A paper on the psychology of religious belief, Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers, came onto my radar recently. I used to talk a lot about the theory of religious cognitive psychology years ago, but the interest kind of faded when it seemed that empirical results were relatively thin in relation to the system building (Ara Norenzayan's work being an exception to this generality). The theory is rather straightforward:
religious belief is a naturally evoked consequence of the general architecture of our minds.
For example, gods are simply extensions of persons, and make natural sense in light of our tendency to anthromorphize the world around us (this may have had evolutionary benefit, in that false positives for detection of other agents was far less costly than false negatives; think an ambush by a rival clan).* But enough theory. Are religious people cognitively different from those who are atheists? I suspect so. I speak as someone who never ever really believed in God, despite being inculcated in religious ideas from childhood. By the time I was seven years of age I realized that I was an atheist, and that my prior "beliefs" about God were basically analogous to Spinozan Deism. I had simply never believed in a personal God, but for many of earliest years it was less a matter of disbelief, than that did not even comprehend or cogently in my mind elaborate the idea of this entity, which others took for granted as self-evidently obvious. From talking to many other atheists I have come to the conclusion that Atheism is a mental deviance. This does not mean that mental peculiarities are necessary or sufficient for atheism, but they increase the odds. And yet after reading the above paper my confidence in that theory is reduced. The authors used ~50 individuals, and attempted to correct demographic confounds. Additionally, the results were statistically significant. But to me the above theory should make powerful predictions in terms of effect size. The differences between non-believers, the religious, and those who accepted the paranormal, were just not striking enough for me. Because of theoretical commitments my prejudiced impulse was to accept these findings. But looking deeply within they just aren't persuasive in light of my prior expectations. This a fundamental problem in much of social science. Statistical significance is powerful when you have a preference for the hypothesis forwarded. In contrast, the knives of skepticism come out when research is published which goes against your preconceptions. So a question for psychologists: which results are robust and real, to the point where you would be willing to make a serious monetary bet on it being the orthodoxy in 10 years? My primary interest is cognitive psychology, but I am curious about other fields too. * In Gods We Trust and Religion Explained are good introductions to this area of research.