Can fMRI Predict Who Believes In God? Part VII (Last)

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

There are a number of serious difficulties with this study. The experimental protocol is unusual; the “stimuli” used were gathered form a dubious source and were not as simply interpretable as Harris believed they were, nor were they always relevant; Harris’s definition of Christian is extraordinarily narrow; results that were not desired were removed after the experiment ended, yet we never learn how many or what effect this removal had; i.e., would leaving these data in change the results?

The answers to stimuli were averaged within people, a dubious statistical procedure that is nowhere justified; we never learn how many questions each person received, nor how many questions from each person were tossed, nor did (apparently) every person get the same questions. The student volunteers were first subjected to some kind of purity test, yet the details of this were never explained: only 15 “committed” Christians were used and only 15 non-Christians mistakenly called “nonbelievers”, presumably non-committed. There is good evidence the selection of these students and the kind of “stimuli” used introduced a bias in the direction of the results Harris expected; i.e. the suspicion of confirmation bias is strong.

The raw fMRI data was first statistically manipulated before being subjected to further analysis; the fMRI pictures were all ad hoc comparisons, with loose, just-so stories of what this or that region of the brain does; none of the regions that glowed orange1 were demarcated beforehand, but those areas that did glow were given a story after the fact. (See dead salmon fMRI study.)

The paper is sloppy and disorganized. It passed “peer review”, but we know how weak a filter for truth this is. It is telling that the paper was not only published, but enthusiastically cited by other authors. Well, scientists often don’t have time to read anything but abstracts of papers. Worst of all, no other group could take this paper and re-produce the experiment: there are simply too many unknowns.

Let’s finally examine what Harris has to say about all this. Here is the beginning of the Discussion:

…The failure to subject [religious] beliefs to rational criticism may be one reason for their survival. But, as Boyer points out, the failure of reality testing cannot explain the specific character of religious beliefs. According to Boyer, religious beliefs and concepts must arise from mental categories and cognitive propensities that predate religion—and these underlying structures might determine the stereotypical form that religious beliefs and practices take. These categories relate to things like intentional agents, animacy, social exchange, moral intuitions, natural hazards, and ways of understanding human misfortune. On Boyer’s account, people do not accept implausible religious doctrines because they have relaxed their standards of rationality; they relax their standards of rationality because certain doctrines fit their “inference machinery” in such a way as to seem credible.

Let’s accept for the moment that Boyer is correct. What do his theories have to do with Harris’s fMRI study? Not a damn thing. Then why mention them? Well, Harris just can’t help himself. He just is rabidly anti-Christian and the world will be told of it.

And then Boyer (and Harris) are not correct. Many religious beliefs are founded on rational arguments. To say that those who hold beliefs “relax their standards of rationality because certain doctrines fit their ‘inference machinery'” is thus false and pseudo-scientific gibberish. But even if I’m wrong about that, it still has no bearing on asking people to say true or false to “Santa Claus exists” and watching which areas of their brain light up.

Harris goes on with his non-sequitur:

And what most religious propositions may lack in plausibility they make up for in the degree to which they are memorable, emotionally salient, and socially consequential; all of these properties are a product of our underlying cognitive architecture, and most of this architecture is not consciously accessible.

The claim that “most religious propositions” lack plausibility is false. But whether it’s true or false, it is irrelevant to the experiment at hand. It is true to the point of tautology, and therefore of no use saying, that what people think of their religion—or what they think of any other thing—is part of their “cognitive architecture.” Of course what people think takes place in their brains. This is true even of atheists.

Harris then goes on to tell us that if children are left alone to raise themselves (which never happened, except in one alleged case, so one wonders where he derives his evidence) that they will spontaneously “invent some conception of God.” Let’s not debate this point: instead tell me how this has any bearing on how quickly a “committed Christian” will answer “true” or “false” to some Internet-gathered questions while having his head stuck in an fMRI. It has no bearing.

The man will not stop:

Because our minds have evolved to detect patterns in the world, we may tend to detect patterns that aren’t actually there—ranging from faces in the clouds to a divine hand in the workings of Nature. Hood posits an additional cognitive schema that he calls “supersense”—a tendency to infer hidden forces in the world, working for good or for ill. On his account, supersense generates beliefs in the supernatural (religious and otherwise) all on its own, and such beliefs are thereafter modulated, rather than instilled, by culture. Hood likens our susceptibility to religious ideas to our propensity to develop phobias for evolutionarily relevant threats (like snakes and spiders) rather than for things that are far more likely to kill us (like automobiles and electrical sockets).

I call upon all dedicated atheists to agree with me that whether any of this highly speculative and fanciful material is true or false, it is irrelevant to the experiment at hand. It only serves to give us yet more evidence of Harris’s opinion of religion, about which none of us should care, at least as far as this paper goes. He should be discussing the protocol, the nature of his “stimuli”, the limitations of his ad hoc approach to interpreting glowing areas after the fact, and so forth. He should not be lecturing on a subject about which he has already proven himself to be ignorant (judging by these comments and his list of “stimuli”).

Yet Harris’s logorrhea is not at an end, for next up is this, which I offer without comment:

And yet, however predisposed the human mind may be to harboring religious beliefs, it remains a fact that each new generation receives a religious worldview, at least in part, in the form of linguistic propositions—far more so in some societies than in others.

Then, finally, he begins where he should have, “To investigate the neural correlates of belief for both religious and nonreligious modes of thought, we asked Christians and nonbelievers to evaluate statements of both types while in the MRI scanner.” (Notice that he still calls non-Christians “nonbelievers”, yet we never learn whether these folks were non-believers in any religion.)

His next paragraph gives the game away:

The data reported above present statistical tests of the reliability of signal changes occurring throughout the brain as a function of the stimuli and their associated behavioral responses. However, these data are of greater value when interpreted against related results in the neuroscientific literature. Such a discussion necessarily entails “reverse inference” of a sort often considered problematic in the field of neuroimaging.

He abandons his experiment as such and opts for “reverse inference” explanations, which he admits is “considered problematic.” It is so considered because, my dear Harris, it is far too easy for one to begin talking nonsense, to allege what is not so or what cannot be inferred. Harris must know this because he says, “One cannot reliably infer the presence of a mental state on the basis of brain data alone, unless the brain regions in question are known to be truly selective for a single state of mind.”

As we pointed out in earlier posts, the brain regions examined by Harris are not known to be “truly selective for a single state of mind.” He admits this in the main body of the paper when he says his regions are only “associated” and “linked” to various, and extremely broad, emotional states. The best we can do is rough, error-prone correlation. This being so, it appears that “reverse inference” is off the table for this experiment. But why let fallacious reasoning interfere now?

He begins by summarizing the same broad claims made in the main body, but gives no hint or awareness of the difficulties mentioned throughout this critique. He even once admits to data manipulation, which was, alas, unsuccessful (“Reducing the statistical thresholding in our present study did nominate the insula as a region of interest for disbelief…”).

Finally, there were several regions that showed greater signal in both groups in response to “blasphemous” statements (i.e. those that ran counter to Christian doctrine). The ventral striatum signal in this contrast suggests that decisions about these stimuli may have been more rewarding for both groups: Nonbelievers may take special pleasure in making assertions that explicitly negate religious doctrine, while Christians may enjoy rejecting such statements as false.

No, no, no. This is nonsense. The statements which “ran counter to Christian doctrine” were statements which ran counter to Harris’s narrow and misleading understanding of Christian “doctrine” (recall he never tells which statements these are). Then just look at the speculation—do the “reverse inference”—and fly! This group may like this or the may take pleasure from that, while the other group may have feelings that are different. Of course they may! The idea of the paper was to give evidence about these speculations, yet none was forthcoming.

My dear reader, we are near the end, both of my review and the paper. It is in the very last paragraph that Harris finally—hallelujah!—acknowledges a limitation of his methods. Well written papers by careful and truthful authors always list as many limitations as they can think of. Harris lists only one: “There is, of course, no reason to expect that any regions of the human brain are dedicated solely to belief and disbelief” which he immediately negates by beginning his next sentence with “Nevertheless…” Nevertheless, he still believes he’s right. He ends with a call for fMRIs to be used as lie detectors.


During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously. What is fascinating, and what I do not here explore, is why this paper was not only published but why it is believed by others. It is sure evidence, I think, that scientists are no different than anybody else in wanting their cherished beliefs upheld such that they are willing to grasp at any confirmatory evidence, no matter how slight, blemished, or suspect that evidence might be.

I do not claim, and I do not believe, that Harris and his team cheated, lied, or willfully misled. I have given sufficient argument to show the authors wore such opaque blinders that they could not see what they were doing and so choose to write down that which they imagined they saw, which was a preconceived, incoherent concoction about how “Christians” would differ from “rational” thinkers.

I am anxious to admit that the claims made by Harris might be true. Of course they might! But again they might be false. The best we can say is that the evidence offered by Harris is not useful in deciding.

I once again apologize for the length of this critique. It was long and ponderous; it is not even complete. I left out many niggling details and did not even once mention predictive statistics. The time spent on this is justified, however, because this kind of thing is growing in importance to public discussions. How long is it, I wonder, before we see “expert” witnesses testifying in court that the defendant could not have known what he was doing because his inferior parietal cortex was not statistically significantly different from some random person? Don’t scoff. There is already the well organized Association for Politics and the Life Sciences, among others, dedicated to answering questions like this. How many more papers will link religion with pathology? The mind—i.e. the ventral striatum, if Harris is right—boggles.

Disclaimer Harris and all co-authors, as near as I can tell, were all well compensated in the conducting of this experiment and the writing of this paper. I have received no consideration of any kind from anybody for offering this critique.


1“Glowed orange” is my shorthand to describe the false color process by which the brain images were produced. I am aware of how these machines work, having played with data from them.

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

Categories: Philosophy, Statistics

15 replies »

  1. I am looking forward to a recreation of this exercise with believing and practicing Muslims and non-believers (who for the purposes of this iteration could be Christian).

  2. I agree completely with your assessment, and if this study is an example of what is going on in neuro sciences, then I will just ignore the entire field from now on.

  3. Luis,

    My heart soars like a hawk!

    The Harris study is, unfortunately, representative of a large swath of “region of the brain” studies.

  4. Briggs,

    RE: “Many religious beliefs are founded on rational arguments. To say that those who hold beliefs “relax their standards of rationality because certain doctrines fit their ‘inference machinery’” is thus false or pseudo-scientific gibberish.”

    CAN you/anyone provide “rational” arguments for common Christian religious beliefs — with “rational” being solidly linked to accepted science. Things like the existance of the soul; that baptism to be correct MUST be by complete immersion (immersion – a very serious matter in some versions of Christianity, not an issue at all in others); that God is a Trinity of distinct beings that are also singular & not polytheistic (e.g. Archaic Triad/Capitoline Triad mapped to a then new faith…or couched as monotheism); that faith alone is sufficient for redemption or that good behavior is also requisite, etc.?? In presenting “common” beliefs it is admittedly impossible to present universial beliefs, so stick with a few of the most significant.

    For extra credit explain a rational argument for a core belief in Christianity &/or Islam that the founder ascended into heaven in bodily form (the latter with horse); R. Catholics also believe the founder’s mother likewise ascended. Those beliefs originated in a world/universe-view in which the stars were visible lights of heaven (e.g. when Icaraus & Deadalus could, by flying high, get so hot that wax would melt), many still believe these absolutely today.

    Given that inferred beliefs, like the centrality of the Earth in the universe, have slowly given way (though some still believe this too), there is evidence that religious belief is malleable at the core doctrinal level. This is particularly apparent if one studies Christian-on-Christian persecutions such as those that prompted the Pilgrims to evacuate to America. Those were deadly…yet today the issues that they would & did kill each other over no longer are issues. That kinda lends support for the ‘beliefs are modulated’ assertion. Bishop Spong for one minced no words on this theme:

  5. Ken, let’s change your question. Can you provide rational evidence for the big bang? Can you explain to me, or anyone else, what gravity is or prove that ‘it’ even exists? Can you demonstrate that the ‘laws’ of physics are the same here as they are 50 light years away?

    Seriously Ken, everyone operates on some form of faith.

    Believing in a deity or soul or karma doesnt require one to be Catholic. You dont need to believe that bread turns in to human flesh in order to believe that there may be more to life than living.

  6. Ken,

    First: all these arguments are besides the point. They have nothing to do with whether fMRI can tell the difference between Christian and non-Christian brains.

    Second: You’re making the common mistake of confusing the physical with the meta-physical. Science deals only with the contingent, i.e. the physical. Philosophy starts with the metaphysical (religion, etc.), but also has a hand in the contingent.

    If I claim, “The soul exists; but it is not a physical thing” then I have made a metaphysical claim about which science is powerless to answer. If I claim, “The soul exists; it is both a physical and extra-physical thing” then science can step in and say “Prove it.”

    If I claim, “All thought begins with faith” then I have made a metaphysical claim about which science is powerless to answer. I can further (and have, many times on this blog) justify why it is rational to believe this proposition.

    It is also possible to rationally operate/act under a religious belief, even though that belief is false (known to be false given evidence not considered by the actor).

    These are well known philosophical arguments.

    Well, I’ll stop. I don’t want to get into this at this point. Let’s instead talk about the fMRI study and leave specific religious claims to another time.

  7. Harris would have done better if he had consulted the work of Donald Clifton (see: who identified “Belief” as one of 34 core talent themes. Using subjects who scored high and low on this item could mitigate some of the error in his research method. The Gallup organization currently offers the Strengths Finder analysis and has over two million participants on which to base it’s conclusions. See the technical report for details (

  8. Atheists accept the following as ‘settled science’ without the slightest mental hiccup: In the beginning, there was absolutely nothing whatsoever. Then there was around 10^56 kg of stuff and a universe to put it in. 16 billion years and a bunch of evolving later, here we are.

    but practically foam at the mouth in outrage (OK, not ALL atheists) that there is someone-ANYONE- out there, not bothering anyone, who believes that: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. And, a bit later, us.

    Their objection apparently is that the first is pure, unadulterated, peer reviewed science, practically obvious when you think about it, while the second is so palpably silly that people who believe it have mental problems and should be kept away from impressionable children.

    Frankly, if I were going in cold, I couldn’t see much to choose between them, intrinsic believability-wise.

  9. As I understand it, there’s a whole body of study on the subject of questionnaires which includes validation tests so the investigator can be sure that the questions yield the results he thinks they do.

    It seems to be quite common for some academics to include branches of science in their studies about which they simply assume that they know all that is needed to be known. Statistics is another field of study often taken for granted in this way. I wonder if this is hubris or ignorance.

  10. I don’t know about the dedication bit, but as an atheist I can see the big flaws here too. Besides, I believe that “Rational Agent theory” is a much better explanation for the reasons that people say they believe all kinds of stuff.

    @Bob Ludwick

    There’s nothing wrong with believing “settled science”, given that the whole point of scientific, i.e. physical, theories is to have a current best theory. But as soon as there is a better theory, one that predicts more events correctly, one should start believing the new theory and stop believing the old one. Or keep believing the old theory. Whatever one fancies.

    About the idea that the universe is created by somebody, that somebody also has to come from somewhere. As daft as the idea of spontaneous creation might be, it is not dafter than the idea that it was created by somebody that came into being as spontaneously.

  11. Ken, Will and Bob are entering in a fools-errand discussion that is irrelevant here. The problem is not if whether Religious belief is “rational” or not, but if there are people who arrive to such conclusions in rational terms. Now, we can debate endlessly on the merits of such rational terms and methods, but can we really deny the existence of Descartes’ reasoning, for instance?

    Personally, I think it laughable that we can arrive to these conclusions in a “pure” “rational” way, since I’ve never seen any belief being arrived at with such utopian method. I think we all reach our beliefs in a mish mash of emotional, social, subjective thinking coupled with incomplete and not-as-rational-as-we-would-have-ourselves-believe reasoning. IOW, it’s a mess. Most atheists I know didn’t arrive at the conclusion that gods are irrelevant to their lives by “reasoning”. They just don’t bother themselves with the question, and think of those who do suspiciously, only listening to such people after taking proper measures to ensure their wallets are safe.

    Most believers I know go to the Church because it gives meaning to the weekend, and the issue of their precise “theological sect” being determined not by their own choice, but by the geographical location of their birth as completely irrelevant, since what matters is the social aspect, the moral aspect and the tradition, etc. There is no “theological” debate going on inside most of the believers’ heads (this is hilariously visible when you see believers having no problem saying that unbelievers will also go to heaven and other heresies, while proclaiming that contrary statements by their preacher/bishop/etc. are not “kind”, as if the truth of these matters depended on the whims of some vulgar members of the church ;).

  12. I realize that my comment was off topic as to whether the subject research was conducted in such a manner that published conclusions were supported by the data. For the record, I’m signing up with Dr. Briggs. (He obviously doesn’t need my help and I don’t understand statistics anyway; I just think he has an interesting blog.)

    @Sander van der Wal I was not advancing either proposal. I just thought it interesting that the idea that there was nothing-literally-and then the universe and all that dwell therein spontaneously appeared, for no obvious reason, was unremarkable to atheists, but the idea that some think that it was made purposefully seems, for some reason, to drive many atheists to near apoplexy, well beyond the point of mere disagreement.

    @ Luis Dias “Ken, Will and Bob are entering in a fools-errand discussion that is irrelevant here.” Both premises: true.

  13. Professor Briggs,

    Thank you for truly excellent critique of that a publication.

    I want to object to one thing that is hinted in the discussion. The paper is not representative of neuroscience. Fortunately there is more to that term.

  14. @Sander van der Wal I was not advancing either proposal. I just thought it interesting that the idea that there was nothing-literally-and then the universe and all that dwell therein spontaneously appeared, for no obvious reason, was unremarkable to atheists, but the idea that some think that it was made purposefully seems, for some reason, to drive many atheists to near apoplexy, well beyond the point of mere disagreement.

    I’ll indulge this discussion for a moment. I cannot speak for “other” atheists, although from what I’ve seen I gather that their thoughts are no different from mine in this matter. You have it correct that atheists are unimpressed by the universe coming from “nothing”, but for the wrong reasons. The first and most important reason that we are unimpressed by this “reasoning” is that we don’t have a clue on what actually happened, and if it makes any sense to describe the big bang in that fashion anyway. So when someone tries to shock an atheist by proclaiming that we believe in ex nihilo, we just shrug our shoulders: I believe in nothing like that at all. What I really believe is that we do not have the answer to that question, and, more importantly, that anyone proclaiming that the only solution to the problem is their own God is merely either showing off his utter amazing lack of imagination (usually fueled by scientific ignorance of current theories of the big bang and their actual nuances and caveats), or just making propaganda in favor of their religious belief.

    Either of those possibilities bore me to hell, and so I shrug.

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