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Press: Unconscious belief is not the same as theology

18 September 2020


SCIENCE-OF-RELIGION stories really do work like science, in that each new thing we learn widens the vista of ignorance that surrounds it. The Times picked up a story from an open-access academic journal, Nature Communications, about the ways in which the ability to spot patterns unconsciously might interact with a predisposition towards religious belief.

“There is a standard laboratory test of implicit pattern recognition. It involves pressing different buttons as dots scroll across a screen. Researchers have found that people can be unaware of patterns in the dots, but still speed up their reaction times as they subconsciously learn patterns. The best implicit recognisers end up pushing buttons before the dots appear.”

So Professor Adam Green, from Georgetown University, tested 350 volunteers, in the United States and in Afghanistan. They found that “whether Christian and westernised or from a strict Muslim country, the people better at implicit pattern recognition were more religious. When asked about their childhood, this group were also more likely to have grown in religious belief over the years.”

Georgetown University is a Jesuit foundation; so The Times had to go to a secular scholar for comment. Professor Samuel Perry, from the University of Oklahoma, said: “Humans have an evolved tendency to perceive agency when there is none. That adaptation would help us to survive by allowing us to better detect danger. But it could also incline us toward attributing the random movements we observe in nature to spirits.”

This makes the common mistake of confusing theology with religion. The patterns that people recognise implicitly are both real and completely unconceptualised. The subjects have no idea that they are seeing the patterns that they react to. Like elite cricketers or tennis players, who move long before they have had time to process consciously what they see of the ball, the pattern recogniser knows without knowing that they do.

That kind of unconscious belief is almost the opposite of the theological stories, even of primitive societies: that a mountain has a guardian spirit, for example; such claims are of an entirely different order, and make no sense without language.


THIS brings me to the monument to answered prayer, which is to be erected near the junction of two motorways in Birmingham. This is inspired placement. It means that every visitor can experience a response to their spontaneous prayer when they have found themselves on a motorway in the middle of Birmingham, and wished that they were somewhere — anywhere — else.

The Guardian’s report said: “The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer will be constructed using a million bricks, each representing a prayer from a member of the public and its outcome. . .

“The monument, which has been granted planning permission with work to begin next year, has three goals: to ‘preserve the Christian heritage of the nation’; encourage prayer; and ‘proclaim Jesus for the country’.”

The Sunday Times had examples of the prayers, ranging from heart operations on children to apparently impossible appointments at the dentist’s. In their way, these all seem to make the same mistake as the secularist Professor Perry: they suppose that the argument is about the detection of agency in the things that seem to happen at random.

“Richard Gamble, the man behind the wall, told the Sunday Times that the idea came to him while he was dragging a large wooden cross through the streets of Leicester in a Holy Week procession.

“‘I had the idea of creating something, to communicate to people outside the church that miracles are still happening every day in this nation.’”

Asked on a Religion Media Centre Zoom call what quality control might be applied to the million stories of answered prayer that he confidently expects to collect, Mr Gamble said that it was not up to him to determine whether the stories were actually true. This was “a work of art”, whose purpose was “to provoke discussion”.

This seems to me quite as disingenuous as an Alpha course: the monument, like the reasoning processes of its backers, is an entirely closed loop — literally a giant Moebius strip, which will always bring you back to the place where you started.


THERE are many more sinister examples of the wish to “start a conversation”, or “provoke discussion”: The Washington Post took up the case of Daniel Walters, a Washington State journalist who had looked at the Facebook page of Jenny Graham, an elected state senator (Republican, of course). She had linked there to a story headlined “460,000 Missing Children in the USA each year — while the Dinosaur media protects paedophiles”.

“I’m not telling people to think one way or another about something,” she had earlier said. “These are important issues that I like to get feedback [on] from people in my district.”

“Dinosaur media” was not used to mean “very old”, but literally, in the Ickean sense, to imply that the media are controlled by Saurians in human skins. Such hybrid entities include, of course, the Clintons, Bill Gates, and George Soros. What made the story was the torrent of abuse that she unleashed on the reporter’s voicemail after he published her words — and, later, her voicemail message.

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