The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 23, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Foibles of Our Evolved Minds

The other night, the tilted, orange-tinted visage of the full round Moon smiled down at me.  And I caught myself smiling back.  Of course I know the apparent Lunar facial features are meteor-caused craters, and I tried to will myself to stop seeing two eyes, a nose, and a subtle grin.  I could not.  Even though I knew the friendly, if somewhat blue, face was not really there, I could not help but see it.  There’s a name for this psychological phenomenon–pareidolia (finding images or sounds in random stimuli).  In more lay terms, patternicity. 

Patternicity is just one of a veritable laundry list of cognitive biases built into our accidental minds.  To name just a few:

  • anchoring/focusing effect—favoring a specific fact or value over others as or more pertinent
  • attentional bias—giving greater attention to emotionally salient facts
  • the availability heuristic—judging the likelihood of an event by how easily an example comes to mind
  • the bandwagon effect—believing something because many others do
  • belief bias—judging the validity of an argument by the believability of its conclusion, not the strength of its logic
  • confirmation bias—favoring information that confirms existing beliefs or conceptions
  • hindsight bias—seeing past events as predictable
  • illusion of control—overestimating one’s ability to control events
  • illusory correlation— seeing a relationship between events where none exists
  • illusory-truth effect—recalling a false proposition as true merely due to exposure to it
  • subjective validation—believing information correct because of its personal significance
  • superiority bias—tendency to think one is above average

In “Absence of Mind,” Marilynne Robinson laments: “The self is no longer assumed to be a thing approached with optimism, or to be trusted to see anything truly.”  To Robinson, the “privilege of human selfhood” is “foreclosed when the mind is trivialized or thought to be discredited.”  It is disquieting to learn that one’s mind is not built to perceive things as they really are, but only adapted over eons by random mutations to perceive things well enough to survive to reproduce.  Modern psychological knowledge sheds whole new light on Plato’s cave allegory.  Sharing the same mental foundations, we are prone to similar illusory causal correlations (“superstitions”) as chickens, which can learn to wrongly associate a look over a shoulder with receipt of food.  What a lucky glance! 

Recognizing our minds’ actual pedigree and their native tendencies and limitations may discredit subjective authority but it does not necessarily trivialize the positive capacities of our remarkable, albeit flawed, minds.  Contemplate for a moment the fact that our minds have developed means to uncover and, to some extent, correct for their own built-in imperfections.  Knowing our mental foibles does not have to diminish us—indeed, it can enhance us.

On the other end, some (including scientists who should know better) too deeply discount the power of our hard-wired cognitive tendencies when railing against the ubiquitous phenomena of religious and superstitious belief.  Even in the most secular of European countries, people who eschew all belief in a spirit, god or life force top out at 33%. (

Of course, I am not proposing that atheists are wrong because we are not on the bandwagon.  But I do believe that it is unrealistic, even unscientific, to think that the majority of people across the world and into the future are going to overcome the general native tendencies of the human mind.  “Faith” has been altered and even diminished over the past several centuries, but the idea that it is going to come to an end sometime soon is simply not supported by the facts.  

My perception of the Man in the Moon was not a hallucination.  It was an individual instance of a widespread trick of the mind.  Neither are mirages hallucinations; rather, they are commonly experienced illusions.  The facts strongly suggest that humans in general are wired toward religious belief.  Religious belief is more mirage than delusion.   When addressing the issues raised by religious belief, we rationalists might want to keep this in mind.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson



  1. I just had my students read Don’t Believe Everything You Think, which covers many of these common thinking pitfalls.

    Comment by Michelle — January 23, 2011 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

    • That’s great. I didn’t learn about cognitive biases until law school and I only did then because of one maverick professor. It is certainly not something taught as a matter of course to law students, even though if you are going to be a trial lawyer it is actually really important to know.

      Comment by SAJohnson — January 23, 2011 @ 3:46 pm | Reply

  2. Good post, I like the list.

    A person who is aware of these perceptive pitfalls is empowered by the ability to recognize them and therefore adjust.

    I am a proponent of the idea that an introduction of critical thinking class should be at least an elective in Highschool, and a week or two discussing these concepts would be a good investment on a generation.

    Comment by phantomposter — January 23, 2011 @ 6:39 pm | Reply

    • I certainly wish I had learned about them sooner in life–and more systematically.

      Comment by SAJohnson — January 23, 2011 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  3. […] read of the Wikipedia article on the subject, and you can take a look at the informative blog post Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Foibles of Our Evolved Minds by blogger SAJohnson for a discussion of pareidolia and other perceptive faux […]

    Pingback by Arguments from Design or The All-Natural Watchmaker « A Point of Contention — January 28, 2011 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

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