Can fMRI Predict Who Believes In God? Part IV

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII

We continue with the questions.

Number 58:

God will eventually reward those who live the true faith.
God does not reward anybody for anything.
Some people find volunteer work very rewarding.
All people find dangerous sports rewarding.

This question, like many others, belies Harris’s ignorance of Christianity. Did he not know—how could he have failed to know?—that different branches of Christianity answer this first question very differently? And I don’t mean in some fine, technical, theological sense. I mean there are loud, plain-as-day disputes about these questions. Many evangelists say all that is needed is to be born again and thou art saved. Catholics say not hardly. Christians might slow down to consider what these question mean.

Here, even stronger than before, the first “neutral” question is correlated with Christian belief. And the fourth question is ambiguous: what does “rewarding” mean? That which does not kill us, etc.? Does “all people” mean “all people” or “all people who attempt dangerous sports”?

Some neutral questions are anything but ambiguous, correlated or not. Question 25, which Harris expects all will say “false” to: “Shakespeare is never mentioned in college or high school.” Now I, sadly, have had students for whom this is true. They must also say “false” to Question 24: “Human beings have complete control over the environment and can grow food anywhere” which some college students might say is true. Remember, there is not a lot of time for reflection on these questions.

I don’t want to go on and on, but almost every black-and-white question Harris uses breaks into shades of gray; the answers are at least not unambiguously true or false to all Christians or non-Christians. Question 56 asks, “A firm religious faith is the most reliable source of happiness.” Some non-Christians might agree with this, against Harris’s expectations. Question 55, “The universe is governed by natural laws that have nothing to do with God” and Question 20, “We can understand the universe without any notion of God.” Deists agree with these.

Question 47, “Humans emerged through a gradual process of evolution like every other species,” and Question 26, “Humans are a product of the natural world, just like all other animals.” Harris, revealing his ignorance of Christianity yet again, expects that all Christians will answer “false.” Most mainline Protestants and Catholics—even the majority of evangelists—would answer “true.”

Question 45: “The most profound truths are to be found in the Bible” is a statement with which some non-believers might agree (“When I became a man, I put away childish things”; “The guilty flee where no man pursueth”). Question 42: “Sin came into the world with the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden” which again shows Harris has no appreciation for different kinds of Christianity. He is not aware that many Christians view the Bible figuratively. This also leads some Christians to agree with Q2: “The Bible is full of fictional stories and contains historical errors,” even though Harris expects that all Christians will deny this.

Some religious questions are anything but. Q33 says, “Marriage should be a sacred union, exclusively between man and woman.” Did Harris not know that many “mainline” Protestants disagree with this statement? I.e., that some Christians support same-sex “marriage”? Many non-Christians would and do answer, on moral grounds, “true”.

In short, Harris’s views about Christianity seem to have come direct from some atheist handbook. It is obvious that he has not bothered to inform himself about the subject on which he writes. His wording of religious questions is often vituperative, affronting, even hostile (“It is silly to think…”; “People who believe…do so on bad evidence”). The content and character of these questions to a Christian are not symmetric when viewed by non-Christians.

This matters because the symmetry is assumed, because the experiment hinges on the symmetry.

Remember: it is Harris’s stated goal to say what is different about the brains of Christians and non-Christians. It matters not one whit whether Christians are right about what they believe or whether non-Christians are. In this experiment, the Christians are routinely insulted, disparaged, made fun of, teased; they are exposed to challenges of their faith. Later Harris reports on questions he purposely phrased as blasphemous. Were the Christians in this experiment not are apt to grow defensive or at least suspicious when confronted with these questions? And therefore answer at different speeds?

Ignore religion and answer this: do the brains of the affronted and angry operate differently in those heightened states of emotion than in those who are placid, smug, or contented? Could it not be that the “emotion centers” of the brain light up for Christians in this experiment not because they are Christians but because they have just been repeatedly poked by a sharp rhetorical stick?

It is already amazing that this paper was published given that it is so poorly constructed, and even more poorly explained. And we haven’t even got to the actual results, which we do next.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII


  1. Ken

    The questions listed above (#26, 33, 42, 45, & 47…) are critiqued for being inappropriate because they are inapplicable to all “Christians”….

    ….but what is the alternative?

    Those questions hit the very core of a number of Christian belief doctrines and selecting “safe” questions that are in all cases true extremely limits the realm of possibilities.

    What you’re really seeming to do here, perhaps unintentionally? … or, perhaps intentionally?, is to point out just how diverse modern “Christianity” has become — with different versions having fundamental doctrines that are wholly incompatible.

    In other words, you are presenting contemporary evidence that others (e.g. B. Ehrman & E. Pagels) have noted & presented to highlight how modern “Christianity” has achieved a diversity of views, beliefs, doctrines that is approaching those of the first century–when there was a “shakeout” of sorts of different versions of “Christianity” and a single set of “correct” beliefs were defined & maintained for some 1500 years or so.

    The truly interesting part of Harris, et. al.’s article relative to the above essay (Part 4), is that the USA is somewhat unique in being a modern technologically advanced society that has not divested itself of religious belief like others have….though, arguably, the creation of countless mutually incompatible variants of “Christianity” does somewhat suggest it doesn’t really mean much anymore — how can some label, “Christian”/”Christianity” that has been stretched to mean anything to suit anyone really be meaningful?

  2. Roman

    Isn’t it a ” Wittgenstein” problem? The nearly complete breakdown of language in the attempt to state the problem and analyze it. You point several ambiguities related to meaning of phrases like “all people” in relation to dangerous sports. In that particular example there are several unclear meanings that become obvious to the individual who has to answer the question. What constitutes “danger” here: is it skiing (I may be very accomplished in it, I am cautious, I know my limits; but it is classified as dangerous by insurers) or motocross ( I never tried it, I think about it as dangerous; I don’t know if insurers classify it).
    You hit the bull’s eye with the point referring to emotions. So, the authors pulled together several poorly prepared questions and statements related to a very rich (and full of ambiguities) subject on one end, used an expensive tool, measured something on the other end, but they can’t exactly know what, and published it. Are there any chances that such study will enter into “knowledge canon”?

  3. equinox

    Interesting this reminds me of a polygraph test. I have taken two polygraphs. After experiencing a polygraph, one can appreciate why they are not admissible in court. One could never really determine why someone spiked on a question. Law enforcement uses polygraphs for interrogation purposes mostly (always). So Harris is playing sleuth to get the truth he already believes. How could he ever really determine which impulses are firing on which stimuli? This doesn’t seem very scientific or rational. Too bad Harris can’t report on reality instead.

  4. @ Ken asks:

    “….but what is the alternative?”

    Maybe consider and prepare a study of something with which one has more than assumed knowledge? Sort of like preparing a users survey of London public transportation preferences. A non-Londoner can Google all she/he wants but still should have had boots on the ground to ask relevant questions. The Victoria Line and Docklands Line Railway, for example, serve similar purposes but in distinctly different means and locations.

  5. Greg Cavanagh

    I don’t believe non-Christians, “can” understand Christians. Why then do they write articles about Christians? A fair question to ask surely.

    A quick Google and I found a page listing over 300 Christian denominations. Some years ago I found a list of 800 Christian denominations with a short summery of their theologies. There is enormous variety within this single (self identifying) category. Truly, unless the author fully encapsulates this variety, they are hissing in the wind.

    More likely they had a particular denomination in mind. I also note that non-Christians can’t identify the difference between Catholic and Evangelical. So without even this simple understanding, they are wasting their time trying to compare the broad category known as Christian, to anything else.

  6. Nomen Nescio

    It really is meaningful. Trust me.

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