4 min

Religious believers less likely to notice own mistakes: study

This might explain why Bush and Harper are so unwilling to admit error

A recent study from the University of Toronto and York University showed that religious believers exhibit lower levels of stress and anxiety than those who consider themselves non-believers. The result was that the believers performed better on cognitive tests.

“[Religious people] were much less anxious and stressed when they made an error,” Michael Inzlicht, a U of T assistant psychology professor and a co-author of the study told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t think this has to do with fundamentalism, it’s something deeper — religion provides meaning in peoples’ lives.”

A point for religion, you might think. But wait, there’s a catch and it’s kind of major. Those same religious believers were also much less likely to recognize when they made a mistake and to correct it.

“But Prof Inzlicht said that while a low level of anxiety can boost performance, it also functions as a sort of ‘alarm bell,’ and too little activity in that part of the brain can hurt the ability to correct mistakes,” said the Globe article. “‘The more they believe, the less brain activity we see in response to their own errors,’ said Inzlicht. In some ways, he added, ‘that’s a good thing. But on the other side, we need to know when we’re making a mistake. If we don’t, we may make the same mistake again.'”

Hmm, so religious believers may not be willing or able to recognize when they make a mistake, let alone correct it. Wow, that could really be a problem if any of them were to end up, say, running a country or something. Thankfully, that could never happen.

Oh, wait a minute…

For those of us wondering why politicians who are also fervent religious believers like George W Bush or Stephen Harper are both so completely unstressed (note Harper’s ‘What, me worry?’ attitude towards the recession) and so unwilling to change course or admit error, this study explains a lot.

The same Globe article quotes Pat O’Brien, the president of Humanist Canada, on the possible relationship between religious belief and a sense of wellbeing. O’Brien points out that belief, and well-being in particular, do not translate into the existence of God.

“[Even] Santa Claus can make you feel good,” said O’Brien.

This is why all my favourite people — leaders or not — are stressed out of their minds, but willing to admit when they’ve made a mistake, willing to listen to other people’s advice and willing to change course if they realize they’re wrong. In other words, they probably wouldn’t welcome a Holocaust-denying bishop back into the fold because they were too stubborn to let anybody run a simple Google search.


Speaking of which, an anniversary passed almost unnoticed recently: the 20th anniversary of the fatwa of death issued against author Salman Rushdie for his penning of The Satanic Verses.

Twenty years ago, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa after Rushdie dared not only to portray Muhammed as a character in the book, but as an adulterer. In February, high-ranking members of the Iranian parliament reconfirmed the fatwa.

At the time, in response to the fatwa, Rushdie said people “understand themselves and shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or men.”

Which makes it all the worse that virtually simultaneous with the anniversary, the government of Britain banned Dutch MP Geert Wilders from entering the country to present his film attacking the Koran as a violent, hateful and warmongering book. And at the same time, Canada banned British MP George Galloway from the country on the basis that his supposed support of the Hamas government in Gaza might constitute support for terrorism and create a threat to public safety.

Critics accuse the British government of caving in to threats of violence from Muslims and the Canadian government of wanting to suck up to Jewish groups. Either way, there’s no question that government officials or agencies decided that censorship and banning was the best way to deal with controversial issues.

Incidentally at around the same time, talking of controversial religious figures, there was apparently no consideration given by the Canadian border agencies or the government to banning George W Bush from entering the country to deliver a speech in Calgary.


The ongoing debate over atheist ads on public transit continues. Ads by the Freethought Association of Canada — reading “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” — have been running on buses in Toronto and Calgary, and will be rolled out in Ottawa and the Maritimes.

Now a group in Calgary is responding with ads that will read, “God cares for everyone… even for those who say He doesn’t exist!” The group’s Muslim founder claims, heartwarmingly enough, that the group is also made up of Christians, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus.

Now I have no problem with those ads. Debate is a good thing. It’s actually the response ads to an identical atheist campaign in Britain that concerned me more. Those ads read “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.”

That’s precisely the sort of mingling of belief and politics that worries me. And while Canadian transit ads may be relatively innocuous so far, the government has taken that mingling directly into the Immigration and Refugee Board. Doug Cryer, the former director of public policy for Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, was recently appointed to the IRB despite his bitter opposition to same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general.

And, yes, I would also be opposed to somebody whose full-time job was proselytizing for atheism being appointed to the IRB.


Remember Ted Haggard, the fundamentalist preacher who was caught fucking a gay hustler? Well, his wife now says everything he’s gone through was part of a “divine journey,” including, presumably, the hustler himself. Does that mean all gay hustlers are instruments of God? And, if so, would that be a turn-on for people?