Valerie Tarico is a former fundamentalist Christian who holds a PhD in Psychology and is the author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth. Her chapter in The Christian Delusion is titled Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science.
I really enjoyed this chapter. Not because it said or proved anything that might convince me that Christianity is wrong – it doesn’t attempt to offer such proof – but because it explains how humans cognitively experience what is usually called the supernatural. Once again I find myself in a place where I feel that the target audience of this book are fundamentalists Christians and their apologists. Nothing in this chapter would lead me to replace Christianity with atheism, but someone like my mother who often falls back on “I just know that I know” may be made to doubt her faith (though with anyone who has an “I just know that I know” philosophy, it’s doubtful that anything could be said or written to cause them to question their belief, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Physic, alien abductee or your everyday superstitious person. You just can’t argue with a knowledge that depends on itself; “I know that I know”).
The chapter deals with various aspects of the science of human cognitive as it relates to religious experience:
1. Humans Are Not Rational
Tarico explains that experts on the human mind have discovered that humans are not inherently rational beings. She’s so confident in this that she includes herself as a case in point, in spite of the fact that she considers herself as “someone who follows the evidence wherever it leads”. The fact is, all of our minds are wired to a bias that distorts reality and subjectively filters facts by accepting some and rejecting others to come up with a particular belief. She says that is why science is so great. Science is objective truth. What gravity does, for example, is an objective fact. That the earth circles the sun and not the other way around is an objective fact we know from science.
Building on this she writes,
“As we learn more about the human mind, even the outrages of religious belief become more understandable… when you realize that humans are only partly rational. Bias is our default setting, and most of the distortions [of reality] happen below the level of conscious awareness…. [this puts] Christianity as a system in an awkward position because Christianity sanctifies belief itself.” (p.52-53)
2. I Know Because I Know
This portion of the chapter is very interesting. She posits the question, “how do we know what is real?” No she doesn’t play the “red pill” “blue pill” card. Rather she gives two examples. One of a very intelligent biologist who is also a schizophrenic who believes the CIA has been bugging his life. The other is a man who’s hands are dried and shredded as he washes them sometimes up to a hundred times a day with soap, alcohol, bleach, or scouring pads. To the minds of both men, their situation is as real as real gets. But in fact these men have an imbalance of chemicals in their brains. After being treated reality of certainty for both men falls back in line “with the evidence”. The schizo slowly comes to terms with the fact that the CIA is not out to get him and the second man begins to feel confident that his hands are clean after a normal round of soap and water.
“As scientists learn more about how our brains work, certitude is coming to be seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken. Humans will always argue passionately about things that we do not know and cannot know, but with a little more self-knowledge and humility we may get to the point where those arguments are less often lethal.” (p.55)
3. God Has A Human Mind
In this section Tarico points out that if dogs believed in a god, it’d be a dog and if horses believed in a god, it’d be a horse setting up the argument that God is thought of by Christians in human terms, only humans are more sophisticated than dogs and horses, as is our idea of the precise nature of God.
She makes the point that the Christian story is far from unique and not even just similar to Judaism. She points to the Gilgamesh narrative as an example of how various cultures worked off each other and borrowed from each other and really, for the most part, thought alike. She then brings up the ancient Sumerian story of the “Descent of Inana” which she says is “the Christian resurrection story”. The reason all of these stories are so alike (among other reasons) is because they are all “carried by similar human minds”.
4. How Does This Affect Religion?
Things get real interesting when she describes how all of what she points out about the how the human mind works (which this post doesn’t cover such as the fact that the human mind is “social” and tends to see “human” faces where there are none et cetera) affects the religious experience.
“Our brains automatically activate the facial recognition machinery even though it doesn’t really apply. Throughout history people have seen gods, demons, ghosts, or the man in the moon looking at them. Christians, whose interpretation of hazy shapes is further shaped by belief in specific supernatural persons, see Jesus, the Virgin Mary, an angel, a demon, or even Satan.”
5. The Born-Again Experience
This section opens up with four similar quotes. Four people describing their “born-again” very similar experiences. It is not until a page or two later though that we discover that only two of the four quotes are from Christians. Tarico talks about evangelistic meets and church gatherings and the environment these settings make and how the mind – unconsciously – reacts, absorbs and so on. She talks about how these settings provide a hypnotic ethos with their music, the repetitive words of the speakers, the majority of others who already believe, the sense of being on the outside, the overwhelming approval of everyone around them the moment they “believe”. Sometimes these events include long periods of standing, exhaustion, lack of drink and so on. The mind gets “weaker” (my term, if you will) as the event or gathering or whatever goes on until – my words again – it finally breaks and is replaced with emotions.
Thus the “born-again” experience is not unique to Christianity. Any group can create the same environment with similar results.
This was a longer one and I hardly did the chapter any justice. Let me say off hand that I agree with what Tarico says about how the mind works and how these “supernatural experiences” are often perceived to be. And while acknowledging it, I still fail to see how it presents a problem for the reflective Christian. But I think this chapter is more about Tarico justifying her need not to be a Christian than it is in proving that Christianity is a delusion. Her concluding statement says it all:
“We have no need of that [the Christian] hypothesis.” (p.63)
If the Christian experience – everything from the born-again experience all the way to visitations from the supernatural world – can be explained through science, Tarico says “more and more” scholars of religion find themselves echoing that statement. We have no need for the Christian hypothesis because science explains everything.
And it is precisely at that point where I take umbrage with Tarico’s essay. The underlining assumption made throughout is that Christianity is essentially a system of blind faith (“belief”) which science is continuing to disprove. In other words, Tarico has pitted “faith” against “science”. But more and more Christians are coming to realize that faith and science are not antithetical to one another (it seems Christians are learning this faster than non-Christians!). Her discussion of the Christian belief system, it’s dogmas, strongly implies it’s “blindness”, that it is a system of belief without evidence to support it. However, all orthodox Christian “dogma” and “belief” are rooted in the historic, bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, much the same way that I have neither studied in depth nor known personally Thomas Edison, but every time I experience the lightbulb, I have him to thank. I believe Edison is to thank for the light bulb because of what I have been told and of what little I’ve read.
The other assumption made throughout the article is that because Christian’s depict God in human terms with human attributes, God must be a figment of our imagination. This line of reasoning would not stand up to, well, reason (at this I appeal to Tarico’s self confession at the start of the chapter: “research has shown that I am neither fair-minded nor reasonable… our brains of built-in biases.”). If humans were created by a personal deity – in other words, giving Christianity the benefit of the doubt for a moment – it would be less reasonable to assume that God is like some other creature than it would be to assume that God created humans to be like him is some ways. Furthermore, orthodoxy has always been sure to emphasize God’s “otherness” along side his “likeness”.
Furthermore, because the human brain works and reacts and acts and functions in certain ways does not prove much of anything. Christianity does not stand or fall on it’s born-again “experiences”. Tarico acknowledges this herself,
“Understanding the psychology of religion doesn’t tell us whether any specific set of beliefs is true… [God] still might exist. Social scientists can’t address the truth value of otherworldly religious assertions or emotions, only the patterns, norms, and circumstances under which they occur.”
Oh, and I did get a chuckle out of one other thing she says: “Consider, for example, the apostle Paul, whose Damascus Road event (possibly a temporal lobe seizure)…” And there you have it folks.