Cognitive bias and religious beliefs

So I had a look to see if there’s any thread covering this subject but since I haven’t found any I though I will start my own.

I’m pretty sure everybody on this forum came across this before multiple times and it’s always same-old-same-old and we’re all really bored but while reading about biases in racism and (predatory)marketing of certain things I actually came across this and though that there are some new ideas here(to me at least)

If you don’t want to read here are the most interesting bits

"… stories that violate our intuitions about the world are particularly captivating and memorable… Objects that are too counterintuitive are not well remembered, but objects that are minimally counterintuitive are “just right.”
“Our tendency to remember minimally counterintuitive objects or to invent intentional agents are examples of cognitive biases that help to spread religious content.”
“Of key importance is how minimally counterintuitive (MCI) gods violate some of our intuitions, but confirm others via their mundane or anthropomorphized characteristics.”
“Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan found that many religious narratives optimally relate a majority of factual, mundane, or intuitive information, with relatively few mentions of miraculous events.”
“If useful information such as social norms and moral rules (e.g. love thy neighbor) is included in a narrative, the information receives a transmission advantage if the story includes a minimally counterintuitive object.”

OK end of quotes, phew!
If I’m reading this right then the general idea is that if we had few more miracles in the Bible it would never have taken off? But what about Hinduism which is still widespread in India? I’m not an expert in it but I’m pretty sure it contains a lot more “miracles” than other religions. Are we to assume that there were lots of different religions but Christianity was the winner because they got the balance right?

Since I’m here I will ask few more questions related to the issue above that I always wanted to, but somehow never have

  • these arguments are often proposed by agnostics but are they themselves immune to their own biases? It is clear to see that some simply don’t want to believe(obviously I’m not talking about ever single atheist here)
  • is being aware of your biases means that you are not biased anymore since you know it’s just bias? That worked for me when I realised my own bias towards certain products I was buying and I immediately stopped doing so but I’m not sure whether that is good analogy for issues discussed here
  • but how can you be sure something is a bias and not a valid opinion?
    And finally…
    Is there an opposite to confirmation bias where you constantly think you must be wrong and/or constantly trying to disprove various beliefs held by the majority?

Wishing everyone Happy Easter



There’s this saying that “lies are already half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Maybe we should add to this, however, that lies proliferate, run over each other, cheapen themselves until a jaded populace start to be cynical about everything - including truth. But even through all that, truth still has this advantage: It’s still there. Whereas lies spend themselves - they flare bright for a season and burn out. Truth and reality don’t do that. They can be ignored for a season or three, but they can’t be destroyed. All that to say that purveyors and enthusiasts of all this psychological analysis can call me naïve for thinking so, but maybe; just maybe, truth actually matters.

Perceptive questions all!

Must those two things be mutually exclusive? What is a “valid opinion”? We can have wrong or biased opinions, can’t we? So I guess the key is what we mean by “valid”. Are objectively true opinions the only ones that qualify as “valid”?

I suppose modern science would characterize itself as aspiring in this direction (at least as a collective practice). Trying to disprove the beliefs of others, though, is easy - nearly everyone likes to do that. I think to qualify as the kind of “disconfirmation” bias you describe, it would need to be your own opinions that you maintain perpetual skepticism about. But then in that case … they at best could only marginally count as actually being your opinion, no?

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What do you mean by this?

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I’m just thinking that the whole concept of “opinion” is a rather interesting one. To look at it from the other end, what would an invalid opinion be? Is there such a thing? And what would it look like? Because it seems to me that if we require “valid” to mean “true”, then the word “opinion” is robbed of any useful conceptual load the term might have carried.

That’s my opinion on it anyway.

Sorry - Marta - hope I’m not derailing or distracting from very good questions you are asking.

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Of course! I haven’t though about that. Sometimes what you think, let’s say about someone based on what, for example they’re wearing(terrible example I know!) may just turn out to be true. Like finding out that man in a balaclava did actually rob you(as your bias told you lol) and wasn’t just asking what’s the time😂

As to validity of opinions…no, I don’t think it has to necessarily be something that can be confirmed by science, like political views for example, but on the other hand there are views like anti-vax which are based on misinformation and straight faced lies or racism which is disproved by science.

Not at all, in fact you pointed out that only because something is a result of a bias, does not have to be untrue/invalid. Like the example from above post lol

Okay - so truth and objectivity shouldn’t be entirely dismissed in these distinctions to be sure; but … it also sounds just a bit like “validity” as concerns opinions may have a significant moral component too. For example, could somebody have an opinion that might technically be true, and yet be so tone-deaf, or so morally insensitive, or so prone to use as justification for abuse that we might rightly call such an opinion invalid?

I see extensive flaws in such human sciences which basically studies how the average person thinks in some group of people studied, especially when it goes from conclusions about how most of these think to conclusions about the nature of something like religion. By doing this it ignores the impact of more exceptional thinkers, who not thinking according to such patterns, can change the direction of culture and religion significantly. In particular, I was thinking how we observe things about reality which are contrary to our intuitive and natural ways of looking at the world (some of which likely come from our evolutionary adaptation as social organisms).

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Yes, although I can’t think of an example, can anyone? Morality should definitely be considered and I forgot to mention that when giving example of racism - even if it was scientifically valid(it isn’t!), it is soo wrong morally that it could never be valid as an opinion.

Good points. Thanks. The more I think about this, the more I realize that the definition of “bias” or something we prefer, is really nuanced. On the one hand, it’s a goal to get rid of emotion attached to our perception of truth that would affect our judgment of truth. It’s the opposite of AIG promotes.: What Is “Presuppositional” Apologetics? | Answers in Genesis
It’s not associated with conservatives alone–liberals do the same thing.
So, I really hope that we are willing to give up our desires in view of the truth–even if the truth isn’t something we want. Maybe listening to others on the forum helps me with that.


Yeah - I wasn’t at all thinking that racism has anything going for it - morally or objectively. Science rightly puts the lie to all that.

Your mention of anti-vaxers is what provoked my thought. So I guess my example might be if someone’s social media drum to bang on was: “you know … people have had horrible reactions or even been killed by vaccines!” – by itself, all that is technically correct; but it fails to divulge the whole truth (when? where? what percentage of vaccine recipients did this happen to?) In the end, this turns out to be a bogus consideration if, on the strength of this alone, somebody felt exhorted to forego vaccination. I would say they had fallen prey to an invalid opinion.

Another example might be: “crime pays”. Technically, for some people and in some contexts … it has (at least considering their lives in only material and very individualistic terms). But I might still hold that up as an example of an invalid opinion - at least morally if not entirely objectively. (Though I think the objective case on that has been pretty well established in terms of societal cost and social capital).

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I’m not sure why you would say that Christianity is the “winner.” If we apply this particular logic to say, some projections for 2050, one could easily argue that if this prediction comes to pass, actually Islam that has the “winning” balance of not too many miracles.

I don’t think too many religious scholars would argue that Islam has this perfect balance and that is the main reason for the projected growth in terms of % of the world population.

So then what leads to the rise of religious beliefs? This article highlights common threads found within many religions which can be helpful to see how religions work and what makes them work. Another potentially fruitful angle has to do with the rise of many religions around approximately the same time (the so called ‘axial age religions’).

The concept of the Axial Age developed out of the observation that most of the current world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam) can trace their origins back to a specific period of Antiquity around 500 to 300 BCE, and that this period is the first in human history to have seen the appearance of thinkers who still are a source of inspiration for present-day religious and spiritual movements: Socrates, Pythagoras, Buddha, Mahavira, Confucius, Lao Tse, the Hebrew prophets, etc. By contrast, the Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian religions have had no obvious impact on today’s religious and spiritual life.

The authors of this paper summarize some people think it was a cognitive change, while the authors themselves argue that it was mostly a behavioral change that led to the rise of major world religions. However, others still argue that it actually is a result of increased affluence. A bit broader of an approach, beyond just a specific ‘age’ is something like this:

Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history

But here the authors note that religious rituals play a significant role in the development of complex societies which then played a significant role in the development of moralizing gods.

Anyways, the topic is very complicated but at the end of the day, one can take an approach like I do which is…

I’m okay if there are certain things in my mind that predispose me to be attracted to certain religious beliefs or that there are certain features that are common to Christianity and other world religions. I’m also okay with people explaining the rise of various religious beliefs using natural mechanisms because I believe that God is ultimately responsible for making said natural mechanisms/“laws.”

As far as more miracles or less in the Bible, I think it fits really well with commonalities researchers have found to various religions and I’m okay with that. Basically, the Bible has to describe mostly our everyday experience. If it is too mystical/supernatural, or deals with things outside of our everyday experience too often, it isn’t as relatable or useful to our everyday experience. Perhaps this type of thinking can explain why some of the non-canonical Gospels didn’t make it into the canon.



That’s a very good point. Even though I’m not a scientist I am aware how choice of subjects can determine results, this is very clear when testing things like skincare for example or dietery products.

…on both ends of a spectrum. If you read the actual website, paragraph 11 says this

“we cheat less when told a supernatural agent is watching us, are further examples of implicit beliefs that are at odds with explicitly held atheistic beliefs”

Doesn’t this say that if you tell an atheist a ghost is watching he won’t cheat​:ghost::rofl:? Even if true, what would that prove?
It’s obvious what this study is trying to prove(Religion is just a result of a bias)but what I’m not sure about is, how seriously should it be taken, or can that even be proven and would it even have implications.

Wow, sounds fascinating! Anything you want to share?

Ah… well… you may have misunderstood. I meant that some of our intuitive and natural ways of looking at the world are likely from our evolutionary adaptation as social organisms. This applies to many of those mentioned in the article…
hyperactive agency detector – we are adapted to a social community composed of agencies
anthropomorphism – we are adapted to the social aspects of our environment
use of religious symbols for cooperation and morality
displays of commitment
rituals also provide social structure, organization, and social identity

As for things contrary to our intuitive and natural ways of looking at the world… some of these are rather obvious in relativity and quantum physics where we find that space, time, and causality do not work the same on all scales as they do on the scale to which we are adapted. On a larger scale the intuitive way of thinking of reality as being like a film stringing together a series of snapshots isn’t correct. And on the smaller scale things are not always happening as a consequence of the pre-existing conditions.

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Everyone has cognitive bias in accordance with their worldview, and will not likely change until something shakes them out of it, maybe even something fairly radical. I mean, who believes a man rose from the dead?! (It’s possible to affirm Christian principles and doctrines and ‘believe’ without having one’s heart changed, but that takes a miracle and is a whole 'nother topic.) Even unbelievers have dogma associated with their worldviews, even if only by dogmatically insisting that they don’t have any dogma.

(And cognitive bias is a good thing if the bias is correct, just like dogma is a good thing if the dogma is true. I’m biased against putting water in the gas tank of my car, even dogmatically biased. :slightly_smiling_face:)

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All Christians?

Sorry but I’m really not following… Believe in comas as in not really believe?

I meant to imply that it takes a miracle or something radical to make someone believe that, but is clearly not the case, since people can believe all sorts of things.

Sorry, but I’m not really following your question. :slightly_smiling_face: What about comas?

What I was talking about are those who may think they are Christians but really are not. Jesus gives severe warnings in the Gospels and there are several in the Epistles, as well, about those who may think they are Jesus’ disciples but indeed do not belong to him.

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Well I always though if you put a word in comas, for example

Look at my new ‘Gucci’ handbag

It implies you don’t mean that word literally, in this case the handbag would have been a fake.

But English is not my first language so… Anyway, I think I know what you mean.

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Ah, you mean quotation marks, either single or double. When they are used that way and are not actually quoting anyone, but to indicate an atypical meaning, they are called scare quotes. (When we are physically talking to someone and use two fingers with either one or both hands to indicate a non-literal meaning, they are called air quotes. It’s a handy mnemonic that they rhyme, if you forget one or the other. :slightly_smiling_face:)

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