The Origins of Religious Dogmatism?

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Why are some people so certain? It can be about anything including politics but religious views seem to draw many convinced believers. I have been puzzled by encounters in which someone has strange views but not allowing any reasonable disagreement.

I am a researcher in the area of early spiritual awareness. I think an applied developmental perspective may provide a perspective on such questions. Infants learn. From the first breath, possibly earlier in the womb. The learning is of a ‘sense of something’, such as mother is there and meets my needs. Or not. This is explored in the attachment theory literature and is foundational for later expectations in relationships.

This early learning is non-cognitive. It is not expressed in language. Initially there are no developed intellectual ideas.

Manuel came to the USA as a young child. He came with his family who fled from a war zone. His earliest learning was a felt sense that the world is unsafe and threatening.

Connie’s mother was a heroin addict. Her father left before she was born. She was raised in poverty and neglect, Connie said, “I feel like I have no value as a person. I am worthless.”

These conclusions, from early experiences, make emotional sense. Something has been learnt, maybe right or maybe wrong, but since something is learnt it feels true. It is known. This is important but there is another implication. Since unconscious learning begins early in cognitive development, it is before there is any capacity for evaluation, so it is incorporated as if through a ‘vacuum cleaner’ with everything accepted. This is understandable if the source is from parents or authority figures, but it can result in ill-informed assumptions about ‘the way things are’.

We will now return to the two examples.

Manuel was converted into an apocalyptic ‘dooms day’ church. He was fascinated by the Book of Revelation and various prophetic ‘words’. He was believed that the church was in “The last days. We must be ready.”

Connie followed popular New Age teaching about the need to think positive thoughts, “If you think negatively, bad things will happen.”

woman holding a smiley balloon

Since what was learnt was before words there is no counter-narrative. Early learning usually remains unchallenged and will silently influence daily life. Such characteristics have consequences because we tend to act in consistent ways.

A sensitive pastoral response will understand that some rigid beliefs have a basis in early learning. There are other possibilities including delusional states but this is perhaps the most common. What is the basis for change? It helps to put early learning into words. Manuel might develop the insight to say, “I find ‘end of the world’ believable because of my early life experience.” Connie might see that she was neglected, resulting in chronic low self-esteem and has to rely on formulaic positive affirmations to avoid depression. Once stated in language it can be challenged and a counter-narrative becomes possible. There is another implication. If something has been learnt, no matter how early in life, it can be unlearned and healthier beliefs might replace the original learning. It is not easy but it helps to understand the developmental origins of rigid beliefs.

To Read Further

G. R. Bower, The Rational Infant: Learning in Infancy (New York: W. H. Freeman and Co, 1989).

Tim Clinton and Joshua Straub, God Attachment: Why you Believe, Act and Feel the way you do about God (New York: Howard Books, 2010).


Author: Bruce Stevens

Professor Bruce A. Stevens (PhD Boston University, 1987) is the Wicking Professor of Aging and Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University. He was previously Associate Professor in Clinical and Forensic Psychology in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of Canberra with over 60 graduate students. He is an endorsed clinical and forensic psychologist who has advanced accreditation in Schema Therapy (individual and couple). He was ordained in the Anglican Church and is an honorary minister-in-association at Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra. He is the author of 10 books and many research papers. His most recent book is The Storied Self: A Narrative Approach to the Spiritual Care of the Aged (Fortress Academic., 2018).

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