Surveying belief

The notable ‘new atheist‘ Sam Harris has instigated an fMRI brain-study of belief and disbelief. On his website he’s calling for volunteers to fill out four surveys.

We especially need Christians to respond, as one of the goals of these surveys is to design stimuli that a majority of Christians will find doctrinally sound.

Every time scientists want to get a grasp of belief or believers, they fall into the same pits: uninformed, hideously unclear questions about the fuzziest of concepts, that altogether betray an unhealthy familiarity with only the most vocal, most literal and most primitive forms of the belief studied and desperately trying to force believers to speak their language.

My prediction: Mr. Harris is going to find significant differences in brain structure and brain activity between querulant atheists like himself and people with a rigid personality, narcissism and/or an anxiety disorder and whose beliefs are very inspired by, seriously influenced by or an expression of one, two or three of those three.

Given the fact that most people are religious and Mr. Harris is expressing a dwindling minority view, his research is going to backfire. Before we know it atheism is going to be labelled a brain-defect. That’s not what I want to happen (I gave the reason before, and I’ll give it again: Genesis 1:27)

See for yourself. Here are some questions from Sam Harris’ Survey A with my nasty remarks:

1. Please indicate your degree of belief in the God of the Bible.
Which Bible? People have worked on the text of the Bible for about a thousand years and ideas about God, they are various and changing. There are Samaritan, Jewish, Lutheran, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic versions of the Bible. Muslims profess to believe in ‘the God of the Bible’ too, some Hindu’s as well… Then the concept of ‘belief’ seems to be a bit fuzzy. Do you mean ‘believe to be literally true’ or ‘believe to be inspired but not necessarily without faults’ or ‘believe to hold fundamental truths about mankind’?
2. Please indicate your degree of belief that the Bible is the word of God.
Again: which Bible? And what is it exactly that you mean by ‘Word of God’? Orthodox Christianity holds that the Bible is the inspired word of people about God, not ‘the Word of God’, that’s more a Muslim thing. Does the maxim “poets lie the truth” count as ‘belief’?
12. The idea of a Personal God is a product of ancient superstition.
Among others. And why not modern? Surely, you’ve been told about ‘context of discovery’ and ‘context of justification’? Where this idea came from is fairly independent of why people believe it. Incidentally: when talking about God, what does ‘personal’ mean exactly?
14. It is reasonable to believe in an omniscient God.
‘Omniscient’, ‘God’, really. Santa Claus is a less unclear concept. Do you mean ‘true’ or just ‘reasonable’? ‘Cause there used to be a lot of untrue ideas that were perfectly reasonable.
19. It is always best to do one’s work for the glory of God.
Please clarify? What is that? (and I do not mean ‘work’)
20. There is no sign of God in my experience.
If this is a way of finding out ‘doctrinally sound’ Christians (according to what doctrine, I might add), you’ll probably end up with very few Christians and a lot of nutheads…
22. Humans are a product of the natural world, just like all other animals.
Fairly unintelligible reference to evolution. I know quite a few creationists who would easily answer
‎‎’yes’ to this question, thinking that ‘product of the natural world’ refers to creation. Personally, I think it refers to both.
26. Angels really exist.
What ‘angels’? Do you mean the מלאכים from the Thora? Those are messengers, nothing more. You mean Satan, as in Num 22:22? You mean the mythical winged creatures in Christian folklore? And what is meant by ‘exist’? As far as I know only the (created, if you want) universe ‘exists’.
30. Faith in scripture tends to make people compassionate and insightful.
Yes it definitely does. Unfortunately, the reverse is just as true.
31. Belief in Biblical “prophecy” is based on poor scholarship, wishful-thinking, or both.
That depends entirely on what you think ‘prophesy’ is. If you mean ‘predicting the future’, you’re right (against which the Bible warns), but if you mean biblical prophesy, you’re wrong. Quite a few biblical prophets said things we could all take at heart, regardless whether you believe they were inspired by God or not.
32. There is no God to answer our prayers.
That would be a pagan God, a useful God, God that makes rain when the harvest is under way, a God that does what people want Him to do. That has very little to do with Christianity (or Judaism for that matter). God does not make rain!
38. Man fell from a blessed state when he yielded to the temptation of Satan.
Does this refer to the story in Genesis? Then what satan? Do you mean the snake? Then why say ‘satan’ instead of ‘snake’? Oh:
and why the past tense?
39. Christian teaching is filled with obvious misconceptions about the world.
That depends on what you mean by ‘teaching’. Are you referring to the official teachings of Christianity? There’s no such thing, unless you refer to a particular church. Are you referring to what various people teach nowadays in the name of Christianity? Then you’re quite right.
40. Jesus Christ was born like an ordinary person, not sent by an invisible God.
Compound question to which answers may differ. Everyone believes He was born like any other human. But ‘sent’ is not quite right: orthodoxy has it Jesus was (the Son of) God, not some Jewish boy on an errand.
42. The Biblical story of creation is basically true.
Literally? Metaphorically? Allegorically? Morally?
45. Jesus Christ was sent by his Father as a sacrifice for the redemption of humankind.
Please clarify ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘sent’, ‘father’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redemption’.
46. Schools should teach their students to value Christianity as a path to truth.
And every other major religion.
49. Satan exists as a personal, malevolent being.
Please clarify ‘satan’, ‘exist’, ‘personal’, ‘malevolent’ and ‘being’.
53. Christianity does not describe the universe as it is.
Hansl and Gretl doesn’t either, but who cares? Christianity isn’t about describing the universe.
54. The Christian idea of the Holy Spirit is likely fictional, misleading, or empty.
Which Christian idea of the ‘Holy Spirit? On which side of the filioque-controversy are we supposed to be? Please clarify ‘fictional’, ‘misleading’ and ‘empty’. (And what is the word ‘likely’ doing there?)
56. Man emerged through a gradual process of evolution like every other species.
I know quite a few evolutionists who would argue strongly about the ‘gradual’-part. How are they supposed to answer this question?
61. God sometimes influences my decisions directly.
See question 20 above.
62. The Holy Spirit has ensured that the Bible is free from significant error.
Ok, I won’t ask you to clarify ‘Holy Spirit’ this time, but what is ‘significant’?
66. People who think they are communicating with God are wrong.
Mr. Harris, by now you really must have read enough about Christianity to know that the answer to this question will vary wildly among ‘doctrinally sound’ Christians. Personally, I do not pretend to know how God communicates with people, so I’d never use the word ‘wrong’, but if anyone claimed to be in direct contact with God, I’d suggest he’d take his medication.
68. Christ’s death provides atonement for the sins of humanity.
See question 45 above.
69. Humans are by nature sinful and inherently in need of Christian salvation.
Again: if this is a way to filter out ‘doctrinally sound’ Christians, you’re neglecting the majority of them. This idea is held by the –large- minority of post-reformation Christians. The majority (Orthodox and Catholics) hold that humans are by nature inclined to do good (i.e. to not sin), but unfortunately they are also imperfect.
70. God’s presence can be directly felt.
See questions 20 and 61 above.
71. Human beings were created by God.
As in: God used evolution to create us?
75. The universe is governed by an all-powerful, all-knowing God.
Ok, by now, you’ll probably guess what’s coming up: define ‘govern’. Furthermore: how can we humans judge what ‘all-powerful’ and ‘all-knowing’ means?
78. The widespread belief in a Personal God suggests that God actually exists.
It suggests a lot of people believe in a personal God. Maybe it’s good to repeat this in other words: there are more than enough Christians to be found who do not believe God ‘exists’ (only creation does), and for whom that word is nothing more than a figure of speech.
81. Christian teaching is the most important system of beliefs we have.
It’s the largest, but ‘most important’ is a fuzzier concept.
82. If Jesus existed, he was mortal, like every other human being.
Hello? Have we been paying attention recently? According to a massively large majority of Christians, Jesus died, so He must have been mortal…
85. People should relinquish their religious faith wherever it conflicts with science.
Why relinquish? Loads of other options available.
86. Believing in the Christian God is essential for true happiness.
Believing in the Christian God (or any other God) is not about happiness.
90. Religion should have more of an influence on public policy, not less.
Which religion?
91. God is clearly working in my life.
See questions 20, 61 and 70 above.
94. The Bible is filled with accurate prophecies that we should take seriously.
The Bible also mentions not to pay attention to ‘prophets’. Anyway, see question 31 above.
96. Jesus Christ probably did not rise from the dead.
I’m puzzled by the ‘probably’-part.
97. When tragedy strikes, it has nothing to do with the will of God.
Among ‘doctrinally sound’ Christians the answer to this problem varies widely, even within single churches that consider themselves ‘doctrinally sound’.
100. The Bible is the best guide to morality and personal fulfilment that we have.
The Bible is not about personal fulfilment, in fact it’s a totally alien concept to the Bible.

I’ve left out some questions that are not about belief, like ‘this is how it should be’-statements. (“It is good for doctors to avoid all direct communication with their patients”), the blatantly obvious and the ludicrously ridiculous (“It is very important to marry someone who shares your exact birthday”, “Bill Gates is one of the founders of Microsoft”), and a few statements about ‘I’, probably psychological check-questions to see whether the respondent is likely to give socially acceptable answers instead of true ones (“I like to be complimented”, “I am a very analytical person”)

One Response to “Surveying belief”

  1. Somewhere I read that Christ died on the Cross to show us that all life is sorrowful.

    I like that interpretation.

    Mike

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