Notes for the Book: Magical Thinking, Cognitive Dissonance, Group-Thinking

Extending thoughts from previous posts about the future of enlightenment and similar matters.

About group-thinking and how people get along in their lives just fine without understanding how the world actually works (as well-established by physics, chemistry, biology including evolution, and so on). They think they believe how the world actually works, but most of them are living fantasies.

How is that? The fantasies are the various supernatural beliefs of religious faiths — so many of them, so inconsistent with each other! To the extent that anyone really believes things like how prayer can actually change the world, that a guardian angel huddles over your shoulder protecting you, that the wine really turns to the blood of Jesus in your mouth, or for that matter that sacrificing children on an altar really propitiates the rain god… they are engaging in magical thinking, a kind of pretend make-believe about how the world works.

This in turn leaves one with an imperfect grasp of reality and reason, and in turn, a susceptibility to even the most implausible claims of conspiracy theories.

Group cohesion is a driving force of humanity; it trumps reason, rationality, perception of reality.

Why have some people (e.g. scientists) escaped such corrosive effects of group-think, including religious faith? Perhaps they did not grow up, or mature into adulthood, in same-thinking environments (especially in small towns), or settled in circumstances where changing one’s mind to accommodate new evidence did not result in ostracization from the community. (It’s not an issue of being smarter or dumber; it’s about one’s social community.)

Thus the proverbial wise man, or guru, is imagined as living in isolation at the top of a mountain…

And so, just as I suggested that the answers to the big questions that have been discovered and verified by science will never filter down to more than a tiny fraction of humanity, so will the vast majority of the population, living some kind of make believe or another (even if generally harmless enough to not undermine their livelihoods and reproductive success), will forever remain innocent of how the world actually works. They get along with their lives without such awareness, thank you very much.

And yet — as suggested by one of the items in the previous post — there’s a mental cost about believing one set of ideas in some circumstances, and another set in other circumstances. It’s called cognitive dissonance. It’s how you believe your religious claims on Sunday, and deal with the actual world the rest of the week. It’s why you pray in groups at church, or privately about various specific desires (and count the hits and ignore the misses), but don’t step into traffic counting on your prayer to stop you from being run down by a truck.

How is this resolved?

By attending church services and political rallies that drown out those noises in the back of your head trying to resolve those inconsistent beliefs.

That’s why, in the pandemic, so many faithful are so furious they are not allowed to attend church services. They need the reinforcement of the crowd to drown out their individual doubts. (Scientists, for example, don’t need to meet in large crowds and endlessly recite the Pythagorean theorem or that E equals MC squared.)

Attendant with this tentative conclusion is the parallel suspicion that, for the sake of group cohesion, many people realize, privately, that the supernatural fantasies of their faith are polite fictions. Even if they would never admit to as much outloud, or even in the security of their own thoughts. There’s evidence that there are more such people — even among clergy! — than even they themselves would admit.


Another online article this past week, by a neuroscientist, discusses this issue in more technical detail. He’s concerned specifically about religious fundamentalists, as opposed I guess to moderates, a distinction I’m not making in my thoughts above.

A neuroscientist explains how religious fundamentalism hijacks the brain

In moderation, religious and spiritual practices can be great for a person’s life and mental well-being. But religious fundamentalism—which refers to the belief in the absolute authority of a religious text or leaders—is almost never good for an individual. This is primarily because fundamentalism discourages any logical reasoning or scientific evidence that challenges its scripture, making it inherently maladaptive.

He discusses how religious ideologies spread and mutate, in analogy with biological evolution, using Richard Dawkins’ concept of memes.

In much the same way, Christian fundamentalism is a parasitic ideology that inserts itself into brains, commanding individuals to act and think in a certain way—a rigid way that is intolerant to competing ideas. We know that religious fundamentalism is strongly correlated with what psychologists and neuroscientists call “magical thinking,” which refers to making connections between actions and events when no such connections exist in reality. Without magical thinking, the religion can’t survive, nor can it replicate itself. Another cognitive impairment we see in those with extreme religious views is a greater reliance on intuitive rather than reflective or analytic thought, which frequently leads to incorrect assumptions since intuition is often deceiving or overly simplistic.

We also know that in the United States, Christian fundamentalism is linked to science denial. Since science is nothing more than a method of determining truth using empirical measurement and hypothesis testing, denial of science equates to the denial of objective truth and tangible evidence. In other words, the denial of reality. Not only does fundamentalism promote delusional thinking, it also discourages followers from exposing themselves to any different ideas, which acts to protect the delusions that are essential to the ideology.

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