Human Credulity


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    Man is a credulous animal and must believe something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.
    Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays


    Everyone is familiar with the children's game of Chinese Whispers. A simple phrase is whispered by one child to another, who then whispers it to another, who then whispers it to another, and so on. After a few repetitions the phrase is unrecognisable. This sort of distortion happens whenever a message has to be transmitted by people who need to remember it. Such mutations are not always random. It is common for stories to become more impressive: the angler's lost fish grows bigger; the stooge becomes more absurd; the faith healer's cures become increasingly miraculous; the good become better and the bad become worse. A recurring pattern is the great warrior who becomes more and more impressive: in repeated retelling of the story he grows taller, becomes more clever and more cultured, his bearing more noble, his horse more devoted, his conduct under fire more impressive, and so on.

    In a lifetime we may well hear the same person tell the same personal story several times. It is rare that the story will fail to become more astonishing, or the events more humorous, or the supernatural elements more inexplicable, or some other aspect noticeably exaggerated. Typically, if surprisingly, the detail becomes more precise and convincing the more the story departs from the truth. Sometimes a story will appeal to the popular imagination. Once this happens it becomes entrenched. There have always been large numbers of folk tales that have been widely believed although they have no apparent foundation in fact.

    An old favourite was the person who discovers a sealed-up room in some ancient building. Inside is discovered a man or woman who centuries earlier had been walled up alive in the room, still sitting at a table with quill in hand. Another such story concerns the simpleton who put his dog in the oven to keep it warm and accidentally roasted it. Such stories still flourish and are now known as Urban Myths. The simpleton who put his dog in the kitchen oven 500 years ago is now a simpleton who put his hamster into a microwave oven a few days ago. Such stories resurface in the press every few years. Quite often these stories contradict known facts. Sometimes the story can be traced back along a line of informants and it is discovered that the original story bears little relationship to the truth. As in other cases, the popular story is often the exact opposite of the original. Millions of Christians and Muslims know that the mountain came to Mohammed, but the original story is that the mountain failed to come to Mohammed*.

    Reputable authorities can get caught up in this sort of distortion. In the 1920s and 1930s the author A. P. Herbert wrote a series of humorous short stories in the form of fictitious court cases. They were never represented as anything but humorous fiction, yet some were soon being retold and cited as actual cases heard in British courts. A number were reported as fact by newspapers around the world, and a serious American legal text cited one of these cases along with references (adding with pride that such a judgement could not be given by an American court)*. It is almost as though people have an in-built desire to improve stories. Over time they become more impressive, more convincing, more authoritative, more focused on one or other human emotion, more detailed, and so on.

    If we look to the early Christians we find little reason to hold them to be less credulous than others. An early bishop of Rome believed in the phoenix, and described it in detail, adding the usual sort of supporting detail: " ... in the full light of day and before the eyes of all beholders, it flies to the altar of the Sun ..."*. Another bishop of Rome, Fabian, was elected because of the sort of omen that traditionally attached to those favoured by the gods. Something of an obscurity as a candidate, he was made a bishop because a dove landed on his head*. Other Church Fathers believed in, and vouched personally for, a range of absurdities and impossibilities. Tricksters had little difficulty in deceiving Christians and living comfortably on their deceits, so that Christian leaders had to warn their followers about them*. Lucian of Samosata, who lived in the second century AD, poked fun at people's credulity, especially that of Christians. He reported a case of a man named Proteus (or Peregrinus), who had previously imposed himself on Christians in Palestine "and in no time made them all look like children. He was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue — everything. He interpreted their holy books and composed some himself. They revered him as a god, treated him as a lawgiver, and made him their leader — next after the man who introduced their cult to the world, and who was crucified in Palestine, whom they still worship". Lucian set up a story of Proteus's death and resurrection at the Olympic Games in AD 165, complete with details such as an earthquake and Proteus's spirit rising to Heaven in the form of a bird. A little later Lucian met a man who claimed to have seen the bird rising to Heaven and to have met the transfigured Proteus*.

    Demons intercede between Apollo, Juno, Mercury, Venus, Mars and other agan Gods in the sky and humans on earth
    Detail from St.Augustine, La Citede Dieu, Paris. Alchemy scroll Macon BM c.1480
    (Note that the gods wear contemporary clothing, and that Apollo still has his halo)

    Christians heard pagan statues talk and accepted that these statues could indeed speak without human aid. The voices were those of the ancient gods — demons imposing themselves on credulous pagans. Other Christians witnessed exorcisms at which the possessing spirits admitted to being pagan gods. Yet others heard Christian oracles speak. Christian credulity continued to make the fortunes of the cynical for century after century. We have already noted for example the mass production of false relics during the Middle Ages. Visionaries continued to convince, even after being discredited. In 1098 Peter Bartholomew, an illiterate visionary, discovered the Holy Lance buried in the ground after seeing visions of St Andrew. St Andrew told him much liturgical detail about the service of thanksgiving that was expected — so much detail that a bishop became suspicious about Peter's illiteracy and made enquiries. It was discovered that Peter had lied about his illiteracy. He could read after all. When tackled on this point he admitted that indeed he had previously been able to read. But no longer, for as he now said, he had mysteriously been struck illiterate. Reassured that he was illiterate as claimed, his colleagues continued to believe him*.

    At no point in history have Christians distinguished themselves by their ability to differentiate between fact and fiction. In 1665 Reginald Scot published his Discoverie of Witchcraft. The book was designed to expose popular misconceptions, to show the folly of belief in witchcraft, and thus to put a stop to the persecution of witches. For this reason James I ordered all copies destroyed. The king need not have feared, for when the book was republished in 1665 credulous Christians missed the point and adopted it almost as a textbook on witchcraft. Instead of discrediting belief, it bolstered it*.

    Many people will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. If the evidence does not fit their desires it can be filtered out, or it can be distorted so that it does fit their desires. An example of the way that distorted facts can be built up to buttress religious claims is provided by the Turin Shroud, a holy relic that churchmen thought might really have dated from biblical times. This shroud is a piece of cloth that was claimed to be the burial cloth of Jesus, with his image miraculously imprinted on it. All manner of claims have been made for it. For example, it was claimed that in some unique way it held information coded onto its surface, that its history can be traced back to the Resurrection, that pollen samples show it to have originated in the Holy Land in the first century AD, that it bears all the hallmarks of a genuine relic and could have been produced by no known human means, that scientists have tried but failed to discredit its miraculous provenance, and so on. All this has been frequently repeated in the press and represented as hard fact. A few real facts rather upset the story*. The first claim was that it mysteriously held three dimensional information coded onto its two dimensional surface. This was presented as evidence of its genuineness since it was claimed to be impossible to do anything like this by any known scientific methods. It seems to have escaped the attention of its supporters that this is exactly what a contour map does. That the surface embodied three-dimensional information in some unique and unprecedented way was exposed by showing that other ordinary pictures, even photographs, have the same properties. Another uncomfortable fact was that the shroud does not possess a complete history dating back to biblical times. When it first appeared at Lirey in 1356 it was one of many such examples of its type. Such shrouds, cloths and veronicas were being produced at the time to meet the popular demand for such relics. The Bishop of Troyes carried out an investigation. Not only was there no evidence of its antiquity, but the bishop discovered it to be a fake. He even found the individual who had manufactured it and discovered how it had been done*.

    The story about the pollen was simply not true. It was a distortion of what botanists had really said about it — which was that at some stage the cloth had picked up pollen from a saline desert. There were other contemporary good reasons for suspecting the cloth to be the work of a forger. For example the hands were placed so as to conceal the genitals, a pose not otherwise known, but convenient for prudes and anti-Semites. Also the rivulets of blood from the crown of thorns were suspicious. They resemble the dramatic dribbles so popular in Christian art. In reality scalp wounds tend to congeal and matt.

    There was plenty of evidence for the shroud being a human artefact. The blood stains turned out not to be blood stains at all, but pigment. Pigments were also found at other parts of the cloth. Iron oxide, an ancient pigment, has been identified in areas marked with an image, and so has animal tempera, a common paint medium. Far from being impossible to duplicate, the shroud has been replicated several times in the twentieth century using medieval materials. The final refutation came when three scientific authorities carried out carbon dating tests in 1988 and independently declared the material to date from the fourteenth century. As Professor Edward Hall of Oxford University put it "someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it".

    It must be said that the medieval faker was a good one, and that the negative image on the cloth is striking. But this hardly amounts to much. The whole story of a genuine relic is fantasy. It has been completely and repeatedly discredited. Nevertheless, there are still many Christians who still believe that the Turin Shroud really is the burial cloth of Jesus. Both the Pope and the Archbishop of Turin attributed its surviving a fire in 1997 to a divine miracle*. Some believers have even proposed that scientists are colluding to fabricate their results.

    Another curiosity is that so many other religions make such similar claims to Christianity. Take for example a few of the other main faiths in the world: Islam, Hinduism and the less sophisticated forms of Buddhism. Key personalities in these religions invariably left unlikely miraculous relics: a hair from the prophet's beard, a flute played by Shiva, a tooth from the Buddha's jaw. These religions all recognise saints and other holy men whose relics can heal and work other wonders. They each have their hierarchies of demigods and demons. All practise exorcisms. They each have their martyrs, and visionaries to whom God confirms the tenets of their faith. All of them have holy shrines where prayers are answered and miracles are worked. These shrines even look the same. The afflicted, the sad and lonely and the bereaved in Italy, Iran, India and Thailand all write little prayers and attach them to the gates of holy shrines, along with ribbons, flowers and other little offerings. Are they all religious or are some of them superstitious? How can anyone tell where credulity stops?

    Why is it, from a Christian's point of view, that non-Christians persist in this unproductive behaviour when Christianity is the one true faith appointed by God? In the late twentieth century the Muslim faith was proved true on several occasions by the discovery of miraculous aubergines that when cut in half revealed the name of God in Arabic. Hindus were vindicated in September 1995 when a selection of Hindu idols around the world started drinking milk. Many Roman Catholics regularly have their faith proved by weeping statues of the Madonna and bleeding statues of Jesus. Unless one believes in all of these miracles, one must conclude that at least some of them are false, in which case millions of people believe things that are false. And since there is no objective reason to believe one set of miracles rather than another, there is no good reason to believe any of them.

    We generally find it easy to spot credulity in others but not in ourselves. An example is provided by a well known anthropologist who was describing the beliefs of the Fang people of equatorial Africa to dons at a Cambridge college high table. One of these Fang beliefs was in the ability of witches to fly at night and destroy crops. A prominent Catholic theologian commented that he wondered how anyone could hold nonsensical beliefs like this. Evidently, he was not much of a historian, or he would have known that his own Church taught exactly such ideas for centuries. More to the point, he seems to have no inkling of the irony. As the anthropologist knew, the Fang people wondered how anyone could hold unlikely beliefs like the central Christian doctrine that all misfortunes in the world are attributable to a man and a woman eating fruit in the far distant past.

    If we look at various cults it is clear enough that there is a large reservoir of credulity to be tapped in all societies. Many successful cults are set up by ex-salesmen who have little difficulty in attracting both converts and funds. Two notable cults established by salesmen in recent years are the Emin (now known as the Template Network) and the Church of Scientology. Hundreds of other cults have flourished on a diet of stories about the imminent end of the world. Typically their millions of members are sufficiently credulous that their faith actually increases rather than decreases when the world fails to end on the appointed day. About 40% of American students “hear voices”. About 50% of Americans believe in astrology. We are simply not the rational species we might like to be.

    In the USA the most blatant fraudsters attract millions of followers. Men whose insincerity shines like a beacon, whose speech abounds with the most crass and obvious falsehoods, who are convicted crooks and deviants, and who lead lives of sybaritic parasitism: all are guaranteed the adulation of vast and willing congregations. Huge numbers of people believe what to most others is arrant nonsense: that magical charms can avert bad fortune, that the government is controlled by space aliens, that God sends America bad weather to dissuade the President from sending astronauts to the Moon, that the Pope is the antichrist, that television soap-opera characters are real people, that weather forecasters control rather than predict the weather, that the evil eye is a reality, and so on. At the time of writing, there are more than ten times as many professional astrologers as professional astronomers in the USA. A third of the population believe that popular astrology is "scientific". The fact that hundreds of millions of people take the trouble to read newspaper horoscopes, coupled with the standard of such horoscopes, suggests a level of credulity that is difficult for the rational mind to credit.

    The simple truth is that people as a whole are credulous, and Christians have not historically distinguished themselves from others in the level of their credulity.


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    §. Francis Bacon had it the right way round: "Mahomet made the people believe that he would call a hill to him ... when the hill stood still, he was never a whit abashed, but said, “If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill” ". Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Essays, "Of Boldness".

    §. A. P. Herbert, Uncommon Law, Bibliophile Books ( London, 1985) contains a number of these fictitious cases, along with an account in the Introduction of some of the cases where stories had subsequently been cited as fact.

    §. Clement of Rome., First Epistle to the Corinthians, 25.

    §. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 6:29.

    §. For a warning to Christians see the Didache, 12 (see Andrew Louth (ed.), Maxwell Staniforth (trans.) Early Christian Writings, p 196).

    §. Lucian's On the Death of Peregrinus. See J Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius ( London, 1960), pp 134-6.

    §. Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol. 1, p 246.

    §. Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain, p 62.

    §. For what follows see Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p 184. See also Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorised Version, pp 250-251, and Wilson, Holy Faces,Secret Places.

    §. Pierre d"Arcis (Bishop of Troyes), Memorandum to Pope Clement VII, ( Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Collection de Champagne, v. 154, folio 138), 1389, translated from Latin by the Rev. Herbert Thurston and published in "The Holy Shroud and the Verdict of History", The Month, CI (1903), pp 7-29.

    §. Various reports of this miracle appeared in the international press on 13 th and 14 th April 1997. See "Turin Shroud rises from the ashes", The Observer, 13 th April 1997 and The Times, 14 th April 1997.

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