Suggestibility in Religious Belief: They Believe What They Were Told

werewolf monster

For the purpose of this post, let's assume that university researchers with a bit of grant money to cover their expenses were to conduct an experiment to examine the role of suggestibility in what people believe. There is a large lake in the area surrounded by woods, and three well-developed camp facilities spread around the lake. The researchers post ads for a week-long summer camp for middle-school aged boys and randomly assign those who respond to one of three camps (the camps are far enough apart from each other than it would be difficult for the boys in one camp to reach one of the others without being detected).

The variable of interest (i.e., the dependent variable) is what the boys will report having observed, if anything, at the end of their stay. The experimental variable the researchers are manipulating (i.e., the independent variable) is a fun one. The boys in camps A and B are told credible (but fabricated) stories of a large creature inhabiting the woods and shown artists' sketches of what the creature looks like. They are told that the creature has been here for some time and that many have observed it. The descriptions of the creature and the corresponding sketches vary greatly between camps A and B. Neither creature resembles any popular creature depictions (e.g., Bigfoot) so that both are unique. For our purposes, the key thing to remember is that the descriptions are different enough that one creature could not possibly be confused with the other. As for camp C, they are told no stories and shown no sketches. The boys at camp C are what researchers would call a control group.

The methodology is simple. Soon after the campers arrive, the boys in camps A and B are told the story and shown the sketches selected for them. The presentation of the stories is repeated periodically by talented actors hired by the researchers. The boys in camp C are not exposed to any of this. At the end of the camp, the researchers interview the boys about anything unusual they might have observed.

Is there any question about what the researchers will find? The boys in camp A will be more likely than the boys in camps B or C to see the camp A creature, and the boys in camp B will be more likely than the boys in camps A and C to see the camp B creature. Of course, the boys in camp C will be extremely unlikely to see either of the creatures. Not all the boys will report seeing anything unusual, but some will. If the researchers had measured suggestibility prior to the boys' arrival to camp, they'd likely find that it predicted which of the camp A and camp B boys reported seeing their respective creatures.

What can we conclude from this, and what might it tell us about religious belief? Atheists have long been pointing out that one's religious identification has a great deal to do with where one was born, the religious identification of one's immediate family, etc. Much like the boys in our camp experiment, most religious believers seem to believe what they were primed to believe. Consider how different things might be if there was at least one real god out there. It might not matter where someone was born at all! In the end, it seems that we have little choice but to conclude that most people believe what they are told and some even come to think they've experienced evidence that what they've been told is real.

Even though I suspect that science has a great deal to teach us about the nature of religious belief, I would not expect scientific findings to change the minds of most religious believers. Evidence alone rarely seems to change religious minds.