Revealing the Reasoning of the Believer: A Review of Jason Long's Book, The Religious Condition

I really liked fellow team member Jason Long’s book, The Religious Condition: Answering and Explaining Christian Reasoning. In some ways he has done for the average person what I have done in my book for the college student, and for that I can only congratulate him. His book begins by taking a good hard look at why people believe and what believers must do in order to defend their beliefs. This encompasses the first half of the book, or 94 pages (5 chapters). The second half of his book (5 chapters) through to page 248 deals with answering a wide range of specific Christian objections, most of which came from believers who emailed him about his previous book, Biblical Nonsense.

I like his approach very much. In the second half of his book Long’s answers to Christian objections are solid and convincing for the most part (which provides many specific examples of what Long claims in the first half about how Christians reason). If you’ve read his first book you need to read this one just to see how he effectively deals with the many objections Christians have made against it. Even if you haven't read his first book this is a good read with intelligent answers.

But the first half of Long’s book intrigued me personally the most, especially since I was very familiar with the objections Christians make to our arguments. In this first half Long gives us many examples of how people come to believe strange things and how they in turn defend them, from Virgin Mary healings to UFO sightings to ghost hunters to Mormons to Muslims. Here he includes Christian beliefs as well, since people who adopt a religious faith usually do so based on when and where they were born. One of the lessons of this first part of his book is that “Human beings are unbelievably gullible and illogical creatures. The ability to think skeptically is not innate; it requires practice.” (p. 84). In this first part I believe Long made this point very effectively and it should cause all believers to question their faith, subject it to scrutiny and demand hard evidence to believe.

But what usually happens is that rather than “initiating an honest and impartial analysis” of any new evidence, believers “simply bury their heads in the sand and continue to observe whatever beliefs…their ancestors thought they needed thousands of years ago.” (p. 12). When looking at new evidence believers get into a defense mode where they seek to defend what they believe rather than trying to impartially weigh it, Long rightly charges. Impartiality might be an elusive goal, of course, but we should at least try to look at the evidence. Consider this example from Long: “If you wanted safety information on a used car, would it be wiser to trust the word of a used car salesman or the findings of a consumer report?” (p. 23). I think the answer is obvious. But Christians routinely will only trust other Christians for their information. They don’t trust outsiders. Why? If I were interested in car safety information I want an outsider’s perspective to get a different, more objective opinion. Sometimes I’ll even get a second opinion from doctors or dentists. Why is it that Christians will not read Long's book or mine for a second opinion? I challenge them to do so, even if they might eventually disagree. At least they would be honestly looking at the other side. That’s why I’ve initiated the Debunking Christianity Challenge in the first place. Start with Long’s book if you will. It’s as good of a place to start as any, especially if you are an average reader and you think you have impartially weighed the available evidence.

In this first half of his book Long clearly articulates concepts like “Cognitive Dissonance,” “Impression Management Theory,” and "Psychological Reactance Theory” and shows how believers defend their beliefs when faced with evidence to the contrary. One story he tells from the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology is about an evangelical group who believed there was going to be a nuclear attack so they went into a bomb shelter for 42 days before coming out to find no nuclear attack had happened. So what did they conclude? Not that they were wrong. No sirree Bob. “Rather than accepting the obvious conclusion that they had erred in their prediction, group members proclaimed that their beliefs had been instrumental in stopping the nuclear attack.” (p. 48).

Citing from the most authoritative books on persuasive psychology, one written by Robert B. Cialdini, titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and another one written by Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo, titled Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches, Long proffers several other examples of this kind of thinking among people who do the same thing with regard to everyday examples. Human beings truly are “unbelievably gullible and illogical creatures.” We’re more likely to buy unusual items when priced higher; we’re more likely to buy items that offer coupons even though there is no price advantage; we’re more likely to agree to absurd requests if preceded by ones of greater absurdity; we’re more likely to consider attractive people to be more intelligent; and we’re more likely to agree with the crowd we hang around because we want to fit in; and so on, and so on. (pp. 84, 88-89)

All believers must do is look at these things to realize that as humans we MUST be skeptical about what we believe! In my opinion these studies reinforce my claim that the default position is skepticism. To embrace this default position is to be an adult mature thinker with regard to what we believe. Instead of being mature, Long shows us that Christians do not seek to be skeptical about what they have been taught from their parents. They seek rather to defend what they believe. They are resistant to any contrary evidence. They seek to ignore it or look for any answer that might solve the cognitive dissonance this new evidence creates just to maintain their comfort zone, even if it is a non-answer, a glib answer, a far fetched answer.

Long tells us that we believe both because of emotional reasons and because of logical reasons and he illustrates this with two people, one who has the fear of heights and another who thinks old skyscrapers are not as safe as newer ones. (pp. 76-77). The latter person has intellectual doubt about the older skyscrapers and must be given reasons to think otherwise. But the former person who has a fear of heights has an emotional problem. He knows people go up to the top of the skyscraper and come down safely. So we cannot convince him by showing him the steel beams, or the safety ratings of that building. He must face his fears. He must get to the first floor and look around. When he’s comfortable on the first floor he must then go up to the second floor, and so on until he gets to the top. This may take a long time and he must be willing to face his fears. This, Long argues, is the plight of the believer, since he thinks there isn’t any good evidence to believe in the first place, and I agree.

Believers think we’re wrong about this but I challenge them to consider the possibility they are wrong for a moment. Consider a more objective perspective coming from two former believers who have investigated the reasons to believe and found them seriously wanting. Given the overwhelming psychological data Long presents you’ve got to at least consider this as a real possibility, and if that’s the case then Long says that to free you from your religious indoctrination “we must delve into the history of the individual’s beliefs to find the avenue from which they originate.” (p. 77) This echoes what I've said about the Outsider Test for Faith. When testing your beliefs as an outsider you need to revisit what the reasons were for adopting your faith in the first place. What were they? Most of them were clearly emotional, weren't they? Were they intellectual? If so, when looking back on these reasons do you now consider those initial reasons less than persuasive? Would those same reasons convince you to believe today or are they much too simplistic? What I argue is that you initially adopted your faith for less than good reasons but from that moment onward you see the world through colored glasses by which you now analyze and examine the evidence. YOU NEED TO TAKE THEM OFF, is what Long and I argue, as best as you can. Then do what Julia Sweeney told us she did. She put on her “No God Glasses” for just a few seconds and looked around at the world as if God did not exist. Then she put them on for a minute and then put them on for an hour, and then a day. To me this would be just like climbing up that skyscraper Long wrote about. That’s one way to face your fears.

But fears they are, Long says, especially since believers think they have a “mind-reading god” always present who monitors their every thought. (p. 74). With such a mind-reading God, believers are just too fearful of being honest with themselves about their doubt. So they refuse to truly look at the evidence to the contrary. To such people Long suggests telling God you are sincerely going to look at the evidence “to determine if the Bible is really his word. Ask forgiveness in advance if you feel you must…” This is great advice. If God really cares he should allow you to be intellectually honest with yourself.

All in all, as I said, I really liked this book and I highly recommend it. It is unusual to other comparable works because it seeks to articulate the real reasons why people believe and reveals the mental gymnastic contortions needed to defend ignorant and comfortable beliefs. This type of book just may go a long way to help Christians be honest about their delusional beliefs.

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Oh, and if you really want to test whether petitionary prayer works, and not just play games, Long offers a unique test that should surely go down in the books (something about arsenic and prayer, but I don't think any Christian should try it. pp. 86-87)

11 comments:

Jason Long said...

Thank you very much for the review John. Readers can view excerpts at www.thereligiouscondition.com

Lee Randolph said...

Hi John, Jason,
Citing from the most authoritative books on persuasive psychology, one written by Robert B. Cialdini, titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and another one written by Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo, titled Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches,
hmmmmmmm,
those books look really familiar, where have i seen them before....hmmm [tap, tap, tap, on my chinny, chin, chin, looking pensively off into space]

;-)

so Jason, maybe you are the one that bought the Petty and Cacioppo book out from under me at alibris!

I didn't realize anyone else saw the debunking value those books had!

Jason Long said...

Lee,

I owe my capacity for freethought to the persuasive psychology class I took nine years ago. Those were the two texts we used. I believe they alone can demonstrate the absurdity of religion.

jhdesiderio said...

Jason,

I can't wait to read your book. I appreciate your humility.

theWay7773 said...

I believe they alone can demonstrate the absurdity of religion.

1:34 PM, January 23, 2009

Religion is absurd but faith which is the receptivity of God in Christ's activity for me as an Ephesian 1:3-14 message of Truth the gospel of our salvation has yet to be unproven as absurd. One cannot prove or disprove except by fact faith experience see "eido" know obtained by prayer and Holy Spirit transmission Spirit to spirt in a believer. proustis verify word or Faustus verified?

theWay7773 said...

38% to 25% probably does not indicate a significant statistical difference between 5 or 6 options if I remember nonparametric statistics when I published my Pychology articles.

John W. Loftus said...

What are you talking about Way7773? I know you said you have some personal disabilites but in order to post here you must make sense.

Jason Long said...

wtf?

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Jason,
I believe they should as well. Getting the believer to commit to that is the hard part!
;-)
On! On!

Gandolf said...

"One story he tells from the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology is about an evangelical group who believed there was going to be a nuclear attack so they went into a bomb shelter for 42 days before coming out to find no nuclear attack had happened. So what did they conclude? Not that they were wrong. No sirree Bob. “Rather than accepting the obvious conclusion that they had erred in their prediction, group members proclaimed that their beliefs had been instrumental in stopping the nuclear attack.”

L.o.L !!

That story reminds me of a religious guru i was told about that was once in the area where im living now.I met one of his former followers who told me he had suggested such things as supposedly those that followed the faith would be saved picked up in some kind of space craft or something he thought .This guru had even decided on a certain rock outcrop where this pick up would likely happen .
One day he foresaw a earthquake happening and supposedly received a exact date and time it was supposed to happen.The small gathering of followers he had gathered around him over time were so sure he knew what he was talking about,on the day it was supposed to happen they closed up their businesses and all went with him to wait at this scared rock outcrop.A place they had all visited before,at times.

:) Counting down the minutes and seconds in great suspense as they all faithfully waited patiently.

Nothing came of it of course ,and they all returned back to their homes and businesses .Most said nothing about it ,i was told most felt rather stupid ! in this case.Although evidently they went about life rather gingerly for a few days ,just in case the gurus dates and time had just been a little bit wrong.

When i was told of who some of the other people were who had believe this stuff ,i was quite surprised.And it just reminded me how people can be talked into believing almost anything if the right tactics are used.

GeorgeRic said...

I challenge atheists who say we just don't have our brains in gear: 166 years ago Abbott showed that contiguous geometrical worlds explain where God is and why we can't see him. So we wrote 'Techie Worlds' for mechanical people and did the scientific thing: we looked at Christian teachings like the Trinity, like resurrection, judgment, the idea of a soul. In contiguous geometrical worlds these things are logical and understandable, even though to 'this-world-only' atheists they are ridiculous imaginings.
We see a lot of belief in devils, in miracles, in good and evil spirits. Just talk with your friendly Wiccas and Satanists. Their recognition of spirit worlds makes it more probable that our view of the world is correct. Besides, there is Pascal's wager, pointing out that Christian belief can reward while atheism surely leads to death. The labels: Thinking, Logical, Reasonable, Rational really belong to Christians more than to those proudly acclaimed agnostics. Get a copy of 'Techie Worlds' from www.amazon.com and see the reasonableness of Abbott's explanation.

GeorgeRic