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Goodbye Jesus

For Those Interested In The Psychology That Drives Theism, A Great Presentation

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Guest Xtech

Psychologist Andy Thompson has written a book on the subject (which I intend to read and will review here when I do)



Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith



But for now, here is a very interesting talk he gave, available on Youtube:


These are notes on the talk, in part mine and in part from the site credited below



...An organism is an integrated collection of problem solving devices –adaptations- that were shaped by natural construction. This also applies to our brains, and Thomson shows that much of what it does is automatic, unconscious.


...religious ideas are just an extraordinary use of everyday cognitions, such as social cognitions, agency detection and precautionary reasoning.


Religious ideas are the by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed originally for other purposes. There are other such by-products, such as reading and writing. We do not have reading/writing modules in our brain. They are a by-product of fine motor skills, vision, and language. Music is another example.


What are some of the cognitive mechanisms?

Decoupled cognition – our ability/tendency, for example, to think of something that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future... Communicating to a God or Gods, is just one step further.


Hyperactive agency detection (HADD) – All of us will mistake a shadow for a burglar. We will never mistake a burglar for a shadow....our minds fill in the missing lines through intuitive reasoning.



It is very easy for us to imagine intentional agents that are separate from ourselves.

Children will spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention. The mechanisms that we are born with make us very vulnerable to religious ideas. Religion is the path of least resistance. It is cognitively harder and it requires more effort to understand concepts such as natural selection.


The attachment mechanism

This is the fundamental care taking system in mammals. This is what happens in religion: when someone is in distress, he or she turns to a caretaker, an attachment figure.

The attachment system is not only crucial for belief, it is also what makes it so hard to give up belief


Theory of mind

All of us know that other people have a mind with intentions, wishes and desires that may be different from our own, and that we have to ‘read’. These capacities come online when we are about three to four years old.


Dead bodies

There is a conflict between our theory of mind modules and natural cognitive modules. This is illustrated when we see the dead body of a loved one. While we know that the person is quite dead, our mind does not accept it, and keeps talking to the dead person. It is also what incites us to prepare our own funerals. From there to the idea of a soul and a life after death, is a very small step.



This is a concept discovered by Freud, the fact that we base current relationships on previous ones. This is also hijacked by religion, especially parental transferences.


Childhood credulity

A concept strongly advocated by Richard Dawkins. Natural selection designed our brains to soak up the culture around them. A child cannot tell the difference between good advice, such as ‘don’t swim with alligators’ and bad advice, such as ‘sacrifice a pig for the new harvest’.


Deference to authority

All of us are far more deferential to authority than we like to believe. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments showed that we will, under pressure of some authority, do things that we know on some other level we should not do.


Reciprocal altruism

All of us keep in our heads an account of what we owe to some people, and what we are owed. Religions utilise this: make a sacrifice, receive something in return.


Romantic love

We have circuits in our brain for romantic love. This is also used in religion; think of the syrupy jesus love songs that can be fund on any Contemporary Christian radio station.


Moral feelings system

All of us have inferential moral systems that come online as early as age 1. It is very hard for us to know the origins of this, and this is what religions hijack by claiming it comes from them. They recruit these systems to lend plausibility to gods, to link commitment and solidarity mechanisms, and to add a morally competent witness to our actions.


Andy Thomson thinks that this is a useful way to think about the difference between genuine morality and religious morality: Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what we are told.

Religious dogma is doing what we are told, no matter what is right.


Altruistic punishment

We are willing to punish social cheats at a cost to ourselves. It is crucial to social interaction. Suicide terrorism is just one step further.



The phenomenon of mirror neurons. When Thomson lifts his right hand, some circuits in his brain light up. We look at him, lifting his right hand, and the same neurons are lighting up in our brains, except that we inhibit the response. Christ nailed to a cross; causes us distress and that religions hijack this empathy to induce feelings of guilt and obligation.


Hard to fake, costly honest signals of commitment

We are shown a few examples of this. All religions utilize this. Suicide terrorism is also a hard to fake signal of commitment. This is also connected to religious rituals.


Religious rituals

Religious rituals tap into our threat response system. They are compelling and rigidly scripted, and have usually to do with cleansing and order. Religious rituals enable and elicit scrutiny of hard to fake signals of commitment. They communicate intentions, and they are used to inculcate doctrines and to forge alliances. Rituals are also used to create hope and solace, to excite and entertain.

Rituals also define sacred spaces. Religions exploit this by creating attention arresting and often intimidating spectacles.



There is also motivated reasoning (we doubt what we don’t like), confirmation bias (we notice data that fits our beliefs), and mere familiarity.


Kin psychology

All of us have mechanisms to identify and favour kin, and religions use them. Just look at the Catholic Church: priests are brothers, nuns are sisters, and the pope is the Holy Father.


There are many cognitive mechanisms that come together to create religious beliefs and ideas and that make us vulnerable to believing them and passing them on.


Read more: http://digitaljournal.com/article/271772#ixzz1qKBd5UwN

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