The Origins of Belief

Stuart Lowrie

Sunday, May 3, 2009 – 

It comes as no surprise that humans can be remarkably resistant to new ideas or beliefs. Sir Winston Churchill put it thusly:

“People occasionally stumble across the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”

And our own Mark Twain observed another side of this same resistance to change, the power of our beliefs to lead us down blind allies and unproductive byways, when he observed:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Something as storied as persistent stubbornness in the face of overwhelming facts deserves to be better understood and more talked about, especially in the religious setting. And in the last decade or more, new scientific methods and better lines of questioning have begun to unravel the reasons for the power of blind belief.

We know by rational examination and through our own experience, for example, that belief in the tenets of any religion is not, in itself intrinsic to the human brain.

No-one is born believing in the trinity. No-one is born believing in the multi-armed goddess Kali. No-one is born adhering to Seven Principles. No-one is born worshipping Yahweh. All that is learned.

As we all know, to quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, “you’ve got to be carefully taught” to follow the belief systems of your peers and parents.

But how come it’s so easy to get “taught” and so HARD to let go of what we were taught?

In an article entitled “Darwin’s God”, and published in the NYT in March 2007, ROBIN MARANTZ HENIG develops this and other arguments and ideas in far greater detail than I can here, and for those of you fast with the pen, I recommend it to you as a primer on this whole question of belief. According to Henig, and the scientists whose ideas she was writing about,

“Children seem to be born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible

minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition… with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way… we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.”


A recent article in Natural History magazine casts a little light on this question of the “stickiness of belief” in the context of Darwinism and creationism.

According to this study, among 40 industrialized nations around the world surveyed for belief in Darwinism vs creationism, this country ranked second from last, ahead of only Turkey… not even 40% of Americans polled were willing to assert that the basics of Darwinism are “true.

Surprisingly, the article notes that whether you believe in creationism or side withDarwinism, it makes little difference if you’re smart or well-educated – neither is a reliable predictor of which approach to biology you’ll believe.

But here’s the most peculiar part of the results of this study:

When researchers asked subjects to explain the theory of natural selection and descent with modification, explanations from adherents as well as those who rejected it, were equally poor.

The difference between adherents and detractors of Darwinism, according to the article, likely comes from HOW we actually learn about the world and settle on what we believe to be true, according to the authors of the study,

“Some of our beliefs emerge from personal experience… some beliefs emerge from conscious deliberation, which might apply to views about evolution that a scientist or theologian might hold. But most of what a person knows [or thinks he or she knows] is learned from other people, through hearsay or testimony.”

And much of what we are likely to believe is linked to the source of that testimony. That innate deference to authority and trust of authority dominates our acceptance of and belief in testimony of others.

Evolutionarily, this makes perfect sense – older, more experienced people in the community were more likely to know how to solve problems, manage crises, help the community cope with stress. The human groups that more readily recognized and identified experience and followed the advice of experienced leaders were more likely tobe successful at reproducing over time – leaving behind more offspring who were genetically pre-disposed to listen to experienced adults.

This willingness to defer to the opinions of authorities and experts also helps explain why creationism in this country is so widely accepted. Unlike other developed countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Iceland where more than 75% of the population accepts the truth of Darwinism, a sizeable vocal and entrenched minority of authority figures (conservative and fundamentalist clergy for the most part) have sway over the opinions of many Americans with respect to matters deemed theological and

controversial. They trust their pastors rather than the white lab-coated scientist or Richard Dawkins.

But beyond this acceptance of authorities and testimonials, the Natural History magazine article hints at the deeper biological basis for credulity. In saying that we may have evolved to defer to authority, the article leaves hanging in the air what heritable features of the human phenotype might be the source of our credulity – our willingness to believe what leaders tell us.


At the top of the problem of belief lies this sordid truth: most of the operations of the human mind happen out of view of its owners, possibly because that’s the way our brain evolved to work initially. And partly because that’s the way that the mind works best, under many circumstances. Without such an efficient, powerful and fast means of understanding and acting on the world around us, it would be difficult to survive. We could be stuck pondering every little decision, such as whether to move our left or right foot forward first.

One consequence of this interior and invisible brain wiring is that we often, perhaps mostly, make decisions intuitively, outside our awareness, based on other features of brain wiring and invisible inputs that influence how that wiring functions.

We are amazingly unaware of this unawareness – and when put to the sticking point – “Explain why you made a particular decision” we often don’t actually KNOW why we made it – because the decision happened outside our ability to access the process of deciding.

Yet, who among us, when caught in such a moment, has ever had trouble finding the “reasons” for a decision, a choice, a preference?

As a parent, it happens to me every ten minutes when I’m with my children. They ask for something, I say “No”, they say “Why not?” (every child is an attorney, after all) and I have to create a reason for an invisible, intuited decision or choice…

And we do, honestly, believe that those reasons offered in the moment are the “real” reasons we made a decision. And we rarely ever answer such questions with, “I don’t know”.

Here’s one project that measures how this works: researchers showed participants in a study photographs of two women and asked them to choose the one they found most attractive. The experimenter then showed the participant the photo he preferred and asked the participant in the study for the reasons for their choices.

In some trials, though, the researcher, through slight of hand, actually showed participants the photograph they found less attractive! You would expect most people to see though this ruse; but 75% did not. And of those 75% who didn’t notice the switch, the vast majority easily came up with reasons for why they picked the photograph that they, in fact, had rejected!

In a scary side-note, the researchers could not find any difference in the kinds of reasons that people used to defend their actual choice of a photograph versus the reasons they used to defend the choice of the photo that they had actually rejected. That suggests that participants actually make up reasons in the moment for either outcome – explaining their actual choice or explaining the false choice perpetrated by the researcher.

This should sound a lot like the creationist vs Darwinist results I mentioned earlier where neither variant could give a cogent explanation of the theory that they claimed to support or reject.

“My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the facts!”

What’s at the bottom of this? Two things:

We can’t trust our brains to follow the path of reason and evidence all on their own.


Faces have a special place in our brain wiring. Faces are VERY important to us. They’re important to our survival as individuals and as a species.


We’re hardwired to recognize faces. Our brains literally have pre-assigned circuitry that essentially “takes a picture of a face” and stores it with extraordinary accuracy. Linking that mental picture of a face to the attached name may be problematic for some of us most of the time and for all of us from time to time, but with astounding accuracy, we KNOW if we’ve seen that face before.

So, what does this circuitry do for us in the real world? Foremost, it would seem, we are heavily biased by faces in our assessments and interactions with other people. This plays out in curious ways and contributes to a willingness to “believe”, in the absence (often COMPLETE absence) of any other evidence or information. Take this study described in the June 2005 issue of Science Magazine.

About 70% of the 2004 U.S. Senate races were accurately predicted based on which candidates looked more competent from a quick glance at their faces. This remarkable effect, reported by Todorov et al., likely reflects differences in “babyfacedness” ( A more babyfaced individual is perceived as less competent than a more mature-faced, but equally attractive, peer of the same age and sex ( Although we like to believe that we “don’t judge a book by its cover,” superficial appearance qualities such as babyfacedness profoundly affect human behavior in the blink of an eye.

Most daunting here is that we so trust our facial recognition and processing

circuitry (or discount other sources of information) that we make critical decisions solely on that basis – or as we’ve already learned, we easily justify the interior decision made by our brain circuitry, outside of our conscious awareness, AFTER THE FACT. We believe we know the right answer to a question of concern, based on no real information whatever.

However, if you stop and think about it from an evolutionary point of view, it

makes perfect sense that we’d be wired to trust and have confidence in older

members of our species – the less babyfaced ones of course – since on average they’d be more likely to have the experience needed to allow our tribe, community or other social unit to survive during times of stress. Sort of like the matriarchy that helps elephant herds survive droughts – the older females remember where the reliable water holes were found twenty years ago during that last severe drought.


Following along on this partisan track, (and here presented in words drawn almost directly from the New York Times report ) in 2004, researchers lead by Dr. Drew Westin of Emory University in Atlanta Georgia, recruited 30 adult men who described themselves as committed Republicans or Democrats. The men, half of them supporters of President Bush and the other half backers of Senator John Kerry, earned $50 to sit in an M.R.I. machine and consider several statements in quick succession. The first was a quote attributed to one of the two candidates: either a remark by Mr. Bush in support of Kenneth L. Lay, the former Enron chief, before he was indicted, or a statement by Mr. Kerry that Social Security should be overhauled.

Moments later, the participants heard a remark that showed the candidate

reversing his position. Some of the quotes were doctored for maximum effect, but all were presented as factual.

The Republicans in the study judged Mr. Kerry as harshly as the Democrats judged Mr. Bush. But each group let its own candidate off the hook.

After the participants read the contradictory comment, the researchers measured increased activity in several, areas of the brain. They included a region involved in regulating negative emotions and another called the cingulate, which activates when the brain makes judgments about forgiveness, among other things. Also, a spike appeared in several areas known to be active when people feel relieved or rewarded– the pleasure centers of the brain were stimulated by the brain with endorphins

during the process of rejecting contradictory information about a deeply held

conviction – in this case, the intrinsic “goodness” of a political candidate. Similar to the study that asked participants to pick their favorite photo that I mentioned earlier, the “cold reasoning” regions of the cortex were relatively quiet. The subject was unaware of the mental process that had just gone on in his or her head.

Researchers have long known that political decisions are strongly influenced by unconscious emotional reactions, a fact routinely exploited by campaign

consultants and advertisers. But the new research suggests that for partisans, political thinking is often predominantly emotional.

It is possible to override these biases, Dr. Westen said, but you have to engage in ruthless self reflection, to say, ‘All right, I know what I want to believe, but l have to be honest”.

When we reject information that contradicts our beliefs and feelings about the wider world around us, we actually trigger the release of endorphins in our brain. It gives us direct pleasure through the stimulation of brain cells themselves to reinforce the rejection of ideas that conflict with our belief.


New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the

belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge. I’m sure that virtually all of us have a secret “Lucky pebble”, tee-shirt, or other behavior or object that gives us comfort and that, at some level, we grant power to…

Magical thinking, a close cousin of faith and the tenets of religion, underlies a

vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through

every waking hour of a day.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain,

and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in

threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental

distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This

emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion

themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit,

what we might call “magical” explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal

Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at “More articles about Washington University” Washington University in St. Louis. According to Boyer, such thinking was “only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one.”

Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.


Magical thinking is directly tied to our perceptual experiences with the outside world. And it’s greatly aided by our willingness as a species to “count the hits and forget the misses” – we remember WELL the times that our magical thinking appears to have been rewarded, but preferentially forget the MANY MORE times that our magical thinking had no apparent relationship to outcomes experienced. And this tendency to count the hits may be related to another feature of the human brain –

Our brain is wired to respond to actions and activities. That wiring tells us that, if something is moving, when we see a bush burning, a ripple in a pond, a tree branch waving on an otherwise still tree, there is a “mover” or an actor or agent (either seeable or not seeable) responsible for that activity.

A classic experiment from the 1940s by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. For the experiment, subjects watched a film of triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like ”chase” and ”capture.” They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

Not you, the conscious being, you don’t make a decision that there is an agent out there moving the branch. Your brain does. By the time you become consciously aware of something happening, your brain has already decided “there’s something out there that needs to be watched”. This hyper-alert early warning assessment system in our brains is highly adaptive. Poisonous snakes, attacking predators, moving cars, falling branches can all be avoided more quickly if we note and respond to them fast.


The traditional psychological view has been that until about age 4, children think that minds are permeable and that everyone knows whatever the child himself knows. To a young child, everyone is infallible. All other people, especially Mother and Father, are thought to have the same sort of insight as an all-knowing God.

But at a certain point in development, this changes. (Some new research suggests this might occur as early as 15 months.) The ”false-belief test” is a classic experiment that highlights the boundary. Children watch a puppet show with a simple plot: John comes onstage holding a marble, puts it in Box A and walks off. Mary comes onstage, opens Box A, takes out the marble, puts it in Box B and walks off. John comes back onstage. The children are asked, Where will John look for the marble?

Very young children, or autistic children of any age, say John will look in Box B, since they know that’s where the marble is. But older children give a more sophisticated answer. They know that John never saw Mary move the marble and that as far as he is concerned it is still where he put it, in Box A. Older children have developed a theory of mind; they understand that other people sometimes have false beliefs. Even though they know that the marble is in Box B, they respond that John will look for it in Box A.

Daniel C. Dennett recently published “Breaking the Spell’” a no-holds barred investigation of religion as just one among many natural phenomena… I did not have time to read it prior to preparing this presentation, however, I call it to your attention here.

Michael Shermer, a regular contributor to Scientific American, wrote a review of this book recently. He summarizing Dennett’s main points this way:

“Humans have brains that are big enough to be both self-aware and aware that others are self-aware. This “theory of mind” leads to a “hyperactive agent detection device” (HADD) that not only alerts us to real dangers, such as poisonous snakes, but also generates false positives, such as believing that rocks and trees are imbued with intentional minds or spirits – since we know that other people are aware of themselves, it’s an easy step to project that kind of conscious awareness onto inappropriate objects. “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.” This is animism that, in the well-known historical sequence, leads to polytheism and, eventually, monotheism. In other words, God is a false positive generated by our HADD.

I’ll let this dense paragraph settle in with you for a second. But suffice it to say, Dennett would assert that there is nothing remarkable about a belief in God – nothing that ultimately cannot be examined as one would examine any natural phenomenon. And by extension, Dennett would assert that religions themselves, as totally human constructs, are natural phenomena and subject to the same process of scientific inquiry as any other kind of human behavior.

I find this open and scientific approach to belief refreshing. Some of us may have to apply ruthless self-reflection to get past the arbitrary in our world of belief – but I think, for the future of our species, it’s worth the effort.


So here’s my heresy for today:

Sophia Fahs got it all wrong. Well, not entirely wrong – it does matter what we believe.

But it doesn’t matter so much WHAT we believe. Some kind of belief, a belief divorced from facts, is inevitable. And even the most ruthlessly self-reflective individual among us may be able to choose his or her beliefs far LESS than they are chosen FOR them by their brains.

The rapidly expanding body of evidence from science is clear: our very biology at the most profound depths compels us to believe – as quickly as you can say “hyperactive agent detection device”. We will surely and certainly believe ideas and notions and theories whether we will it or NOT. And we will have, at the ready, sage and apparently well-crafted explanations of these beliefs – thanks to the inner invisible power of our decision circuitry.

Even greater as a challenge: received wisdom from scientific studies says that it’s REALLY hard to change your mind, it’s really hard to detach your self from old beliefs and fully inhabit a new idea, a new way of looking at the world, a new belief – and it’s REALLY, REALLY hard to let go of a cherished and carefully nourished belief held over a lifetime – no matter how wrong it may be upon the most basic and simple inspection….

Science says that the reasons these things are SO HARD has little to do with us as individuals struggling to do the right thing in an ambiguous world – it has EVERYTHING to do with our own biology, our brain circuitry and hard wiring.

Our brains, operating outside of our conscious ability to inspect and apply quality control, manufacture these states of belief and even help us defend them, pleasurably, in the complete absence of our awareness, reason, evidence or good sense.

If the idea of God is an artifact of a hyperactive agency detection device, then sustained belief in that God, once we and our peers identify her as a causal agent, is an artifact of how our brains are wired and how our biology re-enforces prejudice. We WILL believe things – crazy things, wrong things, weird things, complex ideas that have no sustaining evidence, no matter how we may struggle to avoid it.

No belief should be above questioning, criticism and doubting, none should be above learning, above skepticism nor, most of all, abandonment. Even the tenets of Science and the scientific method itself should be rigorously reassessed and doubted.

Yet we are wired to approach belief in exactly the opposite manner.

We have to be ever aware that any effort to be reasonable about our beliefs requires “ruthless self-reflection” – remember that our brains have already made up our minds for us based on an automatic assessment of information, outside of our conscious awareness.

What does it matter if a grad student believes that a lucky stone in her pocket will help her get a better grade on an exam, so long as she continues to study and work as if it were NOT true?

It matters HOW we believe.

What does it matter if you believe in a great white God in the sky who metes out justice with a rod of iron and who created the whole of the universe in 6 days while I believe in no god and see the universe as a work in progress now about 13.7 billion years old and still going strong, so long as we both serve all humanity with love and respect without concern for who’s truth (if either) is actually right?

It matters HOW we believe.

What does it matter if you believe that your candidate for office is vastly superior to mine, and I believe the opposite, so long as we both strive for inclusivity, fairness and diversity in government?

It matters HOW we believe.

It is possible for people with widely differing beliefs to stand together on critical issues of fairness, sharing, and civil rights. Indeed, that is the model that Unitarian Universalism so remarkably, hopefully optimistically puts out there – and that ought to be the standard that guides us all in our free and responsible quest for truth and meaning.

May it be so!

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