About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Superstition, pattern seeking and loss of personal control

A couple of days ago I went to see Religulous, the investigative documentary by Bill Maher into why people believe weird things about religion. I enjoyed Maher’s laid back approach much better than the Dawkins-Hitchens style hard nose atheism, unfortunately so popular among some atheist groups. The difference is not one of substance (though Maher claims not to be an atheist, he comes very, very close), but of style. And yet style makes all the difference where belief isn’t just a matter of cold rational analysis, but also of messy human emotions.

Think of Maher as a comedian-turned-social commentator in the style of Jon Stewart (though Maher was doing his Politically Incorrect show on Comedy Central and then ABC before the Daily Show got started. He is now the host of Real Time on HBO). Maher, much like Stewart, takes on the role of a modern day Socrates. He admits he doesn’t know much (though, just as in the case of the Greek philosopher, it’s clear that he actually knows a lot more than his self-important, shallow targets do), and goes around “simply” asking questions. The questions we encounter throughout Religulous, however, are devastating. Posed to rabbi, priests, ministers, Jesus impersonators and just every day folks, they are meant to expose the ignorance that underlies much religious faith, as well as the tendency of some religious “leaders” to take easy advantage of their flock.

After the movie, though, I got into a conversation with my friend Phil (the editor of this blog) about whether religion is a cause or a symptom of society’s maladies. Neither of us went for the simplistic Dawkinsian scenario that religion is the root of all evil, and we probably agreed (I’m not entirely sure, after having shared martinis) that religions are at least co-causes, enablers, if you will, of much human suffering. If we were to somehow eliminate (not by force, of course, but by persuasion) religion from human culture things would likely get better, possibly much better, but we still would be very far from living in an earthly paradise, so to speak.

This is of course related to the questions of where religion comes from and what function, if any, it plays at the social or psychological level, both of which have increasingly been under the scrutiny of science. In my next entry I will deal with a recent study of the sociology of religion, but here I’d like to comment on research addressing its psychology. A paper in Science (3 October 2008) by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky reports on experimental evidence that links lack of control by individuals to their proneness to find patterns where none exist, and to develop superstitious behavior.

Lacking control over one’s circumstances is a well known source of anxiety, a situation that activates the brain’s amygdala, the roots of the fear response. And it is also understood that there is a correlation between unpredictability of events and superstition: for instance, people have studied tribes of fishermen fishing at increasing distances from the land, hence in deeper waters and faced by more unpredictable dangers, and have found that the farther out one goes the more the tribe develops superstitious rituals related to fishing. (A similar phenomenon occurs in sports, where there is a correlation between the unpredictability of one’s role in the game and personal superstition: baseball pitchers, for instance, are particularly prone to it.)

Whitson and Galinsky put their subjects in a variety of experimentally induced situations where they had different degrees of control, to see how they reacted to a variety of perceptual tests. The results were stunning: people who felt little or no control over a given situation were much more prone to see patterns where there were none, make up superstitious scenarios, and invent conspiracy theories to explain their situation! Why on earth should this be? The authors conclude that inventing patterns is a cognitive way to regain psychological (certainly not real) control over events, thereby reducing stress. Interestingly, however, another way to achieve the same result was to allow individuals to contemplate and affirm their values, after which their proclivities toward conspiracies and non-existing patterns regressed toward those of the control subjects. Indeed, Whitson and Galinsky suggest that this may be one reason psychotherapy works: the goal of the therapist is precisely that of allowing the patient to construct a narrative that puts him back in charge of the unfolding of his life, with a focus on his personal guiding principles and values.

The lingering question, of course, is why would making up an imaginary pattern or explanation be effective psychologically. After all, one isn’t about to gain real control over events, only an illusory one. But here perhaps we enter into the area where sociological explanations may be helpful, and I will refer the reader to my next installment on this topic. Meanwhile, tell your friends to go see Religulous, or at the least to sign up for therapy.


  1. I am glad Religulous has come out to counterbalance the likes of Ben Stein and Expelled (even though the two are not quite talking about the same thing, but related nonetheless).

    However, I have a question for Massimo. I am a little disturbed with Maher's brand of atheism/agnosticism as he portrays it in his show and public appearances. He doesn't seem to make a rational case against belief in God. Mainly he ridicules it because it's "ridiculous". Do you think that's more constructive than Dawkins approach? Do you think he comes across as a condescending, know all, arrogant atheist?

    I am happy to hear that is not what he's doing in Religulous, but that's the vibe I get whenever I hear him talk about God and Christianity in his show. I think that actually hurts our cause more than Dawkins calling faith a delusion.

  2. I am always fascinated by the idea that religion and other superstitious beliefs are caused by our reluctance to accept uncertainty. Though anectodal my own experience is so contrary to this notion. I have been told that I have an overactive intolerance of lack of control. That at the root of much of my anxiety and disfunction is a pathological inability to live with uncertainty. And still I am an atheist, have an aversion to "joining" ideological groups, and seem to court the very state which makes me so uncomfortable.

    I mention this because I believe there is something more to the pathology of religion than simply trying to create order and control in the universe.

    I think the fantasy of religion contributes a great deal to its existence. "Most men live lives of quiet desperation" and religion lets many people believe that their is relief from this condition in some future realm. Perhaps I am simply not unhappy enough to fall for it:)

  3. skepfeeds,

    I don't think Maher comes out as condescending at all, especially compared to Dawkins. The difference is that Dawkins is the intellectual know-it-all (just like yours truly :) who turns people off because he tells you that you are stupid from the height of a PhD. Maher also tells you that you are being silly, but in a good humored way, as you would point out to a pal that what he just said doesn't make any sense.

    Maher doesn't critique the argument from design, or the ontological argument, or whatever. He simply asks you whether you believe in Scientology, you say of course not that's silly, and then he points out that Christianity is just as inane.


    I feel the same as you do, I react to lack of control by trying to take positive steps to regain (in reality, not just psychologically) whatever control of the situation I can. I suspect, though, that most people follow the pattern depicted in the Science study, and that you and I are rather the exception than the rule.

  4. the goal of the therapist is precisely that of allowing the patient to construct a narrative that puts him back in charge of the unfolding of his life, with a focus on his personal guiding principles and values.

    Also the narrative is central in recovery groups.

  5. I agree with Massimo: I think that trying to prove rationally to believers that religion is nonsense is quite helpless, especially if you do it from the heights of your 'brightness'. I think few people has been convinced to abandon religion through the force of unreligious preaching.
    It is my opinion that rational conviction comes only after the faults in your belief have been exposed in a more casual, good-humoured manner. It is more likely that good-humoured Hume should be more efficient in countering belief, than hard-mannered Hitchens.
    What turned me into a non-believer (whatever you may call me) was not any scientific lesson, but the 'reductio ad absurdum' of religion by Nietzsche, Epicurus or Hume.

  6. I'm surprised more people aren't talking about religion as a placebo. People taking a placebo but believing they are taking real medicine experience some genuine effects (or research wouldn't go to such lengths to control for it!)

    People who believe false things (religious beliefs) also experience genuine effects. Telling them their beliefs are false is akin to telling someone their medicine is a placebo. This is hard and one shouldn't pretend that there aren't real effects that people cherish.

  7. Neither of us went for the simplistic Dawkinsian scenario that religion is the root of all evil.

    Dawkins does not say this. He says he objected to the program he did being called "The Root of All Evil" but in the end he got them to compromise by putting a question mark at the end of the title.

    I mention this because I believe there is something more to the pathology of religion than simply trying to create order and control in the universe.

    Beth, for the Jews at least, strict Judaism served as an organizing principle for their society. It helped to preserve their identity and prevent them from assimilating to the cultures and religions of their neighbors.

  8. Tommy,

    I wasn't referring to Dawkins' video. That seems to me clearly one of the theses underlying The God Delusion.

  9. Why should we be more likely to see patterns when stressed? Well, errors can work either way. You can see patterns that aren't there, or you can miss real patterns. Every person has their threshold set at a different place, but in general people err on the side of seeing patterns that aren't there - because failing to spot a real pattern could be catastrophic. Thinking a rock is a lion is funny, but not spotting a lion because you assumed it was a rock is deadly.

    When stressed, it seems reasonable that your discriminatory threshold is lowered, making you more likely to spot things - and, inevitably, that means that you are also more likely to spot things that aren't there.

    Regarding religion as a placebo, did you see the recent study? http://bhascience.blogspot.com/2008/09/dose-of-religion-numbs-pain.html

  10. Tom - thanks for the placebo link. Makes perfect sense to me.

  11. I saw Maher on Stewart's show last week and he was hilarious in lampooning the absurd illogic of Christianity.

    "(though Maher claims not to be an atheist, he comes very, very close)"

    However, thats where he got a little annoying in that he equated being atheist with dogmatic certainty. He seems to be wholly unaware of more nuanced philosophical positions of probabalistic knowledge of belief, atheism as the default position, etc..

    I guess we should cut him some slack, he's a commedian, not a philosopher. But it would be nice if such a brilliant entertainer who is on our side not misrepresent atheism.

  12. Sheldon,

    I agree, I get annoyed for the same reason at Jon Stewart from time to time. Then again, their superficial understanding of the word atheism -- despite the fact that these are highly intelligent and educated people -- is one of the reasons I prefer to present myself as a humanist (I don't even bother adding "secular" anymore) than an atheist.

  13. Massimo,

    What do you think of Hitchens' claim that "religion poisons everything." I personally find this a more satisfying claim than that religion is the source of all bad things. Religion is but a subset of things that lead to evil. It is superstition or sloppy thinking or mental tribalism, or however one wants to describe it, that is the problem. This can be seen as clearly in politics, for example, as in religion.

    I think Hitchens is correct, though, where Dawkins is incorrect (if, indeed, he does say that all evil comes from religion). Religion poisons what it touches. Even the good things it tries to do, lead to evil. See Hitchens' excellent The Missionary Position, for example.

    Do you find even that claim too strong?

    Do you find that calling yourself a humanist is less alienating than calling yourself an atheist? Do most people have any idea what you mean when you call yourself a humanist? What do you think of the arguments of your co-Secular Philosophy blogger (Mark Rowland, I think it was) who argues that humanism is wrong? (Clearly you disagree. I'm wondering how you respond to him.)

  14. Mathew,

    I'm not sure about religion poisoning everything, I guess it depends on what one means by "poisoning" (and even by "religion." Does spirituality counts?). I am not supporting religion or superstition (of which I see religion as a particular subset) in any way, I just fear that across-the-board negative statements aren't doing much good to anyone.

    As for Rowland, I confess I have not read his essay. I should go back to it and see in what possible sense humanism can be "wrong." Too many of us writing too much, I guess... :)

  15. Massimo, as someone who watches Maher's show weekly, I can tell you that he does not just say/think religious belief is silly -- he most definately believes it is a sign of mental defect, lack of ability to think rationally, and renders the believer persona non grata. I just finished Dawkins' book (God Delusion) and actually think on balance that Maher is much more brutal than Dawkins.

    Now, in my opinion, that's A-OK. I applaud him for taking the challenge to the masses. I also applaud Dawkins for helping to open a door that used to be considered taboo in the public eye. It's high time that we threw down the gauntlet. I say that as someone formally part of the religious right and thankfully was able to remove myself, thoroughly, from that mystified fray. Believe me, no one on that side of the fence is going to stop siezing power voluntarily. Abrupt and insulting approaches like Maher's may be off puting to some, but certainly no more so than the incessant bigoted rants of people like Rush Limbaugh, who reach hundreds of thousands of ears daily.

    All this to say, three cheers to Maher and may others follow.

  16. "What do you think of Hitchens' claim that "religion poisons everything."

    Seems to me that to refute that claim ("everything") only requires one counter-example.

    So what about architecture and other art forms?

    Now I think religion pretty much all absurd. But I also think that some of the world's greatest historical architecture was motivated in large part by religion.

  17. There's a very simple argument for setting your pattern-finding threshold lower in a situation where you feel you lack control. Without a potential pattern you are basically acting randomly and your success is likewise going to be random. With a false pattern you are no worse off - you are still acting randomly. However, acting on the basis of a potentially correct pattern you have the chance that you are acting nonrandomly. So, might as well try something and see if it works. The problem gets serious when we become immune to counterevidence - something that people are very good at but which the lack of control literature doesn't necessarily provide a response to.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.