How Religion Corrupts Our Epistemic Vigilance

There's a reason why so many Americans express indifference about the future.

How Religion Corrupts Our Epistemic Vigilance

In 1925, an ad executive named Bruce Barton published The Man Nobody Knows. Barton described this man as a CEO who “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” He became "the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem."

Barton was talking about Jesus.

Barton didn't like the version of Jesus he learned about in Sunday School. He considered that guy weak and effeminate. He cared about all the wrong things like fighting poverty and injustice.

To rectify this error, Barton decided to recast the prophet as a "man's man." The book became an instant hit. Barton himself went on to publish several books and hundreds of articles. Then he went into politics. Barton served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1937 to 1941.

He ran for senate but lost.

Barton's enduring contribution to American culture lies in Corporate Jesus, and the birth of what some call "religious apologetics" for the worst aspects of capitalism. It didn't take long for those twisted values to lead America straight into the worst depression in its history.

About a hundred years after Barton's big hit, most people think they're going to heaven no matter what they do. According to a Pew study, 75 percent of Americans think they'll wind up there after they die. Only 7 percent don't believe in any afterlife at all. So if you're wondering why so many people don't seem to have any interest in saving the planet or protecting each other from deadly diseases, that might have something to do with it.

How does religion actually work?

A 2022 study in Current Opinion in Psychology describes the evolution of religion and supernatural beliefs in human societies. It's not a glitch. Our beliefs guide our behaviors. Most cultures have mythologies or superstitions about divine punishment for thieves and murderers. God or karma tends to punish anyone who engages in deceitful or greedy behavior.

In its ideal form, religion provides social cohesion.

It keeps people from killing each other.

At least, it's supposed to.

Religion also helps us explain what we don't understand, or don't want to understand. Psychologists call this the "god of the gaps" theory.

A 2023 study in Nature found that in 114 different societies around the world, people tend to reach for supernatural or religious explanations for random tragedies and misfortunes. More than 90 percent of them offer supernatural accounts of disease. Apparently, they'll reject inconvenient scientific explanations in favor of almost anything else, including ghosts.

It's a problem.

You'd think that science and critical reasoning would save us from the moments when religion goes haywire. It doesn't.

A 2020 study in the Journal of Cognition and Culture explains that humans come equipped with something called epistemic vigilance. It's how we tell if someone is trying to manipulate us. We examine evidence. We look at someone's body language. We consider their motivations. Psychologists and sociologists call that content vigilance, and it operates in science.

Religion uses a different kind of epistemic vigilance.

It's called source vigilance.

Source vigilance relies on authority and hierarchy. It's about what the Bible says. It's about what this or that pastor says.

God "reveals himself" to you.

Our brains have a special slot for supernatural and religious arguments. The whole point is that nothing else can explain it.

Source vigilance bypasses all of our logic and goes straight for the jugular of our cognitive biases. It latches onto our emotions. It appeals to our need to feel safe and protected. It strokes our fear of death. It tells us everything's going to be okay, as long as we follow the rules.

For centuries, we've used the supernatural to explain disturbing things we don't understand, like mental illness and disease.

The supernatural offers a vague reassurance.

It helps us sleep.

Religion is fundamentally opposed to the tenets of endless growth capitalism, and that was a problem for CEOs and bankers who wanted everyone to consume without the slightest bit of thought about the future.

It was inevitable that corporations would start using religion to cement their authority and bypass our epistemic vigilance. That's what they've been doing for the last century, ever since Bruce Barton showed them how. All they had to do was make Jesus look like an executive.

They turned church into a form of entertainment.

It wasn't an accident.

It was by design.

Now most Americans operate on a religion that exempts them from their social responsibilities while demonizing the poor and vulnerable. They're bombarded by Joel Osteen's prosperity gospel and Dave Ramsey's wealth gospel 24/7. They don't need to believe in saving the planet, because a perfect world awaits them after their death. They don't even have to do anything. They just have to accept Corporate Jesus into their hearts and accumulate wealth.

They don't have to worry about how their actions affect you or anyone else. If you're a good person, then you'll go to heaven. In some ways, they're almost doing you a favor by expediting your trip.

If they kill you, they just have to ask forgiveness.

They just have to feel sorry.

After the fact.

To them, this planet doesn't really matter. This is just a place where their god tests them and determines their worthiness for heaven. They just have to get through this life, so they can experience eternal rewards.

This view is disturbingly widespread. Nobody really wants to say it out loud. When you say it out loud, it sounds ridiculous.

It can be scrutinized.

Americanized religion has corrupted their epistemic vigilance. Instead of reinforcing social cohesion and ethical behavior as it was originally intended, their belief system now promotes personal salvation and exemption from the consequences of their actions.

If the world ends, heaven will beam them up.

Their favorite book says so.

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