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Vulnerable: The Psychology of Religious Belief and Misinformation

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Vaccines Crop

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight. After more than a year since the first case hit Canada, it seems like a significant understatement to say that everyone is ready for a return to normal. Movies, malls, restaurants, and of course family and faith gatherings are all going to be back on the menu very soon.

The main reason we’re able to begin thinking about normalcy once again is due to the COVID-19 vaccines. Thanks to unprecedented levels of funding and international collaboration, we have a broad selection of safe and effective vaccines available—vaccines that have already begun to be distributed to vulnerable people in our population.

The swiftness of this vaccine rollout is directly proportional to the rate at which we can get our regular lives back. Clearly it is in everyone’s best interests for all of us to seek vaccination as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, there are groups in the international community that are pushing back against receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. These are (typically) not groups of individuals with medical conditions that would prevent them from safely receiving the vaccine. In some cases, these groups have bought into disproven theories about the origins of the COVID-19 virus. In other cases, they appear to be victims of misinformation campaigns regarding the safety of the vaccines.

Just as we’ve seen with groups that protest restrictions around gathering sizes and mask-wearing, there seems to be some significant overlap between those who believe this misinformation and those who hold to certain types of religious beliefs.

This observation of mine isn’t just based on Facebook posts and a few high-profile protests here in Manitoba. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 45 percent of white evangelicals in the U.S. state that they have no intention of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

That’s the largest percentage of vaccine denialism than in any other group surveyed. For example, this can be compared against 90 percent of atheists who state that they either intend to get a vaccine or have already received a vaccine. It’s a startling contrast.

Christian websites have sprung up across the internet that make outlandish claims about the vaccine, such as it having demonic origins or that it’s been designed to sterilize the population. Comparisons to Nazi Germany abound. Others claim that the pandemic response is a sort of persecution against Christians and that the vaccine represents a mythical “mark of the beast.”

These responses beg the question: what is it about certain belief systems that seems to make people vulnerable to the spread of misinformation? The answer lies in our brains, and how our brains can be influenced to accept—and reject—aspects of the world around us.

Now, before the complaints/pitchforks/hashtags (#notallchristians?) arrive, I would like to make one thing clear: in no way am I equating spiritual or religious belief with a lack of intelligence. There are many intelligent people who are religious. Geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, for instance, is a devout Christian. Dr. Alister McGrath, an Anglican priest, holds a PhD in molecular biophysics.

There are likewise many intelligent people who are atheist or agnostic. Many examples exist, though my personal favourite may be astronomer and educator Dr. Carl Sagan.

So intelligence and religious belief are unrelated attributes. However, in this article we will take a look at how some types of religious belief can create vulnerabilities to misinformation.

The psychology of religion is a fascinating subject, one that has overlap with the discipline of social psychology. Social psychology is the study of how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are influenced by others, and religious groups, generally speaking, are a significant influence on our individual psychology. Our faith communities provide us support, community, and care. They can be a major feature in many of our lives, predominantly in a positive way. The influence of these communities can also cause our thinking patterns and cognitive skills to change in ways that can be harmful to us.

Research psychologists from Yale, Harvard, and other universities recently conducted a study looking for common factors in individuals who get caught up in “fake news.” They found that people who were identified as dogmatic or religious fundamentalists—that is, those who belong to belief systems which discourage analytical thinking, open-minded reasoning, and scepticism—are more susceptible to misinformation.

This suggests that certain types of religious belief systems, due to their discouragement of critical thinking and encouragement of accepting facts without question, create psychological vulnerabilities to false ideas that may seem attractive and intuitive. A mind that’s surrounded by a group that encourages (or demands) that people accept ideas without question will eventually become unused to analytical thinking, and when faced with circumstances that demand analytical thinking—such as to weed out bad information—may not be able to rise to the task.

The consequences of this, especially right now in the time of COVID-19, is that it could lengthen the pandemic and its suffering—and tragically, it could lead to greater loss of life. These are consequences which any loving faith community ought to feel compelled to avoid.

Thankfully, this tendency to reject analytical thinking and get caught up in misinformation isn’t common to every person of faith. Many prominent religious leaders have noted the spread of misinformation in their flocks and taken steps to correct this trend.

Well-known Christian pastors have publicly received the vaccine and encouraged their followers to do so as well, provoking strong reactions both positive and negative. Others take a more direct approach.

For example, evangelical theologian Curtis Chang has started a website (https://www.christiansandtheva...) in order to address some of the more common concerns evangelicals have expressed about the vaccine. He even posted an interview with the aforementioned Dr. Francis Collins, in which the good doctor makes the case for the COVID-19 vaccine even in light of how quickly it came into being.

So no, religious belief and intelligence are not related. But some beliefs, and some systems of belief, can make us vulnerable to lies, fake news, and misinformation.

If your beliefs require that you not think critically, or not question what you’re supposed to believe, you could be more at risk for believing misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, among other things. You may want to consider following in the footsteps of those scientists who not only believe in a God or a higher power, but who believe that the world this God created is one that can and should be engaged with critically and scientifically.

In this way, it is possible to have your religious beliefs act as an inoculation of sorts against misinformation. And best of all, this inoculation won’t even require a needle.

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