “submission”—submission to the will and laws of God. God always comes first.

So, from a nurture perspective, it is not surprising that we—particularly in the West—would place a high emphasis on religion. But this section is about nature: the brain and evolution. So what is built into us that makes Belief such an important Good in so many of our priority systems?

Clouds with smiles

Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan, professors of psychology at the universities of Michigan and British Columbia respectively, offer a theory to explain our widespread human belief in the supernatural. They suggest that it stems from the human need to comprehend that others have a mind of their own and our constant attempts to try to understand their intentions. You’ll remember I discussed this natural ability in the section about Relationships and the brain. We need this ability because if other people’s intentions are unfriendly, we could be in danger. Over millennia, we have become pretty good at predicting the intentions and the agency of even non-human actors in our world (“That tiger wants to eat me”). And because this ability keeps us safe at times, we probably over-predict both the anthropomorphic characteristics (“Those birds are teasing each other”) and the malevolent intentions (“My cat wants to kill my dog”) of much of the natural world. Moreover, we even ascribe intentions and agency—where there can logically be none—to completely inanimate actors (faces in clouds, evil trees in the woods …).

As ancient people tried to explain the unexplainable, they looked for ways to assign purpose to the seeming randomness of nature. As Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes explained in his book, Origins of the Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1977, p. 240), the notion of chance or luck is a fairly modern invention. For pre-modern man, everything had to mean something.

“The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us,” wrote philosopher Daniel Dennet in Breaking the Spell. Mystical beings appear out of our necessity to find meaning in everything.

But to be as enduring as religious and spiritual beliefs are in the world—to be a trait that natural selection has promoted through the centuries—some have argued there had be more functional reasons than merely an attempt to understand. Dennet offers two more explanations: comfort in times of suffering and group cooperation.


Comfort

It is nice to know we’ve got something that can console us just like our parents did even when our parents are no longer with us. Religion gives us hope that the “next life” will be better than this one. And it tells us that our suffering here serves some kind of greater purpose.

Those most skeptical of religious belief argue that it may be no more than a placebo—a sugar pill for our suffering. If it is no more than that, it may still serve a worthy purpose. Placebos are surprisingly effective.

Henry Beecher first described the “placebo effect.” Beecher was an anesthetist during World War II working in a medical unit that had run out of morphine. One of Beecher’s nurses gave a soldier suffering terrible pain an injection of salt water but told him it was morphine. The soldier reported that the injection helped and miraculously he didn’t go into shock.

Beecher’s observation is the basis for having three test groups included in all clinical drug trials today: non-treated, placebo-treated, and drug-treated. In a 1986 book, Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, author Ernest Rossi found, after reviewing a swath of medical studies, that placebos were 55 to 60% as effective as the drug they are being tested against. A 2008 study of internists in the Chicago area reported that 45% prescribe “medicine” they know won’t medically be effective but believe it will help their patients nonetheless. (Sherman and Hickner, “Academic physicians use placebos in clinical practice and believe in the mind-body connection. Journal of General Internal Medicine, v. 23)

Even, in the worst-case scenario, if religion is just a placebo, its effectiveness as a source of comfort and understanding may be what has kept it so present and so primary in so many of our lives.


Cooperation

The first two explanations of the importance of spiritual belief are good psychological rationales—they explain what is going on in our heads. But there is a long-standing sociological explanation for not just individual spiritual belief but organized religion: that rationale is cooperation. The cooperation argument is perhaps best explained in David Sloan Wilson’s 2002 book, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Wilson argues that when individuals join religious groups they are willing to sacrifice some of their individuality for the good of a group which isn’t composed of blood-relatives but which is trusted almost as completely.


I like it when you’re like me

I grew up Mormon and when I moved from Utah to Boston for college, I remember desperately seeking out other Mormons. I had been raised to believe that I couldn’t trust anyone else. However, I could subordinate my natural distrust of others if they shared my religious beliefs. I “knew” that they saw the world as I saw the world and weren’t as likely to do anything untoward.

As human endeavors came to be larger and larger in scale, groups based on simple familial ties were not large enough to complete the tasks. But a group of people sharing a common God could be expected to work together to please that God and please each other in ways than “unrelated” individuals would not.


The bond of forgiveness

Wilson makes an additional and very interesting point about the role of forgiveness in many religions, but particularly in Christianity. Forgiveness is a God sanctioned behavior not only because it keeps important social groups from coming apart at the seams whenever there is a conflict; forgiveness also plays an important psychological role in social bonds. We are naturally—as are our primate forbearers—prone to revenge and anger when we have been wronged. When someone who has offended us asks for forgiveness and receives it, it has the potential to psychologically bond them to us. Forgiveness creates more cohesion in what might otherwise be an unforgiving social environment.


The high priest

Another important reason why cooperation takes place inside an organized religion is that the decision-making power and authority is usually crystal clear. There is usually a holy person, shaman, or prophet who can divine God’s will. That proclamation of what is right and wrong is unassailable by any earthly power or even by any logic. Try killing the religion's decision-maker and you create a martyr with another religious icon rising in their stead. Craig Palmer and Lyle Steadman point out that because the religious leader is just an interpreter of God’s will, followers tend not to punish a bad decision in the same way as if an individual had made it. (“With or Without Belief: A New Approach to the Definition and Explanation for Religion.” Evolution and Cognition, v. 10, 2004) Send a thousand warriors to their deaths because the gods demanded it, and the tribe simply has to admit that the gods must have had some good (but unknowable) purpose for all that carnage. Religious leaders can always pass the buck to a higher authority.

There is good reason then, that over the millennia, our brains have come to not only allow religious belief, but to cherish and nurture it. Two or three new religions crop up every day, most don’t last more than a decade, but in the latest edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia (2001) over thirty thousand distinct Christian churches are listed.

Whether they are based in organized religion or not, our spiritual beliefs have helped us in so many ways that it is completely unsurprising to find so many people place it as one of their most important decision-making Goods.

Non-spiritual belief

Beliefs can take forms other than religion or spirituality: usually exhibiting themselves in strong ethical stances about what is right or wrong. If you make your decisions first and foremost based on what the “honest” thing is, then Belief is probably your Greatest Good.

One of my favorite books for explaining some of the cultural differences that I see regularly in comparisons of Asia and the West is called Intimacy or Integrity by Thomas Kasulis (2002). Kasulis explains his definition of intimacy by drawing two circles that overlap each other; the area of the overlap is how relationships are determined in this kind of society. What I do affects you almost as if it is affecting me. Teams, families, even nations sense a dependence on each other that is … well … intimate. “They” feel like “us.” In terms of the 8 Great Goods, what Kasulis is describing here is the Good of Relationships.

Integrity gets a different diagram. Here two independent circles that do not intersect are connected by a third entity—a principle of some kind or a spiritual being—that determines the way the two circles should relate to each other. All of the 8 Great Goods—besides Relationship—are examples of integrity. I may interact with other people on the basis of Equality (“You should get what I get”), Individuality (“I should leave you alone as much as possible”), Stability (“I don’t want to make waves”), Growth (“We should get more stuff”). There are some principles like honesty or doing good or leaving a legacy that don’t really fall into any of the other Great Goods categories—doctrines that some of us hold so dear that they become almost like gods to us in deciding how we interact with the world around us—these compose the Beliefs that guide our daily lives.

These strong Beliefs appear to originate from a specific place in the brain. You remember the Throw Mama from the Bridge experiment that I described in the Life section on this website? Most people would pull a switch on a trolley track—killing one person to save five—but they would not push a person onto the tracks. Most of us have a moral, principled aversion to causing death directly (“It is wrong to push people onto the tracks!”). However, research subjects who have damage to their ventromedial cortex are just as likely to pull the switch, as they are to push a stranger onto the tracks. They have less sense of a clear and distinct right and wrong—they do the calculation and realize that either action is saving five for the sake of one. It doesn’t matter what one physically does to save those five.

Steven Landsburg, in his book The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics, argues that someone without a functioning ventromedial cortex would not believe stealing a bicycle because is wrong for a principled reason like “Thou shalt not steal.” Rather if the ventromedial-cortex-impaired person decided not to steal, it would be because he or she had done a calculation that all the time and effort put into stealing a bicycle could be better spent working to either make a bicycle or earning the money toward buying a bicycle (“If I steal yours, we still have only one bike between us; but if I earn some money instead, we may have two between us”). You may be saying to yourself: “That is quite an analytical person who would think through the issue of stealing in that way. Perhaps no one with less than Steven Landsburg’s intelligence could think about the issue in exactly that way!” And you may be at least partially right. Augusto Blasi found in 1980 that the higher your IQ, the more likely you are to be honest. (“Bridging moral cognition and moral action” Psychological Bulletin 88, p. 25) So, maybe if you’re able to think though the implications of dishonesty analytically you don’t need strongly held Beliefs. But for the rest of us non-geniuses, as long as our ventromedial cortexes are intact, beliefs and principles—whether they be religious or not—will play a part in our decision making as one of the Eight Great Goods.

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