Psychological Compatibility of Scientific and Religious Beliefs


So what I want to do today is talk about research demonstrating the psychological compatibility of scientific and religious beliefs. You’ll note this dovetails really beautifully with a lot of the talks we’ve heard this morning. The thing I want to do is remind all of us how relevant these topics are in popular culture debates, popular science debates, and despite the fact that there’s this, as we’ve heard from our speakers today, elegant, social scientific literature is directly relevant to how people think about these things psychologically. A lot of it isn’t percolated into the popular science literature at all which increasingly seems to me like coalitional, cultural warfare where science and religion are pitted against each other in a battle for truth. Which is a terrifying prospect and I think in the United States in particular, especially in this state, is incredibly destructive for lots of different reasons. I want to draw everyone’s attention to how high the stakes really are. How discrepant the popular science discussions of these topics are with the social scientific discussions. Let’s talk a little about the challenge to reconcile scientific and religious discussions. First of all, despite what scientists might love to believe, we did not in fact evolve to be dispassionate scientists. Science is very difficult indeed, even for the best of us with many, many years of formal training. Most of us still struggle with this, all of us do. As Bob mentioned, formal scientific reasoning is psychologically “unnatural.” We talked a little bit about confirmation biases all sorts of errors we make in evaluating evidence which is not true specifically of religion but is true in all aspects of scientific reasoning which is in many ways less logically intuitive which we’ve heard a little bit about today already. Another thing i want to mention is there are both ideological objections and religious objections and cognitive biases that make understanding and teaching evolution very difficult indeed. So beside the ideological issues, the religious objections, as we’ve heard about evolution is very difficult for people to understand because of intuitive cognitive biases which is what the quote from Dawkins was referring to: it seems as those evolution was designed for it to be difficult to understand. There’s a ton of ambivalence in the United States and around the world about teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in US schools. here’s religious resistance to scientific ideas, scientific ideas relating to origins. There are ideological objections concerning the threat to human uniqueness. There’s quite a lot of evidence that many people think we weren’t created by a divine being in his or her image which is something deeply upsetting about whether there’s meaning to the universe or meaning to our own lives. These are deeply unsettling prospects and our psychological systems are wrestling with a lot of that. I think that’s actually a discussion that’s largely missing from popular science debates but the psychological literature speaks to this in very elegant ways to few people who have documented the existential concern for these ideas. There are many supernatural explanations available to understand biological origins Creationism is one. There are of course many varieties of creationism, some of it much closer to biblical literalism so even there there’s a lot of flexibility. Putting believers in one box or in one camp is a poor representation of the diversity of religious belief. Within the camp of creationism you have young earth creationists who believe the earth is 4000 years old and other creationists allow for a little bit more flexibility in interpretation of biblical text. Theistic evolution is what you often see among populations that are both religious and highly scientifically educated. What you find there is that God or the divine is just pushed farther and farther and farther back which is ultimately something that science could never disprove anyway. If you push God back far enough, there’s really no way to discount that. I put these slides up to remind everybody that there’s actually a lot of variability within supernatural explanations for biological origins. And from a popular science outreach perspective, an educational outreach you have to understand this kind of variability. Because designing educational interventions or programs for different people with different beliefs and different degrees of flexibility in their beliefs and ways in which they evaluate evidence, interventions really need to be tailored to reflect this diversity. So how many of you have been to the creationist museum? Fascinating. I bring this up to talk about the movement in the United States, kind of young earth creationists, there are a lot of well funded lobbies who put a lot of effort into trying to gather or demonstrate using scientific methodology or scientific tools that there is scientific evidence for religious beliefs and ideas that occur in religious text. A quote from the Lucy exhibit. Can you see what’s going on in this picture? it’s a human child on a triceratops. Before we get to the lucy exhibit, I want to mention if you find yourself in a situation you’ve been told through testimony by people you respect and trust and have authority the world is 4000 years old and all the people around you believe that to be the case and you attend schools and classes and somehow you’re faced with this mountain of evidence that the world is slightly older than that even worse than that we have these pesky fossils lying around. It’s really hard to deny these fossils, there are many of them and they’re quite large. What do you do in that situation? A belief system that is deeply part of your cultural heritage and your family and you derive a lot of emotional meaning from this and purpose but you’re also faced with this evidence directly contrary to this biblical literalists account One possibility is that you have to reinterpret the evidence. You need to go to a creationist museum and have someone help you with that. So here are some quotes from the exhibit. Enjoy the wonders of God’s interactions to uncover what natural selection can and cannot do. And one of the things I found in studying this. The fact that scientists are very careful in saying what they can and cannot prove, that kind of uncertainty, inherent in the scientific system, is often exploited. Ideological critics of evolution by natural selection like biblical history is key to understanding things like dinosaurs. Which is astonishing. It wouldn’t come to mind that it wouldn’t have anything to say about dinosaurs because dinosaurs would’ve been extinct for quite some time. But one of the ways this group reconciles scientific and religious beliefs is that prior to the fall of man, dinosaurs were vegetarians and peacefully coexisted with humans thus the human child on the triceratops, I wonder how the tyrannosaurus rex works with this. It seems like a vegetarian dinosaur wouldn’t require a giant mouth with razor sharp teeth. That’s a debate for another day I guess. So here’s another exhibit where they talk a lot about evidence. Things like, “monkeys are fun for kids of all ages, but they become serious business when some scientists claim human beings came from apes!” Turns out we are apes, awkward. Or “learn that Lucy and so-called other ape men are not in the human family tree. Instead they will understand people were created specially in God’s image.” And that’s another thing I wanted to point out. Is that evolution by natural selection as an explanation for origins isn’t equally problematic across the board. Applying evolution to microevolution to the evolution of microbes is quite a different thing psychologically then applying it to humans. So a lot of the tension is from how closely we apply this process to our species. And I wanted to talk about, again, the way evolution is portrayed in popular media. I saw this quote when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan at a Starbucks, we had limited coffee options. And I noticed this, which was kinda astonishing to me, “Darwin’s impact on traditional social values has not been as benign as its advocates would like us to believe. Despite the efforts of its modern defenders to distance themselves form its baleful social consequences, Darwinism’s connection with eugenics, abortion, and racism is a matter of historical record, and the record is not pretty.” It’s kind of interesting to think about these objections coming from not necessarily the political right but also from the left And here’s another one just to show both sides. Right, so are these different kinds of belief systems even belong in the same place? I know when I was still at U of Michigan that in fact in many of the AP Biology classes, ntelligent design was taught as an alternative theory to evolution So it’s not just places like Texas. There’s massive disagreement about the place of this in our educational system. At least among the lay population So how should we think about these? Should we think about science and religion in opposition, as I mentioned before a lot of the popular science debate pits these things against each other. Should we think about reconciliation? Or should we think about integration? So one possibility is to think of these things as competitive ways of knowing with science and religion in a battle for truth. If you’ve watched a lot of media coverage concerning these topics this is what these debates seem like. There’s also a lot of explicitly anti-religion dialogue surrounding this which as we learned from Tania’s talk and many others people are not deeply impressed if you discount their beliefs based on something that’s abnormal or lack of intelligence or things like that. So telling religious people that they’re stupid is not a great persuasive tactic it turns out. So another possibility is that these belief systems are complementary or coexisting but distinct. So they may be applied to explain different sorts of things. Or they may be integrated in blended ways. According to blended models, they may bring both science and religious explanations together to explain the same things, perhaps at different levels of analysis. So the truth is people in all cultures have universal access to many many many explanations indeed. So really we’re spoiled by choice, there’s always many many ways to explain any particular kind of outcome at multiple levels of causality. You find this in all cultures. You find this in cultures where supernatural beliefs are very high and very low. What I’d like to propose, and what research out of my lab has demonstrated, the assumption that natural and supernatural explanations are incompatible is psychologically inaccurate. There’s very high levels of consensus about this in the psychological literature. Somehow this has not percolated into the popular media debate as it should be, it should have a much bigger impact. And I point out the psychologically inaccurate part intentionally. I’m not making a rational, philosophical, logical claim here. As a psychologist, I’m interested in how people reason about these explanatory frameworks not what is objectively true. So we know that individuals use both natural and supernatural explanations to interpret the same events. I think that’s a very important point. So it’s no great insight that we have both types of explanations but people put a lot of psychological energy into integrating them And both kinds of explanations coexist in individual minds in multiple ways. So I just want to give you a couple of examples. Here we have our creationist museum animatronic triceratops and our friend Charles Darwin so we have access to both types of explanations. Within that supernatural category, there’s a huge amount of variability in what people believe. And even within the biological category, or the scientific category, there’s a lot of variation in how much people actually understand. All of these sources of variation all have interesting psychological consequences. And I want to point out origins is an existentially arousing domain. It involves unobservable causes, it’s associated with very strong emotions, like I mentioned before, and it predates current scientific understanding. So origins is an ideal candidate to study how people integrate natural and supernatural explanations. So how do children and adults negotiate multiple kinds of explanations? That’s really the core of a lot of my research program. And I want to explain this in terms of multiple levels of causality. And there are very predictable ways in which both types of explanations coexist in individual minds. I’ve done research for a number of years on this. One is thinking about proximate and distal causality. So proximate causality would be the more immediate how question. How did this occur? And the distal causality would be the why question. And natural and supernatural explanations can be recruited to explain both. So one way people integrate these is through something I call target dependent thinking. Where explanations remain alternative views of the world, recruited to explain distinct aspects of a phenomenon, depending on the target or context. Here’s a quote from a study on natural history visitors to a museum, “man is created with a soul, which makes him different from an animal— that can be seen in the book of Genesis.” So evolution applies to animals and that’s fine, humans are special. You can think about synthetic thinking where you have two different explanations that are combined into a single explanation without explicit integration. If you think about your own understanding of a lot of things, we engage in synthetic thinking quite frequently. So for origins we have “it’s evolution with the environment, but I am also a religious person, so that’s a difficult question. I think a bit of both perhaps….” So a little bit of both: religious and scientific. And then for integrative thinking we have two explanations that are integrated into a single explanation. So, “humans got here from gorillas and monkeys, cause they’re intelligent creatures if you really look at them… The first monkeys probably evolved from something else or got put here as an individual.. God could have put the monkeys here.” So the level of analysis and the level of causality is different. So to sum up I want to point out some things we know from the literature. One is that supernatural explanations do not always appear early in development. Some of the previous speakers demonstrated this very eloquently. They are not primitive or immature ways of thinking that are suppressed over the course of development. They’re products of our evolved cognitive architecture and reflect intuitive cognitive biases And they’re constructed through socialization and cultural learning. There’s also a lot of evidence that they increase rather than decrease with age. So there are predictable and universal ways in which explanations coexist in individual minds to interpret the same events. And reasoning about supernatural phenomena is an integral and enduring aspect of human cognition. Thank you.

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