Consider the following two statements of "belief":
Devon believes that humans evolved from earlier primates over 100,000 years ago.
Devon believes that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago.
These claims are clearly at odds. Since they can't both be true, Devon holds contradictory beliefs. Right?
A new paper by philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen offers a third possibility: That factual belief isn't the same as religious belief. Even though we use the same word, our attitudes toward the respective propositions — that humans evolved thousands and thousands of years ago, that humans were created quite recently — could differ considerably.
To get your intuitions going, consider some ways in which you might entertain a proposition — say, that humans were created. You could imagine that humans were created. You could hypothesize that humans were created. You could assume for the sake of argument that humans were created ... and so on. Each of these "attitudes" toward a proposition is distinct, and Van Leeuwen aims to show that factual and religious beliefs are similarly distinct. If he's right, then our initial "contradiction" may be no more mysterious than the following:
Devon believes that humans evolved from earlier primates over 100,000 years ago.
Devon imagines that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago.
Behind the common word "belief" is something like this:
Devon (factually) believes that humans evolved from earlier primates over 100,000 years ago.
Devon (religiously) believes that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago.
But why suspect two meanings when we use a single word?
First, argues Van Leeuwen, factual beliefs seem to influence the way we act and think in pretty much all contexts, whereas religious beliefs have a more circumscribed scope. Even when engaged in pretend play, for example, children know that they shouldn't really bite the Play-Doh "cookie"; the factual belief that Play-Doh isn't food infiltrates imaginative play. And even when imagining an improbable scenario, like having a pet cat on Pluto, factual beliefs will typically guide the inferences one draws — for instance, that the Plutonian cat needs food to survive. These findings suggest that factual beliefs have a wide-ranging influence on cognition and behavior.
Not so when it comes to religious beliefs. One study, for example, found that members of the Vezo tribe in Madagascar endorsed some aspects of life after death in a ritual context but not in a naturalistic context. Another study found that even people who explicitly endorsed an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God didn't think about God in these terms (for instance, as capable of being in more than one place at once) when engaged in imaginative storytelling. These findings suggest that religious beliefs govern how we think and act in appropriately "religious" contexts but not necessarily beyond.
A second reason to differentiate factual and religious belief comes from how these beliefs respond (or don't respond!) to evidence. Van Leeuwen provides a nice example: At the end of the last century, many people (factually) believed there was a "Y2K problem." Due to the way dates were handled by digital computers, people worried that computer systems would go wonky on and after Jan. 1, 2000. However, nothing much happened and, in the face of this evidence, people stopped believing there was a serious Y2K problem.
Now consider a superficially similar religious belief: A doomsday cult's prediction that the world will end on some particular date. Many such dates have come and gone, without an ensuing rejection of the beliefs that generated the prediction. These doomsday beliefs were held religiously, not factually; they were — as a result — relatively immune to evidence.
In these respects (and others that Van Leeuwen describes), religious beliefs are more like fictional imaginings than like factual beliefs. We can imagine that the Play-Doh is a cookie without having this imagining infiltrate our thoughts and actions in all contexts — and we can imagine that the Play-Doh is a cookie in the face of evidence to the contrary.
Like fiction or imaginative play, religious beliefs may persist alongside factual beliefs precisely because they operate within restricted contexts and aren't firmly tethered to evidence. An important difference, however, is in the contexts that fictions and religion typically govern.
When it comes to fiction and imagination, we're often (though not always) in the realm of the playful: fictional cookies, imaginary friends and tales of adventure. When it comes to religion, our concerns are often more existential. Van Leeuwen quotes anthropologist Scott Atran for this succinct characterization of the contexts in which religious belief might hold sway: "emotionally compelling problems of human existence, such as birth, aging, death, unforeseen calamities, and love."
Although this view aligns religious beliefs with especially significant contexts — namely those of deep, existential concern — it doesn't paint the most flattering portrait of religious believers. "How can something so serious as religion," asks Van Leeuwen, "be rooted in the same capacity that yields something as frivolous as fiction?"
His answer, of course, is that fiction needn't be frivolous: "Humans, in fact, take many fictions incredibly seriously." Still, it doesn't follow that it's rational to entertain any religious beliefs, even if human psychology provides a suite of mechanisms for doing so.
One reason I was interested in Van Leeuwen's paper is precisely because it can help us make sense of how people hold seemingly contradictory factual and religious beliefs — a very real phenomenon that's been of interest to psychologists. I was curious whether accommodating this feature of human cognition was part of what motivated his framework. So I decided to ask, and Van Leeuwen was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.
The origins of this work, it turns out, go back to his dissertation at Stanford University, which forced him to confront a problem posed by David Hume: What is it that differentiates believing that something is real from entertaining it as a fiction? Van Leeuwen developed an approach to this question that led him to the tricky case of religious belief — he realized that his approach could work here as well, as long as he put religious "beliefs" closer to fictions and imaginings than to ordinary beliefs.
Is this philosophical hairsplitting? Van Leeuwen doesn't think so — he sees a real danger in conflating religious and factual belief: "If we conflate religious credence and factual belief — as so many are inclined to do — we'll simply miss an extremely important feature of religious psychology."
He also doesn't think that religious belief is simply a matter of faith, though his general framework could perhaps be extended to accommodate both faith and the attitude of provisional acceptance that scientists adopt toward even well-established scientific claims.
Van Leeuwen's analysis of different kinds of beliefs has clear implications for philosophy and psychology, but I ended our interview with a harder question. What, if anything, are the lessons for those beyond the hallowed halls of academe?
"I think there are two main messages. The first is an encouragement in the direction of self-knowledge. What psychological state is actually going on in your mind when you say (for example) 'I believe in God, the Father almighty ... '? If it's credence as opposed to factual belief, as I think and as the word 'creed' suggests, then perhaps you have no business pushing it on someone else as if it were a factual belief — no matter how much it may do for you personally. So I think that self-knowledge can yield a certain amount of humility and restraint. This paper, I hope, can facilitate self-knowledge."
"Second, I think another important message is that people with different religions from your own (if you have a religion) may not be as crazy as you think. Having a credence that (say) the ancestors are alive and watching is very different from having a factual belief that the ancestors are alive and watching. It could be that the former isn't crazy, even if the latter would be. So I think that grasping this psychological distinction could foster a healthier level of understanding and curiosity toward others."
I believe he's on to something. But I'll let the evidence decide.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo.