Friday, May 15, 2015

The Psychology of Faith

Theists are in love with the idea of faith. They often use the word as though it is a magical and indescribable force adhering them to their religious beliefs. However, as with all other aspects of the human experience, it is not beyond description or scientific investigation. Upon review, faith is an inherent drive which is ultimately necessary for our emotional wellbeing. At the same time, despite its positive attributes, it can be quite dangerous if taken too far.

What is Faith?

According to Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” describes it as “belief that is not based on proof.”[1] I prefer my own definition, which is “a belief which is motivated by positive emotional outcomes, yet is founded on little to no evidence.” From the theistic perspective, faith is a compulsion to believe in God, which is rooted in the human soul. However, as I will explain in future posts, attributes commonly associated with the human soul such as this “compulsion” can be readily explained by psychology and neuroscience. Thus, the word “emotional” should sufficiently accommodate the theistic experience, and place it on equal ground with other non-religious forms of faith.


Dispositional optimism is a term coined by psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier meaning “the global expectation that good things will be plentiful in the future and bad things scarce.”[2] This is a form of faith because most healthy people have an emotional preference for positive outcomes over negative ones, yet there is insufficient evidence to predict all future events. Optimism is strongly associated with greater psychological and physical health. For example, it has been linked to an increased feeling of life satisfaction, improved ability to cope with adversity, better health habits, quicker recovery rates from heart surgery, and increased success in sports and work.[3]

Positive Illusions

Just because optimism leads to healthier, happier people does not mean they it is founded in reality. Faith, after all, is the belief in something for which there is little-to-no evidence. Psychology has coined the term “positive illusion” to explain unfounded, yet psychologically healthy, beliefs.[4] In general, most people harbor these 3 positive illusions:[5]

  • That they are unusually capable and virtuous
  • That they have more control over events than they do
  • That they are optimistic, believing misfortune unlikely and good outcomes likely

There are many benefits to maintaining these unrealistic beliefs about ourselves. For instance, they enhance our self esteem and outlook on life, they motivate others to have greater confidence in us, and they inspire persistence when dealing with difficult problems.[6] Despite these positive effects, unshakable positive illusions can lead to many negative outcomes as well. We can all think of someone we know who is far too confident for their own good, and who makes poor life decisions based on their unrealistic expectations of the future. As Proverbs 16:18 put it “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

The “Secret” and Gambling Addiction

The Secret is a bestselling book written by Rhonda Byrne which claims that the universe is capable of bending to your will as long as you know how to communicate with it. The book suggests that you must visualize your successes and be thankful to the universe for all current and future successes.[7] My favorite example from the book (which I had the misfortune of listening to) was a visualization technique for those who wish to be financially successful. It entails putting an extra zero to the right of your income when doing your bills so it appears as though you have more money than you actually possess. To me, these kinds of “techniques” are less about communicating with the universe, and more about tricking yourself into having an optimistic outlook. This, of course, may produce the same positive effects derived from optimism and other positive illusions described above. However, “The Secret” DVD claims “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you. It always works; it works every time, with every person” which is quite a bold claim.[8] Consider pathological gamblers. Psychological studies show they tend to believe they are in control of the outcomes of the games in which they play, and they are very confident in their success.[9] One can imagine no better practitioners of “The Secret” than gambling addicts, who likely visualize their success on a daily basis and sincerely believe “this time will be different.” However, 20% to 30% of pathological gamblers have declared bankruptcy, compared to 4.2% of low-risk and non-gamblers.[10] In other words, “The Secret” does not work.


Faith is ultimately a good thing. We need it in order to be healthy, happy, and successful. However, it is often illusory, and can lead to making poor decisions due to overconfidence. Thus, despite theists’ conception of faith as knowledge of ultimate truth, it is merely indicative of psychological preferences which may or may not be grounded in reality.


Great article by Malcolm Gladwell on the effects of overconfidence

Great article about optimism and positive illusions

Great critique of “The Secret” by Skeptic Magazine

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