Tonia Lombrozo at NPR: Factual and religious “beliefs” may differ

Okay, I’m not going to dissect the article cited below for two reasons. First, I’m working on the copyedits of the Albatross, an onerous and tiring task. But the main reason is that a colleague and I are writing a scholarly critique of the paper , and it’s wearisome to state the arguments twice. But the paper needs to be called out, for it makes the claim (not supported by its contents) that belief in religious “facts” (like that of Genesis or the Resurrection of Jesus) is completely different from belief in other kinds of facts, so you can believe in contradictory facts simultaneously. You can, for example, simultaneously accept that the Earth and its species are 6,000 years old and also billions of years old.

The paper, published by Neil van Leuuwen, appeared in Cognition (reference at bottom) and is behind a paywall, though judicious inquiry might yield a copy.  What you can read is an accurate popular summary  written by Tonia Lombrozoa on the National Public Radio (“Faith is Our Middle Name”) website culture & cosmos“: Are factual and religious belief the same?

In short, Lombrozo supports van Leeuwen’s contention that religious peoples’ beliefs are really “fictional imaginings” rather than firm beliefs about reality. Religous beliefs are also said to differ from “scientific” beliefs in two ways: religious beliefs operate in a more “restricted context”, and, unlike factual claims, they are immune to refutation. The last bit, of course, does differentiate religious from scientific beliefs (I’m using the words “scientific beliefs” in a loose sense), but that’s because religious people won’t accept counterevidence: the disparity is not in the nature of beliefs, but in the psychology behind them. (Religious beliefs are immunized against disproof because they are accepted a priori on emotional grounds.) But I do take issue with the first two differences. If religious beliefs really are “fictional imaginings”, for instance, then why do so many people try to force creationism into the public schools, or look for Noah’s Ark or Jesus’s tomb, or firmly believe in an afterlife? And who are they praying to? What are Islamic martyrs dying for—a fictional paradise?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You can read Lombrozo’s piece in about five minutes, and see for yourself what an intellectual mess it is—accurately reflecting the paper itself. Go ahead and post your comments below; I promise not to steal anyone’s ideas—at least not without permission!

Lombrozo’s piece and van Leeuwen’s paper are both intended, I think, to buttress religion in a world that increasingly shows that belief in Iron Age fictions is just silly. And the support of faith is, of course, one of the underlying themes of National Public Radio, which I see as unwilling to go up against religion because it’s scared of losing government funding.

h/t: Howie


Van Leeuwen, N. 2014. Religious credence is not factual belief. Cognition 133:698-715.


  1. Howard Neufeld
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I wholeheartedly support Jerry’s analysis of Lombrozo’s piece, plus his statement, which I also think is quite true, no matter what NPR might say, that it avoids going up against religion to avoid losing what little government funding it still has. Nonetheless, there is still no better news on radio than NPR.

  2. Posted November 1, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    There’s a crux of validity to what Lombrozo & van Leeuwen are aiming at (that religious beliefs about facts operate using a different dynamic than scientific belief about those same things). This would be in principle testable, now that we’re in the fMRI era.

    My own study of antievolutionist activities (recounted in in depth in “Troubles in Paradise” concerning folk from Phillip Johnson to Duane Gish, posted in the books section of, where Jerry is a Fellow and I am a Communicator) evidences that antievolutionists (almost exclusively motivated by religious convictions) use a fundamentally different process of thought whereby internal or external contradictions can be all too common.

    The extraordinary consistency of the scholarly behavior (routinely not thinking about things they don’t think about) led to my proposing a broader concept to account for their behavior (and by proxy, how people come generally to believe things that aren’t true, applicable to views running among different demographics, like 9/11 conspiracy theorists or Moon Landing hoax believers) in a 2009 lecture, also posted at SGI

    The upshot is that recognizing that creationists & their vagier Intelligent Design compatriots run off a fundamentally different (and dangerously faulty) way of dealing with the world is a necessary first step to improve how we deal with them in the marketplace of ideas. Highlight what is going on in their heas by identifying their sources, and by following those to ground, all the information needed to shred their positions as viewed by others can be covered (unless of course that audience is heavy with “tortucans” in which case don’t be surprised to gain no traction).

  3. Posted November 1, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    This paper poses a ridiculous choice. If one has a fact-based conclusion about a topic, one does not believe; one knows. On-the-other-hand, if one imagines a position on a topic, one simply believes. These two cognitive states are not the same. Nonetheless, both the NPR writer and Mr. Neil van Leuuwen blithely ignore this distinct difference in the two states they pose as comparable.

  4. Posted November 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink


  5. Barry Lyons
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    This is a muddled piece.

    The word “theory” has two definitions as does the word “belief.” A factual belief is a belief that is supported by evidence. A religious belief is a belief that is supported by whimsy.

    Yes, the general concerns of religion are existential but they nevertheless remain whimsical because religious beliefs concern believing in things without evidence.

    • jay
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      We can believe things we aren’t certain of, but as long as we understand the uncertainty, that’s ok. Certainty is frequently not possible.

      There are also fields where there are many things that are not provably ‘correct’, primarily because there are too many factors at play, and answers can never be proven absolutely; law, economics and politics fall into this category.

      Religion could be there, but it’s adherents try to consider it firmly unquestionable. That’s where the problem lies.

  6. Sastra
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Lombrozo’s piece and van Leeuwen’s paper are both intended, I think, to buttress religion in a world that increasingly shows that belief in Iron Age fictions is just silly.

    If that is their intention (and it may well be) then in the long run I think they’re going to be disappointed: this is an approach which is going to run religion right into the ground.

    Is this philosophical hairsplitting? Van Leeuwen doesn’t think so — he sees a real danger in conflating religious and factual belief: “If we conflate religious credence and factual belief — as so many are inclined to do — we’ll simply miss an extremely important feature of religious psychology.”

    Yes, this sounds like the typical attack on gnu atheism. “Silly, silly atheists — to think that religious beliefs are more like ordinary factual beliefs when they’re much more like … um … pretending to believe in fiction.”

    Isn’t that our point?

    Tone seems to be everything.This talk about conflicting views and compartmentalization and disassociated confusion of categories is the bread and butter of debunking religion — showing its roots, its origin, its foundation in human cognition and desire. God doesn’t actually exist. None of the supernatural “truths” tell us anything about anything but ourselves!

    But put on a smile and an air of understanding and concern and — voila! — we’ve got an accomodationist attempt to respect people’s faith. Yes, their beliefs aren’t true, but the Little People don’t care about that, can’t handle that, don’t need that. Look how religion works for them. Look at how it’s been put together by brain and culture and psychology. Supernatural “truths” tell us about ourselves. Isn’t that special?

    The Little People Argument often comes out of apologists who have gone into Therapeutic, Anthropologist, or Academic Mode. Atheists need to respect religion because it’s not just people making crap up. Not at all! It’s people making crap up because of reasons.

    No kidding. In my opinion this will only work for so long. The religious and spiritual welcome the “support” only when they think it shuts up criticism. As soon as they figure out hey wait — this IS criticism — it will be too damn late. Religion will be buttressed on the foundation that it’s not True — it’s “truthy.”

    Good luck with that (*evil cackling*)

    • darrelle
      Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. This is just yet another attempt to remove religious belief from criticism by definition. Exactly as in the argument that “science can’t evaluate supernatural phenomena because super.” Just like in the “God is the ground of all being and is too ineffable for you to detect with science,” argument.

      Besides being transparent attempts to rationalize beliefs already held instead of testing to determine whether to believe, besides the frivolousness of many of the arguments, they are also non sequitur in that the premises do not lead necessarily to their conclusions as they blithely pretend they do.

      • Posted November 1, 2014 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

        Before reading Lombrozo’s piece I thought there might’ve been something to the argument. It doesn’t seem incorrect to observe that commitment to factual beliefs on one hand and religious beliefs on the other come from different places (which doesn’t necessarily affect te level of commitment to either).

        But no. This:

        “Devon believes that humans evolved from earlier primates over 100,000 years ago.

        Devon believes that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago.

        These claims are clearly at odds. Since they can’t both be true, Devon holds contradictory beliefs. Right?

        Maybe not.”

        is a perfect example of that counter-intuitive fetish, or Tortuous Profundity we discussed a while back.

        When Van Leeuwen recasts “religious belief” as imagining or pretending he’s ignoring overwhelming data in the form of theists who do in fact eat the playdoh cookie. Devon might be on a school board that tries to excise evolution from biology textbooks, or he might be senator that tries to block funding for stem cell research, etc, etc.

        • Posted November 1, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

          Gah. *the* and comma goes after “pretending”.

          • Posted November 1, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

            “might be *a* senator”

            I swear these things look good before I hit post. I am starting to think the WordPress Gremlins hypothesis has something to it.

    • reasonshark
      Posted November 2, 2014 at 3:04 am | Permalink

      I doubt there’s room for complacency. In the long run, it’ll only backfire so long as there are critics who won’t let people remain oblivious to the implications of the Little People argument. However, they will remain oblivious if we don’t point it out to them, whether through deliberately playing obtuse or just poor thinking. Left to their own devices, I think the accommodationist stance and its unintentionally insulted targets will claim job well done so long as it shuts up the atheists.

      • Sastra
        Posted November 2, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink


  7. Posted November 1, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Just how religionists come to believe the things they do, and how these do or don’t process empirical info, doesn’t remove the fact that atheists live on a planet awash with such people, and call it accommodationism or whatever, the issue remains as to how non-believers can (and must) work with believers to create a working secular traditional globally.

    To the extent that believers get lumped together so that liberal believers end up feeling more comfortable around their YEC extreme rather than take one more beating by atheists is not a recipe for successfully levering potentially secular-friendly religious from their extreme wing.

    All this is distinct from the purely cognitive issue of whether religious beliefs work off different dynamics than non-religious. There is already some technical literature to suggest that they do, quite apart from van Leeuwen’s theorizing.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      I suggest that one way (among others, of course) that atheists can work with believers to create a working secular tradition globally is to keep an open dialogue going on whether or not their beliefs are actually true. After all, I would assume that the liberal believer cares as much about this issue as the ‘extreme wing.’

      Or do you have good evidence or argument that oh no, the liberal believers treat the existence of God with contempt and are concerned only with finding a comfortable personal working dynamic based on fiction? Do they tell you so?

      I haven’t heard them say it; maybe they only admit it when they’re amongst fellow believers and can relax.

      • Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        I’m the atheist blogger at and my experience in their fairly liberal/ecumenical circle is that their god and science are never going to be at odds, and can accommodate all manner of scientific evidence because the belief has been disconnected in most instances from potential disproof.

        The point I made about criticism related to the atheist side and the degree to which secularism is seen as just atheism in political guise. I don’t contend that is a true characterization of affairs, but it is often all too easy for people on the religious side to pick on Dawkins or Coyne as exemplars of the stealth nature of evolutionary science as so much atheist propaganda (the writers at Evolution News & Views, such as David Klinghoffer, do this routinely).

        As an atheist and secularist I try to keep the various hats distinct precisely because they are not synonymous. I don’t trim my sails at Spokane Faith & Values regarding my lack of belief and my reasons for it, but also had an Ask an Atheist button instituted there precisely to help clear up misconceptions people might have about my beliefs and the philosophical distinctions circling around them.

        I try to emulate Romert Ingersoll as much as possible, who was forthright in his views while remaining on good terms with his religious friends. You might like to check out the chapter of Troubles in Paradise (TIP) on the Bible history issue, where I try to pick my battles carefully, focusing on the methods approach to criticize antievolutionist’s use of the history without having to preclude religion altogether (or in any way affirm it either)

        • Sastra
          Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

          I’m uncomfortable with the common conflation of “atheism” and “secularism” — they’re not the same thing and it does the cause of separation of church & state no favors when its implied that only atheists benefit or care about this issue. I’m both a secularist AND an atheist. Someone could be a secularist and a theist without contradiction. Secularism is a political position (or, sometimes, an ethical one.)

          But I do think that the theory of evolution carries implications which count against theism and for atheism, and would not want to stifle this debate for fear of the ‘liberals’ turning tail and running against science or atheists or what have you. I’m not sure if this is what you’re suggesting, but I would like to think I could be on good terms with religious friends even if I introduced them to the danger of their becoming atheist.

          In fact, the suggestion that it’s unifying to concede that this is of course a terrible thing for them to become and thus I won’t try it makes me wonder how strong that sort of friendship can be. The terms are suspicious.

          • Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

            I’d agree that evolution has loads of implications for theist views (from why the observed pattern of fossil life doesn’t match even slightly religious accounts of their origin, to the intractable issue of whether any spirit hypothesis can be squared with the available cognitive literature). In this area theistic evolutionists indulge in as many rationalizations as creationists (Karl Giberson comes to mind in his latest book, rewriting Genesis), just that the issues about which they rationalize are somewhat different. Neither can be said to embrace all the available data.

          • Posted November 1, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

            Yes. Secularism works for everybody. Based on my experience, not many theists understand this. You don’t try to peddle theism to my kid and I won’t try to peddle atheism to yours. You don’t try to limit my choice about who to marry and I won’t try to limit yours. So many theists are under the impression that if they’re not getting their way, it’s unfair.

  8. merilee
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    oy veh

  9. Posted November 1, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    There’s a big difference between pretending the Play-doh cookie is real when you know it isn’t, and relying on a Play-doh cookie for sustenance.

    As usual with those who attempt accommodationism, the logic just doesn’t work.

    And as Jerry points out, you can’t say people don’t really believe this stuff, because many of them clearly do. The Roman Catholic muddle between accepting evolution but still believing in the doctrine of original sin (which requires we all be descended from Adam and Eve) is one thing. Home-schooling your kids so they’ll never learn about evolution is another. Those people really do believe it and set up whole organizations devoted to opposing evolutionary theory.

    It’s also an attitude that feeds the danger of the far-left that says we have to be tolerant of Islam teaching homosexuality is evil, while they never stop criticizing the Christian sects that do the same.

    It’s dangerous too. People are committing murder, regularly, because of their religious beliefs. Those religious beliefs are even enshrined in their laws giving them even more “validity”.

    The argument is ridiculous, and as Sastra has already said, will only last as long as people think it supports religion.

    And the final score in the rugby: NZ 74, USA 6.

  10. darrelle
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    At the moment all I can say is that Ben Goren’s attitude about philosophy seems very apropos to me after reading that. The arguments are juvenile with a thin veneer of academic word play smeared on top. I’m not sure whether to feel sorry for van Leuuwen, and possibly Lombrozo, or be irritated that they think I’m such an idiot.

  11. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    It seems very much like another way to excuse the believing in things that have no evidence. In other words, it’s okay to be religious because we all know it’s fiction and that is okay with us.

    Finding another way to give the religion a pass. It is nonsense for sure.

    They don’t get dressed up every Sunday and head down to a special building and pray while listening to someone else tell them what to think, who to vote for and who to hate because it’s a fiction.

    There is heavy duty brain washing going on in these religions every day so to think it is just okay because it’s a different and odd kind of belief is worse than a joke.

  12. Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    It reads like a personal, cognitive version of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). But the supposedly separate magisteria of religious and factual belief remain mostly indistinguishable. Religious people often insist that their religious beliefs are factual or at least matters of reasonable faith, not silly fantasies like belief in the Tooth Fairy. Georgia Southern University Associate Professor Emerson T. McMullen, who [I learned from WEIT] proselytizes against evolutionary theory, didn’t seem to get the cognitive NOMA memo.

    Perhaps less deluded religionists pretend to believe religious teachings as part of their role as members of religious communities while they actually have contrary beliefs shaped by reason and evidence.

    • Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      The NOMA issue remains a prickly one, partly I contend because Gould drew his distinction in the wrong spot. I argue in another of the Secular Global Institute postings that there is a dividing line, but not between science & religion as Gould framed it, but between “decidable” empirical issues where science is the method, and “undecidable” normative issues where philosophical reasoning govern I think that if these distinctions were followed some of the heat in arguments people get into on where facts leave off and beliefs begin might be turned down a notch or two

      • Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        Umm. . in three of your four posts you tell readers to read your pieces at another site. Are you using this website to tout your own work?

        • Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          Its stuff that’s relevant, from the group (Secular Global Institute) where Jerry is on the Fellows list, so didn’t think it was violating the rules to link to places where further info available. I could have repeated the whole NOMA arguiment, I suppose, but figured a link was easier. Isn’t that people do these days, so others can follow and check on their own?

          • Posted November 2, 2014 at 2:35 am | Permalink

            Um… do you normally address people in the third person? 😉


  13. Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Facts are not a matter of belief. Evolution is a fact. Gravity is a fact. The heliocentric geometry of the solar system is a fact. The germ theory of disease is a fact. Belief has nothing to do with it.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 1, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      I think it can create confusion when the terms fact and belief are partitioned that way.
      Rather than say a thing is a fact OR a belief, it is more common to say that all of these things are ‘beliefs’.
      Some beliefs are ‘justified beliefs’ as they come to us from empirical experiences and from vetted experts. These may be considered ‘facts’ if there is a lot of confirmation and no credible dispute.
      Other beliefs are not confirmed by empirical experiences, and among those are things like religious beliefs.

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        There’s a need for a word that means “is the case”, and “fact” works. A statement about a putative fact then becomes a fact statement, and a true one iff things are as it claims. (This latter clause has to be finessed, but that’s the simplest case.)

  14. BillyJoe
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink


    We seem to have interpreted this article differently, and I’m not sure who has got it correct. Your question:

    “If religious beliefs really are “fictional imaginings”, for instance, then why do so many people try to force creationism into the public schools, or look for Noah’s Ark or Jesus’s tomb, or firmly believe in an afterlife?”

    My simple answer is that religious people, themselves, do not ACCEPT or do not REALISE that their religious beliefs are really “fictional imaginings”.

    And my reading of the article (I haven’t read the original) is that that is what the author is saying. Otherwise what would you make of this direct quote from the author:

    “I think there are two main messages. The first is an encouragement in the direction of self-knowledge. What psychological state is actually going on in your mind when you say (for example) ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty … ‘? If it’s credence as opposed to factual belief, as I think and as the word ‘creed’ suggests, then perhaps you have no business pushing it on someone else as if it were a factual belief — no matter how much it may do for you personally. So I think that self-knowledge can yield a certain amount of humility and restraint”

    I think the author is trying to get people to understand that their religious beliefs are really “fictional imaginings”.
    But, yes, good luck with that.

    • Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Read the original article. If people think that their religious beliefs are real (which I agree with), how can they simultaneously say that the earth is 10,000 years old and billions of years old, which Lombrozo and the original author say is a reasonable position?

      • Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        For all who don’t have access to the original article it is more difficult to assess that aspect. This may be a good occasion for total open access for scholarly literature, but until then some arguments have to be undertaken secondarily, which is always a problem

      • Derek Freyberg
        Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        I’ve read (or at least skimmed) the original article, and I agree with BillyJoe on this. I don’t think that either van Leuuwen or Lombrozo say that holding contrary “beliefs” on the age of the earth is a reasonable position, they say that at least some people hold such contrary “beliefs” because they in effect treat the age of the earth factually for everyday matters and credentually on Sundays; that is, for these people, such “beliefs” on the age of the earth are really of two different kinds. To me this is a semantic issue. The problem that secularists (thank you Sastra for reminding us about secularism versus atheism – it’s a very important point) face in the US is that a non-trivial number of people act as if their religious beliefs are factual and not credentual, and so they try to have creationism taught in schools, for example. So while a Ken Miller or Francis Collins, for example, may have what I think Jerry would consider “cognitive dissonance” between his profession of credentual beliefs and his practical applcation of factual beliefs, the dangerous people to the secularist are people like Ken Ham, who treats his religious beliefs as factual and has a “cognitive dissonance” not between one kind of belief and the other but between a credentual-considered-factual belief and the real world.

      • Prof.Pedant
        Posted November 1, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

        In some cases I would invoke cognitive dissonance, more specifically that a percentage of the population (a percentage which probably includes each of us at one time or another) continue to have trouble with the difference between “assuming” and “knowing”, perhaps because rigorous understanding of ourselves and the real world is an evolutionarily recent development. It is probably beneficial to be able to consider multiple assumptions at the same time, evaluating them by which assumption is most ‘useful’ at any particular moment (“how does what I think I know apply to this situation?”). Which all too often means the assumption that is the most ‘truthy’ in the current circumstance. Genesis doesn’t fit very well in a science classroom, it conflicts with much of the rest of “the science story”…but evolution (or relativity, etc.) produces a similar cognitive conflict with most religious teachings….so some people simply switch out which assumptions they are using, and mistakenly refer to some of those assumptions as ‘knowledge’.

  15. Derek Freyberg
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Van Leuuwen has the “penultimate draft” downloadable through (the link is and in it he offers copies of the final published version to anyone who asks and doesn’t have their own access to it.

  16. Myron
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    There seems to be a similarity between Van Leeuwen’s concept of religious credence and the concept of faith as “sub-doxastic venture”:
    Swinburne calls this the pragmatist view of faith:

    “While Lutheran faith involves both belief-that and trust, Luther stresses that the trust is the important thing. Is a third form of faith possible, where one can have the trust without the belief-that? I think that it is and that many recent writers who stress the irrelevance to faith of ‘belief-that’ have been feeling their way towards such a form of faith. I shall call this view of faith the Pragmatist view.
    As we have seen, one can act on assumptions which one does not believe. To do this is to do those actions which you would do if you did believe. In particular, you can act on the assumption not merely that God, whom you believe to exist, will do for you what you need or want, but also on the assumption that there is such a God (and that He has the
    properties which Christians or others have ascribed to Him). One can do this by doing those actions which one would do if one believed these things. In Chapter 1 I quoted Pascal, who responded to someone who said ‘But I can’t believe’ by giving him a recipe for how to acquire belief. The recipe was that the person should act as if he believed, do the actions which believers do, ‘taking holy water, having masses said’, etc. and that would produce belief. Although Pascal did not hold that acting-as-if was the essence of faith, he saw it as a step on the road to acquiring it. But it is natural to develop this third view of faith according
    to which the belief-that is irrelevant, the acting-as-if is what matters.”

    (Swinburne, Richard. Faith and Reason. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 147)

    So, “to believe religiously that p” (rather than “factually”) in Van Leeuwen’s sense might mean “to fancy (but not believe) that p and to act as if p (is true).” Of course, given this definition, “religious belief” is a misnomer, because religious belief is then no longer belief (in the normal sense) but something else, which is called “religious credence” by Van Leeuwen. (I think a better term is “religious pretence”.)

    • Myron
      Posted November 1, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      Van Leeuwen’s concept of religious credence seems to be subsumable under the general, religion-independent concept of pragmatic acceptance. To accept p pragmatically is to commit oneself to using p and to acting as if p is true. Thus defined, pragmatic acceptance doesn’t entail belief.

      For the distinction between belief and acceptance, see:

  17. Posted November 1, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    JAC said ” If religious beliefs really are “fictional imaginings”, for instance, then why do so many people try to force creationism into the public schools, or look for Noah’s Ark or Jesus’s tomb, or firmly believe in an afterlife?”

    I think people do this as a way to convince themselves of their religions claims. They believe it will be good for society and themselves if everyone believes but they can’t quite convince themselves so they compensate but foisting it on others.

    I generally agree with the opinions expressed here on this topic but in this case I think van Leuuwen is on to something here. For years now I’ve been noticing examples where the actions, behavior…even the language of religious people seems to blatantly contradict the idea that they believe the things they claim to believe. I don’t think they’re actually lying..thats why van Leuuwen’s more elaborate psychological interpretation may be valid

    • Jacques Hausser
      Posted November 1, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      I agree that van Leuuwen’s analysis is not basically wrong. Think about a group of kids playing together; they can be warriors, explorers,cow-boys, anything. They know perfectly well that at 6 p.m. they must be back home, back to their factual life. But actually their social status and their integration in the group entirely depends on their played life. Thus they take it very seriously.
      I suppose that the relation of many adults to religion is the same – they know that it is just a bunch of myths, but can’t admit it because it is a big part – or even the main part – of their social integration. They have their place in the play, and it is a comfortable and reassuring one. And, as adults, they don’t have to be back at 6 p.m.

      • Posted November 2, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        OT, this reminds me of Craig Davidson’s fabulous pictures of children playing in the shadow of the fictional characters they’re pretending to be.


      • ascanius
        Posted November 2, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        on the other hand, i suspect that most adults who believe in religion think that at the end of the day (i.e. when they die) they really will be taken up to heaven where they will meet with their dead relatives. i’m not sure they are not taking those most basic (and comforting) beliefs as factual 24/7.

  18. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    There may be cognitive dissonance on specific issues with a religious belief such as the 6000 year old earth verses reality but it is hardly common among the religious. Those who say they simply can’t believe in evolution are not going to believe any of the evidence, no matter how deep.

    They discard the science and all the facts simply because it gets in the way of the religion.

    The actual scientist who goes to work in the specific study of evolution each day and is a creationist would fit this disorder but is this not the exception?

    • Posted November 1, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      There are a handful of creationist scientists, such as British microbiologist Mark Toleman or American geneticist Jeffrey Tompkins, even a couple of creationist paleontologists (Kurt Wise & now Marcus Ross). Within narrow limits they can do perfectly adequate technical work and coauthor published papers, but are fairly peripheral in even their own scientific fields (glaringly so for Wise & Ross). Creationists like Ross actually are well awqare of evidence that doesn’t fit their model, but since the doctrine is non-negotiable they move onto rearranging the deck chairs in the Titanic of their mind.

  19. Derek Freyberg
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just finished reading Robert Pennock’s “Tower of Babel:The Evidence Against the New Creationism”. It was written in 1999, well before Pennock testified against Intelligent Design in Kitzmiller in 2005, and so perhaps a bit outdated, but it’s a good history and analysis of the various creationist movements, including ID. Pennock appears somewhat accomodationist, in the sense that he says that evolution does not deny the existence of god (true for a deist god, but I think false for an active one); but he is firmly anti-creationism, which he sees as a wrong use of religion: if you put a credentual belief to a factual test (such as by making a factual claim of the age of the earth), it will fail.
    Pennock’s take on creationism and its rise is that creationists see the Bible as both a scientific (factual) and a moral (credentual) document [though he doesn’t use that terminology], and they want the Bible taken as a factual document because they want their view of the credentual “morality” of the Bible to be considered factual – and therefore suitable to be imposed by law, say, on everyone – also.
    Van Leuuwen, by drawing the distinction between factual and credentual “beliefs”, seems to be warning of the same problem – as quoted by BillyJoe above: “If it’s credence as opposed to factual belief, as I think and as the word ‘creed’ suggests, then perhaps you have no business pushing it on someone else as if it were a factual belief — no matter how much it may do for you personally.”

  20. Keith Cook
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Belief and fact in the religious context is oil and water, we will never reconcile the two.
    We can only deal with it’s effects, to think otherwise is.. well, simply foolish.
    Atheist have to put up or shut up and the latter is not going to happen. We care about the truth as much as religionist and the like ( more so I suggest because our current knowledge dictates the fallacy of doing otherwise )and I’m not going to waste your brain time suffice to say, our so called arrogance comes from irrefutable empirical evidence, not from the love of a myth and it’s terrible consequences.
    Science, Neuroscience, the psychology of belief and it’s evolutionary underpinnings are pointing to understanding why and hopefully obliterate (I’m putting my faith, cough, splutter.. in it) the silly notion of god.

  21. Marella
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Anybody who believes (factually) they’re going to get support for religious beliefs from this paper is going to be seriously disappointed. The main thesis seems to be that nobody really believes that nonsense. They make it up as they go along, only stick with it so long as their authority figures remain immaculate, and should stop trying to shove it down the throats of others who don’t wish to hear about it. He even implies that religious propositions are only believed in certain circumstances, such as during the relevant ceremonies.

    This may well be how “sophisticated theologians” believe, but how is he going to explain suicide bombers with this idea? Who commits suicide and murders thousands of anonymous strangers for something they don’t actually believe, but only give “religious credence” to? Do mothers who tell their daughters, that if a relative kills them for abandoning Islam then that is what they deserve, not really believe in the supernatural, but just imagine that it’s true for the sake of argument? He states that religious credence is not vulnerable to being changed by reality, but many people have abandoned their religions when it became clear to them that it did fit with reality.

    The motive behind this paper seems to be to downgrade religious belief into a different category of understanding, so that it can be dealt with in a different way and be clearly understood to be inferior to actual knowledge of reality. This seems like a good idea, and perhaps his term “religious credence” could profitably be adopted by humanists and secularists to help differentiate religious beliefs from beliefs which are held on a more solid basis.

    • Posted November 2, 2014 at 2:59 am | Permalink

      I agree that a scholarly believer won’t find solace for their beliefs, but you do realize, don’t you, that you are going against most of the readers, who say that van Leeuwen is showing that believers DON’T REALLY BELIEVE what they profess, that they KNOW they’ve accepting fictions.

      I think that take is wrong. That is, van Leeuwen does profess this, but his analysis is, I think, completely off the mark.

      Now I completely agree with you that believers really do believer this stuff (their actions and the polls on belief say that), and that religious beliefs about stuff like martyrdom or Jesus’s Resurrection are not perceived in a different way from, say, factual beliefs about history. And maybe van Leeuwen isn’t trying to soothe the faithful. But Lombrozo sure is, at least in my estimation!

      • Marella
        Posted November 2, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think I am going against the other readers, at least I didn’t mean to. I said “The main thesis seems to be that nobody really believes that nonsense” by which I meant religion.

        I didn’t pay so much attention to Lombrozo, who seems to be soothing the faithful it’s true, I read van Leeuwen’s paper. He mostly seems to be downgrading religious belief to me, trying to show that it’s not believed in the same way as factual beliefs in order to make religious beliefs less defensible. Though what believers and faitheists will make of is another matter. Lombrozo is perhaps a foretaste of that. They will massage his words to mean the exact opposite of what he said. Nothing new there.

  22. Joseph Yau
    Posted November 1, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    China, summer 1900. As foreign armies poured into Beijing to relieve the besieged foreign embassies, a noted court mandarin and mentor to the emperor hanged himself in shame and anguish. Before he ended his life though, he sent servants to hang a couplet on the city walls. It read, “How can Spain or Portugal exist, Not listed in the Classics, Absurd, Bizarre.”

    The fact of the matter is that it’s possible for learned and otherwise intelligent people to deny reality, even as it unfolds right before their own eyes. As crazy as creationists might seem, they can at least play dumb and not look at the evidence. For this mandarin who committed suicide, he actually refused to acknowledge the existence of enemy countries when their very troops were invading his city.

    It’s easy for us to laugh and mock people who hold inconsistent beliefs about the world. What might be more difficult is understanding the cognitive mechanisms that underpin these thought patterns. I’m not a psychologist or cognitive scientist, but it seems recent collectivist/individualist research may provide some clues. One of the hallmarks of collectivist societies is the capacity to tolerate inconsistent ideas and beliefs. People in these societies tend to take a more contextual understanding of the world then an analytical one. The implication is that they think across issues more often than they think through issues. Also, it’s quite possible that a collectivist thinking style lends itself better to appeal to authority and established knowledge rather than evidence and reasoning which may well destroy conventional wisdom.

  23. reasonshark
    Posted November 2, 2014 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    This has been rendered obsolete by science anyway: Kaplan and Harris ran fMRI scans on the brains of religious and non-religious participants while asking them to answer phrases with “true” or “false”, including religious and non-religious statements. The idea was to see whether religious and non-religious beliefs differed enough in the mind for them to be classed as two different kinds of belief, with different natures.

    The result? Brain activity was virtually the same for both types of belief, regardless of whether the subject was a believer or not. The only major differences were:

    1. Religious beliefs were often accompanied by emotional responses, too, as shown in the activation of areas associated with strong emotion.

    2. Both religious and non-religious believers, when confronted with religious claims, seemed less than usually certain, judging from the activation of brain circuits that handle uncertainty under other conditions.

    (Interestingly, Harris’ other work also suggests values, or at least value statements, are treated the same way as mathematical and other beliefs are. In The Moral Landscape, he uses this as counterevidence to the position of non-cognitivism.)

    So yeah, Lombrozo and van Leeuwen are wasting their time. Factual and religious beliefs aren’t different except in ways that are distinctly damning: they’re not as certainly held as conventional facts, and they excite people’s strong emotions.

    • Shwell Thanksh
      Posted November 2, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Experiment: still the best way to distinguish between hypotheses.

      This supports the “Jesus and Mo” explanation: Faith isn’t just deciding to believe because you want to believe, it’s deciding to believe because you want to believe really, really bad.

  24. Posted November 2, 2014 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    Of course the real trick is getting religious types to recognize that they’re just making stuff up and their ‘facts’ are different than real ‘facts’.

  25. Posted November 2, 2014 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    Ted Haggard was an evangelical preacher who promised hellfire for sinners, especially homosexuals. All the while he was having sex with gay prostitutes and taking drugs with them. If you had followed Haggard around 24/7 with a gun pointed at his head and told him that the second he engaged in a homosexual act you’d blow his brains out he would never have partaken in the things he did. The immediacy of looking down a gun barrel would have driven away his urges.
    But Haggard claims that he believes God is watching him 24/7 and has a far worse punishment that merely being shot in the head: eternal damnation in a lake of fire. If Haggard really believed these things would he have taken such an awful chance? There is always the change he could die quickly in ‘the act’ without a chance to repent. This suggests to me that in some sense he knows there isn’t really a God watching him.
    There are many such examples of peoples actions contradicting what they claim to believe.

    • Scote
      Posted November 2, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Well, that or humans don’t’ always act rationally or in their long term self-interest.

  26. chris moffatt
    Posted November 2, 2014 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    talking of denying reality I notice van Leeuwen gives Y2K as an example of a non-problem that was perceived to be a serious problem. In fact Y2K was an extremely serious problem and if unaddressed would have destroyed the world’s financial systems. The reason that didn’t happen is not that there wasn’t really a problem but that it was recognized and companies and people around the world spent several years fixing it BEFORE Jan 1, 2000. For financial services companies, banks, payment system companies etc the fix was government mandated. The company I worked for at the time spent many thousands of man hours over four years and many millions of dollars to fix our systems. As a result the fixed and very carefully tested systems worked just fine when Jan 1, 2000 finally came.
    But to say that it was just a perception and that there was no real problem is so incorrect as to convince me that this alleged “philosopher” is just as clueless and useless as the rest of them since the time of Plato.
    Would that we could do a simple thought experiment and make reality go away but the universe doesn’t work like that – except in university philosophy departments I guess.

  27. Posted November 2, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Perhaps we begin by finding the grain of truth. Evolution honed us to survive in our surroundings, but not to undertand quantumphysics, cosmology or women. We learn that with hominids included, we have about 200.000 generations of parents and grandparents before us (6mio/30y). Only about 400 generations lived before us since the Neolitic, which began about 12.000 years ago. We learn that our sun does not really rise and set, but that we live on a cannonball that zips around our star at the amazing speed of 108,000 km/h, or 67,108 mph (30 km/s). We learn that there millions of galaxies in the nightsky, and that each is composed of millions of suns, much like our own.

    However, as everyone knows who once had an epiphany, knowing and really “grasping” these things are really different things. We go by intuitions that work for our immediate surroundings. Thereby, the world seems maybe crumpled up, but otherwise flat. New Zealanders don’t really walk upside down, the sun rises and sets and people in the Renaissance, or in the Bronze Age aren’t that far in the distance.

    There seems to be a grain of truth there. Some sociologists work with very wide definitions of “religions”, but even with those in mind, I don’t think that rising and setting sun and a myriad of other intuitions can be considered “religious beliefs”. Rather, these intuitions seem to be in part nurtured and then they are vulnerable to religious influences, that anyway work with a host effective mental “hacks”.

    Many good people from Robert A. Wilson to the comics writer Alan Moore, or the statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb have expressed a certain disregard to this kind of “religious knowledge” (~intuitions) as something that is True™, and file it away unter platonicity or narratives, or idea-scapes. As I see it, and I put myself into that tradition, there is the attempt of mental hygiene. Love of the fantastic, the narrative, the imaginitive and the storyline, but keep it apart from what we can predict robustly. In religious mindsets that is much more blurred into another. The other extreme would be naïve realism that does the same, yet scientific narratives act like religious ones. On one end people think the maps are arbitrarily drawn the other think the maps are the territory (there is of course a bit more to sort out).

  28. Maarten Boudry (@mbo
    Posted November 2, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    There seem to be three misreadings of Van Leeuwen’s paper here: (1) VL claims that religious beliefs are fictions, only the faithful don’t realize it (WRONG: VL claims that the faithful are in tune with their cognitive attitudes: that’s why they simultaneously endorse two different ages of the earth without inconsistency, see also his analogy with children’s pretend play). (2) VL claims that religious beliefs are “fictions” because they lack solid support, as any atheist would. (WRONG: he claims that they are “fictions” in virtue of the faithful’s own sophisticated cognitive attitudes) (3) Van Leeuwen is just talking about some half-hearted liberal believers, who believe in God on Sundays and in Science during the rest of the week (WRONG: he is talking about YECs and religious belief in general)

    Randy Schenk has nailed it: this is an attempt to excuse the faithful from irrationality. I wonder why all those Bible-thumping creationists get so upset about evolution, and try to sneak their views into school curricula, if the six-day creation is just an “imaginative fiction” for them. Wouldn’t you think that they leave their stupid doctrines at the church door then?

  29. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    You can, for example, simultaneously accept that the Earth and its species are 6,000 years old and also billions of years old.

    If I hadn’t already had my breakfast, all I’d need would be another five impossible things to believe, and I’d have my pre-breakfast exercises completed.

  30. Kirth Gersen
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    If it’s a “belief in fiction,” then these people wouldn’t be *actually* murdering one another in order to decide whose Play-Doh cookie is actually a real cookie.

  31. johzek
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Although religiously believing is correctly identified as imagining in the examples given, I don’t understand why factually believing is not identified as knowing. Imagining and knowing are not at all alike. Imagining is the adoption of a mental attitude looking inward to the content of our mind whereas knowing involves looking outward and observing the reality external to our minds.

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