Posted: October 1, 2009.
Oct 1, 2009
When a committed Christian says he believes in the Second Coming of Christ, he believes it the way he believes that Michael Jordan was a basketball player. When an avowed atheist says there is no such thing as God, she knows it the way that she knows that Elvis was a rock star. According to new research—published yesterday in the online science journal PLoS One—by Sam Harris (the neuroscientist and atheist author of The End of Faith) and colleagues, “belief is belief is belief,” as Harris puts it. “We seem to be doing the same thing when we accept a proposition about God or the virgin birth as we do about astronomy.”
What Harris, his fellow researcher Jonas Kaplan, and the other authors of the study want to address is the idea, which has been floating around in both scientific and religious circles, that our brains are doing something special when we believe in God—that religious belief is, neurologically speaking, an entirely different process from believing in things that are empirically and verifiably true (things that Harris endearingly refers to as “tables and chairs”). He says his results “cut against the quite prevalent notion that there’s something else entirely going on in the case of religious belief.” Our believing brains make no qualitative distinctions between the kinds of things you learn in a math textbook and the kinds of things you learn in Sunday school. Though the existence of God will never be proved—or disproved—by an fMRI scan, science can study a thing or two about the neurological mechanisms of belief. What Harris’s study shows is that when a conservative Christian says he believes in the Second Coming as an undeniable fact, he isn’t lying or exaggerating or employing any other rhetorical maneuver. If a believer’s brain regards the Second Coming the way it does every other fact, then debates about the veracity of faith would seem—to the committed believer, at least—to be rather pointless.
Harris, Kaplan, et al. put 30 people in fMRI machines. Half of them were committed Christian believers, the kind of Christians who would immediately agree with the statement “Jesus ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.” Half were committed atheists, the kind who would agree with the statement “The belief that Jesus ascended to heaven is clearly false.” Up on a screen before them, participants would read declarative statements. Some were statements of religious belief, some of religious disbelief. Some were statements about more ordinary facts. Participants had to push buttons—indicating true or false—as the researchers watched their brains light up. Belief in God, disbelief in God, and belief in simple empirically verifiable facts all lit up the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that governs your sense of self. We are, in some sense, what we believe….