MRBlog | Sticking to Your Convictions: The Brain and Belief



Leonardo da Vinci, via Wikimedia Commons
Leonardo da Vinci, via Wikimedia Commons

By Sarah E. Rollens

Most of us like to think that our worldviews result from our own careful navigation through life’s varied experiences. We assess situations, relationship, interactions, and the like to reach conclusions about what we value, what we despise, and what we won’t tolerate—in other words, our beliefs.

Our beliefs, however, are somewhat more…primitive than that. Psychologists and sociologists have long known that beliefs are affected by both our brain chemistry and our social context. A recent study out of USC confirms that there is an even stronger neurological component to our beliefs—at least the extent to which we are committed to them—than was once thought.

According to the study, which assessed the extent to which people altered their beliefs when they encountered persuasive counter-evidence, “people who were most resistant to changing their beliefs had more activity in the amygdala…and the insular cortex, compared with people who were more willing to change their minds.” These areas, one of the scientists explains, are “especially involved in perceiving threat and anxiety….These areas of the brain have been linked to thinking about who we are, and with the kind of rumination or deep thinking that takes us away from the here and now.” In other words, there is distinct brain activity associated with a particular type of rigid thinking that refuses to budge when presented with facts that might disrupt its beliefs and affect the believer’s sense of identity.

By Nevit, via Wikimedia Commons
By Nevit, via Wikimedia Commons

Though the article differentiates between political and religious beliefs, the academic study of religion typically does not. This means that the commitment many people have to theological beliefs is as much biological as it is rational, though the believer might feel that their beliefs result from their own journey through reason and logic. In order words, some beliefs are, in a sense, irrational, or perhaps better: a-rational, especially if they are closely tied to a person’s sense of identity.

The emotionally charged dimension of belief is still there, even when believers purport to outline the logic of their beliefs. In some cases, the need to justify the logical grounds of belief stems itself from a heightened anxiety to make beliefs appear rational. Consider the following website run by Joseph Mattera, an evangelical theologian. Mattera’s website includes a page devoted to “Understanding How to Resolve Biblical Contradictions.” He systematically works through a number of apparent contradictions throughout the Bible and employs his own logic and reasoning to explain why such contradictions are not contradictions at all. Here is one example:

Genesis 1:26-28: Man and woman were created at the same time but in Genesis 2:7, 21, 22 man was created first and woman some time later.

Explanation # 1: Genesis 1:26-28 was talking about the genetic potential for the woman being created when the human model Adam was made. The word “man” in scripture can refer either to the collection of humankind or to an individual person.

Explanation # 2: It could mean that Genesis 2 just described the process of how male and female were made. It described in more detail what Genesis 1 just mentioned briefly.

In the academic study of the Bible, this “contradiction” in Genesis is explained easily by the theory of multiple authors of the Torah. But for someone working in a more fundamentalist mindset, this is not an option: Moses wrote the entire Torah, and there cannot be any contradictions since the Bible is infallible.

The fact that such websites and extensive explanatory acrobatics exist already implies that the authors recognize the contradictions that others point to and see them as “problems” to be explained. So in some ways, Mattera and others like him are operating in the realm of Enlightenment reason with its need to “prove” to the logical basis of belief.

But perhaps the USC study can make some sense of this as well. Though Mattera and others mobilize “reason” in their responses, the impetus for such responses may very well be the anxiety and the threat to their identity that they see when people critique their beliefs for being “contradictory” or “irrational.” If they didn’t see the critiques as a threat, there would be no need to address them so extensively. The evidence has clearly struck an emotional chord with people like Mattera, who respond, not by assimilating the evidence to their worldview, but by pressing the logic of the criticism (in this case, that theological beliefs must conform to Enlightenment rationality) into service for their beliefs.

Does this imply, as some commentators have fretted, that facts carry no meaning anymore? The 2016 presidential election was seen as a grim witness to this “post-truth” society. But as my MRB colleague Thomas J. Whitley has recently noted, we’ve always lived in a post-truth society, where facts have been secondary to emotion. Whether facts are present or not, we are always guided, in part, by anxiety, fear, and desire. The challenge, then, is to understand the contours of different identity constructions and their psycho-social dynamics, so that we can better see why some information is compelling to certain groups and counts as “facts” for them, while other data is simply dismissed or explained away.