Misplaced Faith?: A theory of supernatural belief as misattribution [transcript]

Podcast with Luke Galen.

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Thomas Coleman (TC): Thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. And joining us today, for the second time, is Dr Luke Galen. Luke is a psychologist of religion and secularity at Grand Valley State University.His work focuses on pro-social behaviour, social cognition and other methodological concerns. He has a forthcoming publication, in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, that I’m hawking for him today. I’m going to let everyone know about it, because it is very interesting. Check it out – it is titled, Overlapping Mental Magesteria: Implications of Experimental Psychology for a Theory of Religious Belief as Misattribution. Dr Galen, welcome to the programme.

Luke Galen (LG) : Thanks for having me back.

TC: Yes, so when we first spoke to you, in 2015, you provided a critical analysis of the suggested links between religion, wellbeing and pro-social behaviour. We’ve invited you back today for another critical take – except this time we’d like to know more about the interplay and possible implications of psychological research for supernatural attributions and belief: a topic that is sure to arouse controversy, no matter what one says. Let’s get started. So, some say that psychological findings have no bearing on questions of supernatural agency. What do you think? What are some of the findings here? What’s the controversy? What the issue here?

LG: Yes, the past couple of years that I’ve been following this there seems to be a lot of back-and-forth about what the findings from cognitive science and religion would mean in terms of the implications for things like. . . the metaphysical implications, or ontological implications: what can we determine from identifying the mechanisms of the brain? Or how people think – whether or not that data’s accurate or not. So, obviously, one theory that’s been around for a long time is that it has no bearing either way. That is, the  “non-overlapping majesteria” theory of Stephen Jay Gould, who would suggest that findings from CSR, or from psychology or the neurosciences don’t really. . . . They can correlate with your religious or spiritual thoughts, but that doesn’t debunk them. That’s a word that’s used a lot: do the findings debunk religion? One of the points with that one is that there’s no objective criteria to determine whether there’s a reliable accuracy there. So, I think Justin Barrett uses this analogy in one of his talks about William James’ quote about your thinking during a state of fever. Like, if you have a temperature of 98 versus 103, how do you know which is. . . For all you know it could be more accurate at the high, versus the low, temperature. So in terms of putative constructs like hyper-reactive agency detection, you know:  “We know that people over-detect agency, but that doesn’t disprove that there is an agent out there,”  goes that line of thinking.

TC: Yes, that’s actually one of the topics we’ve discussed before on the Religious Studies Project. I think it was Stuart Guthrie who discussed agency detection as a theory of religious belief.

LG: And so, like other researchers, some of their work – at least a portion of it – has been interpreted as . . . like Tanya Luhrmann’s work with the prayers, the renewalist prayers who generate person-like agent conversation. She says that this can be interpreted through a naturalist model: that they’re doing that to themselves; or psychologicalised; or this can be interpreted from their subjective point of view, that they are actually communing with an external agent. So that gets us to another philosophical point. One point of view is that, simply explaining the origin or mechanisms of a belief doesn’t entail anything about the truth of the belief. And I think Justin Barrett’s analogy is: if I say that I hear a bird outside chirping, it doesn’t mean that you’ve identified the brain mechanism or the auditory pathway. It doesn’t mean that that bird is not really there. So my impetus for the paper, and my take on the field is that we have other information that goes beyond just merely the correlational, that goes beyond saying that we can identify the mechanisms. And that’s the title of my article: The Experimental Psychology of Religion. So I think another point of view that some of the people take, who are more from the theistic side, is that there is evidence that would indicate in a dispositive way, that there is external agency: that is, that you can look at effects in behaviour. Like, if I’m – in a very tangible way – if I’m speaking in tongues, or if there’s an exceptional experience, that that’s indicative of external agency. That my attributions are reliable. Commonly, people do that all the time where they might say, on one level,  “You can’t prove that God does or doesn’t exist”, but then they would point to something like a causal attribution like,  “My cancer was remitted”, or,  “I get this objective intuition that God is there”. And they use that as evidential. So that, to me, seems like not in keeping with the non-overlapping model: that if you can point to some psychological state or evidence as being evidential of God’s existence or external agency, that does put it in the realm of science. Because you can say, well is that a reliable perception? Or can we manipulate that? So my paper picks up what that debate, I thought, leaves out and that is: the experimental psychology of religion does have something to say about accuracy, reliability and validity of religious and spiritual thought.

TC: Definitely. I suppose there’s a long history of looking at attributional research in psychological sciences: why people generate the explanations they do for certain phenomenon; how they’re sometimes correct and many times not. But what are some of the previous theories or arguments that have been put forth, arguing that our cognitive faculties are tuned to pick up God, or that certain experiences may be inherently religious or pointing to a transcendent dimension? You’ve mentioned at least one in the past few minutes.

LG: Yes, well I’m not a philosopher, but I’m familiar with a theory that there’s a God Spot or God parts of the brain. Sometimes that’s pointed to in neuroscience: that if you have a God portion of the brain, or if there is a mechanism – like some of the ones we’ve already talked about, in the cognitive science of religion – that those things could be interpreted as what’s sometimes called  “the sensus divinitatis”. You know, that there’s an inborn God faculty. So the people who come from a more theistic or apologetics background would say,  “Neuroscience, or CSR, has identified that these mechanisms could be interpreted as ‘God put it there’.” Essentially, this is consistent with the notion that, “God exists and what he would do is put that in there, so we can perceive him”,  would be one way to put that. So your God faculties are. . . in the process of evolution. . . . Sometimes they would say that that’s consistent with evolution as the mechanism by which God allowed our brains to develop in a way that we would perceive him. So, sometimes you’ll hear people like Justin Barret or Kelly James Clark making that argument. That’s also based on the supposition that our thoughts about God have some reliable component. That is, they’re picking up something that’s reliable. To be fair, they would say that that’s not a perfect reliability: not everybody’s thought is accurate. But they say that that could be supported by non-intuitive processes like analytical things that your brain can use: logic, apologetics, or any reason to scaffold or support what would be more coarse-grained intuitions refined into more accurate perceptions. So, obviously, I don’t know that many people who would argue that there’s a Jesus-detector in your brain. But they would simply say that there was a God faculty that would provide the basis, and then your rational parts could then do the work and sand that down into a more correct or supported interpretation.

TC: And, I guess to be clear, this God faculty – as we’re calling it here – the components of that would probably be  “agent detection”, which you mentioned earlier, and also probably  “theory-of-mind”, closely mixed between the two. And I suppose what would help scaffold communication, sense experiences of some type of divine presence, on some counts?

LG: Yes, those would be the big building blocks I guess in the CSR, like: theory of mind, agency detection, promiscuous teleology and purpose detection. Like Deb Kelemen’s work on people being over-. . . .That those things could be the building blocks, and then your logical and rational thoughts could refine that and support that through rational processes. So that’s where I. . . .My problem with some of those theories is that they have certain implications. There are implications within the psychological work that go further than just simply correlational aspects of cognitive science of religion. That is, rather than simply inferring that humans in general have evolved a tendency . . . . I agree that that could be interpreted in a way that’s not just debunking necessarily of,  “The agents are actually out there. There are external agents”. Where I pick up, though, is suggesting that there are individual differences, not just general human tendencies. So, some people detect more agents than others. Most people are obviously familiar that some people make more God attributions than other people and that’s function of anything from: demographic factors; I think you’ve probably talked with people before about the sex difference in belief with males and females; to education levels; to even simply just your religious tradition.

TC: How is some of that going to come into play? So, I think everyone would admit, to some level, living in the United States perhaps one is more likely to be a Christian than being born in Iran, for example. So how do demographic, gender and, I guess specifically, psychological personality variables influence attributions, or someone being religious or not religious at all?

LG: Yes sure. When you dig down into those things then you start to get into some of the more fundamental aspects, like you mentioned, with cognition and personality. So there’s a whole body of work now on analytical thought: that some people are more analytical than intuitive thinkers and the analytical thinkers have fewer beliefs in religious and spiritual agents. The personality factor, we know, is things like, if you’re into the big five theories like: “openness to experience” – which is partially genetically related – influences your religious and spiritual tendencies; other things that are sort-of quasi-personality, like absorption. . . I think it’s Tellegan. Is he the guy who developed absorption?

TC: Yes.

LG: And Tanya Luhrmann talks about, in her research, too, that the people who are the best “person-like God” interactors are people who are high in absorption. Well, the thing about things like openness and absorption and intuitive cognition, is that they are . . . we have other work suggesting that they are related to over-detection. So here’s where we get into. . . . We do have objective criteria to suggest that it’s not just that atheists are somehow obtuse and somehow under-detecting – I think Justin Barrett’s phrase here is that they might have  “beer goggles” or that they might, sort-of epistemically, be stupid –  that it’s the opposite. We know from things that have actual objective targets, that people who are high in absorption, for example, or certain forms of intuitive – as opposed to analytic – cognition, they’re over-detecting. Given, for example, ambiguous stimuli they overshoot the mark in seeing person-like agents, or, in the case of high absorption in very high cases, they might be considered almost schizo-typic, in that they have thoughts that are like synaesthesia, or they’re blending ontological categories between living and non-living. Those things are not just subjective: we have objective targets to show that it’s not just that they’re inaccurate, that they’re overshooting the mark by over-mentalising, for example.

TC: And to be clear, here, we’re not saying – to pick intuitive and analytic thinking – that  “If you’re an intuitive thinker you’re a theist; if you’re an analytic thinker you’re an atheist.”

LG: Correct

TC: So theses are probably, in some cases, very small population size difference. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or that they’re not important, but. . .what does it mean? Does everyone you meet who may have a more intuitive personality, are they going to be a theist?

LG: Sure, I think the degree of the relationship is obviously not a one-to-one. I think where it gets interesting, though, is when you get beyond just that correlational work into experimental work. And that is the strongest evidence I think, on this point, is that you can alter – by things like priming or experimental interventions – you can alter people’s belief in religious and spiritual agents or anthropomorphisation, through various paradigms. And this is something that has not been well addressed in the debates about. . . just simply from the CSR model of debunking religion. We have a whole body of work in experimental psychology that has been doing this for several decades. So let’s take, for example, the research on things like cognitive dissonance theory: that people have beliefs, that when they’re especially entrenched, that threats to the belief will cause them to double down or increase in their beliefs. That can be viewed as something that is a direct manipulation: that you can make people essentially more religious by threats or, something. Like comparison of experimental conditions, where some people are in a non-threat, versus a threat condition. There’s some research that when you expose Christians to evidence questioning Christ’s resurrection, or Biblical literalism, then they become more dogmatic. That, sort of, is not. . . . That sort of evidence would indicate that beliefs are malleable, that they’re fungible. Or there’s a whole body of work in compensatory epistemic. . . things like compensatory control.

TC: So these would be some type of motivational factors, in things you’re talking about, for belief?

LG: Yes. So everybody has a need to have things like control and stability and social contact. We talked earlier  about your interest in peoples’ theory-of-mind in social contact. You could treat that as just a correlational variable: how theory-of-mind-mentalising are you? But you could also treat that as an experimental variable: what if I deprived you of social contact? Or what if I intervene to lead you. . . . For example, Epley’s work on. . . . I think there’s that Gods and Greyhounds study, where people become more anthropomorphising onto various things when they’re, socially, in a state of social deficit.

TC: I was just going to say, we know what happens when people are more lonely or deprived, They over-extend. I think that’s a finding, in terms of anthropomorphism, I think that’s a finding that was just recently replicated as well, in the literature. But. . .

LG: That fits in with a variety of theories as well, like attachment theory. People who have poor attachment relationships in childhood are more likely, later in life, to have sudden emotional religious conversion experiences. Which fits in with that deficit compensatory model. Obviously people are also familiar with things like “terror management” theory, which is also a compensatory model: when I threaten you with death anxiety it causes your need for mortality protection to increase. So this is what I mean by . . . . There’s a lot of experimental theories, that my paper talks about, where belief in God can be increased by threatening somebody’s. . . or experimental interventions to show that it’s not just simply a correlational model: that those things can be increased or decreased. You can even observe this on a. .  . there’s a lot of studies on cross-national data, where: why is it that certain areas of the world are less religious than others? That can also be viewed through a compensatory lens. Now, the weird nations of Northern Europe, why is it that they’re not as religious? You can view that as they are safe and secure, and they have less of a need to generate religious and spiritual protector agents and things like that.

TC: I know, in the Religious Studies scholarship, a common question is: what’s the difference between politics and religion? So, some people try to make a staunch distinction there and I wanted to point out that a lot of the research you’re talking about has also been done on political beliefs. And so it’s not necessarily special or unique to the domain of religion. There seem to be some general tendencies or biases – not necessarily in the negative sense, because we know many of the biases that we do have serve positive functions and other roles – but they don’t seem to be special to religion. They can also go for political beliefs and other things, right?

LG: Sure. I think Aaron Kay’s model on Compensatory Control is a good illustration of that. . . some of his work on God and Governments. When you make people feel out of control, or people who are in a state of feeling less control, they increase their faith in Government’s ability to control things. But also it’s with Gods as well, that when you make people feel less in control, that they increase their belief, specifically, in a controlling God. So, like you said, it’s not unique to religious constructs or variables, that these needs can be met through other means. We also talked about cognitive dissonance earlier: when people’s political views are threatened they double down on their political views. So all these theories can view religion as no different from a lot of other worldviews, like your social-political worldview, or your moral worldview.

TC: So I wanted to kind of stop you right three and use this as a jumping off point to go back to something we talked about earlier. And that was about a God spot in the brain. So, obviously, we’re talking about some religious worldviews being, perhaps, no different from other world views. What about parts of the brain- neuroscience? You know, it’s often argued that maybe there’s a God spot in the brain – not necessarily the God faculty, in terms of cognition, but an actual physical location, you know, in someone’s’ head: the God spot.

LG: Yes, the brain. . . . The cognitive neuroscience has been one of the ground zeros for this whole debate, on both sides. So like, when we started talking, many people have said,  “Hey look. There’s brain research on things like brain stimulation, or Persinger’s God-helmet stuff. This would indicate that all your theistic beliefs and beliefs in external agency really are just brain localisations.” And then the other side has come back and has said,  “Of course, A: there’s problems with that work – it’s not a one-on-one relationship, and B: just because you could have a neurologically mediated experience doesn’t disprove the existence of external agency.” Again, that could be one way that God communicates, by that mechanism of stimulating the God spot. So, in answer to your query, there doesn’t seem to be any one specific God spot, because different research teams working with different areas of the brain with different methodology claim to have had success. . . varying degrees of success with: the frontal lobes, the temporal lobes, the limbic system. I think one thing that seems apparent, though, is that religious cognition seems to be indistinguishable from whatever those brain areas. . . the functions that they do anyway. So, for example, the temporal lobes: yes there is some evidence there that certain religious cognitions are mediated by things like temporal lobes. So we have stimulation work all the way back to, was it Penfield, did the electronic stimulation studies? And people reported experiences or sense of meaning to temporal lobe epilepsy. There’s a whole clinical work. . .

TC: Theory-of-mind areas and such?

LG: Yes. What is it? The TPJ [Tempo-Parietal Junction] is also thought to be a big theory-of-mind, where you’re attributing mental states to other agents. So there’s a whole group that works on, like, moral research where you’re making moral cognitions by attributing states of mind to you: what could you have known, versus not have known, for a moral distinction. But then you have the people – like Newberg‘s work with the meditators – that works with the boundary areas in the parietal lobe – your sense of personal space – to correlate that with when their sense of personal ego boundary seems to fade away during meditation. That seems to be related to shutting down those areas of your physical boundaries in you parietal lobes. And I think Newberg has also done work with tongue speakers, with the frontal lobes, with glossolalia. As people are speaking in tongues the broca’s area of the brain seems to become less activated, which would correlate with their perception of not controlling their utterances. So again, it seems that there’s a variety of areas in the brain that do their job. And secondly, there are cognition ways that map right onto the religious cognition areas. So that is not really special in that regard.

TC: I guess, to the extent that one does have a God spot, they have a Luke Galen spot, they have a spot for their cat, they have a spot for their best friend. The brain mediates functioning in the world, or at the very least, the source of it. . . is true for everything.

LG: Wasn’t it that research a while back that found the Jennifer Anniston neuron, with the friends character. . .

TC: Yes.

LG: But I think, again, that I would agree to some extent that a lot of this work doesn’t necessarily have metaphysical implications. But nowadays we have the ability to do stronger designs where we can actually manipulate brain activity – so I’m talking about trans-cranial magnetic stimulation or direct current stimulation – where that does have, I think, a little bit stronger implications as to what we spoke of before about whether these things can be thought of as being reliable or not. So to me some of the most fascinating work is: what if you could alter functioning in the brain in a way that the person does not subjectively perceive as being intrusive? So things like altering peoples movements by activation of their pre-motor cortex, to induce the sense of intention to move. Now, you would think that somebody would have the perception, like,  “I’m in the lab, where I have this strange apparatus about me, therefore anything that I do now I was driven by. . . I’m just a puppet, that it’s not me that’s doing that.” But, interestingly enough, many people confabulate a mental state: “I meant to do that.” Or: “It was my choice.” They don’t even perceive which things are being manipulated – what we know to be manipulated – versus things that they themselves are intending to do. And so, I think, this gets at more of a deeper notion of people’s inability to distinguish the actual origins of their intentions and thoughts and actions: that people often confabulate and mis-attribute and say,  “I meant to do that,” when in actuality it was a function just of external conditions.

TC: I definitely think humans are, without a doubt, explanation machines. Whether one is going to church or the science lab, we’re searching for explanations for things and will do so in ways that sometimes make sense and sometimes. . . we just made it all up and it comes true anyway!

LG: Yes, so when somebody. . . .Where this has religious implications, if somebody’s going to argue that my. . . . The basis for thinking that something is religious and spiritually accurate or reliable is: that was the person’s state of mind. That is, they would say: “I’m not doing this to myself. It seemed external to me.” That is not reliable. It is not indicative of actual external agency, just because you think is. I think it was Daniel Wegner had a very important book a while back, called The Illusion of  Conscious Will, which showed that it’s very easy – or even commonplace – for people to have the illusion that they are in the will driver’s seat, that they initiate actions. When, in fact, it’s done though things like priming or social context, or conformity, and in ways that the person doesn’t even notice. And that also fits into dual processing theory, from Daniel Kahneman’s work, Thinking, Fast and Slow, when you’re Type 1 intuitive thought and Type 2 analytical thought. It’s not the case that analytical thinking corrects your Type 1 all the time. Sometimes it abets it, or justifies it. So, if your argument in the case of the religion and spiritual debate is:  “My analytical thought can correct those errors in intuitive thinking”, that’s not always the case. In many cases you rationalise, or come up with an explanation that’s confabulated of an intuitive thought.

TC: I’m kind of rounding this interview out here. I wanted to end with an interesting question here. Maybe provoke some thought. So, some scholars talk about a dialogue between religious explanations and scientific explanations. What are the implications for this dialogue, if it is accepted that scientific explanations may have more bearing on religious phenomena than many presume?

LG: Yes they have. . . there’s a lot of talk of this dialogue. In fact at the university where I work, every year, they have a conference called The Grand Dialogue, where people get together and talk about science of religion. And it implies that they go back and forth and consider things like science and religions, or like when we started talking, that there’s complementary domains- that the science complements the religion by providing this explanation. My problem with that is that, in science, dialogue cannot. . .there are many things that aren’t perpetually open-ended. Meaning that sometimes   . . . the scientific method is calling out hypotheses that have less support, you know, and sometimes . . . . This is called the abductive model: you argue to the best explanation. In many ways, yes, it might be impossible to rule out certain God concepts, if your God concept is very deistic or yes, there’s a God, but he doesn’t do much, he doesn’t intervene. Sure. Science can’t really address that. You can’t rule out a negative. But, if you’re making very specific hypotheses that God does this and God does that, then I think that puts it squarely in the domain of a testable hypothesis. So, for example, if you’re saying that people’s mental – like we were saying in the cognitive science of religion – if you were interpreting that as saying,  “Oh, look. This mechanism is here because God put it there through evolution. It’s a God spot, it’s a sensus divinitatis,” Well, that’s testable hypothesis. And, as we’ve been discussing, I think a lot of those tests have turned out that those thoughts are not reliable, or at the very least, that people cannot tell the difference between a subjective perception that is something that’s generated experimentally, even, and a spontaneous intuition. So, if you’re asking, does science have implications for some aspects of religious belief? I think that, in many ways, it does provide contrary evidence to certain hypotheses that have been made about them.

TC: Fascinating stuff. And I’m sure this podcast will stir some good debate and discussion. I’m also sure that our listeners will look forward to the published feature responses that are coming later this week. And I was hoping before we go. . .Do you have a webpage where listeners could go and find out more about your work. Somewhere you could point them?

LG: I just have my Grand Valley State University, Psychology Department faculty webpage. I don’t have anything fancy. I just put all my publications citations up there. So I guess that’s the best that I can do for now.

TC: Perfect, perfect, and we’ll be sure to include a link there. So, Dr Galen, thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

LG: OK. Thanks for having me.

Citation: Luke Galen 2017. Misplaced Faith: A Theory of Supernatural Belief as Misattribution”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 April 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/misplaced-faith-a-theory-of-supernatural-belief-as-misattribution/

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