How can believers and unbelievers disagree so strongly?
We all experience the same world, we have the same information from science and history. If it was anything else but religious belief, you might expect opinions to be a little less polarised. But highly educated people like Richard Dawkins and William Lane Craig disagree profoundly even though they are both responding to the same information. Atheists and christians on the internet can be just as polarised.
No doubt personal experience plays an important part, but I wonder whether new understandings of the human brain provide another part of the explanation.
The human body is remarkably resilient. If we accidently cut ourselves, the cut heals quickly. But it was long believed that our brains were the exception – damage was thought to be irreparable. But neuroscience has now found this is far from the truth.
As we learn and grow in the early stages of life, the brain is very ‘plastic’ – it is constantly setting up new pathways and connections to best respond to the inputs it is receiving. But even as adults and into old age, it remains plastic (to a degree).
If part of our brain is damaged, another part can often take up the load. If a part of our body is damaged and the part of the brain that controls it is no longer needed, it can be redirected to other tasks. If we start to learn new skills or focus on some aspect of life or knowledge, our brain can adjust, forming new linkages, pathways and maps to improve our abilities or recover lost abilities.
These are not just improvements in the way we use our brain, but actual physical changes – increases in the number of neurons and changes to the ways they are connected.
We can change our brain structure
Sometimes these changes happen quite naturally, but sometimes they require disciplined training. With training, we can improve our abilities, brain functioning, memory and even intelligence – recover lost abilities, slow the onset of aging, repair damaged areas, recover from strokes, and reduce the effects of depression or cerebral palsy.
And we can also improve normal brain functioning, if we know how.
You can sculpt your brain just as you’d sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson
It happens all the time
The interesting and perhaps scary thing is that we are changing our brain structure and functioning all the time, for good or ill, depending on what we give our attention to.
Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly.
neuroplasticity …. renders our brains not only more resourceful but also more vulnerable to outside influences …. some of our most stubborn habits and disorders are products of our plasticity
Psychiatrist Norman Doidge
This even affects our thinking about God
Studies show that religious practices such as prayer and meditation improve both mental and physical health because they change the way our brains function. And what we focus on affects our thinking even about God:
The more you focus on something — whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain.
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg
Opposing beliefs about God?
I can’t help feeling this helps explain the strengths of opposing views about God.
Not only …..
Sceptics commonly criticise christians for holding onto belief in God with faith that is stronger than the evidence. And these neuroscience conclusions suggest this is probably the case.
Christians choose to believe for a wide range of reasons, and sceptics may legitimately critique these reasons (though they often seem to misunderstand them). The christians’ choices will naturally lead to them focusing on God in new and positive ways. God will generally become more central in their thoughts, they will gradually (sometimes rapidly) change aspects of their life and thinking to conform to their new belief, and they will gain the mental and physical health advantages of belief and prayer.
All this occurs regardless of whether christian belief is true or not. If their belief is true, as christians believe, neuroplasticity will be working in their favour. And even if christian belief is mistaken, at least the health benefits will be real.
And so christian belief and commitment is strengthened and they will (generally) find it increasingly difficult to see the logic of scepticism.
…. but also
But of course similar things can be said about sceptics.
Sceptics choose not to believe for a wide range of reasons, and christians may legitimately critique these reasons (though they may often misunderstand them). The sceptics’ choices will often lead to them focusing on reasons for disbelief, and their focus on God will be negative. They will gradually (sometimes rapidly) change aspects of their life and thinking to conform to their new disbelief, but they will have to deal with the mental and physical health disadvantages of disbelief.
Additional note: Several commenters have misunderstood this statement, so I want to clarify it. The positive effects of belief on wellbeing, and hence the relatively less positive outcomes for non-believers, is a trend, not an absolute. It isn’t the same for all believers and all non-believers, but rather there is a correlation and apparently a measure of causation.
All this occurs regardless of whether their disbelief is true or not. If their disbelief is true, as sceptics believe, neuroplasticity will be working to strengthen that disbelief. And even if their disbelief is true, the less positive health effects will be real.
And so their commitment to disbelief is strengthened and they will (generally) find it increasingly difficult to see any logic in belief. Though they may aspire to be rational and evidence-based, they will find this increasingly difficult, because neuroplasticity is changing their brains too.
A slightly depressing conclusion?
Do you find this pair of conclusions slightly depressing?
I do. But it does help explain why relations between believers and unbelievers are often so polarised, with each side confident of their viewpoint and so uncomprehending of the other. It explains why some christians accuse sceptics of dishonesty and worse, and why some sceptics resort to epithets like ‘delusional’ and having ‘blind faith’ to describe believers. And the more each side repeats these claims, the stronger will become the neural pathways that make this thinking seem right and inevitable.
Is there a better way?
There are clearly ways to improve our brain functioning. And I believe there are better ways for both believers and unbelievers to deal with the closing and hardening of our minds.
That will be next post.
- Are our brains like computers?
- The brain that changes itself. Norman Doidge
- Neuroscientist Andy Newberg on belief and the brain