If the brain processes that play a role in our belief in God themselves were unreliable how would we be able to determine it?
Memory plays a pivotal role in religious believing. Many people will recall a moment of conversion in which they believe they saw or felt God. During some moment of crisis or doubt or great need, many people will call out to God and have a profound, transcending experience that becomes the foundation of a large shift in their religious belief structure.
The New Testament Gospels were written by several authors decades after the alleged events of Jesus’ life. The stories are based on remembered accounts given by testimony to the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus is thought to have died around 30-35 CE; most scholars date the original authorship of Mark at 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 80, and John around 90.
We measure our own degrees of certainty and express our confidence about the truth of beliefs on the basis of a subjectively sensed feeling of knowing. If I tell you that Pluto is a planet, or that violent crime is a 30 year low, you just know immediately, and without reflection that the former is right and that the latter is wrong. Pluto is a planet feels appropriate, comfortable, or familiar, whereas Violent crime is at a 30 year low just rings false, even if you can’t sight objective evidence why. (The former is wrong, the latter is correct.)
Unless I go to some extraordinary steps to create or consult some external objective record, this subjective sense of certainty is all that I have to go on about what happened, what I think, or what is true. Determining how reliable this subjective method is would require two things. First, I’d need to actually make a careful check of the external, objective record against my memory and my sense of certainty and see just how reliable it is. Second, I’d have to take care not to commit other fallacies in the process of reliability checking. It won’t do to only consider and then cite as support those cases in the past where I have had a high subjective sense of certainty and the claim I was certain about was in fact correct. I don’t want to compound my errors by corroborating my ability to remember with faulty or selective memories.
In defenses of the validity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, for example, it is frequently claimed that despite the years that passed between the events and their recording, matters of such profound significance as witnessing miracles or hearing Jesus’ words would not have slipped easily from the minds of his followers. We have the general view that our memories may be less reliable with trivial and ordinary matters, but with events of vast implication as the resurrection of the son of God, memory can be trusted.
For an older generation, the assassination of President Kennedy was one such “flash bulb” moment for everyone in the country. Everyone can recall, with great detail and confidence, exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. Likewise, when the news went out about the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center, and then the second, a vivid picture of where you were, what you were doing, and how you felt was burned into your memory.
It turns out, however, that we have good evidence to doubt our memories, even in these cases where it would seem to be most vivid and reliable. Shortly after the news of the space shuttle Challenger disaster went out, Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch had students in a psychology class write an account of where they were and what they were doing when they found out. Then two and a half years later, they had those students write another record of what they were doing when they heard the news. It is significant that before they saw the earlier record, the students predicted that their memories were accurate. But when the two accounts were compared, the details matched in fewer than 10% of the paired accounts. More than 75% of the accounts had significant errors, some of them dramatic. Yet, even when confronted with this clear evidence to the contrary, many students refused to believe that their later memories were inaccurate. In other studies, people disregard information from an external source that conflicts with their strong, subjective sense that something is true or that they have a certain ability.
With the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, we have another opportunity to test the impact of profound and emotional events on human memory. If our memories of significant events are reliable, then we would expect our accounts of 9-11 or the resurrection of Jesus to be among the very best. But Daniel Greenberg has found at least 3 different accounts from President Bush of what he was doing when he heard about the 9-11 attacks. Perhaps he has a uniquely poor memory for such things, but more likely given what else we have learned about human memory, his trouble with the details coupled with a high degree of confidence about his ability to remember the details is typical.
There are several implications for the question of religious belief. First, we are demonstrably bad at remembering events, even occurrences of enormous personal, emotional, and social importance. Second, the degree of confidence about our ability to remember important events is also grossly out of synch with the facts. That it feels to me like I can remember with great clarity isn’t a reliable indicator that I can. Third, as a result, events in our personal lives that have profound religious significance that we recall later as the foundation of our beliefs can’t be trusted to be what we remember and aren’t more trustworthy because they have a great deal of poignancy. Fourth, we also know that when confronted with evidence that demonstrates how poor we are at remembering and judging, people are prone to reject that evidence in favor of their highly unreliable gut feelings. So taking heed of these lessons about ourselves will take some substantial effort to overcome our own resistant natures.
Greenberg, Daniel L. “President Bush’s False ‘Flashbulb’ Memory of 9/11/01” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18: 363–370 (2004)
Ross, L., Lepper, M. R. and Hubbard, M. Perseverance in self-perception and social perception: Biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 1975, 880-892