Skip to content


Why do people believe and behave as they do? Especially people who believe and behave differently than we do. Or who believe and behave in ways that we think are dangerous, imprudent, confusing, stupid, or just plain irritating. There are so many people who believe such strange things, after all. Why?

One answer makes things quite simple for us. They are brainwashed. Or, more “scientifically,” they have been “mentally conditioned.” This, apparently, is the argument of a book called When God Talks Back as described in a book review by Molly Worthen  in The New York Times this past April. Why do evangelical Christians believe in a personal God who listens and responds to their prayers, who heals and reveals himself in other concrete ways? According to the book’s author T.M. Luhrmann,

Evangelicals believe in an intimate God who talks to them personally because their churches coach them in a new theory of mind. In these communities, religious belief is “more like learning to do something than to think something. . . . People train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God.”

In short, through repeated exposure to and investment in such things as music, prayer, shared corporate religious experiences, distinct ways of speaking about and talking to God, and constantly taking inventory of one’s own spiritual temperature, the brains of evangelical Christians actually begin to change and God begins to be heard and experienced in the desired ways. “Conjuring God” isn’t that difficult to do by minds eager and willing to do so.  It is, according to Luhrmann, all about “training perception.”

Of course there’s nothing new about the argument that psychology, not theology, is the appropriate domain of discourse for describing religious experience. That path is a well-traveled one, going back at least as far as Sigmund Freud and William James, to name just a few. And there is little doubt that our minds can be trained to believe all kinds of things. What strikes me about arguments like these is not that they are implausible in and of themselves but that they seem to be very selectively applied.

To religious beliefs, specifically. It is very often religious people who are described as “brainwashed” or “mentally conditioned.” It is very often religious brains that are scrutinized and studied in order to locate and understand the neural cocktail capable of producing such odd and irrational beliefs. And, very often, to “explain” is to explain away or dismiss. The resulting studies sound very smart and scientific and “objective,” but invariably they come out something like, “Well, there are these peculiar creatures who engage in these peculiar activities which have these peculiar effects upon their poor, misguided brains, which establish and reinforce certain neurological circuits, which explains why they believe in an imaginary being and behave as they do. It’s all very simple, you see. Their brains are being programmed.”

But why stop with religious brains? If the argument is that repeated behaviours and rituals and habits of thinking and speaking and patterns of socialization result in a certain way of being in the world, this is surely true for all of us, isn’t it? Atheists and Adventists, agnostics and Pentecostals, anarchists and bureaucrats, Democrats and Republicans, classical music enthusiasts and punk rockers, NASCAR enthusiasts and soccer fans, poets and scientists. Even, perhaps, neuroscientists?

While Thomas Kuhn and others have addressed these matters in scholarly works, I have come across very few popular articles (in the NYT, for example) about how and why a scientific worldview is nourished and maintained—about how scientists inhabit a particular community with certain assumptions and certain repeated behaviours and ways of speaking and thinking that reinforce certain ways of looking at and acting in the world. Or, if we don’t want to bother the scientists and sociologists (they’re busy studying the rest of us, after all), why not study the beliefs and behaviours of garden variety agnostics? Or people who read The New York Times? Or people who buy organic bananas? Or people who cheer for Liverpool? Or ____?

All beliefs and behaviours are influenced by the social contexts in which they are formed and by the choices we make about which ones will be rejected or modified and which will be reinforced (and how). All of us inhabit what sociologist Peter Berger called “plausibility structures”—sociocultural contexts in which our beliefs and values take shape and are, over time and with subsequent influence from individuals, institutions, etc, rendered more, well, plausible than others. We should expect, upon examining a particular human community, to find evidence that their beliefs and behaviours are shaped by the contexts they are a part of. These are, after all, the only ways and the only places that human beliefs and behaviours exist.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    How dare you apply this reductionist logic to the motivations of people who cheer for Liverpool!! I resent your insinuation that the love of this great team is not rooted in the simple fact that they represent light and goodness in the midst of a word of darkness and evil (normally embodied by Man Utd and Chelsea).

    One the other hand, I may just be motivated by a morbid desire to purify my soul through the weekly ritual of heightened expectations leading to crushing disappointment…

    August 21, 2012
    • In your case, the brainwashing must have been of a very potent and permanent variety. It’s difficult to imagine what combination of an utter lack of reason, an inexplicable ability to absorb weekly punishment, and the complete absence of social reinforcement and reward would lead one to cheer for Liverpool.

      Your mental conditioning has been comprehensive indeed :).

      August 21, 2012
      • Gil #

        The absence of social reinforcement and reward is what proves that I am right.

        August 21, 2012
      • Or just that Liverpool is an awful football club.

        August 21, 2012
    • Brian C. #

      An older friend of mine is a huge Everton fan. He’d regale me with tales of how the Liverpool club took over the stadium the two squads shared in Liverpool’s early years as a team. How Everton was there first and got the short end of the stick… the injustice of it all:)

      Try being a SK Roughriders fan. Even when their winning, I’m reminded by my “friends” of previous chokery, notably the 13th man.

      Thankfully Jesus has healed me of the need for vain winning/competition and the idolizing of my sporting heroes… oh wait.. er never mind.

      August 31, 2012
      • Gil #

        The first rule of sports debates is that you are not allowed to use my logic against me. The good vs. evil narrative only really works when you start with this.

        August 31, 2012
  2. I’m interested in hearing more about your ideas, I’m starting my thesis very soon in this same area. I wanted to focus on the next step, when their world drastically collides with new ideas that challedges their previous held beliefs. Can you email me?

    August 30, 2012
    • Sounds like an interesting topic for a thesis, Kelly. I’d be happy to offer input to whatever extent I am able. Perhaps the best thing to do would be for you to drop me an email with any specific questions or areas you’d like to discuss. My email can be accessed on the right sidebar, near the top of the page.

      August 30, 2012
      • I sent you a message Ryan 🙂 Also, thank you Tyler, I’m checking it out right now 🙂

        August 31, 2012
  3. I love how you say “nourished & maintained mind”… That being the case, we have opened the door to any group or individual. Take for example, the Taliban. I recently watched a Net Geo special called Talibanistan in which a captured Taliban soldier spoke to a reporter. During the interview he said he was with the Taliban since he was in the third grade. The Taliban recruited him when his family was wiped out, “by the evil Americans who killed his father and brothers, and took his mother and sisters to Cuba where they were raped repeatedly and then killed” The man was visibly upset and crying while telling his story. It was clear no matter what we, the Americans, tell him he would never believe his family didn’t die at our hands. His mind had been nourished by the Taliban since his young adolescent years. They continued to maintain an atmosphere where we the Americans were the enemy which seemed to reinforce their ideologies against us. I’m thinking my paper needs to focus on how the mind in “X group” is nourished and why maintaining it a certain way is important. Now i just need an interesting group to focus on, thank you guy. I look forward to bouncing. Ideas off you 🙂

    August 31, 2012
    • Yes, the case you cite from Afghanistan certainly highlights how we are socialized into believing and behaving as we do. And it probably ought to make us turn the spotlight on ourselves as well. How does our context—American, Canadian, “Western,” etc—reinforce certain ideologies, predispose us to rule out certain possibilities and to write certain people/groups off, etc?

      August 31, 2012

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: