Guide BELIEFS OF THE PEOPLE

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Does fundraising for religious objectives provide reliable evidence? What about participation in pilgrimages or processions? What about protests against religious change, or should we pay more attention to those who did not protest? We may have the text of sermons congregations listened to, but can we be sure they listened, or if they did, that they understood? Sometimes the religious authorities have undertaken checks on the state of belief among their communities, but how much credence should be given to such official investigations?

These extracts give two contrasting approaches that two historians have taken to this issue.

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Both have chosen a small village to investigate in depth, one in south western France at the end of the thirteenth century and the other in south western England in the sixteenth century. We may use cookies to record some preference settings and to analyse how you use our web site. We may also use external analysis systems which may set additional cookies to perform their analysis. These cookies and any others in use are detailed in our site privacy and cookie policies and are integral to our web site. You can delete or disable these cookies in your web browser if you wish but then our site may not work correctly.

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The evidence suggests it has three main sources — our evolved psychology, personal biological differences and the society we keep. The importance of evolved psychology is illuminated by perhaps the most important belief system of all: Although the specifics vary widely, religious belief per se is remarkably similar across the board.

Most religions feature a familiar cast of characters: Why do so many people believe such things so effortlessly? According to the cognitive by-product theory of religion, their intuitive rightness springs from basic features of human cognition that evolved for other reasons. In particular, we tend to assume that agents cause events. A rustle in the undergrowth could be a predator or it could just be the wind, but it pays to err on the side of caution; our ancestors who assumed agency would have survived longer and had more offspring.

Likewise, our psychology has evolved to seek out patterns because this was a useful survival strategy.

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U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious

Again, it pays for this system to be overactive. In this way, humans are naturally receptive to religious claims, and when we first encounter them — typically as children — we unquestioningly accept them. According to Krueger, all beliefs are acquired in a similar way: A belief is a belief. Our agent-seeking and pattern-seeking brain usually serves us well, but it also makes us susceptible to a wide range of weird and irrational beliefs, from the paranormal and supernatural to conspiracy theories, superstitions, extremism and magical thinking.

And our evolved psychology underpins other beliefs, too, including dualism — viewing the mind and body as separate entities — and a natural tendency to believe that the group we belong to is superior to others.

A second source of rightness is more personal. When it comes to something like political belief, the assumption has been that we reason our way to a particular stance. But, over the past decade or so, it has become clear that political belief is rooted in our basic biology. Conservatives, for example, generally react more fearfully than liberals to threatening images, scoring higher on measures of arousal such as skin conductance and eye-blink rate. This suggests they perceive the world as a more dangerous place and perhaps goes some way to explaining their stance on issues like law and order and national security.

Another biological reflex that has been implicated in political belief is disgust. As a general rule, conservatives are more easily disgusted by stimuli such as fart smells and rubbish. And disgust tends to make people of all political persuasions more averse to morally suspect behaviour, although the response is stronger in conservatives. This has been proposed as an explanation for differences of opinion over important issues such as gay marriage and illegal immigration.

Conservatives often feel strong revulsion at these violations of the status quo and so judge them to be morally unacceptable.

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Liberals are less easily disgusted and less likely to judge them so harshly. These instinctive responses are so influential that people with different political beliefs literally come to inhabit different realities. Supporters of capital punishment, for example, often claim that it deters crime and rarely leads to the execution of innocent people; opponents say the opposite. That might simply be because we reason our way to our moral positions, weighing up the facts at our disposal before reaching a conclusion.

But there is a large and growing body of evidence to suggest that belief works the other way. First we stake out our moral positions, and then we mould the facts to fit. So if our moral positions guide our factual beliefs, where do morals come from?

To see this in action, try confronting someone with a situation that is offensive but harmless, such as using their national flag to clean a toilet. This becomes clear when you ask people questions that include both a moral and factual element, such as: What feels right to believe is also powerfully shaped by the culture in which we grow up.

Customs and Beliefs of First Nations People

Many of our fundamental beliefs are formed during childhood. According to Krueger, the process begins as soon as we are born, based initially on sensory perception — that objects fall downwards, for example — and later expands to more abstract ideas and propositions. Our social nature means we adopt beliefs as badges of cultural identity. This is often seen with hot-potato issues, where belonging to the right tribe can be more important than being on the right side of the evidence. Acceptance of climate change, for example, has become a shibboleth in the US — conservatives on one side, liberals on the other.

Evolution, vaccination and others are similarly divisive issues.

The Beliefs of the People

So, what we come to believe is shaped to a large extent by our culture, biology and psychology. By the time we reach adulthood, we tend to have a relatively coherent and resilient set of beliefs that stay with us for the rest of our lives. These form an interconnected belief system with a relatively high level of internal consistency.

But the idea that this is the product of rational, conscious choices is highly debatable. That often means going to great lengths to reject something that contradicts your position, or seeking out further information to confirm what you already believe. Presented with enough contradictory information, we can and do change our minds. Many atheists, for example, have reasoned their way to irreligion.


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Instead, we are more likely to change our beliefs in response to a compelling moral argument — and when we do, we reshape the facts to fit with our new belief. More often than not, though, we simply cling to our beliefs. All told, the uncomfortable conclusion is that some if not all of our fundamental beliefs about the world are based not on facts and reason — or even misinformation — but on gut feelings that arise from our evolved psychology, basic biology and culture. The results of this are plain to see: Even worse, the deep roots of our troubles are largely invisible to us. But it would surely be a better one if we all stopped believing in our beliefs quite so strongly.

Normal people believe in the strangest things. About half of American adults endorse at least one conspiracy theory, belief in paranormal or supernatural phenomena is widespread, and superstition and magical thinking are nearly universal. Surprisingly large numbers of people also hold beliefs that a psychiatrist would class as delusional. In , psychologist Peter Halligan, at Cardiff University, in Wales, assessed how common such beliefs were in Britain see below. He found that more than 90 per cent of people held at least one, to some extent.

They included the belief that a celebrity is secretly in love with you; that you are not in control of some of your actions; and that people say or do things that contain special messages for you. None of Halligan's subjects were troubled by their strange beliefs. Nonetheless, the fact they are so common suggests the "feeling of rightness" that accompanies belief is not always a reliable guide to reality.

Beliefs — why do we have them and how did we get them? But increasingly, scientists are stepping in.