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“It doesn’t matter if you believe in God. What matters is if God believes in you.”

Mark Chaves sent me this great article on religion and religious practice:

After reading a book or article in the scientific study of religion, I [Chaves] wonder if you ever find yourself thinking, “I just don’t believe it.” I have this experience uncomfortably often, and I think it’s because of a pervasive problem in the scientific study of religion. I want to describe that problem and how to overcome it.

The problem is illustrated in a story told by Meyer Fortes. He once asked a rainmaker in
a native culture he was studying to perform the rainmaking ceremony for him. The rainmaker refused, replying: “Don’t be a fool, whoever makes a rain-making ceremony in the dry season?”

The problem is illustrated in a different way in a story told by Jay Demerath. He was in Israel, visiting friends for a Sabbath dinner. The man of the house, a conservative rabbi, stopped in the middle of chanting the prayers to say cheerfully: “You know, we don’t believe in any of this. But then in Judaism, it doesn’t matter what you believe. What’s important is what you do.”

And the problem is illustrated in yet another way by the Divinity School student who told me not long ago that she was having second thoughts about becoming an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ because she didn’t believe in God. She also mentioned that, when she confided this to several UCC ministers, they told her not to worry about it since not believing in God wouldn’t make her unusual among UCC clergy.

This last story reminds me of the saying, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in God. What matters is if God believes in you.”

Also, on a more serious note, I had a friend of a friend who joined a Roman Catholic religious order–she became a nun–because, according to my friend, this person was “looking for Sister Right.” (In addition to everything else, she was a lesbian.) A couple of years later she quit, I believe. I have the impression that the generally positive press received by nuns etc. in our culture gives certain naive and idealistic people false expectations of what they can achieve in such a position. (This is true of academia too, I’m sure!)

Here’s Chaves’s summary:

Religious congruence refers to consistency among an individual’s religious beliefs and attitudes, consistency between religious ideas and behavior, and religious ideas, identities, or schemas that are chronically salient and accessible to individuals across contexts and situations. Decades of anthropological, sociological, and psychological research establish that religious congruence is rare, but much thinking about religion presumes that it is common. The religious congruence fallacy [emphasis added] occurs when interpretations or explanations unjustifiably presume religious congruence.

This reminds me of a corresponding political congruence fallacy. My impression is that many people have a personal feeling of political congruence–they feel that all their political views form a coherent structure–even though the perceived-congruent views of person X will only partially overlap the perceived-congruent views of person Y. For example, X can be a Democrat and support legalized gambling, while Y is a Republican who supports legalized gambling, while persons A and B are a Democrat and a Republican who oppose gambling. Four positions, but each has a story of why they are coherent. (For example, X supports gambling as a way of raising tax money, Y supports gambling because he opposes the nanny state, A opposes gambling as a tax on the poor, and B opposes gambling as immoral.)

I’ve felt for awhile that this phenomenon, in which each of can frame our particular beliefs as being coherent, creates problems for politics. People are just too damn sure of themselves.

On another point, Chaves’s discussion of placebo effects reminded me of my irritation of the research on the medical effects of so-called intercessory prayer (person A prays for person B, with B being unaware of the prayer). Every once in a while someone does a study on intercessory prayer which manages to reach the statistical significance threshold and gets published (I can only imagine that secular journal editors bend over backward to accept such papers and are terrified of appearing anti-religion) and gets mentioned in the more credulous or sensationalist quarters of the popular press.

What irritates me about these intercessory prayer studies is not that I care so much about prayer but because such studies seem to me to be a pseudo-scientific effort to remove the part of prayer that can actually work. It’s plausible enough from a scientific (i.e., non-supernatural) perspective that if A prays for B with B’s knowledge, that this could make B feel better. I doubt it could fix a broken heart valve but perhaps it could be calming enough that a certain heart attack might never happen. This makes sense and is, to my mind, perfectly consistent with a religious interpretation–why couldn’t God work through the mechanism of friendship and caring? To me, the studies on intercessory prayer, by trying to isolate the supernatural aspect, end up removing the most interesting part of the story. In the language of Chaves’s article, I’d call this an example of the coherence fallacy, the idea that the way to prove the effectiveness of prayer is to treat it as some sort of button-pushing.

I mentioned this above point to Chaves and he wrote:

I agree! Though this is maybe insulting only to those who self-consciously think of themselves as religious while also explicitly rejecting any sort of supernaturalism, and this type of person has become rarer in American society, which is part of the story behind the collapse of liberal Protestantism and the rise of religious “nones.” I think it’s easier for Jews than Christians to achieve and feel comfortable with this sort of self-conscious liberal religiosity, perhaps because of the ethnic identity aspects of being Jewish.

Interesting. I hadn’t though of that.

Chaves also pointed me to this article by Wendy Cadge.

Finally, regarding the WWJD bracelet etc (no, that’s not the same WWJD as our motto here in the Applied Statistics Center!)., there’s something Chaves implies but doesn’t say, which is that presumably the wearing of the bracelet is, in economists’ jargon, “endogenous”: the bracelet is intended to be part of a commitment device, so the “treatment” is not really the bracelet-wearing but rather the entire constellation of thoughts and behaviors associated with the decision to live a better life.


  1. Paul says:

    The anecdotes remind me of an old math/science joke, variously attributed to famous individuals. I'll go with statistician to match the blog:

    A statistician is visited at home by a friend. They greet each other, and the friend remarks how surprised he is to see a horseshoe hanging over the statistician's door. "Surely with all your study of correlations and probability, you don't believe that old superstition!" he exclaims.

    The statistician smiles sheepishly, and replies, "no, I don't. But I've been told you don't have to believe in it for it to work."

  2. Jon Baron says:

    For a related study that is relevant to the nice example about legalized gambling, see
    this article about what Robert Jervis called "belief overkill".

  3. Jerzy says:

    Speaking of religion, stats, and incongruent beliefs, I'm reminded of the one about the statistician who calls up the minister to say his wife just had twins.
    "Congratulations!" says the minister. "Bring them both in on Sunday to get baptized!"
    "No," replies the statistician, "I just want to baptize one and keep the other as a control."

  4. John says:

    It seems that, at least with respect to coronary artery bypass graft your title is even more correct than you may have imagined. Believing that you are being prayed for increases the risk of complications.

    Am Heart J. 2006 Apr;151(4):934-42.

  5. Anonymous says:

    "The idea that the way to prove the effectiveness of prayer is to treat it as some sort of button-pushing."

    The problem is that with any kind of mature religious perspective, if prayer is simply button pushing, why would a religious individual expect it to be effective at all? To put it differently, if someone believes that they simply need to push a magic pray button, without any relationship to the divine, to what extent can they call themselves religious in the first place?

    And on the pet peeve side, I must disagree with quoting a conservative rabbi in terms of 'what Judaism is,' since they are a small minority of self-identifying Jews. You might as well quote Rush Limbaugh as to what conservatives believe – he has an opinion, it's loud, but it's not reflective of the majority of the population being described.

  6. Andrew [not Gelman] says:

    I think this is much more appropriate:

    "It doesn't matter if you believe in God." fullstop

  7. MV says:

    Rather surprisingly Pascal Boyer's book "Religion explained" taught me more about statistics than religion. Even though I picked it up to read something light and not about statistics.

    Boyer mentions congruence (using other term I guess, I did not read it nor have a copy in English). More importantly he speaks about the ways we form theories (models!) and how this is controlled by the cognitive mechanism that evolved during the tens of thousands of years of evolution. For instance, when detecting dangers, sensitivity makes more sense than specificity.

    I've read many papers wondering what Fisher would think about a statistical method created years after their death. We intuitively make difference between the Fisher dead (and buried in St Peters', Adelaide) and the 'other' whose works still 'live'. The same phenomena seems to be the basis of ancestor worship, the most primitive and most common form of religion.

    It'd be interesting if the same empirical methods used by Boyer and his kind in modern study of religion (once considered science) would be applied to study statistics (the science).

  8. Phil says:

    I'm about halfway through Rebecca Goldstein's book "36 Arguments for the Existence of God." The protagonist is a college professor whose bestselling and acclaimed book (The Varieties of Religious Illusion) argues that spirituality and even a sense of holiness do not require a god, or belief in a god. The idea of ministers who don't believe in God would not surprise our hero.

    I'm also reminded of a scene from The Simpsons. Bart goes to visit the Flanders kids, who are playing a Christian-themed video game, a first-person shooter in which you try to zap nonbelievers and turn them into Christians. Bart takes the controls and starts zapping people right and left; one guy tries to evade him, and Bart makes a great shot and exults "Ha, got him!" One of the other kids says "No, you only winged him. You turned him into a Unitarian."

  9. Paul says:

    My frustration with congruence vs. incongruence is that it assumes (implicitly?) a binary outcome. My graduate research was in grade of membership models, so I tend to see these types of issues (religious belief, political ideology, etc.) as a spectrum. It is quite possible to be a partial member of a theoretical atheist pure type and a dyed-in-the-wool religious zealot pure type. That’s actually about where I’d place myself.