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Christianity Belief Through the Cognitive Lens of Science by Valerie Tarico

Christianity Belief Through the Cognitive Lens of Science by Valerie Tarico

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist in Seattle Washington and the author of the book Trusting Doubt.

Not long ago she created a series of articles and videos concerning the Cognitive science of Christianity, as well as another series, which I will also post.

Believe and Be Saved is the first in this series and the full transcript is on her blog site.

Religious belief is one of the most powerful forces in our world.  Believers think that it has the power to save us all.  Increasingly, doubters fear that the opposite may be true:  a tribal mindset, unaccountable to ordinary standards of reason and evidence but armed with state of the art weapons may hasten our extinction.

Why is belief so wide-spread and powerful?

According to Dr. Tarico, "the recent explosion of knowledge in cognitive science offers a new way to look at this question, not from a moral or theological standpoint but from a practical standpoint."

In this series of videos, Dr Tarico will focus on the following questions:

  • How does the structure of human information processing pre-dispose us to religious thinking?  Given how our minds work, what kinds of religious beliefs are possible and what kinds are we immune to?
  • How do we know what we know?  What gives us a feeling of certainty?  What is the relation between reason, evidence, and our sense of knowing?
  • How do conversion experiences work?  What makes religious conversion transformative?
  • How does our social group influence or even control our religious beliefs?  How do beliefs get transmitted from one person to another?
  • Why do missionaries target children?  How does religious identity develop in childhood? How is belief in childhood different from belief acquired as an adult?
  • What makes beliefs resistant to change?  What causes people to lose belief?  When are people open to reexamining religious assumptions?

Part 2A and 2B discusses “Why God has a Human Mind” and discusses various mythologies and their similarities, as well as how humans acquire religious ideas and pass them onto others.

However, Tarico states that there is another reason for the similarities in the various mythical tales and that is these tales are carried by human minds.

Our supernatural notions are shaped by the built-in structures that let us acquire, sort, and access information efficiently, especially information about other people.

A large percentage of our mental architecture is specialized “domain specific” structures for processing information about other humans.  We homo sapiens sapiens are social information specialists; that is our specialized niche in this world.  Our survival and wellbeing depend mostly on smarts rather than teeth, claws, stealth or an innate sense of direction, and most of the information we need to survive and flourish comes from other humans.  Our greatest threats also come from our own species–people who seek to out-compete, exploit or kill us.   For this reason, our brains are optimized to process information from and about other humans.

How does all of this affect religion?

In part 3, the question is “Can We Know Anything?”  How do we know what is real?  How do we know what we know?

Many a freethinker has sparred a smart, educated fundamentalist into a corner only to have the believer utter some form of “I just know.”

Does this mean that rational argumentation about religion is useless?  The answer may be disappointing.

Part 4 is titled “The Born Again Experience”.  Dr. Tarico says, “What most Christians don’t know is that these experiences are not unique to Christianity.”

Conversion is a process that begins with social influence.  As sociologists like to say, our sense of reality is socially constructed.

I will post parts five, “5.75”, and six of this series as Dr. Tarico posts the videos.

About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
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