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Can You Choose to Believe in God?

Psychologists weigh in on a philosopher’s puzzle.

Key points

  • The philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that if you want to believe in God, you should start acting like a religious believer.
  • A growing body of evidence suggests that Pascal may have been right.
  • This evidence raises deep questions not only for psychology, but for philosophy, too.

The philosopher, theologian, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) came up with a simple argument for why people should believe in God. Unlike other philosophers of his day, he didn’t try to prove that God is real. Rather, he tried to prove that any reasonable person should choose belief.

His argument, set out in his posthumously published Pensées, is this. Suppose God exists, and that God rewards the believer with eternal life. True believers have a shot at unending happiness that non-believers miss out on. Given the stakes involved, belief seems to be the prudential course.

Suppose, in contrast, that God doesn’t exist. What have true believers lost? Very little. If anything, Pascal thought, religious belief actually makes your life on earth a bit happier. It frees you from anxiety about death, and from the nagging sense of the ultimate futility of your actions.

A Recipe for Belief

There’s just one problem. Nobody can just choose to believe in God.

Sure, if you’ve grown up in a religious home, or if you’re one of the lucky few to have a powerful religious experience, belief in God might come naturally to you. For the rest of us, you can’t just close your eyes and make it happen.

Or can you?

Pascal knew that you probably couldn’t change your mind this very second, even if you wanted to. But, he thought, you can choose to cultivate a religious mindset. If you make the right lifestyle choices, over time, faith will naturally follow.

ShotPot/Pexels
Source: ShotPot/Pexels

The key, he thought, is to follow in the footsteps of true believers. You could start by attending a place of worship regularly, immersing yourself in the sacred texts and literature of that faith, meditating on the virtues of the founders of the faith, surrounding yourself with true believers, and so on. Soon enough, he thought, belief would arrive on its own.

With this argument, Pascal made a conjecture about how the human mind works: at least in some limited respects, it works by something like passive diffusion. We naturally accept the information we’re surrounded with. But is he right?

Belief as the Mind’s Default State

A recent debate in psychology has revived Pascal’s conjecture.

The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert thinks the mind works exactly the way Pascal described. He thinks it’s perfectly natural for people to accept, as true, the information they surround themselves with.

His view is based on studies that he and his colleagues began in 1990 on the nature of belief formation (Gilbert et al. 1990). In one study, he had subjects watch a screen while he occasionally flashed false messages on it about the Hopi language, such as “A twyrin is a doctor.” The subjects were then informed that the statement was false, while they were partially distracted by another task.

At the end of the study, he gave the subjects a quiz. He found that people were inclined to believe whatever had been presented to them on the screen – even those statements they were explicitly told were false.

A number of other studies support and extend Gilbert’s results. One study, led by Vanderbilt psychologist Lisa Fazio, shows that the mere repetition of false information tends to promote belief. Another study shows that beliefs acquired in this way are well-integrated into our mental lives, and that we’ll draw inferences from them and act on them.

These studies show that the mind naturally and easily acquires new beliefs, and only rids itself of them with effort. Ready acceptance appears to be the default state of the human mind. The philosophers Eric Mandelbaum and Neil Levy were the first to point out the connection between Gilbert’s research and Pascal’s argument.

In 2015, Mandelbaum and his colleague Jake Quilty-Dunn went so far as to argue that liberals who think that Fox News is vacuous, or conservatives who think that MSNBC is political ideology, shouldn’t even expose themselves to it. That’s because information we surround ourselves with is likely to shape how we think and act, whether we want it to or not.

Mandelbaum also pointed out that, from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that the mind is designed this way. Most of the information we would have been exposed to in prehistoric times would have been true. Back then, a person who readily believed the information they were presented with would have been better off than the skeptic who demanded rigorous evidence before believing anything.

A Challenge to Pascal’s Conjecture

Not all psychologists accept this passive view of the mind, such as Marion Vorms, a philosopher and psychologist at the University of Paris Sorbonne. She and her colleagues argue on the basis of their experimental work that people are only inclined to accept claims as being true when those claims strike them as inherently plausible (Vorms et al. 2022). The claim that in the Hopi language, a twyrin is a doctor, strikes me as plausible, so I’m inclined to accept it at face value.

Vorms showed that the same isn’t always true when statements are inherently implausible, such as the claim that “in Florida, the law forbids single women to parachute on Sundays.” People seem to resist automatically believing statements that don’t mesh with their existing beliefs.

A recent study, however, suggests that the mere repetition of even wildly implausible claims (such as “elephants run faster than cheetahs”) tends to increase belief.

The psychologists’ debate will continue. For now, at any rate, the evidence appears to support what Pascal surmised: if you want to be a full-fledged religious believer, the best thing to do is start acting like one.

References

Gilbert, D., et al. 1990. Unbelieving the unbelievable: Some problems in the rejection of false information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59: 601-613.

Vorms, M., et al. 2022. Plausibility matters: A challenge to Gilbert’s ‘Spinozan’ account of belief formation. Cognition 220: 104990.

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