I have always loved the argument that it must be ‘purely coincidental’ that most kids are of the same religion as their parents…OK, no coincidence at all. lol. The article by Scott Bakker points to research that seems to outline that your religion, beliefs etc… stem from who gets to you first to make sense of the topic at hand
Science, the cruel stranger
The secularist left was caught flatfooted in 2000, when George W. Bush’s election demonstrated, in quite dramatic fashion, that the political organization of the Christian evangelical movement was paying real dividends in American politics. Ever since, there has been a rush to the cultural barricades. Figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens may garner all the headlines, but the real work, I would hazard, is being done in postsecondary classrooms around the world, where it has become almost obligatory to make religious fundamentalists the butt of sarcastic asides
Even though this cultural tug of war is undoubtedly an important one, for many people, especially those involved or interested in the growing field of cognitive neuroscience, there is something decidedly old-fashioned about the whole affair.
Belief has itself been the object of scientific study for several decades now. During this time, a veritable mountain of evidence has been amassed, most of it supporting what the ancient Greek skeptics argued thousands of years ago: Human beings are theoretical invalids.
The research suggests that what we believe typically depends on who gets to us first and how the issue is framed, which is why Christians typically come from Christian households, Muslims from Muslim households, and so on. Once we commit to this or that belief, our myriad biases and the complexity of the world assure that we can always convince ourselves of our rectitude. Not only do we game ambiguities, cherry-pick evidence and make inferences where none exist, we even rewrite our memories to bolster our cherished convictions. Our feeling of certainty, that sense of lucid, “but-it-has-to-be!” clarity you get when you think about God or economic justice or what have you, typically has little or no connection to the cogency, let alone the truth of the claims that trigger it.
Nevertheless, everyone but everyone thinks they have won what I like to call the Magical Belief Lottery. We all assume that we have somehow, by dint of disposition or education or revelation, lucked into the winning combination of beliefs. This is as true of university professors and their classes as it is of evangelical ministers and their congregations.
I urge anyone who feels offended or incredulous to check out the research themselves. A number of popular titles on the subject have been released in recent years, such as Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of its Own.
But the answer, if you think about it, is as obvious as the evening news. Human societies are arguably the most complicated systems in the universe, and yet everywhere you look, you find people taking sides, usually according to self interest. Rather than approach problems with an open, experimental attitude, everyone seems convinced that they know the solution to this or that intractable problem in advance. Ideology and partisanship are the rule, and all too often, competing parties resort to violence to press home their case.
What distinguishes scientists isn’t so much the practitioners themselves (scientists are as biased and error-prone as the rest of us) as the way they are arranged. Science is an institution that generally sets the self-serving biases of its members against one another, using time-tested procedures to decide who is right and who is wrong. Like democracy, it can be seen as an institutional prosthesis for our shortcomings. This, apparently, is why human society advanced at a snail’s pace before the advent of science, and so explosively afterward.
Science is also the cruel stranger, the one claim-making institution that reliably produces ugly claims. We thought we were the centre of the universe, then science showed us we were mind-numbingly peripheral. We thought we were crafted in the image of God, then science showed us we were just one organism among many.
And this is what makes the present science-religion debates seem so old-fashioned: They are literally several “uglies” behind the times. Evolution? Please. Believe it or not, the burning question now isn’t whether God exists, but whether we exist – at least in any way that conforms to our traditional and intuitive assumptions. Just as physics showed us that solids are primarily empty space, cognitive science seems to be showing us that selfhood is a kind of user illusion.
Scoff, if you wish. Most people do, for all the reasons I alluded to above. After all, what could more certain (or cherished!) than your tough-minded, critical and enlightened self? The research will continue regardless, and institutions will scour the results looking for competitive advantages. Watch an episode of Intervention recently? Chances are the commercials you see have been placed because a company called Neurofocus has proven that the show’s extreme emotional content makes it easier for advertisers to bypass your brain’s rational decision-making centres.
Scoff, and keep your fingers crossed. Cruel strangers are cruel precisely because they don’t give a damn what you think.