As a preface to this article let me emphasize that I have no antipathy toward the Reasonable Doubts Doubtcasters. I do think, however, that Luke Galen has made some extraordinary claims which are open to critical analysis and refutation, and I offer this critique in the spirit of open dialogue and mutual truth-seeking.
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In the discussion thread to my article “Reality is just like you think: More reasonable doubts about Reasonable Doubts” I had an extended exchange with Luke Galen of Reasonable Doubts. Alas, Luke only succeeded in increasing my reasonable doubts. Early in our exchange he claimed:
Consider these two statements: 1) “we are all, religious and nonreligious alike, prone to cognitive and group biases”; 2) “Religious people are more prone to cognitive and group biases”. Randall is saying only #1 is true, when the evidence presented in GTLY indicates that both are true. That is, although atheists as well as the religious may prefer members of “their own kind”, in fact religious people are MORE ingroupy and discriminate against others than do atheists.
We also know that although everyone is prone to cognitive biases in preferring information more favorable to one’s own views, that religious people are less willing to give up their views upon contradictory information because they are more dogmatic
These are extraordinarily strong claims. Note, for example, that they aren’t specified to members of specific social groups. Nor are they specified to a geographic region. Luke makes these claims without qualification. He did not restrict his claims to the United States, or North America, or some other geographic region. So whether you are in sub-Saharan Africa or Sydney, Australia, religious people are statistically going to be more “prone to cognitive and group bias”.
In a follow-up comment, Luke makes an even more extraordinary claim.
Perhaps you could scrape up a group of christians that are less biased than a group of atheists, but that would be unrelated to their religiosity. (emphasis added)
Once again we have a sweeping, audacious claim. Any lack of bias in a group of “religious people” (Christians or otherwise) cannot be related to their religiosity. This claim really astounded me, not least because there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Consider just one example, Gregg A. Ten Elshof’s book I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009). Elshof writes:
Philosophers, social scientists and psychologists have long been aware of the pervasive reality of self-deception. For centuries, it has been called upon to explain various forms of irrationality and dysfunction. Interestingly, it has also been called upon to explain survival and success in a variety of contexts. Historically, few masters of Christian spirituality have failed to notice the significance of self-deception. Christian thinkers through the ages have had a special interest in the bearing of self-deception on the Christian life and the pursuit of — or flight from — God, and it has long served as a key element in the explanation of sin, moral failure, and the avoidance of God.
The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that the heart is deceitful above all things and asks, rhetorically, “Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). The prophet Obadiah identifies a primary motivation for self-deception: “Your proud heart has deceived you…” (Obadiah 3) The Apostle Paul explains in his Letter to the Galatians how self-deception enables those who are nothing to think they are something (Galatians 6:3)…. (5-6)
Elshof goes on at book length to plumb the depth of the Christian tradition for resources for identifying and overcoming self-deception. I seek to do something similar in You’re not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (Biblica, 2009). It would look like both Elshof and I offer arguments and disciplines from the Christian tradition that would decrease bias in a population of Christian persons. And presumably these arguments and disciplines would be based on “religiosity” since they come from the Christian tradition.
What is more, Elshof and I fit into a very long and venerable stream of critical individual and group self-inquiry which is well entrenched in the Christian tradition. Consider, as one example, the practice of confession to another, a practice which is so important to the Catholic tradition that it is deemed a sacrament (a means of grace). Think about that. How many secular groups have an institutionalized practice in which group members are expected to engage in careful introspection and then confess personal wrong-doings to another person whilst resolving to change one’s ways? To be sure, confession can be abused and reduced to a perfunctory action (think, for example, of the Mafioso who regularly visits the local priest to “confess” … whilst overlooking the several people he assassinated). But abuse doesn’t change the fact that large tracts of Christianity have institutionalized soul-introspective confession and it is to be expected that the serious practice and pursuit of confession would serve, among other things, to reduce individual and group cognitive bias. (Elshof begins his book observing, humorously, that 94% of people surveyed believed themselves to be doing a better than average job! (1) There is good reason to think regular, serious confession would have a positive effect on decreasing this degree of self-deception.)
Based on observations like this, I was truly astounded that Luke would make such a brazen claim as that any decrease of bias in a population would not be attributable to the religiosity of that group. How could he possibly know such a thing?
So I commented to Luke:
How do you know that decrease in bias is categorically unrelated to religiosity? Unless you have a very tendentious definition of “religiosity” I don’t see how you could know this.
That’s the crucial question. How can Luke possibly defend such a categorically sweeping claim that has so many defeaters readily available from within the Christian tradition (let alone all the other myriad possible expressions of “religiosity”).
Consequently, everything depends on Luke’s ability to explain how he distinguishes between religiosity and non-religiosity, for I could not imagine him possibly hoping to justify his astounding claim apart from dependence on a tendentious — indeed completely spurious — definition of “religiosity”. So I pressed Luke on the question and he replied:
The associations with intuitive vs. analytical thinking were correlated with religiosity in the experiments as defined by: continuous measures of belief in God such as strength (anchored at confident atheist and confident believer), belief in an immortal soul, familial religiosity during childhood, and change in belief in God since childhood, an experience that convinced them of God’s existence, religious engagement (attendance at religious services, praying, etc.), conventional religious beliefs (heaven, miracles, etc.) and paranormal beliefs (extrasensory perception, levitation, etc.).
Remember, I was asking for criteria for religiosity which is a necessary precondition to evaluate Luke’s extraordinary claim that a decrease in cognitive bias could never be explicable in terms of religiosity. So now let’s evaluate what Luke gives us.
He starts with belief in God. But this is clearly not a good criterion since, as I noted, a Buddhist monk may have no belief in God. Contrast this with E.O. Wilson who is a deist. I take it Luke wouldn’t think Wilson is, for this reason, more religious than a Buddhist monk.
Next, Luke gives us belief in an immortal soul. But many Christians don’t accept an immoral soul (e.g. many Christians are physicalists about the person), and this is to say nothing about all the other expressions of religiosity that deny this.
Next, Luke gives us question-begging criteria. Keep in mind, I said to Luke I “was asking you to offer your working definition of “religiosity”.” With that in mind, three criteria he gives are “familial religiosity during childhood”, “religious engagement”, and “religious beliefs”, each of which assumes the very concept for which I’ve asked definition. In fairness, Luke does explain that religious engagement can include “prayer”. But he never explains, as I asked him to, why “prayer” would be counted religious but “meditation” would not. (Incidentally, Sam Harris is a big advocate of meditation and I assume he isn’t religious.)
Suffice it to say, Luke completely failed to offer any clear means of distinguishing between religious and non-religious groups. And without that he cannot begin to defend his extraordinary claim that decrease in bias is never explicable in terms of religiosity.
I have provided confession as a paradigm example of religiosity which, if practiced consistently and properly, would decrease cognitive bias, and I have pointed to the abundant resources in the Christian tradition to further this discipline of decreasing cognitive bias and self-deception. Consequently, until Luke can provide a plausible means to distinguish religiosity from non-religiosity which will then support his extraordinary thesis, we can conclude that it is false.