Certainty and Self-Deception among American Fundamentalism

Certainty and Self-Deception among American Fundamentalism

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The capacity of human beings to engage in acts of self-deception is legendary. To move beyond legend, psychology has a 100-year history of investigations driven to understand how the mind constructs perceptions which deceive both others and the self.  In the last 30 years, however, evolutionary psychology has generated a new set of questions which promise to aid in understanding why humans are capable of deceiving themselves.  From the vantage point of evolutionary psychology, the principal question to be answered is: why would a species have evolved the capacity to deceive itself?  It is my intention to pose that question to the specific domain of religious ideas and behavior.

Evolutionary psychology assumes that the mind is a computational system of the biological organism the purpose of which is to facilitate fitness and reproductive success.  While truth-seeking may be an important skill in the enhancement of an organism’s fitness, it is not the only such skill, nor is it necessarily the most important.  In fact, the literature in evolutionary psychology clearly suggests that there may be adaptive benefits to self-deception under certain conditions.  It is my suggestion in this paper, that religious certainty is one such condition.

In this paper I summarize the literature on self-deception as an adaptive capacity of the human mind.  I suggest how this evolutionary framework may be applied to claims of certainty among American fundamentalists.   My suggestion is that fundamentalism is an adaptive act of self-deception in the face of rapid change under conditions of modernity.  Finally, I suggest various testing strategies to assess the explanatory power of this model.

Deception and Self-Deception in Evolutionary Perspective

The natural world is filled with acts of deception.  The world of buzzes, chirps, and clicks, of brilliant and dull colors, shadow and light, of odor trails, flowery fragrances, and pheromones, is laced with lies and deceit.  To enter one’s local forest is to open oneself to a complex network of communications, some of which send messages of direct and true information but much of which is misinformation.  In the complicated relationships of predator and prey, in the struggle to mate, and in the competition to secure shelter and food, all methods are fair.  Biologists have a rich array of concepts to understand the variety of ways in which animals and plants misguide each other.   From the simplest forms of deception such as camouflage and invisibility to the ingenious schemes of the parasites, from the misleading imitation of both attractive and hideous parts of the biosphere to various forms of animal espionage, from mind reading to cross-dressing, the non-human world lies so much it would put the best human soap opera to shame (1).

Deception among our closest relatives, the primates, is extensive as well. Frans de Waal documented many forms of deception among members of a chimp colony at a Dutch zoo in his Chimpanzee Politics (2).  Among other behaviors, de Waal notes feigning injury, signaling reconciliation in order to attack, pretending ignorance of hidden food items, and manipulating humans to help the chimps escape captivity.  In 1986 and 1988, two psychologists surveyed members of the International Primatological Society about acts of deceptions they had witnessed in the field over the years (3).  Of the more than 250 examples they tabulated, reports of deceit surrounding food and sex were by far the most numerous.  One case involved a kind of “deceptive arms race” between two chimps named Belle and Rock.  In a series of experiments, ethologists would hide fruit in a field while Belle, a female chimp, watched.  Then Belle would lead a group of chimps who had not watched into the field to the fruit.  Often, Belle ended the exercise with no fruit.  So Belle began to go into the field and sit on the fruit to conceal it.  Rock, a dominant male chimp, discovered this ploy and simply chased her away.  So Belle tried to go the wrong way.  Rock pretended not to look or hid behind trees, running out to steal the food when Belle disclosed its location. Taking this competition one step further, the ethologist helped Belle stash a large supply of fruit in one location and a decoy piece of fruit in another. This ruse worked for a while but Rock eventually wised up and just waited for the larger stash.  At this point, Belle seems to have tired of the whole ordeal and simply began to throw temper tantrums.

Deception among humans takes on new and sophisticated forms.  While human beings engage in many of the forms of deception noted above, the acquisition of symbolic language opened vast new domains for lying, deceit, and guile.  The capacity to mislead in children is one of the more important indicators of cognitive development.  In children younger than seven or eight, spontaneous changes of truth are common and relatively unconscious.  At roughly eight years of age, intentional manipulation of others through lying begins, and by ten consciousness of others’ potential manipulations is well established (4).  Such developments are widely regarded as developmental benchmarks since intentional lying indicates the presence of a theory of mind, that is to say, the ability to thematize for oneself the existence of an independent mind in another.  In adulthood, human beings fully inhabit a web of complex of deceptions.  From the modification of body appearance and odor to simple white lies and various placebos, from conscious manipulations of the truth among politicians and military officials to the unconscious dissemblance we all engage in to preserve self-esteem, from the evolved differences in male and female manipulations around sexuality to the organized deceits to be found in human sporting events and military campaigns, duplicity is part and parcel of the human condition (5).   So prevalent and vital to the functioning of human interactions is lying that cognitive psychologist David Smith argues that our society “would collapse under the weight of too much honesty” (6).  Neither immoral nor pathological, the capacity for deception is a central component in human functioning.  As we shall now see, we probably owe our considerable intelligence to the prevalence of deception in our species.

Because deception is so much a part of human communication and interaction, human beings are natural psychologists.  Our species ascended to its current dominant position in large measure through our cooperative abilities.  We are a social species.  We live in communities where our ability to coordinate our activities is what gives us certain competitive advantages.  In the language of evolutionary theory, we exhibit systems of both kinship and reciprocal altruism (7).  The immediate benefit of altruistic behavior is that it enables cooperation for evolutionary competition.  The immediate risk of altruistic strategies is the possibility of free-loading.  Reciprocal altruism opens the door for someone to claim to be a contributor to group efforts in order to reap its benefits only to lie about his or her actual contributions.  Under the right conditions, deception turns out to be a very powerful strategy for fitness.  The consequence of the possibility of deception is that human beings place a premium on attempting to read the minds of others.  In the small, tight-knit communities in which our species has spent the majority of its history, tracking others is a relatively manageable task often handled through simple systems of gossip, but as human civilization became more complex it became crucial to human beings that they possess the skills to read others based on a variety of cues such as body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and how a person speaks.  As a species, we are preoccupied with what is on other people’s minds.

The result of a social life characterized by both cooperation and deception was an evolutionary arms race to which we probably owe our advanced intelligence. Cooperation empowered our success as a species.  Cooperation made cheating possible and rewarding.  Cheating in turn creates a selective force to enhance the ability to detect cheating.  Lie-detecting abilities then ratchet up the evolution of yet more sophisticated forms of deception.  And so on, in an evolutionary arms race.  One indirect, but nevertheless powerful result of this evolutionary spiral of deception and lie-detection is self-perpetuating growth in our social intelligence.  In this context, the seemingly self-defeating capacity for self-deception becomes understandable.

Self-deception seems puzzling only if we make two assumptions about the human mind.  First, we tend to assume that the human mind is “ours” and therefore under our control.  If it is not under our control, then there is something pathological going on.  Cognitive psychology has largely disproved this assumption.  Many processes in our minds are relatively automatic.  They occur largely unconsciously and serve as the foundation on which our conscious behaviors depend.  Second, we also tend to assume that our minds are successful only when they provide us with truthful information.  This assumption is also false.  Rather, the mind-brain is an evolved organ whose function is not to provide us with truthful information in the first place, but to enhance our fitness.  And while it is important that our minds give us relatively accurate information about the world, others, and our selves, under certain conditions, misleading us may be an important tool.  It is under this heading of “helpful misdirection” that self-deception is to be understood.

In an evolutionary framework, the capacity for self-deception arose as an innovation in the lie and lie-detection arms race.  Given the fact that deception can be rewarding, but that it also entails important risks, lying is emotionally stressful.  Indeed, it is because it is so stressful that modern lie-detectors (polygraphs) work.  As natural psychologists, we all know the signs of lying and are constantly on the look-out for them.  But what about natural-born liars, the ones who seem to be able to convince themselves of their own lies?  Such people possess a powerful advantage in the deception arms race.   No one lies more effectively than the person who does not believe she or he is deceiving.  Such people would possess important advantages over others.  To the extent that it results in differential reproductive success, the gold standard in evolutionary frameworks, such traits would be selected for in our species.

What exactly then do we mean by self-deception?  What qualifies as self-deception and what types of self-deception are there?  It is first important to remember that self-deception does not imply intentionality on the part of the self-deceived (8).  Cognitive science has demonstrated that many, if not most, of our normal mental operations occur beneath the level of our normal consciousness.  In other words, we need not make a choice or “intend” to deceive ourselves, if such a thing were even possible.  Rather, it simply implies that while certain aspects of our minds are aware of various perceptions, these perceptions are processed in a manner that does not translate into conscious awareness of them.  Second, it is important to underscore that current models of the mind do not assume that the mind is a truth-seeking device.  In the first instance, it is a survival machine (9).  Its various devices and capacities evolved to help us in our quest for enhanced fitness.  To the degree that it is important for the mind to give us relatively accurate information about the world and our situation in it, it is true that the mind is a truth-seeking organ.  But it is not at all clear that an accurate perception of the world and our situation in it is always to our advantage.  In fact, as we will see below, many empirical tests have determined that the mind actively biases our perceptions.  Moreover, such biases appear psychologically adaptive to individuals.  From an evolutionary vantage point, it appears the mind evolved the capacity to bias its perceptions because this confers advantage to the self thus deceived.  It is in this sense that I will use the term self-deception.

Following psychologist Shelley Taylor’s classification system, we can divide the relevant self-deceptions into three categories: self-enhancement illusions; exaggerated beliefs about personal control; and unrealistic optimism about the future (10).  Self-enhancement illusions are conceptions of self which make the self the hero of all one’s memories.  For example, when asked to describe themselves, people systematically highlight their positive traits and underplay their negative attributes.  People tend to believe that they possess exceptional abilities in their favorite activities and overestimate how rare such talents are.  In one survey, 90 % of car drivers thought they were above average in their driving skills.  Further, when given contrary data, people in the survey were utterly unresponsive.  Even in the face of repeated car accidents and hospitalizations, people tended to ascribe negative information to bad luck rather than a lack of skill (11).  To explain this unusual self-enhancement, cognitive psychologists have discovered inherent ego-centric qualities in human memory.  In other words, we process information about our life experiences in manners that are systematically advantageous to us.

Exaggerated beliefs about personal control seem to arise from a tendency to be more aware of the effects of our actions than of events over which we have no control.  Because our attention is attached to phenomena where we are acting, we tend to have a distorted perception about how far our behavior reaches.  By contrast, events which are beyond our control receive less systematic attention and are, therefore, underrepresented in our minds.  Added to this inherent bias are other patterns such as a systematic tendency to mistake what we want to happen with what actually does, and a tendency to search only for examples that confirm our pre-existing beliefs.  Taken together, it becomes readily apparent that people construct understandings of themselves as masters of their world. In an experiment intended to display these illusions, Taylor cites gambling studies where experienced gamblers engage in behaviors intended to influence chance outcomes.  Dice throwing behavior changes, for example, depending upon whether people want high or low numbers.  Moreover, the inability to distinguish between luck and skill, chance and causal linkage, is exemplified in gamblers’ use of various lucky charms.  Studies of positive thinking/prayer and healing illustrate similar results.  Whether we create the illusion of control because of deep psychological needs, or for other reasons we do not as yet understand, empirical studies over and over again report that we overestimate our personal control.

Finally, excessive optimism about our future is characteristic of all people. Studies conducted across age groups, sex, education levels, and occupation all result in assessments of the future with more positive outcomes than actual events can support.  When asked, individuals illustrate various illusions which make the unrealistic evaluation of their future prospects possible.  As we have already seen, people tend to have exaggerated assumptions about their personal control.  Add to this the fact that when confronted with stories of other people’s negative prospects, we tend systematically to ascribe their failure to lack of will or some other personal flaw.  For example, when potential first-time marital partners are told that 50% of all first marriages end in divorce, most people predict they will be in the success column.  When asked why they possess such confidence, they respond by underscoring the personal attributes most likely to lead to a stable marriage and, concomitantly, by underplaying their personal weaknesses.  Similar perceptual biases reinforce our excessive optimism.  Taylor points out that human beings misevaluate various sequences of events as progressive when no such progress exists.  She cites a study of failing students who attend special classes designed to improve their study skills.  First, no evidence exists that such classes actually do improve students’ skills, so it is perhaps an indication of false optimism that such classes even exist.  Students with poor grades who take such courses do no better statistically than students with similar grades who never attended such classes.  Nevertheless, students who took the self-improvement classes perceived themselves as having much improved skills.  In fact, they even distorted just how poor their study skills were before they took the class, thereby achieving the mental illusion of significant progress where none existed.  In this and many other instances, human beings are prone to optimism in excess of what reality tells them.

We can now situate these forms of self-deception within the larger evolutionary framework we have developed above.  Self-deception evolved in human beings because it enhances our fitness.  In the arms race of deception and lie-detection, the capacity of self-deception enhances our edge over competitors.  By keeping information from ourselves, we are better able to deceive others and convince them that our deceits are truth.  As Taylor outlines, and many researchers collaborate, human beings systematically bias their perceptions of reality in self-serving and self-aggrandizing ways.  Such mental constructs can then be projected into our social interactions such that our bluff can be effective in the universal game of social poker.  The result is that human beings may actually tend to be more successful in various social interactions because they believe themselves to be more successful than the evidence warrants.  In this sense, the self-deceived mind may be “the healthier mind” when viewed from the vantage point of evolutionary fitness.  In other words, there may be illusions which are adaptive to individuals or social groups even though they are clearly illusions.  In what follows, I want to suggest that the subjective experience of certainty surrounding religious beliefs may be just such an adaptive illusion.

How Religious Ideas Work

Cognitive and evolutionary psychology begins with the understanding of the human mind as modular (12).   The human mind-brain is not a general information processor but rather an adapted, complex organ, sculpted over millions of years of evolutionary competition.  It has been fundamentally shaped by our ancestors’ original environment of evolutionary adaptation, the African savannah of the last six million years.  Constructed to aid in the survival of the hominid line in its foraging life, the human mind bears all the marks of that history.  While there is not agreement among cognitive psychologists on the exact number of modules the human possesses, virtually every list includes modules for language, social relations, biology, physics, and artifacts/technology.  Other modules have been suggested based on their potential utility to our species in the past.   To date, convincing empirical data have been compiled only for the five, above-mentioned modules.  Adding or subtracting a module from the list, however, does not change the fundamental point that the mind comes with a specific, evolved architecture.

A modular mind means that humans process information in specific ways.  These information processing systems function largely unconsciously.  Cognitive psychologists call the beliefs we generate with the aid of our inherited mental tools “intuitions” to stress their automatic nature.  Examples of such intuitions are the fact that physical objects cannot pass through each other, that other human beings have minds, and that the offspring of a particular animal will be more representatives of that species.  Humans routinely derive a variety of inferences from these systems on the basis of which we construct our more conscious beliefs.  For example, if my wife takes my coffee cup from the table to the kitchen without my knowledge, I don’t speculate about the possibility that it passed through the intervening wall.  If my daughter begins to carry some of her toys to the basement, I assume that she has the intention of playing in the basement and not that the toys want to be in the basement.  Or if I discover a nest of baby rabbits in my front yard, I begin to look for a mother who is also a rabbit and not a cat.  Such inference systems are extremely useful to us because they allow us to reach conclusions about our environment with little conscious effort.  They evolved because they give us relatively reliable information with great efficiency, thereby freeing our minds for other important tasks.

Against this background, evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists have learned to think of religion as a “natural” activity for human beings, even if its subject matter is “supernatural” (13).  Religion is characterized by preoccupation with a specific set of ideas that are “counterintuitive.”  By counterintuitive, cognitive scientists mean that they involve ideas with violate the expectations of the evolved architecture of our minds.   Typical religious ideas might be the presence of disembodied minds, miracles, or human-animal hybrids.  Our evolved intuitions tell us that minds come incarnated in bodies, that the laws of physics dictate certain specific and law-like behaviors, or that living kinds come as either human or non-human creatures.  These expectations of our natural intuitions are what prompt us to speculate about something being unnatural or supernatural.  But why do human beings generate religious ideas in the first place?  From an evolutionary point of view they appear to serve no important purpose.

The answer to these questions comes in several steps.  First, human beings are information-seeking organisms.  We always scan our environments for salient information.  This trait was essential to our survival as a species.  Second, of all the things we look for in our environment, we are especially inclined to look for evidence of agency.  Detecting agency is central to our mental repertoire because the environment may harbor two types of creatures of direct and powerful consequence to us.  Non-human creatures are relevant to us because they always represent potential prey or predators.  Early and rapid detection of the presence of either was crucial to our success as a species.  To test this, simply remember the last time you were startled by a small animal rustling through the bushes next to you.  Notice how all your alarm systems come on line to analyze the situation.  The hackles on your neck go up.  The heart pumps in preparation for a flight or fight response.  Your system is now prepared to detect the nature of the agency and respond in an economical manner.

Other humans are just as important to our detection systems. As a social and hierarchical species of primates which evolved in a Pleistocene foraging environment, human beings depend vitally on information about other human beings.  We need to know who to cooperate with, who to distrust or wage war against, who is around watching us, and where we fit into the social hierarchy.   As natural born psychologists, we are always ruminating on these relationships and scanning our world for further information.  In fact, so preoccupied are we as a species with finding evidence  of agency in the larger world, cognitive scientists refer to our agency detection system as “hyperactive.”  In other words, when human beings confront activity in their environments that is puzzling, our default position is to ascribe agency until it has been proven otherwise.  It is principally through this “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” that the human tendency to anthropomorphize the world comes about, especially when mysterious qualities adhere to observed phenomena (14).  Our anthropomorphizing proclivities are both natural to the kind of species we are, and serve as the foundation for our reigning intuitions about supernatural agencies.

While the human mind can generate all kinds of religious ideas, it is important to note that not all ideas enjoy equal success.  Just as species display differential success in evolutionary competition, so also ideas display differential survival patterns in human culture.  Some ideas are taken up readily by the human mind, are remembered, and transmitted to other minds. Other ideas appear to enjoy far less success.  To explain the mechanisms operating in these differential success rates, scholars of religion identify two key factors: the degree of counterintuitiveness a religious idea illustrates; and the salience of a religious idea to the specific needs of human beings in their environments, both historically and in the present.

Religious ideas are characterized above all else by their counterintuitiveness.   As we have already seen, by counterintuitiveness we mean ideas which violate in some way the normal expectations we possess about the world on the basis of our evolved intuitions.  But violations can be more or less extreme.  They can transgress a greater or lesser number of expectations.  For example, a dog that can talk to horses, gives birth to chickens, and blinks in and out of visibility, is extremely counterintuitive.  A beloved relative whose mind survives the death of the body and also remains among us to communicate with the living is also counterintuitive but violates fewer of our normal expectations. Cognitive psychologists such as Boyer and Barrett argue that between these two ideas, the latter has a far greater chance of transmission because it is “minimally counterintuitive” (15).  The reason for their differential survival is that counterintuitive ideas are memorized and transmitted because they arrest our attention.  At the same time, extreme violations run so contrary to our normal expectations that few of our mental devices work in our favor when we try to memorize them.  If only one or two violations occur, such ideas have the advantage of being attention arresting and memorable because they work with our evolved mental devices.  As Barrett explains,

“MCIs [minimally counterintuitive ideas], then, constitute a special group of concepts – concepts that largely match intuitive assumptions about their own group of things but have a small number of tweaks that make them particularly interesting and memorable.  Because they are more interesting and memorable, they are more likely to be passed from person to person, MCIs are likely to become cultural (that is, widely shared) concepts” (16).

The second determining factor in the success of religious ideas is their salience to human needs.  To return to our example above, the sometimes invisible dog that occasionally talks to horses and gives birth to chickens may be interesting but it is hard to see how such a being can either benefit, or threaten, human beings.  By contrast, the enduring presence of the mind of a beloved relative is certainly relevant.  Departed relatives are known to take an interest in their living relatives, to look out for their well-being, and to be privy to information that the living do not possess.  Ghosts are sometimes known to get angry and become nuisances if they are ignored or not given proper respect.  Sometimes they can cause disease.  Added to this the fact that we are inherently programmed to detect agency, read minds, and constantly detect information about social interactions, and the idea of disembodied minds in our midst becomes almost irresistible.  Finally, if we speculate that there are invisible beings who may be propitiated to reveal information strategic to the promotion of our interests, such ideas meet all the criteria for a potentially successful religion.  Anthropologist Dan Sperber has suggested that if we treat such ideas, he calls them “memes,” as the cultural equivalent to the biological unit “genes,” we might even be able to develop analogically an “epidemiology” of religious ideas (17).

To understand the function and success of religious ideas, I would add one final component to the ideas of MCIs and salience, and that component is “moral concern.”  Technically, moral concern is one more consideration under the heading of salience.  Those supernatural agencies which care about moral matters are more salient to human beings than are those supernatural agencies which do not.  This fact itself makes moralizing gods more likely to be preserved in human culture.  But my argument is that moralizing gods are crucial to understanding why human beings also engage in wide-spread self-deception.

Assume that you live in a world of many supernatural agencies, some of which care about life in your community and others of which do not.  Assume further that you believe these morally concerned gods possess both supernatural power and knowledge.  Assume, finally, that you can impact the behavior of the morally concerned gods through a variety of efforts – worship, the pursuit of various behavioral codes such as honesty in exchanges, courage in war, hatred and avoidance of various out-groups, and loyalty to family and clan.  Of the various types of gods you might entertain, this kind of god appears to be the most relevant to you and the most likely to promote the well-being and survival of your tribal unit.  Such a god solves multiple problems in human communities. This god polices community, monitoring the moral behavior of the community.  It deters defection, promotes group cohesion and loyalty, and can only enhance the viability of your tribe in competition with other tribal units (18).  In the above describe evolutionary arms-race between deception and lie-detection, this god’s presence would serve as a powerful psychological tool to raise the stakes of deception.  For these reasons, precisely these kinds of gods have tended to enjoy differential success in our cultural history (19).

An Evolutionary Explanation for the Sensation of Religious Certainty among American Fundamentalists

To summarize my argument to this point:  Deception is a widespread phenomenon in both the human and non-human world.   Among human beings, both deception and our various detection systems have been locked in an evolutionary spiral which has fueled, among other things, our rapid advance in mental sophistication.  In this arms race, human beings have evolved the capacity to deceive themselves in a manner that grants them adaptive advantages.  These self-deceptions take the form of self-serving beliefs which bias human perceptions in favor of exaggerated self-esteem, an excessive belief in personal control, and an unrealistic optimism about the future.  Such illusions help the people who entertain such ideas because it allows them to project successful images without evidencing typical signals of deception.  If people are unaware they are bluffing, they are more effective at bluffing and are far more likely to benefit from these ideas.  In the processes characteristic of self-deception, the mind does not differentiate between religious and non-religious ideas. Self-deception is just as likely with religious ideas as with all other categories, perhaps more so given the fact that religious ideas tend to directly impact perceptions of self-esteem, control, and the future.  I suggest that the subjective sensation of religious certainty surrounding many religious ideas is best explained as an expression of our adaptive capacity for self-deception.  I will elaborate this claim in reference to the phenomenon of American Christian fundamentalism (20).

I follow Richard Antoun’s understanding of fundamentalism.  He argues:

“Fundamentalism does not refer so much to a set of dogmatic beliefs, to a creed, or to a literal adherence to a sacred text considered infallible.  Rather, more broadly, it refers to an orientation to the world, both cognitive and affective.   The affective, or emotional, orientation indicates outrage and protest against (and also fear of) change and against a certain ideological orientation, the orientation of modernism” (21).

For Artoun, fundamentalism characterizes a cognitive and emotional response to a modern world saturated with rapid cultural change, secular pluralism where the nation-state is the highest publicly recognized binding authority, and global commercial interaction.  In the face of modernity, fundamentalism in the United States emphasizes a.) a declaration of certainty usually associated with some form of scripturalism, b.) a totalizing discourse which by definition needs to subsume all other sources of information, c.) a concern for personal and social purity, and d.) a set of practices intended to render directly relevant cultural materials derived from ancient societies.  In accordance with this definition of fundamentalism, I do not want to distinguish too clearly between what, in common parlance, is sometimes called evangelicalism, conservative/orthodox Christianity, and fundamentalism.  While such distinctions are useful for the historical analysis of specific religious traditions, from the perspective of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology they are largely irrelevant when we are interested in the general functioning of the human mind.

If evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists are correct in their understandings of the mental processes underlying religious ideation and self-deception, then American Christian fundamentalism ought to display the following characteristics:

1.) Beliefs ought to predominate which are primarily oriented toward self-validation.  These beliefs ought to emphasize the role of a moralizing god whose approval of the believer is unconditional (certain) and whose benevolence capacitates abilities in excess of what the believer could otherwise be able to accomplish.  In other words, divine aid will facilitate grandiose assessments and expectations in the believer.

2.) Beliefs ought to predominate which are primarily oriented toward personala control over the ambiguities of life.  These beliefs ought to emphasize the role of a moralizing god in granting to privileged believers access to elite sources of information (scripture, personal revelation, other esoteric sources of knowledge) and power (cooperation with divine will, violation of physical and biological laws (miracles)). In other words, the omnipotence and omniscience of a divine being confers, vicariously or otherwise, supernatural control to believers.

3.) Beliefs ought to predominate which are primarily oriented toward optimistic views of the future.  These beliefs ought to emphasize the role of a moralizing god whose reliable providence produces optimism about personal and worldly success as defined by their religious world view.  This will translate into beliefs both about the ultimate victory of their god over this world and a final personal supreme happiness (afterlife).  In other words, beliefs about the providence of their god enable and guarantee a hopeful outcome for themselves and the world as a whole.

I suggest that fundamentalism is a particularly clear example of the human capacity for self-deception.  While self-deceptions are not unique to religion, fundamentalism is an expression of self-deception utilizing religious ideas. Moreover, religious self-deceptions represent potentially functional or “healthy” adaptations to the conditions of modernity characterized by rapid change, pluralism, moral ambiguity, and disquieting information about the future of the human race.  Consistent with evolutionary explanations, fundamentalists may actually achieve greater success in life because they experience their convictions as certainties.  Because they are unaware of the self-deceptive nature of their beliefs, fundamentalists are more likely to compete successfully in the American cultural landscape.  Recent rapid growth among conservative/orthodox, evangelical, and fundamentalist bodies in the United States, and around the world, certainly are consistent with this analysis (22).

Suggestions for Testing the Explanation

Can such claims be tested empirically?  I believe they can.  Psychologists already have significant experience with testing human self-deception.  For example, an instrument called the “Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding” was developed by Canadian psychologist Delroy Paulhus at the University of British Columbia.  His 40-item self-report measures in respondents both self-deceptive positivity and impression management (23).  A similar set of instruments called “social desirability scales” test for the amplitude of personality traits which serve to mask self-doubt and the projection of desirable social qualities (24).  One strategy would be to employ such instruments in their current form to three groups – self-identified fundamentalists, self-identified religious non-fundamentalists, and people who report no particular inclination toward religious thinking.  A second strategy would be to modify these instruments in such a manner as to directly address religious beliefs about which fundamentalists express a sense of certainty.  For example, when asked about whether the existence of other religions ever causes her to doubt her own faith, one evangelical woman responded with the following characteristic claim:

“No, they are phonies.  They are imitations and they have problems.  They don’t answer everything the way Christianity does” (25).

Similarly, another evangelical woman combined her grave misgivings about other religions with her own great value in the eyes of God:

“Well, none of them have what I have.  You know, none of them have a God who knows them by name, and who I can personally talk with anytime, anywhere.  None of them have that” (26).

Modifying standard self-deception tests to target specifically religious expressions of self-deception would represent a logical second step.  Such standardized tests could be augmented with interview materials to enrich the data.

Of the various forms of documented self-deception in the psychological literature, I suggest that five areas would be especially fruitful for investigation.  First, if our evolutionary model of the origins and purposes of religious certainty are correct, then we should find clear examples of self-serving and self-centered biases.  Such biases would manifest in the belief that individuals are special or uniquely chosen in their status before God. Similar to the above comments, they would tend to interpret the events of their lives as part of a unique plan for their lives contrived and guided by a personally involved God, granted by that God for their loyalty, and in some sense earned/deserved as a result of their own powerful “witness” of fidelity. Negative events, personal failures, and religious doubts would be systematically played down or reinterpreted into the larger self-serving narrative. Unencumbered by thoughts of chance, accident, or failure, fundamentalists’ reports of subjective certainty may be explained by self-serving and self-centered biases.

A second area of fruitful inquiry would be testing for false consensus beliefs.   Human beings tend to overestimate how many people agree with opinions we just happen to hold.  Especially under circumstances of duress, we often make claims that are intended to buttress our opinions.  For example, in arguments we will often claim that many people have communicated similar opinions to the ones we express when in actual fact only a few have.  In the American sociological context, such forms of self-deception are likely to be found among fundamentalists who believe many, or even most, Americans agree with their religious and moral visions, especially around discussions of America’s Christian heritage and its potential future (27).   The subjective sense of certainty many religious fundamentalists report may be due in part to the self-deceptive belief that most others agree with them.

A third area of self-deception is the illusion of control over various ambiguities in human life.  Human beings tend to overemphasize their role in events.  Memories of past events tend to make us principal players in events where we had only minor roles.  When confronted with average outcomes, we also tend to claim control by unconsciously changing what we think our expectations are.  An explicit way to test the control illusion in relation to fundamentalists might be either in beliefs about prayer or beliefs about faith healing.  The belief that prayer has the ability to convince God to bring about various events is common among religious fundamentalists.  Similarly, the belief that intense religious faith influences God in relation to sickness is also widespread.  If self-deception is at work, then we should be able both to document the contours of these beliefs as well as to track how these beliefs respond to, and are maintained in the face of, contrary evidence. Self-deceptive beliefs about divinely aided control are likely also to contribute to the sensation of certainty reported by fundamentalists.

A fourth area of investigation is to test for “the self-righteous bias” among fundamentalists.  As before, the goal would be to test three groups: self-identified fundamentalists, people who test as moderately religious, and those who test for low indications of religiosity.  Examples of such testing already exist in the literature.  For example, Baylor University psychologist Wade Rowatt found strong correlations between high levels of religiousness and the self-righteous bias (28).  Moreover, bias among highly religious people was in excess of standard levels of bias found among those who tested for moderate or no religiousness.  The subjective sense of confidence of religious fundamentalists may also in part be the result a more general “holier-than-thou” tendency in human beings.

Finally, human beings tend to deceive themselves in a characteristic way called “in-group-out-group bias.”  This form of self-deception leads people to over-ascribe positive traits to groups they identify with and to over-ascribe negative attributes to groups they do not identify with.  Again, literature on the ethnocentric tendencies of American fundamentalists already exists and is suggestive of the fruitfulness of this line of inquiry.  For example, Robert Altemeyer found that religious fundamentalism among students and/or students’ parents was highly associated with the tendency to make ethnocentric judgments about other religions (29).  Or in another set of studies carried out by Laythe, Finkel, and Kirkpatrick, racial prejudice and homophobia was found to correlate positively with religious fundamentalism (30).  Once, again, the high correlation between in-group/out-group thinking and fundamentalism may assist fundamentalists in keeping contrary information at bay and thereby reinforce their subjective sense of certainty.

Taken together, if these five areas of investigation were to demonstrate higher levels of self-deception associated with religious fundamentalism, I would have a strong case for my evolutionary explanation.


In this paper, I have argued that the subjective sensation of certainty commonly reported among religious fundamentalists is best understood as an evolved capacity for self-deception.  I defined self-deception as a sequence of biases built into our evolved psychology clustered around three areas – self-aggrandizement, exaggerated sense of personal control, and excessive optimism about the future.  I argued that self-deception evolved because it advances our competitive edge in human social interactions.  Belief in our own confidence creates greater chances that others will perceive us as confident. Religious fundamentalism is one powerful expression of such confidence.  In the face of modernization with its global cultural interactions, its tolerance for diversity, its rapid rate of change, and its erosion of the credibility of traditional sources of knowledge, religious fundamentalism represents the subjective sensation of certainty in a world that denies it.  To the extent that such self-deceptions remain unconscious, they have a great chance of convincing others of their legitimacy and potential power.  In this sense, religious self-deception may be a very adaptive cultural strategy.


1 Smith, David Livingstone, Why We Lie: the Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2004), pp. 29-49.  Cf. Griffin, David R., Animal Minds (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992) pp. 195-210 and Hauser, Marc D., The Evolution of Communication  (Cambridge, MA:   MIT Press, 1996), pp. 363-470.

2 (New York:  Harper & Row, 1982).

3 Mills, Cynthia, “Unusual Suspects,” Sciences vol. 37, no. 4; Jul/Aug 1997, pp. 32-36.

4 Vasek, Marie E., “Lying as a Skill: The Development of Deception in Children” in Deception: Perspectives on Human and Nonhuman Deceit, edited by Robert W. Mitchell and Nicholas S. Thompson (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986) pp. 271-292.

5 For an entertaining catalogue of human deception, consult Lewis, Michael, and Saarni, Carolyn, eds., Lying and Deception in Everyday Life (New York: Guilford Press, 1993).

6 Smith, op. cit., p. 2.

7 For an accessible treatment of altruism in evolutionary theory, see Wright, Robert, The Moral Animal (New York: Vintage, 1995).

8 Baumeister, Roy F.,  “Lying to Yourself: The Enigma of Self-Deception,” in Lying and Deception in Everyday Life, edited by Lewis, Michael, and Carolyn Saarni, (New York: The Guilford Press, 1993), pp. 166-183.

9 Smith, David, op. cit., pp. 65-78.

10 Taylor, Shelley E., Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

11 Ibid., p. 10

12 Pinker, Steven, How the Mind Works (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).  Cf. also Mithen, Steven, The Prehistory of the Mind (London:  Thames & Hudson, 1996).

13 Boyer, Pascal, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994)   and Barrett, Justin, Why Would Anyone Believe in God (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2004).

14 Guthrie, Stewart, Faces in the Clouds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

15 Boyer, Pascal, Religion Explained (New York:  Basic Books, 2001); Barrett, Justin, op. cit., pp. 21-30.

16 Barrett, op. cit., p. 23.

17 Sperber, Dan, Explaining Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

18 Wilson, David Sloan, Darwin’s Cathedral (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2003).

19 Barrett, op. cit., pp. 107-118.

20 American fundamentalism represents a particular clear case for my topic. Global fundamentalism will admittedly complicate the inquiry with cross-cultural considerations.  Non-fundamentalist religion presents similar complexities in so far as claims to the subjective sense of certainty are far less apparent.  At this point, I wish to test my hypothesis only in the context of American fundamentalism.

21 Antoun, Richard T., Understanding Fundamentalism:  Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Movements (Walnut Creek, CA:  Altamire Press, 2001), p. 3.

22 Kepel, Gilles, The Revenge of God:  The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World, translated by Alan Braley, (University Park, PA:  The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

23 “Subjective Overachievement:Individual Differences in Self-Doubt and Concern with Performance,” Journal of Personality, Vol 68 (3) (June 2000), pp. 491-524.

24 Stoeber, Joachim, “The Social Desirability Scale-17 (SDS-17): Convergent Validity, Discriminant validity, and Relationship with Age,” European Journal of Psychological Assessment, September 2001, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 222-232.

25 Reported in Smith, Christian, Christian America?  What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p. 79.

26 Ibid., p. 78.

27 American fundamentalists sometimes report perceptions of persecution in the United States, often attributing the source of that persecution to various “elite” liberal bodies.  For a sociological analysis of this claim, compare Smith, op cit, pp. 70-71, 131-133, and 147-152. For a psychoanalytic perspective on fundamentalist fears of persecution, see Schneider, Stanley, “Fundamentalism and Paranoia in Groups and Society,” Group, Vol 26, no 1, pp. 17-27.

28 Rowatt, Wade C., et al., “On Being Holier-than-Thou or Humbler-than-Thee: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Religiousness and Humility,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 41 (2), June, 2002, pp. 227-237.

29 Altemeyer, Robert, “Who Do Religious Fundamentalists Tend to be Prejudiced?” in International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Vol. 13 (1), January, 2003, pp. 17-28.

30 Laythe, Brian, Finkel, Deborah, and Kirkpatrick, Lee A., “Predicting Prejudice from Religious Fundamentalism and Right-Wing Authoritarianism:  A Multiple-Regression Approach,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol 40, no. 1 (March 2001).