Do Religious Beliefs Completely Override Reason? This Study Says No.

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“This is the body of Christ,” the pastor stated matter-of-factly in a confirmation class, a rite of passage that Lutheran teenagers undergo where they memorize the basic tenants of the faith and learn to revere Martin Luther as nearly infallible. The pastor held up a small, circular communion wafer of bread that resembled cardboard more than human flesh. Even as a child, I found this claim somewhat absurd—the tiny wafer was very different from a human body, but the pastor did say that the wafer was also the body of Christ. Without realizing it at the time, I held two contradictory beliefs at the same time. I believed that the wafer was just a wafer, but I also believed that it somehow also contained the flesh of Jesus.

This pretzel logic is familiar to anyone who has previously been extremely religious. Adhering to a faith often involves holding opposite beliefs simultaneously, which can be very confusing, to say the least. The title of Georgia State University philosophy professor Dr. Neil Van Leeuwen’s recent article, published in the journal Cognition, bluntly states this conflict: “Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief.” Religious faith often flies in the face of evidence and reason, yet many people simultaneously hold both their factual beliefs and religious beliefs to be true. The findings from this article concerning how individuals navigate these contradictions have profound implications for both religious and nonreligious communities.

As an NPR article explained (the full study is available for purchase), Leeuwen explores the difference between beliefs in facts, which are subject to evidence, and beliefs in religious claims, which are subject to directives from higher authorities, such as priests. What makes Leeuwen’s analysis unique is that he defines what he calls “factual beliefs” as completely opposite to religious credence. Factual beliefs, he asserts, are applicable or at least can be activated in nearly all situations, and perhaps most importantly, they can change in the face of contradictory evidence. Religious beliefs, however, are often only activated in certain contexts, and if they do change, their changes are subject to the word from a certain authority, not merely from evidence.

Factual beliefs, Leeuwen explains, must change to ensure our survival. If our ancient ancestors believed that eating a certain plant was beneficial, only to discover that the plant made them sick, their continued existence required them to modify this factual belief. Religious beliefs, however, do not constitute people’s objective reality but instead create their identity. They give people a sense of belonging and in-group membership that is independent of outside evidence.

While Leeuwen asserts that religious credence is often unaffected by empirical evidence, his findings are not completely pessimistic about the ability of individuals to change their minds about religion. In examining religious beliefs and how they become activated in individuals’ minds, he concludes, “the [religious] credence is practical setting dependent, becoming deactivated outside the religious-ritual setting.” In other words, many religious individuals only apply their religious beliefs in specific religious settings. As a child, I believed that bread was also the body of Christ, but only in the setting of the ritual of communion. Religious beliefs, as Leeuwen’s article explains, do not override facts.

Leeuwen leaves his readers with suggestions for further research and lays out how his findings might influence the study of religious extremism. Unlike moderate religious beliefs, Leeuwen posits that extremist religious beliefs are treated like factual beliefs in that they are applied to all situations, not just religious ones. However, unlike factual beliefs, extremist religious beliefs are not subject to modification in the face of new evidence.

From the perspective of religious communities, Leeuwen’s distinction between religious beliefs and factual beliefs can suggest how believers can strike a balance between the two to avoid religious extremism. And from the perspective of humanist and nonreligious communities, Leeuwen’s findings can offer some hope for finding common ground with religious individuals. We might disagree on religious credence, but we can hold factual beliefs in common and use them to begin a dialogue.