Brian Morris specialises in secular politics and is the author of ‘Sacred to Secular’. Here he focuses on why science denial and religion are manifestations from our distant past — and how a growing rejection of empirical evidence feeds this troubling era of ‘post-truth’.
There is an evolutionary flaw we all share. It can drive some to become obsessively religious, and others to embrace conspiracy theories. And it leads traditionalists to resist any change to a more humane society.
Examples are numerous, but top-of-mind is Australia’s inability to legalise Marriage Equality and Voluntary Assisted Dying. Victoria is on the brink, but it’s taken over 30 attempts in all states to even get this close.
What is it that makes the devoutly religious — or inflexibly conservative — so adamant that their minority views must be imposed upon the majority? Why is science denial by climate sceptics and anti-Vaxxers so prevalent? And where do conspiracy theorists and pseudoscience devotees get their ‘alternative facts?’. The inconvenient truth is that all humans are prone to self-deception. But some more than others!
Fact check: Humankind is a highly irrational species!
Everyone has a predisposition to pick up and latch onto thoughts and ideas that have no basis in fact. Due to a range of evolutionary flaws we can easily be trapped into embracing any number of unfounded beliefs.
We marvel at the complexity of our brain – but we know that it lets us down. Constantly! At the most basic level we are confused by the simplest things. We’re tricked by optical illusions, by a conjurer’s sleight of hand, and by mysterious sounds that wake us at night! We’re not good at separating fact from fiction.
Without science, our awareness of the ‘natural world’ is pathetically limited. We hear only a microscopic bandwidth as audible sound — just 20 kilohertz — virtually nothing! And we’re able to see only a thin slither of the electromagnetic spectrum — detecting just 0.0035 percent of its entire range as visible light.
Humans are effectively blind to our material environment. Only through advances in science have we begun to understand our world and the universe — to discover the full electromagnetic scale; to “see” with X-rays and magnetic imaging; to explore the universe with radio telescopes; and to determine the elements and composition of distant planets using thermal and spectrographic analysis.
Knowledge in all fields of human endeavour have only become possible by adopting the ‘scientific method’ — rather than our irrational interpretations of what seems true. We can now take any hypothesis, test for its fallibility, submit it to the rigours of peer review, and gain ‘critical’ acceptance from the international scientific community. Only by that process can we establish ‘evidence’ and the veracity of certain ‘facts’.
But we fail to employ ‘critical thinking’ at a personal level
In our daily lives our cognition can betray us — we tend not to think critically, or even to use our basic powers of reason. We often form opinions that can become cemented as our own personal facts.
At that point, all our cognitive biases refuse to allow our beliefs to be challenged. We create a reality that ignores new evidence and defies logic. It becomes easy to construct our own “fake news”, or embrace some trendy pseudoscience that seems real! Very much like Donald Trump’s “alternative facts.”
Why do so many of us actually believe in homeopathy, crystal healing, astrology, clairvoyance, psychics who speak with the dead, ghosts, numerology, Japanese reiki, and all kinds of pseudoscientific woo-woo — when scientific evidence shows clearly they have no basis in fact?
We treasure our ‘opinions’ on everything — on sport, politics, history, religion, climate change, and the full gamut of social topics. When beliefs become deeply ‘personalised’ we reject all contrary evidence. The most dramatic examples come from the vulnerable (and gullible) people trapped in countless mind-altering religious cults — shown vividly in Going Clear, a documentary on the totalitarian Church of Scientology.
We need to understand WHY we are inherently irrational
If we go back (briefly) to the Savannah of Southern Africa — several million years ago — we can begin to understand how our modern brain developed, and why our early ‘social and survival’ mechanisms can now be counterproductive.
We know that our ability to ‘reason’ is frequently flawed, and this relates back to our earliest hominid ancestors — from the Australopithecines of 4 million years ago, evolving through Home habilis, Homo erectus, and many other intermediaries to Homo sapiens – ourselves – around 200,000 years ago.
Our distant ancestors had a notably smaller brain case which housed a basic and less evolved limbic brain. We became ‘modern humans’ much later, when our brain had fully evolved to include large frontal and temporal lobes. This gave us the capacity to ‘visualise’ people and places, to imagine past and future events, to plan more efficiently, to use language effectively, and gain an ability to use logic and reason.
BUT we still retain the ‘primitive’ part of the brain that we shared with our earliest cousins. It includes the limbic brain — which incorporates the amygdala and hippocampus — responsible for highly “personalised” emotions and inherent defence and survival instincts. This academic article explains the limbic system.
How the limbic brain can subvert ‘reason’
Our earliest ancestors developed a broad range of survival skills which gave them a reactive defence against predators! Without that our species would not have survived, but it’s left us with a legacy which is often in conflict with the new and more highly evolved parts of our brain equipped for ‘critical thinking’. There’s a constant clash between an emotive and reactive limbic system and the rational prefrontal cortex.
Religion and pseudoscience are prone to this limbic influence
One limbic auto-defence mechanism is Hyperactive Agency Detection (HAD), as this Michael Shermer video explains. That rustle in the long grass — is that the wind, or a predator about to kill you? We still retain this survival system to detect ‘agency’ and danger today — it includes the ‘fight or flight’ response we all share. Is that loud bang a gunshot? Do we stay or run? It’s part of our emotional reactive tendencies.
But HAD also allows us to imagine agencies where none exists. To see ‘natural’ events as ‘supernatural agents’. Our forebears would see earthquakes, lightening and thunder as powerful gods that need to be appeased. Was this a creator of our world who must be obeyed? Creationists and other religious fundamentalists today still use HAD to reassure themselves of their supernatural gods.
Religion is a By-Product of our survival mechanisms: Many books on neuroscience and psychology explain how our innate social and survival skills can lead people to perceptions of the supernatural and to belief in gods. Perhaps the most concise text is from Dr J Anderson Thomson, ‘Why we believe in Gods’.
And Thomson explains in a video how many of our survival traits have so easily been adapted to become religious “by-products” of natural brain function — in exactly the same way that reading, writing and music are simply by-products of neural activity. We are not hard-wired to read and write! There are no such centres in the brain — they are adaptations we have acquired over time. And nor are we hard-wired for religion — that is also a by-product of false limbic perceptions. As neuroscientific research explains:
“The amygdala–hippocampus complex and the inferior temporal lobe facilitate the human experience of mystical and religious experiences. It is through (these structures) that dreamlike states and visual and auditory hallucinations are experienced.
“Religious thoughts/beliefs about God make use of conventional neural circuitry. This means there probably is no ‘God spot’ in the brain. Instead, thoughts and feelings about God are mediated by the conventional ‘generic’ brain circuits that are also used for other but similar neural processes.
“The limbic system can therefore be seen as responsible for the emotional and mystical experiences of religion and as the controller of religious-inspired or religious-influenced actions, through its motivational drive on the prefrontal cortex.”
Beliefs embedded in the limbic brain become highly personalised — it’s the emotional nerve centre — and those personal beliefs help to identify who you are. Strong beliefs will be defended vigorously and any challenge can be seen as a personal attack.
We see this constantly in people who deny the Holocaust; those who reject clear evidence of climate change; of the Anti-Vaxxers; and those who swear by any of the pseudoscientific practices touted as cures for chronic illness — even though they have no basis in fact. The limbic system can suppress ‘reason’.
So it’s no surprise that denial of evidence is a key factor for the devoutly religious — especially Creationists — those who believe in a literal Bible. They hold as “God’s truth” the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and that human evolution is a hoax! And it’s staggering to know that 34 per cent of Australians believe these myths, according to the Guardian (poll at mid-article).
Social policy, religion and the limbic brain: And it’s primarily the highly religious who vehemently oppose contemporary social policy, with beliefs based on ancient scriptures. Current issues include voluntary assisted dying, marriage equality, and abortion rights for women — they are all regarded as offences against “God’s law”.
This is borne out most recently by an article on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website, titled: “Opposition to Assisted Dying in Australia is Largely Religious”. It states that of all Christian groups who oppose voluntary euthanasia it’s fundamentalists who are most offended. The percentages are: Catholics 9.8, Anglicans 7.5, Uniting Church 7.1, and Other Christian 26.5 — those predominantly from evangelical churches.
Fear is the greatest driver of religion — and particularly the fear of death — which is exacerbated by our ability to imagine and visualise our own demise. It’s unsurprising that humans invented gods and heaven to counter this confronting thought — that we all cease to exist at death.
Two psychologists concisely articulate this theme in their challenging book, ‘the Worm at the Core’ — and why it is that the fear of death drives so much of human behaviour, and underpins supernatural belief.
Religion and science denial
Science has been responsible for the gradual rolling back of religious myth and superstition since the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. So it is hardly surprising that all religions have become so vehement in the practice of science denial — refined over many centuries.
In this exasperating era of post-truth and fake news it has become an obsession for conspiracy theorists, dishonest corporations, and the religiously unscrupulous to denigrate and repudiate any scientific evidence that challenge their collective and fictitious concepts of ‘reality’.
The five facets of science denialism are well explained in this academic journal and they apply equally to all corporate and conspiracy propaganda, including supernatural beliefs. All religion is a man-made construct, based on the human fallibility to be irrational — due to the evolutionary development of our limbic brain.
Science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson scolds the “cherry picking” of science, and dishonest denial of evidence. He says that “settled” science is indeed settle; it’s only the “bleeding edges” of new discovery that scientists argue over. Religion and the media focus only on this to conclude science knows nothing!
“This is a phoney attempt to discredit science, and it underpins this current era of “fake news”. We have played into the hands of those who feel threatened by scientific discovery — those conservatives who fear change, and that includes Islam, Christianity and particularly all evangelical religions.”
It’s time for scientists to fight back
Tyson is correct to say that the science community is culpable for the gradual rise of pseudoscience. With a handful of exceptions (himself include) few scientists will speak out against the growing ranks of deniers. And this includes the pseudoscience of Genesis, promoted as “scientific truth” to schoolchildren through hundreds of private religious schools run by evangelical churches — and funded from the public purse!
Professor Emma Johnston, a marine ecologist, is one of the few Australian scientists to raise her concerns in a recent SMH article. She says the science community must actively seek to influence public debate by pushing it towards evidence-based arguments … and by countering fake news and anti-intellectualism.
Mainstream media, too, has a responsibility to redress the misrepresentation of science. And it’s time it lifted its taboo to discuss ‘faith’ openly. Why religion is a man-made construct, and how its flawed origins are rooted in the primitive recesses of our limbic brain — and distorted by our innate survival mechanisms.
A voice must be given to pro-science advocates who can explain exactly why society will benefit from a better understanding of knowledge through ‘critical thinking’. How ‘misguided opinions’ become ‘personal facts’ — and why ordinary people defend irrational beliefs that have no basis in fact or evidence.
It is this evolutionary flaw — conflict between the rational frontal lobes and the emotionally defensive limbic system — that manifests as religion and pseudoscience: a denial of evidence and reason. And it’s the ‘false certainly’ of a pious minority who denigrate science — and thwart the overwhelming majority who support laws for voluntary assisted dying, equal marriage, and a raft of socially progressive policy.
About Brian Morris: World travel shaped Brian’s interest in social justice — wealth, poverty and religion in many countries. His book Sacred to Secular is critically acclaimed, including from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It’s an analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm it does. It’s a call for Australia to become fully secular. More information about Brian can be found on his website, Plain Reason.