Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How the religious mindfuck really works


In a reader comment (here) that I've already "ranted" on (here) Marian Paroo wrote: "If you don't believe-you don't believe." That's something else that's not right in the way Marian understands beliefs. It doesn't reflect the way the human brain really works. A belief is not something that gets turned on or off. Not believing only means you assign a low probability to basic religious claims. Our brains, in most of our beliefs, work more like a Bayesian belief network than a light switch.

In fact, our brains most probably do incorporate all sorts of Bayesian network-like arrangements of neurons. So, this is potentially more than a metaphor, it's a tool in artificial intelligence research.

Ignorant Belief Networks are one class of Bayesian Belief Networks that are able to reason on the basis of incomplete probabilistic information and to incrementally refine the precision of the inferred probabilities as more information is accumulated. This is what we are doing when we read and study atheistic books as well as Christian apologetics.

Instead of just acting on certain beliefs we really act on all the possibilities we can imagine when we don't have enough certainty, including conflicting improbable beliefs. It works as a kind of fail-safe and in extreme circumstances where no other action seems possible we will resort to the most improbable actions. For example, Steve McQueen, an actor who came across on screen as an intelligent, coolly rational and skeptical man, but who towards the end of his life, after being diagnosed with cancer, became a desperate and perhaps gullible man.

He had mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lining of the lungs and he apparently fell victim to some questionable medical practices. The medical profession derided him as a victim of fraud and friends warned him. However, with such a gloomy prognosis any skepticism McQueen may have had fell away and he became a desperate man willing to try anything because he saw no other options. What would you do in his situation? Hope trumps skepticism if there is no other price to pay.

As another more positive example, a fairly agnostic person may avoid doing a horrendous crime when the temptation is weak just because they imagine there might be a remote possibility of punishment in the afterlife for going too far over the line. They may not believe, but they try to do good just in case it is true.

Another example, I once let my brother's young kids watch a horror movie marathon one Halloween night. Early on during the films they were cracking jokes about how improbable werewolves, demons and zombies were but by the time the films were over they were so terrified of the simplest things I could make them jump just by shouting "Boo!" I eventually found them hiding under the bed with trembling flashlights in their hands. It didn't matter how skeptical they were, the movies had loaded their imaginations with all sorts of frightening possibilities and those imagined possibilities trumped their skepticism. Loading your imagination is exactly what religious proselytizers are doing. Have you ever had one accuse you of lacking imagination? I have and I'm a professional artist working in fantasy and science fiction who relies on my imagination.

We estimate probabilities and then plug in our fears and hopes. The real weights and numbers loaded into our Bayesian nodes and variables represent our fears and hopes and the estimated probabilities of encountering what we fear and/or hope for.

Religious propositions and claims we encounter in our mostly Christian culture generally have a low probability of being true. But religions like Christianity and Islam make up for their low probability by plugging into the most extreme hopes and fears that you can imagine. Those hopes and fears alter the way you estimate probabilities and how you collect data. Your imagination can be overloaded.

Christians also propose minimal, fail-safe, low cost actions, initially. They tell you to just study your Bible and then open your heart and ask God to come into it. No big sacrifice has to be made to get you started. The question you might be asking is why does this open your heart approach work on anybody if there is no god to come into your heart? I think it's a kind of hypnosis that works on an overloaded imagination, but I'll pick up on that in later essays.

There is never absolute certainty that can be had in regard to most religious questions. All that we atheists can do is argue against the probability of various claims about gods and religion. We can't really change the numbers in the fear and hope nodes. This is why atheism is something of an intellectual achievement and why it takes a bit of mental work. It's one reason why atheists tend to be scientifically informed and why fundamentalist Christians work against the accumulating scientific evidence of our modern age, denying evolution and neuroscience. You have to get to the point where you are satisfied that the probabilities are sufficiently low that you are as minimally effected by the hopes and fears religious proselytizers try to manipulate you with even if they don't understand what they are doing.

But I wrote about this over a decade ago and to end this post I'm going to quote a huge chunk of my over a decade old essay, HOPE IS THE BAIT:

The toxic hope offered by any kind of mysticism, be it Christian or New Age, is more than just the conquest of death, it's the desire for a supernatural realm beyond this comparatively dull and mundane reality. We all seem to have a profound yearning, a hope, for a magic method that will free us from realities that will not obey our wishes, from loneliness, from sorrow, from failure, from fears of the unknown, and from death itself, from our pain, and from our fragile human bodies that will rot in the earth after our dreaming souls have flown the coup. Because of our egocentricity we cannot accept the idea of death easily. We want to be free of nature's seemingly cruel dictates. It has been called the transcendental temptation, the siren call of mysticism, an escape from reality, and the theological seduction. It is a supernatural promise and it will not be kept.

Some Christians don't exactly know what kind of promise it is they have faith in, but they are sure it is better than rational despair. Yes, it would be nice if we could live forever in some paradise. It would be nice if there were a God watching over us and protecting us. But merely wanting and believing in these things is not enough to make them real. Hope and expectation is the bait that draws the seeker in, but the seeker is soon introduced to the fear of eternal damnation. What goes into the Bible reader's imagination, those highly emotional and secretly irrational processes within the subconscious, may just be objectively collected there at first as he tries to determine for himself what the truth is. The Bible reader tries to learn, but secretly wants to dream of a supernatural realm where his deepest desires might be fulfilled, and also where his darkest fears might come true. Fantasy may be a natural and healthy way to explore our desires and fears, and so discover their nature, and then develop realistic plans for getting what it is we desire and avoiding what we fear, but Christian fantasy is almost totally detached from any contact with reality. The desires and fears generated by the biblical texts are ambiguous, extreme, and unrealistic. The Bible, and especially New Testament, is bewildering, difficult, obscure, and confusing. The Bible creates an unhealthy uneasiness; it stimulates fear and hope with both subtle and direct threats and promises. The New Testament aims to turn the truth seeker inward and work on his subconscious mind. A seed is planted within the prospects subconscious. Any objective determination about the truth or falsity of Biblical claims is difficult for those who do not understand the psychology.

The Christian finds that he is dependent on priestly authority in order to understand his faith. The material that goes in to the mind, Biblical stories, rituals, impressive church structures, the herd instinct, mass media support, and peer pressure can be analyzed and so tell us something about this psychology and how the final effect is produced, and even something of the purposes that lay behind its design.

Supernatural fantasies are generated when the Bible reader speculates on the meaning of the text. And these fantasies are given implicit support by a media that tells us our politicians, presidents, generals, and celebrities are mostly Christian; a media that rarely contradicts the Christian assumptions of our culture. As the Bible reader reads of miracles, the promise of life everlasting, supernatural powers, angels, transcendent realms, and magical healings his desire and fantasy, his fears and hopes, will motivate, develop, and grow as he continues his studies. (One of the darkest aspects of religion's appeal to hope is its appeal to the desperate. To the terminally ill who seek to be healed.) Talk to any Christian and you'll find out that they've created a very personal vision, a private reality map that is uniquely their own. While different Christian groups with different labels, such as Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Charismatic, or Evangelical will advocate different interpretations of this supernatural fantasy each individual creates
his own particular vision out of the mix of possibilities.

For some people, once the Biblical seed of unreal hope and uncertain fear has been sown, a process of desire, expectation, and imagination begins in the hidden workings of the unconscious mind, in a secret world of mystical ideas, a world of ignorance and enormous possibility. The Bible reader begins to develop a murky image of his supernatural expectations and he seeks to clarify that image with further study. Instead of having his murky ideas clarified he is instead drawn further and further in to the trap. In time those things merely imagined, but still either feared or desired, may become part of our potential believer's reality map. The ideas are no longer just possibilities and speculations he entertains in his mind but are now 'real' to him. But 'real' only in the sense that they are emotionally loaded concepts that influence his desire and aversion behavior. The believer can no longer imagine, comfortably, a world view without his faith, his illusions. The emotion attached to these religious ideas is stronger than the emotion attached to the concepts and ideas in a more rational mind. While I have little experience with it, there seems to be a drug like emotional kick of joyous expectation associated with this process. At least this is what many Christians seem to claim when they talk about being 'born again.'

None of us use logic and reason alone to create our theories and reality maps, or even to solve problems. The ideas seem to just come to us, popping into our heads, or picked up out of books we've sought out, or welling up out of some dark and mysterious depth within our minds. Sometimes when this happens we want to scream 'Eureka!' because we have solved an important problem, as did Archimedes when he discovered a way to determine the purity of gold. We use logic later, to check the work and put it in presentable order after the new ideas and insights have been attained. This does not invalidate the use of reason and logic as tools for understanding our world because the insights and ideas must survive the checking and ordering process which makes them valid, at the very least, if not demonstratably true.

A gestation process seems to be involved in genuine conversion. New insights, beliefs, concepts, and perspectives emerge days, weeks, perhaps even years after exposure to the information. The fuel for the Christian transformation is obviously those deep seated hopes and fears that biblical psychotechnology exploits. The computer programmer's jargon of "garbage in, garbage out" applies to the human mind as well. Cram your head full of scientific data about a problem that needs to be solved and you'll arrive at a technological solution to the problem. Cram your head full of Biblical mysticism and you'll find yourself with superstitious fears of damnation and a desperate quest for salvation. It's the checking and ordering process that is often not carried out when it comes to religion, or if it is, it's carried out improperly. In most cases, it's not even possible to carry out this checking process. Much of the information given to us by our trusted authority figures, our priests and politicians, goes unchecked, for checking is a hard and time consuming process. It's a lot harder to think for oneself than it is to just trust our culture's properly accredited experts, be they priests, politicians, or scientists. The Bible discourages this checking process and asks for faith, and that's one good clue to its false nature.

8 comments:

Blair said...

Awesome post

The Barefoot Bum said...

Hope is the bait, but fear is the hook. And it's the fear that requires the illusion of truth.

If it were just about hope, everyone would hope for universalism: God would save everyone; and why wouldn't a just and merciful god save everyone?

Religious believers don't really think that religion is a pure choice, any more than anyone has a choice about whether to believe in gravity. Without truth—or its illusion—there could be no fear; we don't freely choose to fear.

normdoering said...

"Hope is the bait, but fear is the hook."

I used the word "trap" over a decade ago:

FEAR IS THE TRAP

"Hope is the bait" was only part 1.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Then you were right a decade ago.

Marion Paroo said...

As they say around these here parts-"Do what?" It was long and full of venom, but does all that sound and fury signify ANYTHING?

I know, I know. I'm an idiot, moron 6th grader and I probably believe in God and that proves I am WAY beneath you. Nonetheless, I have to say it was filled a lot of space and was full of you, but it failed to communicate much to me. Are you venting or trying to say someting to influence people?

(As an aside, I think that's the problem with blogging. No one there to push you to say it more clearly and in fewer words.)

I repreat my request for some post that lays out what you and yours wish/hope/think/believe (golly gee-what is the word I'm looking for here?).

Finally-I just took a scroll through a number of your "posts" and darn it! Can you tell me why the heck you are routinely writing LONG posts about idiots who believe in someting you dislike and why you feel the necessity to use such strong language to do so? What happen here Mr. Hell? Were you diddled by priests? Did some televangelist take your money? From whence cometh your strength of feelings?
MP

normdoering said...

Marion Paroo wrote:
"I repeat my request for some post that lays out what you and yours wish/hope/think/believe (golly gee-what is the word I'm looking for here?)."

The question you might be looking for is "what do you think you will accomplish?"

But why should I answer your questions when you haven't answered mine? "What do you believe?"

As for my answers -- you've already got them but they aren't sinking in. You're not ready for this blog. Go here:
http://richarddawkins.net/

Join a forum here:
http://richarddawkins.net/forum/

Try the "General Discussion" forum or the "Faith & Religion" forum. After awhile what I've already said might start sinking in.

Michael said...

Norm,

Excellent post. I've passed this along to several still-religious relatives with a short note letting them know that I've found what you've written here to be a very concise summary that neatly parallels many of my experiences during my deconversion process.

Again, excellent post. Keep up the good work.

-MichaelDePaula.com

Anonymous said...

It’s funny how many articles and news come out on a weekly basis.