09 September 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part III)

As I discussed in part I of this post, belief in irrational and improbable stories are part of virtually all religious traditions. Why do many believe in the improbable, the irrational and the miraculous? Does it serve a purpose individually or collectively for groups of believers? What is the mental and spiritual price one pays when the choice is made to no longer believe? Full treatment of these questions requires considerably more thought and discussion that I am able to give presently, but I want to explore a few ideas below.

One general advantage of belief is the social benefits it accrues. Common belief can be a nucleus around which shared identity is formed and maintained. Tight social cohesion is a major benefit of identification with a specific religious group. Belief in a common mythology sets a group of individuals apart from others and gives them a shared social identity. I understand and appreciate this benefit of religion. It is one manifestation of our clannish nature as human beings – much like club membership, sports allegiance, political affiliation, or even sexual identity.

But why are miracles – events that are irrational, untestable, and, for most of us, foreign to our individual experiences – such a consistent part of religion? Why does religious sociality incorporate the supernatural? Miracles seem to be a way for the human mind to deal with the unknown. I suppose there is a natural human aversion for uncertainty. After all, the unknown is unsettling and disturbing. We can easily imagine how unsettling ancient uncertainties were for our ancestors: When and where will the herds return next season? When will a natural calamity strike next? Will this illness kill me or my family? In our modern world, we have exerted such a degree of control over nature that food, water, shelter and safety are consistently available for most of us. But even so, the psychological landscape in our more affluent societies still remains full of unknowns today: employment stability, financial strains, relationship troubles, and health care, for instance.

Of course uncertainty is a certainty in life. But for the religious mind, miracles point to God, who is the lone unassailable place of safety. God is a rock, a lighthouse, a Savior, a refuge, a comforter. These kinds of descriptions of God, devoid of uncertainty, abound in Christian scriptures. God ultimately may not remove the uncertainty inherent in our lives, but rather overshadows it. Without the link to God, the inexplicable can be too unsettling. Linked to God, uncertainties point to a power and understanding greater than our own. God renders death, illness, separation, loss, pain, and cruelty tolerable.

Interestingly, superstition (and religion more generally) may have evolved in connection with humankind’s long struggle over millennia of evolution to wrestle control over an unsympathetic natural world. In a fascinating history, Kirkpatrick Sale outlines the cultural advances in prehistoric Homo sapiens (starting about 70,000 years ago) and argues that art and magic may have evolved out of a need or desire for humans to exert further control over their environment (1). Over thousands of years, loss of prey populations (over-hunting) and continued changes in environmental conditions (a massive volcanic eruption ~71,000 years ago; loss of hunting grounds or prey abundance due to advancing Ice Age glaciers) brought stresses to human populations that were developing culturally and were increasing in population size.

As an ecologist, I find Sale’s connection between the history of human cultural development and external environmental changes intriguing. Here is how he summarizes the religious implications of the explosion of art in southern Europe starting some 35,000 years ago: “Whatever kinds of magic and ritual were practiced with the sculptures and paintings, of which we can only have a small idea today, they all involve some form of human effort to have control over nature … with symbolic art, and particularly the charged rituals in deep caves, humans became involved in a new relationship to the animal world, or at least were attempting to extend their old relationship in a new way … How fateful, that: the attempt to be independent, or to think of oneself as independent, from an ecosystem on whose bounty one is entirely dependent for sustaining life itself is delusional, and can be maintained only by tortuous ideas of self-importance and wrathful practices of self-enhancement.” If Sale’s argument about the ecological context in which religion evolved is reasonably accurate, I find the resulting irony fascinating: though religion’s initial function may have been to increasingly dominate the outside natural world, it eventually became a system of beliefs that emphasized its actual inferiority to even higher powers.

Many thousands of years after the explosion in cave paintings by Stone Age humans, there still seems to be a near universal pull in humankind to the divine. Most Americans today, for instance, still believe in a higher power. While the modern American religious landscape is diverse and complex, a surprising percentage of people, in fact, cannot bring themselves to accept the scientific evidence for evolution. In our scientific age, many of the answers to the ancient mysteries that religion supposedly once addressed can now be found in natural phenomena. Science may not have erased the need for spirituality, but it does offer compelling alternatives to many of the old religious explanations. Why then does belief in improbable miracles persist when such events are more reliably explained by natural phenomena?

Perhaps the strongest reason may just be tradition, cultural inertia if you will. Miracles were born in times when scientific explanations were much less available to most people. They became incorporated into religious texts and became part of the narratives written about the divine. They served some utility too, because they could be a way of enhancing God’s greatness and our ultimate dependence on him. But in more recent times, they may come more as appendages to the more meaningful body of religious ideas – mythology, ethics and self-empowerment – we may tend to focus on today.

Another answer, I suppose, may be provided by a simple psychological phenomenon I learned about as an undergraduate in an introductory psychology class: confirmation bias. This is the tendency to pay particular attention to new information that sustains a person’s belief systems. We all do this. The mind creates a filter on incoming information. We seek out, remember, and transmit information that confirms beliefs that we already have formed. On the other hand, new information that contradicts our current belief structure is dismissed, forgotten, trivialized or ignored. If, for instance, we grow up learning that evolution is an evil and erroneous theory from a young age, we are likely to pay particular attention to any pieces of evidence that confirm our belief in this viewpoint.

But tradition and confirmation bias cannot explain it all. Though there are likely many people who uncritically accept religious claims, many religious adherents are also deeply aware of the contradictions that sometimes arise between elements of their faith traditions and more scientific sources of information. They realize that their religious worldview is not always congruent with our modern understanding of history, anthropology, or cosmology. For some followers, the compulsion to continue belief in the improbable may then come from a deeper need to stay connected with a religion that permeates family life, community life, or perhaps even employment. Any threat to such a deeply held belief structure is more that just a challenge to an academic understanding of some remote facet of the universe; such threats can be threats to family cohesion, individual identity or purpose, or one’s place in a faith community. For a few people, it may be easier to sacrifice some measure of rational thinking than to abandon a belief system that brings other social and psychological benefits.

This thought process presupposes than an individual views his or her religion as a single package that one is to accept or reject in totality. In all likelihood, this may not be a very common way of thinking for most modern religious adherents. I assume that there are many people who are comfortable accepting much of their religious tradition while rejecting ideas that are improbable (like miracles) or otherwise unacceptable (like sexism) to them. But blanket (or near universal) acceptance of religious doctrine is relatively common in Mormonism. I’ll explore this phenomenon more in the upcoming final post in this series.

(1) Sale, K. 2006. After Eden. The Evolution of Human Domination. Duke University Press, (quotation is from p.61).


  1. Very interesting. I'm enjoying this series, and I have been thinking about just the things you mention here a lot recently, as my mental framework for life has been shifting a lot.

    Are miracles really _that_ important? They've never been a huge thing in my religious experience. I mean, they are, but certainly not foundational. Are you sure you're not just ascribing more importance to them because they do stand out the most in contrast to "science?"

  2. Trev,

    "Are miracles really that important?". Yes and no. I don't think that most people spend very much time on a day-to-day basis specifically thinking about religious miracles (or more generally, the supernatural or intangible). However, miracles are a pretty important part of many religions. The whole foundation of Mormonism rests on a few key miracles such as the First Vision, receipt of the Book of Mormon plates from the angel Moroni, and restoration of priesthood authority from other angelic visits. Without these miracles, Mormonism either would not exist today or it would be a very different religion. In that indirect way, miracles are a big deal for Latter-day Saints. I also think about the concept of an afterlife (another scientifically improbable belief): to the extent that belief in an afterlife influences how people act in the here and now, miracles are exerting influence over how people think and act.

    Maybe I've given the impression that I think that the miraculous is a key topic since I have written a whole series of posts. I do find them to be the most difficult part of religion for me. And I do find it to be an important structural weakness of religion. However, my lack of brevity also is probably due to too much editing of these posts. I found myself writing and thinking about a lot of different issues that intersect belief in improbable events, so things got lengthy ... Thanks for reading :).

    1. You're welcome. I don't think these are too long. You could write books about this stuff.

      I hadn't thought of miraculous aspect of the afterlife. Okay, yes, miracles are indeed very important, and in my experience, too. Hmm, lots to think about.

  3. Miracles might also be compelling precisely because they defy logic and reason. For many people it is unappealing to live in a sterile world that can be so easily reduced to atoms, Newtonian laws, and sociological principles. What many people long for is to experience wonder and amazement, the unexplainable, or whatever lies beyond the limits of our current capacity to understand. An improbable tale can be riveting in this way, and an improbable tale that MIGHT be true, doubly so. I can only speak for my own path here, but I find that times when I cling too closely to logic and reason are times when I start to feel less human. Suspension of disbelief is very rewarding on many levels. It helps me have more empathy, helps me not feel like a know-it-all, and makes life more mysterious and pleasant. As time goes on it seems that in many areas uncertainty brings a greater feeling of confidence and comfort than certainty. It also gets easier to approach life in different ways at different times, sometimes trying to arrive at certainty, and sometimes just standing back in awe.

    1. widemilewilsom: I agree wholeheartedly that awe, uncertainty and amazement are vital parts of the human experience. However, I don't see the phenomena of science or miracles as being necessarily related to one's attitude about the mysteries of the universe. For instance, there is no need for a scientist to be a know-it-all (though some act that way) or to lose wonder for the universe. In fact, the long, hard process of discovery through the scientific method may be more likely to engender awe than to suggest a "sterile" view of the world. When one small question is answered in science, many more await! Likewise, there is no guarantee that belief in miracles is the key to preserving amazement or awe. Having a very rigid belief structure informed by the supernatural might be a disincentive for discovery and an atttide of amazement. Yes, some scientists can get dogmatic, perhaps as much so as their fervent religious counterparts. But this is just human folly; there is no part of the scientific method that proscribes that approach.