Why Do People Still Believe ?

    In 1999 I had an article published on how the way 'belief' is induced and reinforced using the same techniques as are used to induce and reinforce ideas in health care. It is a side effect of the natural human physiology, the main purpose of which is to maintain health and wellbeing. (No doubt I will have to wait until a young male professional eventually comes to the same conclusions, since coming from a woman it will be totally  ignored.)

    Below is a brief overview, a more detailed version follows.

    I believe that 'belief in the supernatural' by intelligent, educated and otherwise rational people can be explained by understanding how alternative therapies work when they appear to do so, at least by anyone who has a basic understanding of human physiology.

    When they do work they work (and they do in some conditions) they do so for the same reasons that hypnosis can be effective for pain relief and conditions in which there are significant psycho-somatic factors.  The 'mumbo jumbo' is in the various rituals they use, but not the underlying process. The relevance to religion is that both use the same processes, psychological techniques of 'induction' 'conditioning' and ‘reinforcement’ that affect the bodies own physiological systems.

    In the therapeutic situation, it works equally well in alternative and conventional therapies, though 'alternative' therapists have the advantage of longer one-to-one sessions, doctors have the advantage of effective treatments and reputation.  Patients are already likely to be in a state of heightened suggestibility by slight anxiety, that is reinforced either by the  'loving parent' or ‘authority’ figure of the therapist. Therapists with needles or 'touch rituals' such as scented oils or reflexology, doctors in white coats with scientific explanations and ' a good bedside manner' - then proceed with some form of treatment or medication and to suggest ideas and thought associations, aimed at relieving symptoms, encouraging self confidence and confidence in them as therapists, and reducing stress and anxiety. This in itself helps the individual's own coping and healing mechanisms to work, as stress and anxiety are known contributory factors in many physical conditions, as well as the neuroses. It may also explain the Placebo Effect. These ideas are then reinforced by associating them with 'triggers' - thoughts or actions that keep 'reminding' the patient of the suggestions made to them during the therapy or consultation sessions.

    These psychological techniques are used all the time in everyday life to enhance treatment by conventional practitioners in health care, to manipulate behaviour in relationships, and between parents or teachers and children. We use them without realising that that is what we are doing. These techniques when practiced with a specific purpose also explain several other phenomena - the Placebo Effect, crowd behaviour (mass hysteria), mass responses to religious and political charismatics/ fanatics, the hold of cults over individuals especially vulnerable adults, the worship of 'pop' idols in the world of entertainment, music etc. - and brainwashing itself.  Less harmfully they are employed in techniques such as massage, meditation and Yoga to induce a feeling of calm and relaxation. I would not include here physical manipulative therapies such as Osteopathy.

    This is exactly the same process by which children are 'inducted' into religious belief, by parents and robed priests and the same is true for the 'conversion' of vulnerable or distressed adults later in life. This and the subsequent 'conditioning' process are carried out by loving or authoritarian figures; parents & priests (both induce a mild state of dependency, insecurity, and suggestibility) and the beliefs are continually reinforced by family, social and community ties, school, and media. The religions make great use of triggers in exactly the same way as hypnosis uses them for reinforcement by post hypnotic suggestion, and the everyday use of hypnotic triggers, using all the senses keeps people ‘faithful’ 

    Regular daily or weekly prayer and worship; visual signs and symbols such as crosses & other icons; the singing of hymns, chanting and saying of mantras; kissing rings, smelling incense and lighting candles; Dietary and dress codes are daily if not hourly reminders of ones religious faith. This is why the religions that have the strongest hypnotic techniques, or reliance on religious communities and isolation from outside influences are the most difficult for people to leave, even if they want to - Islam, Hinduism, some Christian sects especially the Catholics and Evangelicals, and the exclusive sects such as the Plymouth Brethren - JWs  - Mormons.

    The point is that there is nothing magical about this. It is a side effect of the bodies own physiological systems whose main purpose is to maintain health and well-being . Unfortunately most people do not understand much about body physiology. The complex interaction between brain and body is a mystery to many if not most people - the relationship between the body chemistry and behaviour.  The activity of the endocrine glands (how many people even know how many hormone producing glands there are, let alone what they do and how the chemicals the produce regulate each other and the rest of the body?) the sympathetic (autonomic) nervous system as distinct from the central nervous system, the auto-immune, lymphatic and digestive system all of which contribute to how one feels and thinks. Together with specific brain chemistry and its electrical activity, they produce not only conscious action, but perception, self-perception, emotion, mood and memory and all aspects of human feeling, thinking and behaviour.

    One of the sources is the work of Canadian, Professor Michael Persinger, and his work on 'Psycho psychological Bases of Belief'.  He demonstrated that perceptions of 'presence' OBE and the seeing of  'visions' of what people have interpreted 'god experiences' depending on their culture, can be replicated in the laboratory by applying weak electro magnetic waves to the brains of susceptible individuals (those who had reported such experiences before).

More detail?

    We freethinkers often ask ourselves why otherwise normal, rational, intelligent, educated people stick to the mumbo-jumbo of religion. How come highly trained professionals, scientists, academics and lawyers of the western world, continue to believe the unbelievable and have faith in the irrationality of religion, and other superstitions?
    How can sensible human beings persist in believing in astrology, alien abductions, and the power of faith, and turn to alternative therapies even sometimes in preference to science based, tried and tested medical and surgical remedies? How can sane, otherwise rational people turn to aroma therapy, head massage, reflexology, 'psychic surgery', 'laying on of hands' and the rest?
    And this, I think, is the clue - because although it is lumped together, with other irrational beliefs, it is  in fact different, and to dismiss this experience and the behaviours it engenders, ignores the fact that how they 'work'  explains much how belief in superstitions are created and maintained and may explain the persistence of religious belief.  It leaves rationalists and non-believers of all kinds, as much in the dark as religionists as to the 'mystery' of religion and faith. It is a key to the understanding of much religio/superstitious behaviour. It is too easy for people who have experienced the effects of alternative therapies to misunderstand its effects, and put them down to 'mystical' causes, and take the experience as confirmation of the 'spiritual' when they are nothing of the sort.

    It seems that many people, find it difficult to conceive that the 'mental' processes involved in human behaviour, emotion, mood, memory, perception and realisation, are as  'physical' as any other bodily  functions, and that state of mind in turn affects physical health and well-being.

    'Real' does not necessarily mean 'true'. Some of the manifestations of brain activity can be interpreted in such a way as to substantiate false beliefs. The minor disturbances of some parts of the brain described by neuroscientists as being like small epileptic fits, but without loss of consciousness or convulsions, are interpreted in line with "learned experience and cultural expectations" [1] These experiences have been reproduced artificially by Canadian Professor Michael Persinger. 'Out of Body' experiences, feelings that someone is present when one is alone, seeing visions or hearing voices and near death experiences are all examples of these phenomena, and have been reproduced by him in the laboratory with mild electro- magnetic stimulation.
    Disordered perceptions of a more florid kind are a feature of mental illness, psychoses and neuroses. Delusions, hallucinations, and many forms of thought and mood disturbances are well known to occur, sometimes they are associated with the ingestion of poisons, drugs or alcohol, some as part of the pattern of physical illness or abnormality such as under or over activity of the thyroid gland, or liver damage, or shortage of oxygen to the brain.
    One result of the lack of understanding of the importance of these things to belief in god is the dismissive attitude towards any discussion of 'alternative therapies'. The fact that many of these are reportedly effective, does not mean that, when they are effective, they 'work' in the same way as the generally accepted physical therapies of medicine or surgery. (Nor, would I suggest, should they be used instead of scientifically validated treatments). Neither are their effects when they do appear to work, is it in any way magical, but may appear so if you do not understand how they affect the body. This explanation would also explain poor results when they are used alone and not in addition to tried and tested therapies.
    One reason that these 'therapies' may 'work' when they do, is on the same principle as the placebo effect. No-one, as far as I know denies the existence of this process, so why should other therapies that 'work' on the same principle be automatically dismissed. It is known that dummy pills regularly 'work' in a proportion of cases, bigger more impressive pills work better than ordinary white ones, and researchers accept that they have to take this into consideration when designing their research methods in testing products or treatments. Presumably this effect is a psychological process, that we do not fully understand, and would explain a proportion of the 'successes' of any therapy whatever its nature even doing nothing. It also affects conventional treatments, produced by a doctor with a manner that invites confidence and stress reduction.
    Another way in which 'alternative therapies' may be explained is through the link between these psychological processes and the equally 'intangible' immune system. Most recently reported was the study presented to the British Psychological Society by Leslie Walker of Hull University, showing that using relaxation techniques produced demonstrable changes in the bodies own natural defence system - the immune cells. Again it is well known and partly understood that one's ability to 'throw off' or succumb to illness is affected by one's state of mind; and recent research has shown that immune response is affected by a person's state of mind and personality. It has been noted that illness often follows states of shock or stress. In some way ones immune system is affected, presumably by chemical interactions and changes brought about through the endocrine system and the complex interactions of the hormones that these glands produce. For example, stress stimulates the production of hormones that affect the circulatory system, resulting in heart disease. It is also known that the body has its own analgesics, endorphins, which may be blocked by fear or stress. In addition there are many physical diseases in which there are psychological aspects, (signs and symptoms aside from the emotional reaction to the illness itself or its effects).
    The third way in which 'alternative therapies' may 'work' is through another well known, well demonstrated, and equally little understood phenomenon - hypnosis. There are many conditions, physical and psychological, which are susceptible to amelioration or 'cure' by hypnotherapy, certainly phobias, and pain relief are an obvious example of its efficacy. It could be that hypnotherapy works through the placebo or immune system effects, but I believe that many of the other therapies 'work' by hypnotic techniques induction, conditioning and reinforcement. These are techniques that are in use every day in our relationships with other people, child rearing - getting people to do what we want them to do! they are used by most health care professionals and carers, a good bedside manner, instilling confidence and trust are likely to make other treatments and medications more effective. The research previously mentioned used 'positive thinking', relaxation and visualisations to produce the cell changes they reported. This is presumably most likely to be how the 'hands on' therapies, aroma therapy and even cognitive therapy to some extent and is used in maintaining adherence to beliefs.
    The principle at work in hypnotherapy and all such one to one therapies that unwittingly use the same psychological ploys is in alleviating stress and anxiety, that has the effect of preventing the body's own recuperative powers.
    Photo. by Rebecca Harley
    Richard Box's installation of 1,300 tubes powered solely by the electromagnetic field around power lines - set up in a field off the M4 east of Bristol.

    Electro- magnetic effects on other bodily systems
    Below is just one of many research projects that are already under way on how external electro magnetism, can affect bodily system that use internal electrical activity e.g. the heart and brain.
    This links natural phenomena with the stimulus used by Professor Persinger in producing experiences - perceptions, that have been interpreted as supernatural experiences or 'God events'. These have been used to confirmation 'belief' in the supernatural.
    (From Medline)
    [Effect of electromagnetic fields of natural and anthropogenic origin on the frequency of pathology occurrence in St. Petersburg]

    [Article in Russian]

    Tiasto MI, Ptitsyna NG, Kopytenko IuA, Voronov PM, Kopytenko EA, Villoresi G, Yucci N.

    Istituto di Fisica Spazio Interplanetario (CNR) Frascati, c/o Universita La Sapienza, Dipartimento di Fisica, Roma, Italy.

    The effect of man-made electromagnetic fluctuations and strong geomagnetic disturbances on human pathology-data from St.Petersburg (Russia, 1981) is analyzed. The most remarkable effect is the 7-day variation of the ambulance-call data for myocardial infarction, that show a decrease in pathology-rate (70%) during week-ends and public holidays. Results of measurement of man-made electromagnetic fluctuations in the frequency range 0.005-10 Hz in 1991 and 1994 show a big decrease in electromagnetic noise during week-ends. We suggest that very big 7-day variation in infarction rates is connected with the decrease of electromagnetic noise during Saturdays-Sundays. This phenomenon is responsible for the very big 7-day variation in infarction rate. The myocardial infarction rate cleaned up by meteorological and social effects show the increasing by a factor 1.14 during geomagnetic storms.

    (Preager, New York - First Published 1987
    In 1987 Michael Persinger, Professor of Neuroscience at Laurentian University, Canada wrote a book in which he outlined his theory of 'Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs' (Praeger-New York). In the preface he remarked "An objective explanation for why people believe in God is not very popular, Scientists may encounter resistance, ranging from quiet but cordial avoidance to outright physical violence. During the development of the explanation in this text I have experienced both."
    This is a widely referenced, work by an expert in his field. He has also published the results of a series of research projects, since the early 1980s, in which he has been able to demonstrate that electrical activity in the brain produces perceptual experiences, such as 'visions' 'sense of presence' 'out of body experience', 'lights' and what he calls 'god' experiences. He relates it also to the similarities in 'near death experiences'. They occur in many people to a greater or lesser degree and produce a range of perceptions that are described in the language of their 'cultural expectations or learned experience. The stimulus for these altered perceptions he considers are similar to mini-epileptic siezures but without convulsions. His particular theory is that they are caused by fluctuations in electro magnetism on the brain in susceptible individuals. These structures of the brain in the Temporal and Frontal areas of the brain are ones which we already know are involved in memory, mood and perception. When these areas specific areas of the brain are stimulated 'god' experiences as he calls them are triggered and their contents "tempered by the person's leaning history are evoked", religious visitations or conversions, alien abductions and the seeing of ghosts etc..
    We also know that certain neuro-toxins produce altered perception, with a range of bizarre manifestations, pointing again to disturbance of brain cell function, and the associated perception of 'experience', memory and behaviours.
    He has on occasion been on TV on the continent where I am told he demonstrated the technique but have not seen any reports of this.
    The published reports of his research can be accessed through Medline.

    Is Religion Sustained by Psychological Techniques?

    I believe it is. One of the reasons that people do not grow out of religion in the same way that they grow out of believing in fairies or Santa Clause is that when people are strongly conditioned to believe their religion, from parents, family, community and state, and that conditioning is constantly reinforced, they will maintain those beliefs, or find it very hard to reject them..
    This conditioning may be from very early childhood or later conversion, often during periods of personal stress, loneliness or grief, when they will be susceptible to the embrace of such proselytising communities.
    'Rite and Ritual' are 'Conditioning and Reinforcement' - using repetition, of language, themes, phrases, and actions, use of signs and symbols, linking of ideas, visualisation and imaging techniques. The same mechanisms and techniques used to induce hypnosis or self-hypnosis. This explains why when children are not 'indoctrinated' early in life, and the whole reinforcement process of church going is weak such, there is a falling away of religious faith. It explains the importance to a successful religion of communal praying, singing or chanting, repeating mantras, smelling incense etc. This is why going through rituals such as confirmations, initiations, food rituals, kissing of rings, mass and bowing to Mecca etc. are so crucial to the maintenance of religion. It certainly explains the weakness of the C of E, compared with Islam. The more vigorously these reinforcement techniques are enforced, the stronger is likely to be the psychological dependence of the individual.
    If I am right it would also explain various other religious phenomena; mass psychology, or 'mass hysteria', tens of thousands of individuals rallying in ecstatic unison religious leader, from the Pope to Billy Graham, (or to political figurehead or pop music icon come to that) ; the adoption of fanatical, fantastical, ideas and cults by otherwise apparently normal individuals: the seeing of 'visions' and perception of 'miracles'; the 'speaking in tongues', falling and snake handling, and success of the religious movements led by 'charismatic' evangelists. All of which appear to cause nervousness even among some of the church hierarchies.
    If the whole process of religion and its language, can be described almost word for word as a hypnotic experience, we have to ask ourselves whether, if psychological treatment works to the advantage of mankind in the fields of health and well-being, does the same apply to religion? And many apologists for religion, give this as a reason for not undermining (criticising or opposing) religion, quoting the comfort factor to deter secularist challenges.
    I think not, for several reasons:
    The difference being that while hypnosis as a therapy is employed to address a human illness or neurosis, as a tool : used to enable an individual to overcome some disruptive or unpleasant condition, by affecting their own innate responses. Religion and other superstitions use the same techniques to maintain adherence to and dependence upon a religion, cult or belief.
    Alternative therapies however, though they may use the same techniques, do not claim for themselves 'ultimate truths' on which are based vast organisations, powerful superstructures, affecting millions of people. They do not seek to dominate, insisting on superiority over all other therapies, let alone people, cultures, states. Their aim is to enable the individual to take control of their own lives not those of others, and do not, if used responsibly, encourage people into dependency. Providing they are used rationally as an adjunct to evidence based treatments and do not make false claims or raise false hopes, like the placebo, however it works, if it does work, let us accept that one day we may understand how it works.
    Why do I think that it is important for us to take on board this explanation of religious experience?
    Because it goes some way to explain why otherwise ordinary intelligent people, continue to follow religion. If it were more widely understood it could also help people to break free from belief in gods knowing that they do not have a 'god shaped hole' nor suffer the dire effects of 'unbelief' predicted by the religions.
    By providing a rational explanation for phenomena that are not easily understood, and which because of their apparent 'mystery', encourage superstition. Hearing of supposed 'miracles' for instance, leads people to view them as proof of the 'spiritual', or as religious manifestations.
    It might also help more people to understand how organised religion works, and why the policies and stances it takes, such as maintaining places of worship, church schools and constant support and promotion on radio and television are so important to its continuation, in their own brand of power politics!
    This is based on an article 'Body and Soul' originally published in the New Humanist in June 2000
    [1} Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs - Professor Michael Persinger. Praeger 1987