Not so fast

Wait. Something wrong here

The battle by scientists against “irrational” beliefs such as creationism is ultimately futile, a leading experimental psychologist said today. The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.

He told a science conference in Norwich that it’s simplistic to divide people into those who believe in the supernatural and those who don’t, and adds “But almost everyone entertains some form of irrational beliefs even if they are not religious.” That seems fair enough. But then he backs up the point in what I think is an odd way: “For example, many people would be reluctant to part with a wedding ring for an identical ring because of the personal significance it holds.”

Well of course they bloody would, in fact I would guess that not “many” but pretty much all people would, but that’s not irrational, and it’s also not a belief. It’s arational, if you like, but it’s not irrational. It’s sentiment, but that’s a different thing. Sentiment doesn’t have to be rational, and it mostly doesn’t matter that it isn’t. (Yes, yes, I can think of exceptions, but it mostly doesn’t matter.) Personal significance, memory, association, are all a different kind of thing from beliefs, and all the more so from supernatural beliefs. Most people probably don’t believe their wedding rings are magic, but they value them for other reasons. I’ll tell you something. Prepare for a shock. I have quite a few objects that I value above their intrinsic worth because of who gave them to me or whom they once belonged to. Imagine that. I have my grandmother’s gold watch, given to her by her father for her 21st birthday. I wouldn’t want to swap it for an identical one with an identical inscription; I want the one my grandmother actually owned and had and used and (I assume) treasured. I don’t consider that in the least irrational. Sorry; I just don’t. I have a wooden writing desk my mother gave me, and a smaller wooden writing desk my brother and sister-in-law gave me, and a wooden figure of a monk holding a cross my brother gave me when he was in the Navy and found himself in Barcelona. I like having all of them, and I would be “reluctant” to trade them for exact replicas – very reluctant indeed, as a matter of fact. I don’t consider that the smallest bit irrational.

The idea that such attachments and sentiments are irrational sets way too high a standard for human, possible rationality, and by doing so, sets too low a standard. It’s a sort of bait and switch. Humans are not rational, they like to keep things that loved people give them, therefore they are hardwired to believe in supernatural entities. No. Sentimental attachment to inanimate objects, from teddy bears to blankies to rings to writing desks, is not the same thing as belief in the esistence of supernatural entities; in fact it’s pretty dang different.

Prof Hood produces a rather boring-looking blue cardigan with large brown buttons and invites people in the audience to put it on, for a £10 reward. As you may expect, there is invariably a sea of raised hands. He then reveals that the notorious murderer Fred West wore the cardigan. Nearly everyone puts their hand down…Another experiment involves asking subjects to cut up a photograph. When his team then measures their galvanic skin response – ie sweat production, which is what lie-detector tests monitors – there is a jump in the reading. This does not occur when a person destroys an object of less sentimental significance.

Same thing. Interesting, sure; not particularly rational, fine; the same thing or even the same kind of thing as believing in the god of religion, no. Unless the Guardian left a huge amount out, Bruce Hood didn’t make his case there.

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