Whatever else you think about charismatic preachers, they have a dramatic power over their audience. While their followers believe them to have special powers, a new brain imaging study by Uffe Schjødt at Aarhus University in Denmark suggests that it’s all just a product of their imagination.
Did you read my article a couple of weeks ago about demons? Here’s the synopsis. When I was a believer, I had some very traumatic and very real experiences with demons. Of course, I know now that demons don’t exist, but at the time, their presence was palpable, their powers real. I could literally feel them probing my mind, looking for weaknesses. It was very real, and very very scary.
Scientists are beginning to figure out how my mind bent so easily to such silliness. In a fascinating experiment, it was discovered that pentecostal believers’ perceptions of reality changed significantly when they were told they were listening to a preacher known for his healing powers.
The thing is, it was not true. In reality, they were listening to the same prayers being read by ordinary Christians with no super powers. However, they were told that some of the readers had magic powers, some were ordinary Christians, and some were non-believers.
When asked, the pentecostalists rated the one they were told was a healer as the most charismatic, and the person they thought was non-religious as much less charismatic (see the graph). For the non-believers, there was a slight trend in the same direction, but it was small and insignificant. Basically, they weren’t taken in by the deception.
But the pentecostalists were. Just telling a pentecostalists that someone has healing powers makes them think that they are highly charismatic. What’s more, they didn’t feel God’s presence in the prayers read by the person they were told was a non-Christian.
Did you catch the significance of that? A simple meme triggered a total change in the perception of reality! And why? Simply put, the part of their brain responsible for ‘executive function’ — that is, rational thought — shut down. This is powerful empirical evidence that the power of religion is not simply the power of group dynamics or cultural conformity. It is also the power of specific memes to change the way followers think.
To be fair, I’m not just talking about religion here. The same kind of thing happens to patients undergoing hypnosis, as well as stage hypnosis. More disturbingly, it’s what happened during the Milgram experiments as well. I say this to head off any criticism that I’m singling religion out as a unique causal bug-a-boo. Clearly, that’s not the case. But religious belief is the major driving force in the worldview of millions of Americans. This experiment shows just how dangerous and powerful the memes themselves are. When a group of people believes in magic, just telling them that Joe Schmoe can perform magic is enough to sway the group’s opinions to those of Joe Schmoe. (It’s no mystery that people’s opinions are easily swayed by those they perceive as charismatic. It’s been proven over and over.)
It is important that we atheists not get a big head about this, though. Non-believers apparently have the same kind of susceptibility, as evidenced by hypnotherapy, experiments in authority, and the numerous non-Christians who happen to believe in things like homeopathy, alien abductions, and vast worldwide conspiracies. However, I think it’s also worth noting that homeopathy, alien abduction, and conspiracy belief all put together don’t equal a tenth of the group credulity exhibited by the religious. That’s not a small point.
People who are skeptical by nature are almost by definition not prone to trusting what they are told. This is the nature of skepticism, and skepticism is the gateway to atheism. It seems that since there is so much compelling (and now empirically verified) evidence that non-skepticism leads to greatly enhanced displays of group-think and herd mentality, we have almost a prima facie case for asserting that regardless of anything else, it’s better for everybody when everybody is skeptical.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that the atheists in the study were not swayed by the information they were given. This is also powerful stuff. This study demonstrated rather clearly that being a non-believer is proof against being taken in by religious propaganda. We can extend that thinking easily and say that people who are committed to the scientific method — which is skeptical by nature — will tend to be relatively immune to any propaganda they are fed. Not totally immune, of course. We’re all gullible in some ways, and we all have our pet theories which appeal to us strongly. However, this is damning evidence against the moral permissibility of peddling religion. Giving 80% of the population a meme which can be used to collectively turn their brains off?
Seems like a bad thing to me.