Imagine the following; you believe you have an epiphany, a life changing experience. You believe you have just communicated with your beloved creator. You are transformed by this and all your previous thoughts and ideas become anathema to you. You become so convinced of these new ideas that not only do you immediately set about to act on them, but also believe that it is your divine duty to ensure others abide by them too. You set to work, radically changing how you live your day to day existence.
You believe that methods of mass communication are an inherent evil and destroy every television, radio and computer in your home. Photography is also forbidden so you destroy your camera. Other items, to go out with the scrap, include your razor. It is your god given duty to grow a beard of a minimum length, so as can be grasped in a fist and to cut your hair so it is short. You believe god has commanded to dress in a certain manner, and so you discard all of your existing clothes in favour of religious garments. You believe music is the work of the devil and set about trying to rid the world of all music with the exception of the chants of your religious devotion. All sport and games may distract you from the worship of your creator so you wish to enact legislation banning the playing of football and other sports even going so far as to seek to stop children flying kites.
Part of your new religious regime is an abhorrence of recycling and you argue for edicts to ban the manufacture and sale of paper bags, lest the pages of your holy book be accidentally used in the recycling of paper. You despise all other books, ridding them from your home, and set up a plan to rid your country of book stores. You become overly concerned about public displays of celebration and jubilation and seek to outlaw loud clapping, laughing, shouting etc.
Your harshest beliefs are reserved for the treatment of women in your society. You are sincere in the conviction that your creator has told you of the grave threat that woman pose to the sexual morals of males. This is so important that it takes centre stage in how you wish to establish a criminal justice system. All other crimes, with the possible exception of murder, blasphemy and sorcery, are of lesser importance than the maintenance of sexual honour. You perceive an ever present danger that the males of your society will succumb to this temptation and become impure. You paint the windows of your home with black paint to prevent even the remote possibility of a non-related male getting a quick glance at your wife or daughters. You remove all cosmetics from your home and seek to have them removed from your local pharmacy chain. Pictures of women are removed from your home and elsewhere. You seek to have the names of streets renamed, if they have been called after a woman. You command the women in your life never to leave home without you, and when they are outside; to wear a garment that renders them invisible from head to toe, with only a mesh to see through. You seek to ban high heels and ladies shoes that make noise when they walk, as this maybe sexually suggestive. You seek for laws to establish sexual segregation and an outright ban on girl’s education or employment.
Needless to say if you held such views in western society you would soon gain the interest of the psychiatric community, but in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, these are the set of ideas that won favour in the governance of a country of over 35 million.
It is all too easy to dismiss this regime as an inhuman abhorrence or a freak of nature. However such a view would be intellectually dishonest in the extreme. The fact is, Taliban society was no more irrational, than many human societies that existed prior to the last 4 or 5 hundred years. Even in the last century we have witnessed the demise of many societies to the worship of political or religious figures ranging from Ayotollah Khomeini to Adolf Hitler. Catastrophic failures of human reason are not unnatural, in fact quite the contrary. The scientific advancement of the last 300 years has given us a means of unnaturally manipulating ourselves and our environment in a manner that the evolution of our species through natural selection was unable to achieve. A species becomes more complex through random mutation, most of which are deleterious and result in death. However in the struggle for food, water, shelter and other life sustaining factors, a mutation that is advantageous; for example an eagle with better eyesight or a cheetah with better camouflage will be statistically more likely to outlive those who don’t share this trait. However this biological arms race grinded to a halt when Homo sapiens no longer had to compete with other species in this tough Darwinian model. The late Christopher Hitchens summed up this human predicament in usual characteristic form.
“Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.”
Superstition is not only innate to our species but is also present in other higher animals. Psychologist B.F Skinner brilliantly showed that pigeons could be conditioned into superstitious reward seeking behaviour by placing them in an operant chamber. Food was delivered by a device at random intervals. The birds attributed whatever actions they were doing immediately before the food delivery as being the causal agent and repeated the action even though the next time no such reward was achieved. The birds developed ever increasing behavioural problems such as repetitive turning, bobbing, pecking etc. The same experiment has been carried out on humans several times using a points based reward system. The bad news is, we are no less superstitious than our feathered cousins.
The reason for this is those who would try to determine correlation between an action and a subsequent outcome would be statistically more likely to live and reproduce than those who were more apathetic. Most sceptics and those with a grasp of psychology will be aware of the concepts of cognitive bias, but I will briefly outline the principle. Imagine you are an African nomad 50,000 years ago and you go to the lake to fetch water. You spot a large floating object. You form the belief that this is a crocodile and turn away from it and leave. The object turns out to be a decaying log. This is known in psychology as a type 1 error. In this case, the individual has erroneously attributed both agenticity and patternicity where they are non-existent. In the second scenario the individual goes to the lake and spots what he perceives to be a log when in fact it is a crocodile. In this case the individual has failed to detect genuine agenticity, that is an animate being which poses a direct threat. The latter is known as a type 2 error. Natural selection favours the former for obvious reasons. It is safer to erroneously detect a pattern or intent that is in fact random than to fail to detect a pattern or agent that is real. The term apophenia was coined for this phenomenon by Klaus Conrad in 1958. A variant of this is that we are also primed by evolution to have a positive bias for facial recognition. Young babies will react positively to a picture with just two dots, a vertical and horizontal line. This reaction is not elicited when one of the dots is taken away.
Studies have shown that religious people have a higher propensity to make type 1 errors than sceptics. This phenomenon increases in both religious and sceptics under stressful environments. This may partly explain why poorer nations are generally more superstitious than richer nations that have a greater perception of personal security and prosperity. Our brain is made up of an almost infinite number of non-connecting neurons (nerves). The gaps between individual neurons are called synapses. Our brain neurons work by regulation of neural sodium and potassium channels that generate an electrical signal. If the voltage is not of sufficient strength, the neuron remains inactive, but if it exceeds the threshold, it forces the nerve to release chemicals known as neurotransmitters that act as messenger signals between one nerve and the next. Two of these of importance are serotonin and dopamine. Reduced levels of serotonin in the synaptic gaps are associated with clinical depression and mood disorder. Antidepressants such as Prozac are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They work by reducing the capacity of a firing neuron to reabsorb serotonin from the synaptic gap when it becomes relaxed. The increased serotonin in the synaptic gap is attributed to the alleviation of depressive symptoms. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. It is released during orgasm and after cocaine and amphetamine use. Increased levels are found in those with psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia (however in recent times this causality has been challenged). Parkinson’s disease is associated with low levels of this neurotransmitter and is treated using agonists of dopamine such as L-dopa. A reported side effect of this medication is psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and general confusion often resembling the symptoms of schizophrenia. Dopamine maybe involved in helping us to decide the basis of causality. Studies have shown that religious people and those more prone to believing in paranormal events such as alien abduction and UFO’s show higher levels of dopamine than sceptics. Furthermore administering L-dopa increases false pattern recognition in both groups.
Four other arguments from an evolutionary psychology perspective also predispose us to superstition on a societal scale. We are predisposed to rally behind charismatic leaders. We are also more likely to believe their advice and teaching without question. A common belief identified kinship among people even if it was patently false. Such a tendency acted as a focal point to gel societies together in more primitive times. Larger organised societies offered safety in numbers and new ideas could be exchanged, greatly increasing the chance of survival. This is why democracy was such a late arrival in the history of human development. We can see the precursor of this evolutionary trait in other animal societies that operate in a hierarchy. Dogs, cattle, sheep, elephants and many others rally around a dominant male and this hierarchy helps them in the battle to outlive rival species. Secondly gullible believing children are favoured by natural selection. They do not have the requisite knowledge to enable them to make rational independent decisions. A child sceptical of his mother’s advice not to play outside because of wild animals would be at an evolutionary disadvantage to one who believed everything his parents and other adults tell them. This inherent gullibility means that irrational ideas can be passed in a non-critical way from one generation to the next in a way comparable to genetic inheritance.
The next point worth noting are peoples claims of transformative experiences. There are several reports of people claiming to have seen apparitions of deities, deceased relatives or to have received some other form of revelation. While some of these are obvious hoaxes, many undoubtedly represent genuine subjective experiences. Michael Shermer, president of the US Skeptics Society, described several induced examples of such experiences in his book” The Believing Brain”. Climbers at high altitude often experience the felt presence effect. This is where they claim to feel the presence of another person or guardian angel. He also gave an account of documented hallucinations of participants in the Iditarod sleigh dog races from Anchorage to Nome in Alaska. The itinerary took between 9-15 days to complete and hallucinations were common. Those suffering from a condition known as sleep paralysis often claim to be visited by malevolent entities or demons at night. They report the feeling of a presence that is pressing down on their chest and stopping them from breathing or the feeling of sinking into the bed. This is one of the origins of the exorcist myths that Hollywood like to portray. Those suffering from right temporal lobe epilepsy are often hyper-religious and report visions and visitations from deities.
Other people report phenomena such as out of body experiences. Dr. Henrik Ehrsson from University College London devised an experiment to replicate this genuine experience reported by many people. Dr Persinger at the Laurentian institute in Ontario was the first to electrically stimulate the brain to induce the felt presence effect using an invention he referred to as the god helmet. While his results are controversial, they do match with evidence of the role of the right temporal lobe in religious experience. Similarly so called near death experiences (NDE’s) have changed the lives of people who claimed to have experienced them. However despite the genuine nature of many of these claims, there is again a wealth of evidence to suggest that they happen locally in the brain. They have been experienced by fighter pilots undergoing high speed centrifugation training. In these cases it is a clash between real but subjective experience versus objective science. In a world that wants to believe, the former all too often wins out.
Finally the fear of death is likely to be a major factor contributing to human irrational behaviour. Gabriel Byrne presented an excellent documentary (Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality) which looked into experiments linking foresight of our eventual demise to irrational and disturbing behaviour at both personal and societal level. One of the experiments showed that court judges were more inclined to hand down harsher sentences when given subtle queues of mortality and death. Religious and cultural ritual became more pronounced and more hostility to outside groups was observed. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead provides a great insight into our innate capacity for self-deception. In their world, the deceased person literally walked into the afterlife, albeit through a perilous route to the underworld. Mummification protected the body and the heart was especially important to preserve, as it was the source of intelligence and life force. The person would navigate through caverns and be faced with fearsome mythological creatures. The recitation of spells, from high priests, was necessary to protect the individual from these gruesome creatures. If the departed successfully avoided the wrath of these beasts, they then faced the weighing of the heart ritual. This is not unlike the concept of meeting St. Peter at the gates of heaven. They were led by the god Anubis to Osiris. They then read a negative confession that they have not committed any of 42 sins from the Papyrus of Ani. Delusions of immortality are not unique to religious teaching. Many political regimes throughout history have also elevated former leaders to immortal status, most notably, Kim il Sung, of North Korea. Despite knowledge of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, where one observes a gradual erosion of both personality and memory, aligned to advancing brain plaque lesions or the effect of anaesthesia and coma on memory and perception; most people will intuitively identify the brain and mind as being somehow separate.
Our predisposition to see intent when it is not there and to see patterns in randomness, as well as our primal desire to worship charismatic leaders, and the inherent gullibility of children all predispose humans to adapting superstitious behaviour and passing it on through successive generations. This may well have provided an evolutionary benefit in our past, but with the advent of 21st century science that can determine causality in a manner that was unthinkable for our earliest ancestors; our natural yearnings are almost perfectly maladapted for humans to thrive.
One argument that regularly falls from the lips of religious when debating their position is that they are the majority. Undoubtedly this is true. While the numbers of Atheists is increasing in developed countries and is proportional to factors such as level of education and wealth, they are nonetheless in the minority. If put to a vote worldwide, the vast majority would agree with the statement that intervening agents answer prayers, preside over a celestial judicial system and that human consciousness is eternal. Furthermore these views are not only confined to those of lower educational attainment.
The 2011 Irish census put the figure for non-religious at 6%. This is undoubtedly of great comfort to religious people. A staggering 84% of the Irish population are declared Catholic. This contrasts with just under 3% for Church of Ireland. I’m of the opinion most people would agree that the vast majority of these are cultural Catholics and not necessarily religious, but undoubtedly a significant minority are religious Catholics. It is certainly true that those who do not believe in such things as intercessory prayer, divine justice, and everlasting life are greatly outnumbered. Even among religious Christians, if we were to take the census figures at face value, the vast majority of Irish people not only proclaim that a middle eastern Jew born by divine impregnation of a middle eastern woman, was killed, returned to life, left this planet and will one day return again, but in the intervening period, engages in divine celestial intervention of our thoughts and actions, but the same 84% decisively are of the opinion that they can literally eat his flesh every Sunday if they go to church. It contrasts with the almost 3% who believe everything above with the exception of the last statement. This group are somewhat sceptical of the literal eating of the flesh of a 2000 year old Israelite, but subscribe to all the other propositions.
Undoubtedly religion provides the lion’s share of irrationality within our world. It is the one source of human discussion that actively discourages the quest for evidence to validate ones belief and sees such practice as an inherent weakness, one in which we should beseech the creator for the strength to subdue. However evidence denial extends much further than the threat posed by religion. Similar dogmas apply to climate change denial, those who link vaccines to autism, those who believe in alien encounters, psychic phenomena, homeopathy, crystal energy, dowsing and a plethora of other non-evidence based beliefs. Our biological hardware, evolved over millions of years, has inadvertently given us reasoning issues. Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies really show that belief comes naturally whereas disbelief and scepticism are quite the opposite. Our brain processes non evidence based (and often ludicrous) belief in the same fashion as lifesaving evidence based facts.
Sometime our inherent superstitious tendencies can have lethal consequences. One such example is bomb detection in Iraq and Pakistan. The security forces in these countries regularly use a device known as an ADE 651 to supposedly detect bombs and explosive material. The Iraqi government are believed to have spent as much as $85 million on equipment that is not only useless but potentially extremely dangerous. The principle of dowsing has been discredited as being no more likely to find the desired material than random chance. In 2010, the British government announced a ban on the export of this product and the company director of ATSC was arrested on suspicion of fraud.
The 2009 movie “The Men Who Stare at Goats” was based on real research carried out by the CIA in 1979. Cold war America became ever more paranoid that the Soviets were developing psychic (Psi) technology. Under the auspices of a former Vietnamese POW the CIA looked into such practices as remote viewing to see if the concept was scientifically credible and if it had potential military applications. The term quantum biology was coined and a theory of quantum mind was developed. This theory held that psychic ability could be explained using the theories of quantum physics. Research was undertaken to determine if injury could be inflicted on enemy combatants by thought alone, hence the attempts to kill goats by simply staring at them. Much excitement was generated when a goat onsite did actually die, although highly unlikely due to anything of a psychic or paranormal nature. The website whatstheharm.net outlines a dossier of other superstitious endeavours and the harmful consequences that have resulted from their practice.
When we apply reason, science and critical thinking to the problems of our world, we can go a long way towards alleviating them. Science has reduced infant/child mortality from as high as 50% to well under 1% and life expectancy has been almost trebled. We have explored the surface of Mars and made global transportation available to the masses. We can access newspapers from every corner of the world in less time than it takes to walk to the local store. We can alleviate pain, undergo extensive organ transplantation, yet we are still prone to the superstitious pangs of our centuries old ancestors. We are still imprisoning witches, murdering blasphemers. Ayatollahs as well as senior US Republican Party members are declaring floods and earthquakes as being the work of gods who are vengeful at society not obeying their every edict. Health systems around the world are still promoting such bunkum as homeopathy and alternative medicine is growing at an alarming rate. Deaths and sickness from those relying on prayer and religious practices, instead of conventional medicine are still with us. The psychic industry is peddled on television and is even being used in criminal investigations. Society has a love/hate relationship with reality, we all claim to want the truth, but when evidence based fact does not grant the comfort and solace of ones non evidence based personal convictions, it can very quickly be deemed surplus to requirement. For all our monumental progress that science has granted us, we still live in an evidence challenged world.