Nope. Not at all.
But since we’re talking about it, I have heard it floated in certain circles that religious people suffer some mental condition or something to that effect. I’m not a neuroscientist or psychologist, but I would just like to state for the record that I, as an atheist, do not believe that religious people suffer from a mental condition or disease. I also don’t believe that religious people are necessarily less intelligent, or less educated than I am. I know very intelligent, very normal, critically thinking religious people. If you are a religious person, and you comment on my blog, I promise I will not automatically assume you are an uneducated, superstitious, nut-job.
A mental illness affects every aspect of your life. If you suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it creeps in to your life in all sorts of unexpected places. It hangs there “waiting” to affect you. If you suffer from schizophrenia, the reality of the entire world is altered, no matter where you are or what you’re thinking. Religious people see the real world, and react to it in realistic ways. That is not how a mental illness acts.
But just because I am going on the record saying religious people don’t have a mental illness doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that there are lots of other ways that people can fool themselves. When you look at an optical illusion it fools your process for sight. But that doesn’t mean you suffer from an eye disease. You’re actually just observing a trick that exploits the weakness or failure of your eye or image processing functions. I say this is the same as religious belief. The belief is taking advantage of normal mental processes and doing odd things with them.
Every one of us suffers from confirmation bias. If you don’t believe me, think of this. When you have decided to buy something, whatever it is, suddenly you notice that thing all over the place, even if you never noticed it before. Right? If you’re buying a make x, model y grey car, suddenly you noticed xy grey cars everywhere. Do you think that suddenly everyone decided to buy the same car on the same day? Of course not. But you suddenly notice it. You see what you’re looking for. I can’t stress this point enough- you see what you are looking for.
If you are religious, you can still be a functioning, realistic, critically thinking person. But you will find your religion all over. You think a thought out of the blue that seems reasonable, so you see your god there. You see something beautiful or wonderful, you see your god there. Something beneficial happens, you see your god there. Something bad happens, you find the silver lining and see your god there. You can’t find the silver lining, then “god works in mysterious ways” and you see your god there.
Beyond your personal experiences, your confirmation bias is working hard to add data points to your belief. If someone of another religion does something bad, you blame the religion. If someone of your religion does something bad, you blame the person or something else. If a religious person is successful, your god is great. If a religious person is not successful, you probably don’t even consider it. If an atheist uses profanity, it’s because we are godless and morally corrupt. If a religious person uses profanity, they’re just fallible humans.
I bring up confirmation bias first because I think it’s the strongest “failure” human brains have to remain religious. It is a mechanism that adds data points to our belief all day, every day. These inaccurate data points compile and grow to be a massive weight of belief. We believe things that we think we have reason to believe, and we have reason to believe if our religion is reinforced by a constant influx of confirming information. But we call it confirmation bias for a reason, and it’s because it is not an accurate representation of the whole picture.
I think a lot of religious people try their best to provide evidence or logic for their belief, as if that’s why they are religious. But they are just unconsciously adding up hundreds upon hundreds of observations that they have attributed to proof of their belief.
We also suffer from an amazing ability to remember things wrong, or draw incorrect conclusions, based on the group we are in. I mentioned this in another blog, but I’ll use this example again. A college class was seated and facing the instructor when a man walked in, grabbed the instructors purse, and ran out the door. Everyone observed it, and they were facing right toward the perpetrator. Amid the mild panic and nervous laughter in the moments before campus security and police arrived, the instructor, who was in on the experiment, said something to the effect of “I just remember how tall he was.” Of course, because it was an experiment, we know the perpetrator was actually quite short- shorter than the instructor by a decent margin, actually. Yet over 90% of the class gave their statements indicating that the man was quite tall.
Now, it’s possible that some of the students didn’t even hear the instructor drop that comment, with all the nervous commotion at the moment. In the video, many students are talking to each other as the comment is inserted. Yet that image spread in just a few minutes until nearly every student legitimately thought they had seen something that they demonstrably had not seen. Once faced with the evidence, some of the students indicated that they reported a tall person not because they noticed the height of the man, but based on what their classmates were saying. They just went along with it. But until the very moment they were confronted with the evidence to the contrary, their memory of the man had begun to form as tall. It is memory by “recommendation.”
With this very simple experiment, it is easy to see how “group think” works. So we can get college students to change the memory of their own eyewitness account. Now imagine a child being told the same thing weekly or even daily for 18 years by parents, trusted adults, and authority figures. Yes, you absolutely can change their memory, you can change their perception, you can change how they analyze problems.
All religious people understand this. They don’t think of it like group think, however. They consider themselves to be teaching children right from wrong. And while I appreciate them taking time in the lives of their children, I do not appreciate that they never spend any time wondering why they believe what they believe before they pass it along to their children. Memory by “recommendation” isn’t real, and neither is your god.
Just belonging to a group makes you more susceptible to errors of logic. Group identity isn’t another cognitive method for fooling yourself, it instead facilitates and validates confirmation bias and group think. Just like football fans, the religious fans have chosen a team and proudly sport their team colors. Unlike football fans (or maybe just like football fans in Philadelphia), their team winning is a life-or-death prospect.
People are less critical of information if it comes from within their group, whatever that group may be. If it sounds even remotely plausible, it just gets added to the already growing mass of data points garnished from group think and confirmation bias. Social media is a breeding ground for bullshit that passes for information. Take a look at this image:
Yes, that image is of actor Ewan McGregor in his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. Yes, Christians all over reposted this image and said things like “Praise Jesus” and “Amen” and “Jesus is Lord” and other such stuff. But 10 seconds of checking would have helped them not look silly. Yeah, this specific example of error didn’t cause any harm to anyone or negatively affect anything, I just think it’s funny.
But then again, there ARE memes that are filled with decidedly action-calling information that is just wrong. Social media information is wrong so often that entire websites are now devoted to fact-checking social media. And yes, I believe Donald Trump is president because of misinformation spread by the Russians. I can’t prove that, mind you, so don’t get on my case about it, but Russian misinformation was spread around by right-wing sites, that is a fact. Donald’s win in some battleground states was less than the percentage of undecided voters a few weeks before. So again, I’m not saying it is a fact, I’m saying that it is plausible based on the information we have.
I want to make sure my readers understand that religious people aren’t the only ones that suffer from confirmation bias or group think, or drop their critical thinking skills because of group identity. No, we all suffer this issue. I do. You do. We all do. But knowing is half the battle. So we have to actively take measures to reduce how we fool ourselves. This is not what religions do.
Talking to religious people can be the most maddening prospect ever, and it’s not because they are illogical or unrealistic. It’s because they have these thousands upon thousands of little data points that they’ve collected and stored away, and the weight of it is so convincing for them that any real evidence against their claim just feels wrong. Again, I’m not a psychologist, but I used to be religious. I am completely aware of the feeling that everything we see or feel our experience confirms our belief. And I didn’t become an atheist overnight. I had to go back and revisit all my experiences. I had to go back and revisit all of my conversations. I had to go back and revisit all I was taught from religious instruction. One single argument couldn’t break the weight of all those data points, they each had to be moved one at a time.
So Christians don’t suffer from a mental disease. But they do suffer from mountains of really bad information and broken logic, piled so high and deep that it can’t be sifted through in one sitting. It takes time to realize that your whole outlook on life was actually based on bullshit. But that’s okay. We’re just humans, after all.
The Spartan Atheist