The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge … disbelief

adamandeveThe story in Genesis that perhaps most readers will be familiar with runs as follows …

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened

Is it true, Does Knowledge really trump belief?

I well recall during my religious phase, a well-respected church leader warning everybody about the dire threat of university (oh the horror … shudders). He was of course correct because from his viewpoint he saw time after time young passionate Christians set off to an institute off learning and come back a few years later no longer a believer.

Allen B. Downey has a rather interesting paper (published in 2014) that examines the effects that education and Internet has on religious affiliation and finds that there is indeed a distinctly measurable correlation.

The abstract for the above paper reads …

Using data from the General Social Survey, we measure the effect of education and Internet use on religious affiliation.

We find that Internet use is associated with decreased probability of religious affiliation; for moderate use (2 or more hours per week) the odds ratio is 0.82 (CI 0.69–0.98, p = 0.01). For heavier use (7 or more hours per week) the odds ratio is 0.58 (CI 0.41–0.81, p < 0.001).

In the 2010 U.S. population, Internet use could account for 5.1 million people with no religious affiliation, or 20% of the observed decrease in affiliation relative to the 1980s. Increases in college graduation be- tween the 1980s and 2000s could account for an additional 5% of the decrease.

If you would like to read the full paper, then you will find it here on the Cornell University website (no paywall or registration)

Words can indeed slip by, so here is a chart from that paper that hammers the point home …

Internet users per 100 people and the fraction of the population with no religious preference, 1972–2010. Sources: World Bank, General Social Survey (GSS).

Key Observation: This is a correlation, a rather interesting one, and does not establish a causal relationship, but it certainly does strongly imply that there is one.

So what might be going on here?

Why does the acquisition of information, be it via education, or simply by using the Internet for 7 or more hours per weeks, impact religious belief?

An understanding of what might be happening perhaps resides within an aspect of human psychology. We all utilise distinctly different cognitive systems for processing different types of information: one is fast, emotional and intuitive, and another is far slower and analytical in nature. By default we generally lean upon the fast track, and go with the emotional intuitive mechanism. It enables us to function and thrive well in a rapidly changing and quite chaotic environment, but the price we pay is that we end up giving objects and events personalities and so this quite naturally leads to supernatural thunking that can manifest in religious beliefs, folk beliefs (faeries, Jinn, etc..), or just ghosts, or perhaps aliens. The other modality, is quite different. The analytical approach, if permitted to dominate, will dim and override the intuitive mechanism and so the inclination towards supernatural thinking is suppressed.

If interested in reading up on this, then I can recommend the paper by Will M. Gervais, and Ara Norenzayan …

Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief – Science 2012 (Full text is free, but you need to register to get to it)

The Religious Confession

Without really understanding why, religion does indeed fear knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge, and so it will issue dire warnings against eating of the tree of knowledge because that is a real threat to the very existence of belief.

It is not the acquisition of facts or a far better understanding of reality that strikes a knife into the heart of belief, but rather it is the initiation of analytical thinking and perhaps also a realisation that emotional and intuitive thinking can and does fool us all. If we permit it to do so, then thinking analytically about beliefs instead of just embracing them at an emotional level will open our eyes to our very own personal enlightenment.

You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here . . . I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me. – Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988)

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