Seeing Is Believing: Religion, Madness, and Mechanism

A new study finds mechanistic cognition to be critical for religious credulity.

Posted Jan 21, 2017

Wikimedia commons
Source: Wikimedia commons

Caravaggio’s painting, The Incredulity of St Thomas (above), in which the saint inquisitorially pokes a finger into the wound in the resurrected body of Christ, is a striking depiction of the saying that "seeing is believing." But you could also see it as a remarkable image of Devil-in-the-detail scepticism versus faith-in-the-Word religiosity. As such, it makes an ideal icon for a recent study brought to my attention by Amar Annus. As the authors comment,

Although supernatural ideation has long been one diagnostic criterion for schizotypy and schizophrenia (…), schizotypy has only recently received attention among scholars of religiosity. Much of this attention has focused on Crespi and Badcock’s theory (2008; Badcock, 2009), which proposes that both religious and schizotypal individuals are prone to impressions of supernatural agents and hidden intentions because they share similar epigenetic development of the social brain related to mentalizing far beyond the normal range. Crespi and Badcock’s diametric model (Badcock, 2009Crespi & Badcock, 2008) proposes that if the physical world is not well understood, mental concepts such as agency and intentionality expand to the whole universe, resulting in beliefs in demons and gods.

The new study goes on to ask whether

these arguments mean that religious believers are nonanalytical individuals who are prone to schizotypy and who understand people but not physical mechanisms? In turn, are nonbelievers strong analytical thinkers who have autistic traits and who understand the physical world but not people? Not necessarily. Rather, it is more probable that both believers and nonbelievers represent subgroups that differ in their cognitive characteristics and clinical symptoms. Although most theorists agree that the factors which predict religiosity and atheism interact in complex ways, and that consequently there are different kinds of believers and nonbelievers, these subgroups have not been empirically elucidated. The present study was therefore designed to examine the characteristics of these groups.

The participants comprised 984 religious believers, 1,000 nonbelievers, and 1,060 average believers who were recruited for the online study via several open Internet discussion forums and student mailing lists.

The most consistent difference between believers and skeptics was found in the interests and skills needed to understand the physical world. The mechanistic cognition of all believer subgroups was average or lower, whereas that of all skeptic subgroups was average or higher. The results are plausible, as belief in disembodied agents and immortality and a perspective on natural events in terms of intentional design reveal not only exaggerated mentalizing but also an inadequate understanding of the characteristics of the physical world. These findings support Crespi and Badcock’s theory (2008; Badcock, 2009) about the influence of poor mechanistic cognition in religiosity and call for greater attention to this cognitive domain in future studies.

The researchers also report that,

Women were more religious and more empathic than men; men were better at systemizing and analytical thinking, and they had more autistic traits than women. Furthermore, in view of the sex ratio of the participants, there were more women in the believer groups who were less skilled at analytical thinking, and secondarily at systemizing. Men, in turn, were more dominant than expected among nonbelievers with high analytical thinking and systemizing. In addition, men were overrepresented in the groups with impaired empathizing and increased schizotypal and autistic symptoms. If they were good at analytical thinking, these men were nonbelievers, and if not, they were believers.These results are in line with earlier results about gender differences in religiosity.

—and also with the imprinted brain theory's contention that females are averagely more mentalistic than males, and males more mechanistic than females. Indeed, US Air Force tests of mechanical comprehension show that average male performance exceeds ~80% of females.

Finally, and to return to Caravaggio's wonderful work at the top, I might add that the English painter, David Hockney, has made himself something of a doubting Thomas in the eyes of many critics and connoisseurs by provocatively arguing that such paintings reveal evidence of the use of imaging technology by the painter. As Hockney points out,

To a modern eye, the results look photographic or cinematic—in other words, like pictures made with a camera, which they may well have been. … The result was a stunning increase in verisimilitude. … But there was a loss of visual coherence. Caravaggio was like a director filming each actor separately, and then trying to fit their images together into a shot. Consequently, St Thomas, for example, does not stare at the wound in Christ’s side but looks right past it.

The problem, as I pointed out in a previous post, is that artists would always prefer that their public attributed excellence to their personal genius, rather than to their mechanistic mastery of the technology and science of optics. In other words, they would prefer to show their brush strokes than reveal their use of lenses and lighting—perhaps explaining why brush strokes became such a fetish with some painters after photography found a way of fixing the camera image for all to see.

Thames & Hudson
Source: Thames & Hudson

As David Hockney argues, seeing is as important to painting as depicting. Changes in the way that artists saw the world brought about by imaging technology were just as significant as advances in depiction—for example, tube paints, which enabled artists to paint outdoors. Hockney's provocative poke in the eye of the art establishment's cherished beliefs is the result in part of the fact that he is a practising painter who has experimented with the technology in question and whose mechanistic skills and interests in this respect are, like those of the sceptics in the study cited above, demonstrably superior to those of most believers in the conventional view. 


David Hockney & Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen, Thames & Hudson, 2016, pp. 172, 174.