One of the main things that sparked my deep interest in religion, and began my education in psychology, is how otherwise intelligent people, who use reason and logic on a daily basis can completely abandon that problem solving heuristic, to accept a religion as truth without fundamental proof. Well, I have finally concluded exactly how that happens, from a psychological perspective...
Our ability to make logical decisions based on reason and value is what sets us apart from other creatures on this planet. However, we also have an amazing memory and adaptive ability of ‘automaticity,’ which allows us to learn tasks and become faster and better at them through an automatic cognitive process. This same function also helps us to relate stories and words with instant feelings without thinking. For example, 4 x 4 = 16, Christian = good, Satan = bad. Over time, this can become detrimental to learning or accepting new definitions for certain words as we grow older and obtain further knowledge due to overrepresentation of fallacies. When we hear these words that had an initial negative impact on us, and were overrepresented in our childhood, our long-term memory retrieves an instant feeling related to that event, and we immediately shun all reason or objective thinking that could otherwise be true. This cognitive process is referred to as bias encoding (Robinson-Riegler & Robinson Riegler 2008).
An excellent demonstration of the ideology stated above, would be the feeling you get when you hear that someone is an Atheist. Despite its literal meaning, which I will delve into further in a moment, you have most likely related negative feelings to this word due to your bias encoding. Just the other day, I was talking with a friend of mine that had been attending Catholic school for many years, and is well into his forties, and still attending church to this day. I asked him what being an ‘Atheist’ meant, and his response was “It means you believe in the Devil, and not in God, and you sacrifice animals to Satan.” I was awed by his honesty, and humored at the same time, because he was serious. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud because sometimes I forget the public's opinion of me.
In fact, during one of my recent psychology classes, I publicly mentioned that I was an Atheist, and my dear professor said, “I’m just going to leave that alone – let’s move on!” I must wonder; if someone had said they were Protestant, or Baptist, would she have given the same reaction? The truth is, an Atheist is just the opposite of a theist, which believes in a spiritual world or divine creator. An Atheist rejects all super-natural existence, and prefers to live by positivism, the theory that knowledge can be acquired only through direct observation and experimentation rather than through metaphysics and theology. An Atheist is also typically referred to as a Secular Humanist, volunteering for local homeless shelters and reaching out to help humanity rather than worshipping a god. It’s really that simple, but the bias encoding of a religious society has made us believe the godless is evil, if you are not working for a god, you are therefore against that god, and if you are an Atheist, you are the Anti-Christ. The irony of it is, we are branded with ‘Satanic rituals’ when if fact, we don’t believe in any spirits or gods at all, including bad ones! Not to mention, the amount of animal and human sacrifices ordered in the Holy Bible by Yahweh, is one of the main reasons many people reject Christianity and begin to consider Atheism in the first place!
The same stigmata have been placed on words like infidel and heathen. You most likely see those words and think ‘bad guy’ and ‘bratty child’ respectively. In fact, they simply mean ‘someone who has no religious beliefs,’ and ‘someone that does not believe in the Bible.’ These are not words to describe bad people, but have become bad words to describe good people. The sad part is, due to the sociological acceptance of these new virtual meanings, words like this are not considered offensive – simply because of whom they are offending. In the public opinion, godless people are hardly considered people at all. During an interview, former President George W. Bush Sr. once said, “I don’t know that Atheists should be considered as citizens.”
So we can see that events stored in our long-term memory from childhood, being told we must go to church, and anyone who refuses to is bad, wrong, and evil, has become encoded in us to immediately and automatically have negative feelings upon hearing certain words to describe these groups of people. As a member of one of those groups, and a nationally published author on the topic of Atheism and Secular Humanism, I have set out on a mission to change the public opinion of Atheists through public education. If you disagree with Atheism, it should be the same as you disagreeing with Methodists or Mormons, not putting a fear of evil into you. So, as I continue to write on this topic, and debate with those of theistic beliefs, I often run into yet another cognitive process that is an enormous obstacle.
As I present evidence of nearly ten thousand other religions to a Christian during a debate, to point out where religion itself came from, and explain how the thought of gods originated in mankind, I constantly hit a wall of confirmatory bias. This is the cognitive process in which data that only supports the hypothesis is sought after (Robinson-Riegler, & Robinson Riegler 2008). Basically, they make up their mind of what the outcome will be, and only search for evidence that proves them right, rejecting all evidence to the contrary.
I often provide historical evidence of religions having a mirror image of languages, meaning they are basically a set of scripts and rituals performed at certain times. This is to prove that religions, like languages, can only be different, but not truer than their counterparts; no more than English can be more valid than Spanish (Eller, 2007).
Christians point to the Bible as proof of Yahweh, so I pull up a biblical scripture that says, “it is shameful for women to speak in church” (1 Timothy 2:12) and ask their opinion of that, and request them to explain the sexist remark in the holy book. Their response is always something defensive or apologetic, and that times were different then. So my next response is, if the Bible had an omniscient and omnipresent source of inspiration, it would not be limited to the times, or to the knowledge of the authors that wrote it. Again, more apologetics come from them as they attempt to seek data that only shows that their god exists, and that their book is true, instead of stepping back and questioning their actions and beliefs.
I can honestly say, as a Democrat, I listen to conservative, Republican talk radio. As an Atheist, I listen to Christian and Catholic radio, read the Holy Bible, and go to churches to learn and debate with preachers. I am truly fact-finding to determine why people believe the way they do, but I welcome all knowledge. Most people that have accepted a particular religion refuse any and all data that could potentially prove that religion to be a fallacy, and intentionally search for data that proves their hypothesis instead of reasonably questioning their actions and beliefs. But of course, that’s what their religions instruct them to do, so it’s really not surprising.
Confirmatory bias and bias encoding are the two most challenging cognitive processes I struggle to overcome in my opponents of religious debates. Furthermore, they are often caught up in the following method of problem solving. The basic principle is [“The Bible is the Word of God.” But how do we know? “The Bible tells us so.” Why should we trust the Bible? “The Bible is infallible.” What makes the Bible infallible? “The Bible is the Word of God.”] This is known as circular reasoning, and does not lead to answers, but only to more questions, followed by apologetics fueled with bias encoding.
As I present evidence contrary to any of the above circular reasoning statements, the confirmatory bias of theists has them searching for answers of validity in the very book I am asking them to validate. Simply put, you cannot convert an Atheist to Christianity by citing the very doctrine he or she rejects. Proof must come from outside sources, and be logical, reasonable, obtained through positivism, and infallible. No religious doctrine in history has been proven as absolute; therefore none of them fit that description. An Atheist is not bad, evil, sacrificial, or one to make a statement that requires evidence; but instead, one that says all religions are without logical proof; and nothing more.
Eller, D. (2007). Speaking Christian: Atheism and the Language of Religion. Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker p 33-66.
Robinson-Riegler, C., & Robinson Riegler, B., (2008). Reasoning, Judgment, and Decision Making. Cognitive Psychology: Applying the Science of the Mind. p 485-531.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version (1988). 1 Timothy 2:12.