We, as atheists, often wonder why theists cling so tightly to their religious beliefs, especially when, in today’s world, there really is no excuse for not knowing any better. Let’s be honest, we can find out information almost instantly with just a few keystrokes and an Internet connection, the failure of religion, all religion, is well documented online and the fact that there is no evidence for the existence of any gods is blatantly plain.
So we ask ourselves, given all of these facts, why do so many people still believe in this primitive nonsense? Is it fear? Is it delusion? Is it stubbornness? In many cases, all of those may be the case, but as we’re finding now, it might be something else entirely. It might be a mental problem.
Lee Ross, Craig Anderson and their colleagues wondered why people often cling to beliefs that they later find out are wrong. To do this, they planted ideas in the minds of test subjects and then set out to discredit those ideas. They found that it was amazingly hard to get some people who come to believe a particular thing, even when they are told, flat-out, that the thing is wrong.
Their experiments first produced a belief which seemed reasonable as it was presented, but ultimately was wholly false. These beliefs were supported either by supposed expert testimony or by the production of some seemingly valid anecdotal evidence. Then study participants were asked to explain why they thought the idea was true, to come up with some rationale which convinced them that these were actual facts. Then researchers told them that everything they had just worked so hard to justify was, in fact, completely wrong. Even after it was revealed to the subjects that the belief was completely false and invented out of whole cloth for the experiment, approximately 75% of participants continued to accept the belief as true, even if the subjects acknowledged that it was made up. This is called “belief preservation”, a mental condition under which beliefs can take on a life of their own and persist even when the person holding them has no reason whatsoever to think they are true and every reason to think they are false.
“[B]eliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the total destruction of their original evidential bases.” —Lee Ross and Craig Anderson, (1982), “Shortcomings in the attribution process: On the origins and maintenance of erroneous social assessments”, in Kahneman, Daniel; Slovic, Paul; Tversky, Amos, Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, Cambridge University Press, pp. 129–152
Another thing researchers learned was that people tend to react most strongly to information received earliest. This goes both for things they learned early in life as well as thing learned early in a sequence. If you describe a person as “smart, beautiful, wise, stupid, ugly and ignorant”, most people will still regard the person you are talking about positively, even though the description includes both positive and negative traits. If you reverse the list and use the negative traits first, the person will be regarded negatively. It is difficult, even when this trick is revealed, to change a test subject’s mind on the individual under evaluation, there will always be a bias to the positive or negative even if the whole process was invented.
I would wager that a lot of theists likely have this problem, where early childhood indoctrination and a positive outlook on religious beliefs have programmed them for a lifetime to accept these ideas unconditionally. As much as we still don’t understand how or why this works, it certainly does explain a lot of things, particularly the origins and persistence of religion. It also explains why religion tries so hard to get it’s claws into kids at a young age. The Jesuits have a saying, which has been largely borrowed by other religious groups, that says: “Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man.” Unfortunately, this is true. Pile your mind-poison into a child early enough and most will have a hard time ever digging their way out of it.
I also find it interesting when I look at the numbers. They say there’s a 75%/25% split between people who have a hard time rejecting false claims they already believe and those who do not. That’s really close to the 80%/20% religious/non-religious split we currently have in the United States. I don’t think it’s that much of a coincidence.
So the next time a theist gets mad because you say they have something wrong with them, you can respond with evidence. They probably do! Now, we need to figure out how to fix this cognitive error in their brains so they can join reality like the rest of us unafflicted folk.