We find it easy to dismiss the fantastical beliefs of people in other times and places, but those that we’ve been exposed to since childhood seem not so far out. Virgin birth? Water turning into wine? A fig tree shriveling on the spot? Dead people getting up out of their graves and walking around?
All of the following beliefs are found in respected religions today. They have been long taught by religions that either are considered part of the American mainstream or are home grown, made in the U.S.A., produced here and exported. Some of these beliefs are ensconced in sacred texts. Others are simply traditional. All, at one time or another, have had the sanction of the highest church authorities, and many still do.
How many of them can you match up with a familiar religious tradition? (The answers are at the bottom.)
1. The foreskin of [a holy one] may lie safeguarded in reliquaries made of gold and crystal and inlayed with gems–or it may have ascended into the heavens all by itself. (2)
2. A race of giants once roamed the earth, the result of women and demi-gods interbreeding. (1, 6). They lived at the same time as fire breathing dragons. (1)
3. Evil spirits can take control of pigs. (1)
4. A talking donkey scolded a prophet. (1, 3)
5. A righteous man can control his wife’s access to eternal paradise. (6)
6. Brown skin is a punishment for disobeying God. (6)
7. A prophet once traveled between two cities on a miniature flying horse with the face of a woman and the tail of a peacock. (4)
8. [The Holy One] forbids a cat or dog receiving a blood transfusion and forbids blood meal being used as garden fertilizer. (7)
9. Sacred underwear protects believers from spiritual contamination and, according to some adherents, from fire and speeding bullets (6)
10. When certain rites are performed beforehand, bread turns into human flesh after it is swallowed. (2)
11. Invisible supernatural beings reveal themselves in mundane objects like oozing paint or cooking food. (2)
12. In the end times, [the Holy One’s] chosen people will be gathered together in Jackson County, Missouri. (6)
13. Believers can drink poison or get bit by snakes without being harmed. (1)
14. Sprinkling water on a newborn, if done correctly, can keep the baby from eons of suffering should he or she die prematurely. (2)
15. Waving a chicken over your head can take away your sins. (3)
16. [A holy one] climbed a mountain and could see the whole earth from the mountain peak. (1, 2)
17. Putting a dirty milk glass and a plate from a roast beef sandwich in the same dishwasher can contaminate your soul. (3)
18. There will be an afterlife in which exactly 144,000 people get to live eternally in Paradise. (8)
19. Each human being contains many alien spirits that were trapped in volcanos by hydrogen bombs. (5)
20. [A supernatural being] cares tremendously what you do with your penis. 1,2,3,4,6,7,8.
Key: 1-Evangelical or “Bible Believing” Christianity, 2-Catholic Christianity, 3-Judaism, 4-Islam, 5-Scientology, 6-Mormonism 7-Christian Science 8-Jehovah’s Witness
Each of these beliefs is remarkable in its own way. But the composite goes beyond remarkable to revealing. What it reveals is an underlying belief that is something like this:
The process that produced this world and human life is best unveiled not by the scientific method but by the musings of iron age herdsmen (1,2,3,4,7,8) or science fiction writers (5), or con artists (6) whose theories are best judged by examining only assertions that cannot be falsified.
Underlying that belief is a sort of rational swiss cheese that is going to keep cognitive scientists investigating and arguing for decades.
We humans are astoundingly susceptible to handed down nonsense. Human children are dependent on their parents for a decade or even two, which is why nature made children credulous. When parents say, eat your peas, they’re good for you, kids may argue about the eat your peas part but they don’t usually question the factual assertion about nutrition. When parents sayNoah put all of the animals into the ark, it is the rare child who asks, Why didn’t the lion eat the guinea pigs?
Even as adults, we simply can’t afford to research everything we hear and read, and so, unless something isn’t working for us, we tend to accept what we are told by trusted authority figures. We go with the flow. Religion exploits this tendency by, among other things, establishing hierarchy and by ensuring that believers are in a certain mindset when they encounter religious ideas. A friend once gave me a button that said, Don’t pray in my school and I won’t think in your church. I didn’t really want to wear a button that said “I’m an arrogant jerk,” but the reality is that even the best of churches aren’t optimized for critical thinking. Quite the opposite. The pacing, the music, the lighting—all are designed for assent and emotion, for a right brain aesthetic experience, for the dominance of what Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has called System 1 thinking, meaning intuition and gut feel rather than rational, slow, linear analysis.
Some of our ancestors were doing the best they could to understand the world around them but had a very limited set of tools at their disposal. It would appear that others were simply making stuff up. Mormonism and Scientology appear to fall in the latter camp. But when it comes to religious credulity, the difference matters surprisingly little. For example, Mormonism is more easily debunked than most other religions, both because of its recency and because it makes so many historically or scientifically wild claims, and yet it is also one of the fastest growing religions in the world proportional to its membership. Wild claims matter less than whether a religion has certain viral characteristics.