The Psychology of Faith

After leaving the faith of Christianity my mind began to fixate upon a number of interesting questions: how could I have been a Christian for so long? Why had I not seen the evidences that I can see now earlier in my journey? Christianity, and religion in general, is not just a building inhabited by fools, there are many intelligent people among the ranks. So what is it that can make an intelligent person believe something implausible? In the past few years my personal health problems have led me to investigate a number of different areas relating to neuroscience. And a number of factors screamed out as reasons for belief amidst this complicated and developing discipline. This article explores a number of different aspects of neuroscience, sociology and psychology that play into faith.

Bounded Rationality

Social scientists recognise a human phenomenon in which people make “leaps of faith” regarding issues of reason. Dr Jeremy E Sherman identifies that: “The biggest social science trend of the last 50 years is toward acknowledgment of “bounded rationality.” We can’t reason our way through to perfect decisions about everything, so we reason a bit, and then draw conclusions.  We might leap to conclusions (a leap of faith) or creep slowly to them, but one way or another, we round up or down from the evidence to a conclusion, so we can get on with whatever else makes demands on our day.”[1]

These leaps of faith can either be identified as simply a different level of rationality or as an escape from rationality. So bounded rationality is a rationality about when to use our rationality. The individual decides, consciously or more often subconsciously, whether more reasoning about something is worth the effort. People reason about whether or not more reasoning about the question is a reasonable use of their attention. This behaviour may arise for a number of different reasons. Because time is our most valuable resource it may be determined that expending large amounts of time on a particular subject does not yield an effective return. The individual may also deem that the issue at hand is too complex for them to actually solve, so rather than engaging they resort to a simple answer in order to save from embarrassment, or from expending time and energy on a topic to which they feel incapable of finding a solution with reason.

When an individual reaches this point they can use a variety of vocabulary to express their unwillingness to continue a discussion about the topic. Such final vocabulary includes terminology like “we are done here,” “don’t go there,” and “I just have faith.” Doctor Sherman identifies the word “faith” as “Grade-A final vocabulary, the ultimate way to stop wondering… As final vocabulary, faith is perhaps most useful when it’s left vague and ill-defined.  People often simply say, “I have faith” without specifying what they have faith in.  Positive, ill-defined and without specifics it can be used to stop wondering about anything.”

What is belief?

In simple terms a belief is an idea or principle that we judge to be true. But beliefs are powerful and have a far reaching impact. While an idea might be considered to be benign, beliefs can lead to mass genocide, ritual rape and flying planes into the sides of buildings. Doctor Alex Lickerman, a medical doctor and director of primary care at ImagineMD in Chicago says “I routinely encounter people who believe things that remain not just unproven, but which have been definitively shown to be false. In fact, I so commonly hear people profess complete certainty in the truth of ideas with insufficient evidence to support them that the alarm it used to trigger in me no longer goes off.”[2] Doctor Lickerman identifies that the human predisposition to believe false propositions is derived from our highly irrational thinking patterns. Modern neuropsychology recognises that Homo sapiens is very irrational. Science journalist Chris Mooney identifies a phenomenon called “motivated reasoning” in which an individual’s pre-existing beliefs can skew their thoughts far more than any new facts, demonstrating that human beings have a biased set of cognitive processes. Mooney notes a key insight of modern neuroscience “Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it.”[3] Arthur Lupi, of the University of Michigan recognises this super-fast reaction to stimuli in our environment as a key human survival skill: “We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”[4]

This is not to suggest that human beings are not capable of using reason. But human reasoning works at a slower rate and enters the equation at a later stage. Even when humans do start to utilise reason, it does not take place in an emotional vacuum. Charles Taber of Stony Brook University provides an example of a person who has recently heard about a new scientific discovery that challenges their deepest beliefs about divine creation. This could be a new hominid that confirms our evolutionary origins. The person has a subconscious negative response to the information which guides the memories and associations formed in their conscious mind causing them to retrieve thoughts which are consistent with their previous beliefs. This will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they are hearing. What this means is that when we think we are reasoning we may in fact be rationalising. Every person can hopefully recognise this type of rationalising behaviour within themselves. If a person doesn’t want to believe that their child is a little dull, or that they have an unlikeable personality trait, they can go to great lengths to explain away behaviour that is obvious to everybody who isn’t too emotionally invested to accept it. The good news is that we are not purely emotional beings and we are motivated to perceive the world accurately. We are also capable of changing our minds. But for many people their thinking lives are consumed with more important goals than accuracy. Protecting one’s self beliefs or one’s deep rooted religious or political bearings can make a person highly resistant to change in spite of the facts.

Our intellectual value judgements, or the degree to which we believe or disbelieve an idea, are strongly influenced by our brain’s proclivity for attachment. Not only are people pattern finding machines, we are also attachment machines, hitching our wagons to people and ideas. And we don’t do this in a cold rational manner, our brains become intensely emotionally entangled with the ideas that we come to believe are true. So even if we used poor methods to arrive at our beliefs we can have a strong emotional investment in them that goes far beyond the loyalty that they warrant. The emotional aspect of our rational judgement explains why we can exhibit a number of biases. A confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors. While a disconfirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to extend critical scrutiny to information which contradicts their prior beliefs and uncritically accept information that is congruent with their prior beliefs. These two biases form a double edged sword against ideas which conflict with one’s prior beliefs.

One of the goals of our primitive brain can be the validation of our pre-existing beliefs. Because we build our lives upon the cognitive scaffolding of these beliefs the brain has a vested interest in confirming them to allow us to get on with our day to day survival. All of this is done “under the radar” so to speak by the subconscious processes of the mind. On the positive side it does not mean that we are doomed to always have false beliefs or that we are never able to question things that we have taken for granted, even for a long time. My example is a case in point. After being heavily involved in the Christian church for around twenty years I was able to identify disparities in Christian theology and think my way out of it. Firstly however we need to find ourselves in a position where we are prepared to change and question our beliefs. This is no easy task, but someone who is determined to follow the facts and discover the truth, even if they thought that they already had it, is capable of making a positive change.

Non-Equal Beliefs

All people have beliefs, but not all beliefs are equal in quality. I would like to classify beliefs into grades; this is subjective but serves to clarify my point. Let’s say that A grade beliefs are the best quality of beliefs and that Z grade beliefs are the worst quality. An A grade belief is supported by so much evidence that it transcends the qualities of a belief – it is arguably not even a belief at all, it could be better classified as a fact. Given all available knowledge an A grade belief is true all of the time. A grade beliefs would include a belief in gravity, the law of relativity, that idea that the earth revolves around the sun, that the earth is a sphere or that the laws of physics are always at work. If you want to even call these beliefs then they are beliefs of the highest order. At the other end of the scale is a Z grade belief. Z grade beliefs have no definable evidence, or they simply cannot be proved or disproved because there is no viable method of enquiry. A Z grade belief is so implausible that it requires extreme self-delusion to believe. Such a belief is refuted by a great deal of evidence and thus requires “faith” in order to believe. Examples of this type of belief would be that the earth is flat or a belief in the existence of fairies, trolls, or Zeus. With regard to the flat earth theory an array of scientific evidence as well as visual confirmation from photographs taken by astronauts refutes the idea, yet there are still some who believe it. It is this lower end of the scale to which I wish to refer. At this end of the scale facts count less and less and beliefs become more and more about faith.

A person might say to you “we both have beliefs, you believe in evolution and I believe that God created the universe.” While they are both beliefs, they are not equal beliefs. One might classify a belief in Darwinian evolution as a B grade belief, or possibly even an A grade belief. There is a lot of evidence for it, so much so that it is almost certain. My only qualm with making it an A grade belief is that there is no certain understanding of the actual origin of the universe. But a belief in creationism is an X to Z grade belief. There is no definitive evidence for it; the only evidence provided is evidence refuting evolution. So there is no positive evidence and it is really just a theory which is based on another low grade belief (the existence of God).

What about the claim that there is no God? An atheist draws a line in the sand stating that because there is no solid evidence for the existence of a supernatural being that the default position is non-belief in such a being. What grade of belief is this? This position does not require faith, in fact it is a stance that specifically stands against faith. The position states that because of the other evidence available, and the lack of evidence for the existence of a supernatural being, there is enough evidence to place the belief in a supernatural being in the same category as the belief in fairies or other mythological creatures. The problem for this position is that God cannot be explicitly disproven, so given our current knowledge we cannot place this belief in category A. However, because this position is reasoned, evidence-based and does not require any faith it is in a higher category than a faith based belief. I would place the atheist position as a B to C grade belief.

The famous catchphrase from the X-Files states “I want to believe!” And it is this statement that applies to the lower end of the belief scale. People who believe in fairies, leprechauns and any of a variety of deities do so because they want to believe. There is little to no evidence for any of those categories and indeed such supernatural concepts are impossible to either prove or disprove by their very nature. But no one should think that because something is impossible to disprove that it is worthy of belief. It is also not true that because something is impossible to prove or disprove that the likelihood of such a thing being true is 50%, this is completely false. It is, for example, impossible to prove or disprove the existence of Santa Claus, but the likelihood of his existence would have to be placed at such a minuscule percentage as to be unbelievable. Likewise the existence of specific deities is supported by such poor evidence and contested by such powerful evidence that their likelihood is also so minuscule as to be unbelievable. It is subjective, but offhand I would place belief in the existence of Yahweh or Allah at around grade X. Some evidence can be provided, but it is weak and especially when compared to the refuting evidence the likelihood diminishes to near zero.

Where does faith come from?

Psychologists identify that faith is a natural phenomenon, a function of our psychological nature. The personality of believers makes them inclined, or even compelled, to accept and act upon groundless claims regarding God. Perhaps the most famous psychological commentator on religious belief was Freud. He was always concerned with the underlying motives of individuals, and in believers he identified God as a construct of the mind associated with different aspects of themselves and their internal parental figures. God serves the believer in their desire for protection, love, punishment, exoneration, perfection and power. Belief in God also serves to satiate the desires for submission to authority, rule following, and not having to think on their own. This functions not only in the perceived relationship to God but also in the actual relationship with the authority figures who transmit faith, creating a much higher inclination to blindly accept traditional claims. Carl Jung also regarded God as a psychological construct reflecting an image of the self. The sense of awe that a person can experience in relation to God is actually what one feels when encountering the depths of one’s own mind, which is powerful and felt to be beyond our control.[5] According to the bulk of psychology faith is nothing but expressions of psychological constructs. It is a delusion, a distortion of reality and truth for self-serving purposes. Faith is regarded as a moral failure, a type of childishness which should be addressed and overcome.

Over-Detecting Agency

Digging deeper, from a sociological and anthropological perspective, faith probably finds its earliest origins in the concept of “over-detecting agency.” In the early days of Homo sapiens, somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 years ago, life was precarious and tough. In an environment where human beings were often prey, only separated from their predators by an opposable thumb and a higher level of wits, it was the cautious who would survive with greater regularity. This created a genetic train of events in which the tendency to read more into a situation than was necessarily warranted led to greater survival and reproduction which further spread these over-detecting genes. To simplify: those who believed lived and multiplied. This ideology, which I have just explained somewhat crudely, is outlined in detail by scientists. They refer to it as a hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD).

Hypersensitive agency detection device is best explained through an example: two of our ancestors are walking through the savannah a hundred thousand years ago. In the long grass each of them hears a sound. The first one hears the sound and starts running, the second hears the sound and just continues walking. Was the sound an apex predator stalking them through the long grass, or just a small rodent in the underbrush, perhaps a breeze of wind passing through the grass? It doesn’t really matter, what does matter is the response of the individual. Over a long enough timeline the individual who did not run will eventually be caught out by a predator and killed off. His genetic information and predispositions will die with him. But the first individual who ran has a far higher likelihood of survival in the long run because of his overactive imagination. If it was a predator this individual has the head start and his nervous disposition provides an evolutionary advantage. Over time the genes of the individuals who are not nervous and do not over-detect agency die off and the genes of those who are overly nervous and do see agency, for better or worse, survive. Therefore the tendency to believe that something is there, even when it may not be, is genetically buried within our DNA. The first individual, the one who ran, is the grandfather of our HADD.

Justin L. Barrett suggests “Part of the reason people believe in gods, ghosts and, goblins also comes from the way in which our minds, particularly our agency detection device (ADD) functions. Our ADD suffers from some hyperactivity, making it prone to find agents around us, including supernatural ones, given fairly modest evidence of their presence. This tendency encourages the generation and spread of god concepts” (Barrett 2004: 31).[6] Barrett does not suggest that the HADD is the only contributing factor to these kinds of beliefs, but that it is the central function. According to Barrett and Atran and Norenzayan the HADD’s original purpose was to detect and evade predators, but the by-product is a susceptibility to infer supernatural causes.[7]

Pattern Seeking Behaviour

Human beings have a strong pattern seeking nature. This originates deep in our evolutionary history and creates within us a tendency to make connections or see relationships whether they actually exist or not. Combined with our self-validating set of confirmation and disconfirmation biases, humans are capable of seeking patterns, finding them, and reinforcing the proposed reasons for their existence. This behaviour is of course a strong enabler for religious belief.

An example can be provided in light of the religions constructed by our earliest ancestors. The earliest religions are animist in nature. That is to say that they are the worship of things that can be observed around us: the sun, the wind, the sea and so on. Let’s say that one of our ancestors, who had strong pattern seeking behaviour, prays to the sun god for a good harvest. If he receives a good harvest then he is inclined to believe that the sun god has answered his prayers, even though he may well have received a good harvest without the prayers. He then reports this to others, who are also likely evolutionarily conditioned for pattern seeking. They in turn want to receive a good harvest and begin praying to the sun god and thus a religion is born. This methodology is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the farmer does not receive a good harvest then he can easily conclude, or be convinced by others, that he did not offer a good enough prayer. Perhaps next time a sacrifice would be in order!

This tendency to make connections and form patterns enables belief. The religious practitioner reads into a situation, observing patterns real or imagined, and then detects agency where it may or may not be warranted. The key to recognising our tendency towards this weak behaviour is to understand a famous saying in the psychological community: “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.” To ourselves we appear to be operating in extremely complex ways, our own minds and thoughts are too complex for us to work out. But does that mean that they are truly complex or just difficult for us? Are we just simple minds attempting to interpret complex data?

The Lonely Child

I would like to propose another hypothesis if I may be so bold, this I call the Lonely Child hypothesis. Given the enormity of the universe and the massive amount of data that we are unfamiliar with, human beings can tend to feel somewhat unstable and insecure. The idea that human beings may be the highest intelligence in the universe is a scary thought. It means that there is no one looking out for us; if we cannot do it ourselves it cannot be done. There is no higher power overseeing our efforts, holding our hand and picking us up if we fall. This thought can be so frightening that it may cause people to subconsciously create the idea of a being greater than themselves. Just as a child nestles in the comfort of its mother’s arms, many people wish to have a force greater than themselves watching over them and making sure that they are safe. Because of the strong associations between this idea and a child-parent relationship it is easy to conceive how humans would come up with a set of rules and obligations imposed by the parent figure on the child. After all, when we grew up our parents gave us rules, but alongside those rules they provided for us and gave us safety. The delusional God figure also has rules which must be followed if his protection is to be provided. The God figure provides comfort for beings who are not comfortable with the fact that they and their kind are the highest consciousness in the universe.


The meta-cognitive abilities of our higher brains are both the source of our great success as the apex species on the planet and also the source of numerous problems. While we are capable of thought that is impossible to other animals, our thinking processes are still flawed. There are holes in our cognitive processes that we have not yet evolved past. And indeed, our ancient reptilian brain is far more in control of what we do than we might think. Capable of manipulating our mammalian and higher brains into thinking that we have logically arrived at a decision, our reptilian brains run the show and function as the puppet master of what we ultimately do. In a sense there is a war going on between the various layers of our brains: the higher brain wanting to function by logic and cogent decision-making, the mammalian brain wanting connection and emotion, and the reptilian brain focusing on survival, territoriality and mating. As we continue to evolve it is likely that our higher brains will attain a greater level of control, but for the time being we must recognise that we do not have as much control or free will as we might think. This means that certain thinking processes, even though they may appear rational to us, are in fact being guided by a much more primitive set of motivations. Our tendency to over-detect agency has caused us to find patterns and make connections where none are warranted. This has in turn enabled low-level belief, or faith. Our brain’s persistent propensity to use confirmation and dis-confirmation biases have reinforced these positions and bounded rationality has restricted us from crawling our way out of the quagmire. Because our ideas are self-validating, regardless of their quality, the struggle for humanity to break free from faith-based belief systems has been, and will continue to be, a challenge. The conglomeration of these mental forces and genetic tendencies work together to create a vicious cycle which can lead us towards the inclination to believe in things for which there is no sound evidence. But the human race has advanced enough scientifically and we have attained enough intelligence to be able to start breaking these patterns. There can be strong psychological motivations to slip back into this kind of primitive thinking but a person who is motivated enough can break free from its chains.

[1] Faith: What Is It And Who Has It? Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D.

[2] The Two Kinds Of Belief. Alex Lickerman M.D.

[3] The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Chris Mooney.

[4] ibid.

[5] Faith and the Psychologists: What do psychologists say about faith? Rachel Blass.

[6] Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Lanham: Alta Mira Press.,2,3,6,8,notes%20Why%20Would%20Anyone%20Believe%20in%20God.pdf . Barrett, Justin L. (2004).

[7] HADD has been confirmed in experiments by Michotte 1963, Blakemore et al 2001; Decety & Grezes 1999; Frith & Frith 2001; Grezes et al 2001. It has been demonstrated that this agency detection device can be triggered through both visual and auditory stimulus.

One thought on “The Psychology of Faith

  1. This essay is a little too complicated for me. I do understand confirmation bias. I also understand “the lonely child” wishing to have a god take care of him or her.


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