February 16, 2014

Does Religious Belief Enhance Gullibility?

English: 2 gravestones at Arlington National C...
English: 2 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery, with religious symbol for United Church of Religious Science and "belief group" symbol for Atheist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Religious belief (i.e., faith) does not offer the sort of protection against gullibility one finds in critical thinking or skepticism, but this is not necessarily a problem for religion. After all, religious belief does not provide us with many of the things we find in science, and we do not expect it to do so.

There is some evidence that religious belief is associated with gullibility, but I am not aware of clear support a one-directional causal relationship. That is, religious belief may lead to gullibility, gullibility may lead to religious belief, or some other variable could potentially lead to them both. Remember, correlation is different from causation.

So my question here is not about whether religious belief causes or is caused by gullibility but whether religious belief enhances gullibility. Does an individual tend to be more gullible than he or she would otherwise be because of his or her religious belief?

My guess, and this is merely a guess, is that any relationship would be fairly weak. While I suspect that religious belief has the potential to enhance gullibility in some areas, I suspect that there are many other variables that do more to enhance gullibility than religious belief does (e.g., lack of education, poor critical thinking skills).

Among the religious believers I know who are not particularly gullible outside of their religious beliefs, they tend to be fairly well educated, utilize skepticism, and have developed above average critical thinking skills. Among the atheists I know who are quite gullible outside the question of gods, they tend to have less education, be less likely to utilize skepticism, and are not particularly well versed in critical thinking. Thus, I suspect that these things are more important for gullibility than religious belief.

The best case scenario for how religious belief might enhance gullibility would seem to involve indoctrination, a process that typically begins during childhood before one has developed any of the protections against gullibility. It is not a stretch to imagine that the child who learns from those he or she trusts to suspend disbelief, blindly trust religious authority, accept "miracles," and the like might be more gullible. Fortunately, a good reality-based education can undo some of this damage later in life for those who receive one. This is one of the reasons that education is so important, even for those who maintain their religious belief throughout it.

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