JERUSALEM — MOST of us find it mind-boggling that some people seem willing to ignore the facts — on climate change, on vaccines, on health care — if the facts conflict with their sense of what someone like them believes. “But those are the facts,” you want to say. “It seems weird to deny them.”
And yet a broad group of scholars is beginning to demonstrate that religious belief and factual belief are indeed different kinds of mental creatures. People process evidence differently when they think with a factual mind-set rather than with a religious mind-set. Even what they count as evidence is different. And they are motivated differently, based on what they conclude. On what grounds do scholars make such claims?
First of all, they have noticed that the very language people use changes when they talk about religious beings, and the changes mean that they think about their realness differently. You do not say, “I believe that my dog is alive.” The fact is so obvious it is not worth stating. You simply talk in ways that presume the dog’s aliveness — you say she’s adorable or hungry or in need of a walk. But to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive” signals that you know that other people might not think so. It also asserts reverence and piety. We seem to regard religious beliefs and factual beliefs with what the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls different “cognitive attitudes.”
Second, these scholars have remarked that when people consider the truth of a religious belief, what the belief does for their lives matters more than, well, the facts. We evaluate factual beliefs often with perceptual evidence. If I believe that the dog is in the study but I find her in the kitchen, I change my belief. We evaluate religious beliefs more with our sense of destiny, purpose and the way we think the world should be. One study found that over 70 percent of people who left a religious cult did so because of a conflict of values.
They did not complain that the leader’s views were mistaken. They believed that he was a bad person.
Third, these scholars have found that religious and factual beliefs play different roles in interpreting the same events. Religious beliefs explain why, rather than how. People who understand readily that diseases are caused by natural processes might still attribute sickness at a particular time to demons, or healing to an act of God.
The psychologist Cristine H. Legare and her colleagues recently demonstrated that people use both natural and supernatural explanations in this interdependent way across many cultures. They tell a story, as recounted by Tracy Kidder’s book on the anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, about a woman who had taken her tuberculosis medication and been cured — and who then told Dr. Farmer that she was going to get back at the person who had used sorcery to make her ill. “But if you believe that,” he cried, “why did you take your medicines?” In response to the great doctor she replied, in essence, “Honey, are you incapable of complexity?”
Moreover, people’s reliance on supernatural explanations increases as they age. It may be tempting to think that children are more likely than adults to reach out to magic to explain something, and that they increasingly put that mind-set to the side as they grow up, but the reverse is true. It’s the young kids who seem skeptical when researchers ask them about gods and ancestors, and the adults who seem clear and firm. It seems that supernatural ideas do things for adults they do not yet do for children.
Finally, scholars have determined that people don’t use rational, instrumental reasoning when they deal with religious beliefs. The anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues have shown that sacred values are immune to the normal cost-benefit trade-offs that govern other dimensions of our lives. Sacred values are insensitive to quantity (one cartoon can be a profound insult). They don’t respond to material incentives (if you offer people money to give up something that represents their sacred value, and they often become more intractable in their refusal).
Sacred values may even have different neural signatures in the brain.