Why do normal people believe ridiculous things?

Why, indeed, do normal people believe ridiculous things? We have heard much from John Loftus about the OTF – the Outsider Test for Faith – which essentially illustrates that religion is a (geographical) accident of birth. It claims that if believers used the same critical powers they use to assess, and dismiss, other religions and their claims, then they are obliged to turn those critical faculties on their own. If they did, John would claim, then they would surely end up dismissing the claims of their own religion (this is a simplistic view of the OTF, no doubt).

What is interesting to me here is not so much the fact that people do special plead their own religion in this way (though that is incredibly interesting and important in itself), but how this comes about. I will put forward a theory which is fairly well accepted anecdotally, and see what you think. I will use an example which I experienced the other night which should show the theory with clarity.

So the other night, at an informal philosophy group meeting, one new member of our group professed to being a Christian (of sorts). She believed, it turned out, in the biblical accounts of Noah’s Ark. Before I continue, I am going to look at Noah’s Flood critically in order to show that it can easily be dismissed with the sort of fairly average critical abilities we use every day to assess and delineate the ridiculous from the plausible:

1)  Omni-God did it because we were a sinful world. We still are; therefore, it didn't work.
2)  The account is a reworking of Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh, written some 1000 years before the Bible. Some verses are verbatim, or close to.
3) If the deluge destroyed all, why do we have the writings and journals of people before, during and after the deluge?
4) There is internal contradiction from the spliced accounts – 2 of each or 7?
5)  8 people looking after the world’s biggest zoo is ridiculous.
6) The ark is physically bigger than a wooden vessel can be made, apparently by 50%.
7) Clearly the gathering of all the animals is impossible - micro-organisisms, polar bears, penguins, condors, glow-worms (how did they get there?)
8)   Ark's reported dimensions would have to be considerably larger to fit the animals.
9)  Population of 8 could not rebound in the fashion claimed. Simply not possible.
10)  Rainfall would have to be 6 inches per minute. Again, not possible. A category 5 hurricane gives 6 inches per hour which is impossible to sustain over 40 days.
11)  The weight of the water would have disastrous consequences on the earth's crust, emitting noxious gases and eruptions, leading to potentially, a boiling sea! In all probability, it would have imploded in some way.
12)  There is no geological evidence for any of this.
13)  There are reefs that have been undisturbed in the world for 100,000 years. These would have been crushed and destroyed. They were not.
14) Lots more evidence of fossil, radiometrics and isotopes etc. mean that the flood clearly never happened.
15)  How the hell did Noah actually get all the animals on the ark without them trying to eat each other / the family etc?
16)  Asexual animals and hermaphrodites not accounted for
17)  Ventilation / food / faeces problems on ark
18)  Carnivores?
19)  DNA pool? no trace of this through DNA analysis (ie we know we came from Africa)
20)  All sea fish would have died from influx of fresh water.
21) All plants that do not rely on the seeds of Noah to survive would die. There are many plants that reproduce in many ways other than seeds.
22)  Explaining it away as a local flood is contradictory to genesis, and would also not kill all the humans who were so evil. Liquids find their own level, and so a local flood of that magnitude and description is physically impossible.

I could go on (I have a list about the flood as long as my arm) – you get the idea.

So we have a situation where at least some, possibly many, Christians believe the flood myth to be factually true. Why is this? Why and how do they fall short of fulfilling the OTF? The arguments here are hardly incredibly in depth or out-of reach to the average individual. Getting all of the animals of the world to the ark is enough to dismiss it.

There are two reasons for this:

1)      they do not question such claims
2)    they do question the claims, but settle for siding with the more embedded, less consequential claim for their worldview, due to cognitive dissonance.

Both of these phenomena are as a result of childhood education, of cultural memories as I will show.

As anyone who works in education can tell you, children are gullible. I have stood in front of thirty 10 year-old children and have told them, in all seriousness, that I am the most intelligent person in the world. They believed me unquestioningly. It was scary. They actually thought I knew everything there is to know.

So we have a situation where, from birth up through all their formative years, children, both at home and at (certain) schools, are fed cultural myths such as Noah’s Flood as factual stories. The problem here is critical, terminal often. What is happening is that children are fed improbable and implausible stories before they are taught how to rationalise and how to sort the implausible from the plausible, the patently ridiculous from the scientifically verified. These children are at the most educationally vulnerable point in their lives. And who are the people they trust the most? Who are the elders in their lives whose truths they take on unquestioningly? Their parents and grandparents, and their teachers and schools. The children have no hope of being able to decipher whether such truth claims (as in Noah’s Flood) are probable or not. They don’t even think to question such claims.

It is only after these cultural memories are embedded that children learn about life, about science, about how to tell a lie from a truth, about the notion that you can’t trust everyone, even those close to you.

Forward-wind five, ten, fifteen, twenty years and to a lady in a pub talking philosophy and religion. I say to her, “Do you believe in the flood myth of the Chinese [where I explain such claims] or the creation myths of the Aborigines [likewise]?”

Of course, the answer is an almost derisory “no”.

“Why? Why the special pleading for your Christian myth? I can personally see no difference between the two.”

I explain many of the above points to which she says, “Oh, I didn’t realise” or some such similar apology. When asked why she believed that myth over the others, she had no answer, and realised that. She left that night with a few more questions than she came with. What was doubly amazing is that she claimed not to have read the Bible for many years since it had been “shoved down her throat” as an adolescent. So here we have a “Christian” believing wild myths without even properly understanding the Bible, and at the same time dismissing, out of hand, other very similar claims.

The point is, is that people often don’t question received stories told as fact from their childhood. They use the future critical faculties they pick up on other religions, but as the OTF argument goes, they do not apply them to their own embedded, culturally inherited stories. These myths, whether Noah, the 10 plagues, the Genesis Creation, the Tower of Babel or Matthew 27, bypass the vetting process by point of fact of being embedded before the process was learnt. It is like a computer with viruses which eventually gets a virus scanner. But the virus scanner can only pick up new viruses which come onto the system, rather than already existing ones. Those pre-existing viruses last the life of the computer. Unless it has a motherboard break-down, goes to the shop, and gets refitted with new, decent software. In short, it has a mid-life crisis.

The second option is also prevalent. Many Christians do learn to be critical and do apply that vetting process to their embedded learning. However, cognitive dissonance means that the disharmony of having an embedded story and associated worldview with also having evidence against both of these triggers procedures in the mind which seek to harmonise these conflicting beliefs.

What happens, of course, as we all know, is that the stronger, more desired belief wins out. Not on account of the strength of the evidence, mind you, but on account of the desire for it to be true. The theist ends up discounting the evidence out of hand, or creating wildly ad hoc reasons as to how the evidence can fit in with so-called biblical “facts”. I have been involved in such discussions with theists who offer the most incredible harmonisations and reasons as to how the flood myth could be true. All they do is destroy their epistemological credibility whilst producing some of the most amusing mental contortions known to intelligent man.

Obviously, there are difficult questions for the theist who actually discounts such myths (as symbolic or similar). It is a potentially slippery slope as to discerning what is myth, what is allegory and what actually happened in the Bible.

This childhood indoctrination (since that is what it is), a theist might respond, is merely a genetic fallacy. By knowing how something comes about, it does not necessarily discount its truth value. No, not necessarily. But it does illustrate double standards, and it does illustrate how the case for the historicity of such accounts is built on very shaky cognitive foundations.

And it does tell us why normal people believe ridicuolous things.

This post was written by Jonathan MS Pearce