Do they keep forgetting?

February 14, 2011 | By | 22 Replies More

Assume that you came to Earth last year (you were a visitor from another planet). Assume that on the first morning you spent on Earth, I showed you how to make toast. I showed you how to put the bread in the toaster and how to turn the toaster on. I taught you how to wait for the toast to pop up, and then I showed you how to spread some butter on the toast after the toast popped up.

Assume that a week later, I took you downstairs and told you I was going to show you how to make toast. Once again, I instructed you to put bread in the toaster, to turn the toaster on, to wait for the toaster and then to put butter on the toast.

Assume that I tried to give you the same lesson one more week later. You would likely stop me at this point and tell me that I had already told you how to make toast. You might say, “You told me twice, in fact. The steps were simple and I truly listened. There’s no need for you to tell me yet again how to make toast.”

This imaginary story came to mind while I was listening to a Christian radio show on the way home from work today. The preacher was telling the people in a large audience that Jesus was sent to Earth by God, that Jesus worked miracles, that Jesus loved us, and that Jesus was sacrificed to save us. He then told the audience that the only way to get to heaven is to believe in Jesus Christ, and to accept him as their Lord and Savior.

As I heard these basic Christian claims repeated several times during a 20-minute sermon, I wondered why it was that any half-intelligent Christian would find the sermon interesting. After all, any adult Christian would’ve heard these sorts of claims hundreds or thousands of times already. Enough is enough, right? Wouldn’t somebody be tempted to stand up in the middle of the sermon to state something like this:

Excuse me, but this is all basic stuff that we’ve all heard thousands of times. You are treating us like we’ve never heard these things before. This is annoying, because any one of us could get up there at the pulpit and recite by heart all of these things that you are now telling us. You treat us as though we were children who had never before heard these things.  We assure you that we’ve heard these claims that God sent Jesus to die for our sins and that we need to believe in Jesus to be saved. Can we move on and learn something new this week and next week and next week?”

I do wonder what Christians think while they are subjected to these basic lectures again and again, Sunday after Sunday? Why is it that they are not insulted? How is it that they are willing to sit there and listen to something that they’ve already heard more times than they can count? How is it that they keep coming back to church Sunday after Sunday? Is it that they believe these claims a little more each time they hear them?  I seriously doubt it.

Religious sermons sound and look like academic lectures, except that no one is taking notes and no one is listening critically. If the congregation brought pads of paper to church to write it all down one time, there might not be any need to come back and hear it again. Ever.

If the congregation members actually believed the things that were being told to them, I suspect they would not have the patience to keep coming back week after week. They would vote with their feet and sleep in on Sunday. Why would anyone need to be reminded of the most basic beliefs of the church, over and over? It’s not like everyone in every congregation has Alzheimer’s disease.

Image by Mike_Kiev at dreamstime (with permission)

I suspect that members of religious congregations, by and large, do not believe the most basic Christian claims, even though they claim that they believe these things. This disbelief is the only reason they can tolerate listening to the same claims, Sunday after Sunday. I suspect that their intellects reject these religious claims, but that the preachers are tapping into the existential angst of the members of the congregation.  Church-goers cling to their church services because no one else in town is offering any simple remedies to their deep fears regarding death. But neither do they believe the claims they are hearing.  The net result is that they flutter around churches like moths around a hot light. Week after week.  The fear drives them in, but their intellects repel them.

I hereby put this observation in my Top Ten list of evidence demonstrating that people who claim to be religious don’t really believe the most basic articles of faith of their own religions. And how else could you explain the lack of knowledge that people have regarding their own religions?


Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (22)

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  1. Dave Jenkins says:


    You make an assumption in that last paragraph, that Christians must be told these basic points over and over again because they don't believe them (and therefore must be retold). This assumption is based on a logical 'lesson-fact' model, but that might miss a major point…

    I would like to offer an alternative explanation: repetition is a form of meditation for the listener, and an effective method of propagandizing for the preacher. It's the same driver for Egyptians chanting in the streets, for Goebbles' rallies, for Buddhist monks mumbling for hours on end in the Himalaya: simple repetition brings clarity, simple repetition brings clarity.

  2. TheThinkingMan says:

    You were listening to a christian radio station, and from that therefore assume that "Oh, well this MUST be how church is EVERY Sunday." when you yourself do not regularly attend a church service on a weekly basis?

    Ridiculous, Erich. Certainly you realize the biases of your statements. You cannot surmise the entire truth of a subject because you listened to one (or perhaps a couple) radio broadcasts about the subject.

    I certainly agree with your portrayal of the incessant redundancy of SOME sermons, as I myself have been a member of a church with a preacher who preached the same thing every week. It was mostly because the congregation was constantly changing and people came and went (military bases nearby, that sort of thing) and constantly berated the teachings for lacking any true intellectual or, indeed, spiritual stimulation.

    Indeed, I think that far too many churches focus too much on "increasing their flock" instead of supplying more meat to the substance of the faith that people in their congregations already have. It is true of many church, though not all.

    The church service I most recently attended (I do not attend church on a regular basis though try to come as often as I can) was one part of a series breaking down the parable of the prodigal son and applying real world meanings and principles to what this MIGHT mean to the Christian in our modern world (I attend a much more open church, which are popping up all over the place, and which reject the stereotypes that you constantly over-play).

    Mostly, though, church attendance for many isn't about learning something in the same manner that they have in school every day of their lives. It is more about fellowship, about tempering the faith, about engraving the teachings in their heads. Once some have got the basics nice and down pact (lets face it, the fullness of the scripture even the "basic, easy" ideals about atonement and suffering are not quite as SIMPLE as toasting bread, Erich), then the believer can chose to go to Sunday School, or group meetings, or specific sermons set up throughout the week that teach subjects that this person might be interested in.

    Once they have gotten that all squared away, they might then try and spread the word by word or action (preferably the latter, as Christians are called to lead by example) and put their understanding of the scripture to good use.

    So please, stop overgeneralizing the whole of an entire faith and religious group based on very limited understanding of the full working of a church body when you haven't gone through the tribulations of actually sitting through redundant sermons for years on end.


    • Erich Vieth says:

      The Thinking Man: I challenge you to go sit through some sermons at churches you randomly choose in your city and report back. The scholarship runs shallow during church sermons, a point Bart Ehrman makes (and I can verify from attending services in many types of churches over the years.

      I don't doubt that there are some religions that do more than recite the basics every week, but know for a fact that many congregations are told the basics week after week, and made to recite creeds too. Not all real work religions are like your own sophisticated way of believing (I've much enjoyed your comments describing your beliefs). And don't knock those AM preaching stations as outliers. They are ubiquitous, which tells me that many people get their "religion" from them. Further, much radio preaching parallels much in-person preaching, from my personal experience.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    I don't really think the members of the congregation keep forgetting. Nor do I think that they get smarter or learn to be kind-hearted by repeating things (or hearing them repeated). Rather, I assume that this repetition (and willingness to listen) is yet another example of Zahavi's costly signalling.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    Despite some rumors to the contrary, the worlds’ numbers of Christians is apparently increasing even as global numbers of atheists goes down. Some say the decrease in atheists is due to the snarky leadership of the so-called “New Atheists.”

  5. Mike M. says:

    Dave, I have to strongly disagree with your "alternative explanation" of repetition bringing clarity. I believe repetition actually has the polar opposite effect. Repetition works to circumvent the processes of thought and reason, bypassing the higher brain functions to access the subconscious and achieve a waking dream state.

    Meditative mantras and repeated chants and creeds are used to get to a state the Taoists call 'No Mind'.

    Repetition is pure self-hypnosis.

  6. Dave Jenkins says:

    Mike M.,

    Thanks for your comment, and allow me to clarify: I don't know if repetition brings clarity or not in a purely logical conclusionary or epistemological sense. I was merely commenting that– for the listener– the meditative repetition brings the _feeling_ of clarity. For many matters, especially the metaphysical concepts involved with religion, this _feeling_ is completely satisfactory.

    無爲 indeed.

  7. Xtech says:

    TheThinkingMan says:

    "Mostly, though, church attendance for many isn’t about learning something in the same manner that they have in school every day of their lives. It is more about fellowship, about tempering the faith, about engraving the teachings in their heads."

    Correct. The repetition of creeds, those "highly reductive, definitive – sounding phrases", and refer(ences) to "abstract and ambiguous" ideas associated with "huge emotional baggage" is all about reinforcing. Why? To strengthen the group binding. Karen Taylor, whom I quoted above, discusses this kind of learning that is, as you say, different from school learning, and the neuroscience behind it.


  8. Xtech says:

    I would like to add that the repeated exposure to cognitive dissonance increases the parishoner's submission to authority. Indoctrination seems to me to be a kind of hazing. Hearing the same creed every Sunday is a weekly refresher 🙂

  9. TheThinkingMan says:

    "(I’ve much enjoyed your comments describing your beliefs)"

    Thank you, Erich. I hope you aren't being patronizing. My own beliefs are far from "sophisticated" and I realize that they are often convoluted and missing in details and perhaps even facts. I try to riddle out the purpose of my own existence on my own. Indeed, I feel that everyone should discover for themselves what is true, and the same goes for attempting to understand the spiritual realm, or at least the brain's processes of perceiving such a realm.

    I have to agree with you, however. You need not offer the challenge as, like I stated before, your point is very much true of many (though not all) churches. That was the major problem I experienced when attending church services in my area and others in trying to find a group that did not proselytize and offer empty sermons with no real conviction. I have often found that congregations are lacking in true spirit and often are motivated by money, hatred, hypocrisy, and pandering to the base desires of their flock. That is the main reason that I have decided that a more agnostic view is more proper in modern times. In fact I related strongly to the story of Jesus chastising the Pharisees and tearing down the Church market, for indeed the church has become a mockery of what it is meant to represent.

    It is a sad state of affairs, I will admit it. But surely there are others with thinking minds who perceive that questioning their faith, as well as their facts, is the way to live life. I feel that many people are making that transition to a more incorporated and unified spiritual identity, or lack of one.

    Many churches have problems, as they are human institutions. But over time more progressive minds appear that change things for the better.

    You may think that I'm a dreamer…

  10. TheThinkingMan says:

    Erich: It is not exclusive to me, but the psyche which all human beings share but are unaware or unwilling to understand or explore.

    That is the fundamental principle I feel we have failed to reach as a species thus far. That spirituality remains a function of the human brain for specific reasons, and that there may indeed exist some transcendental realm (perhaps only in the "mind") that all humans can access but usually do not (even – or especially – the religious ones).

  11. Jim Razinha says:

    TheThinkingMan: "It is not exclusive to me, but the psyche which all human beings share but are unaware or unwilling to understand or explore…..spirituality remains a function of the human brain for specific reasons"

    Couldn't disagree more. It's not a function of my brain. I tried to make it so when growing up I saw I was different than the people in my church, but that was impossible. When I realized that, and that I had neither need of it nor could ever rationalize it, I left it and religion behind.

    I'm much happier now.

    But I still have a hard time with Carl Sagan's words "Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality…The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a profound disservice to both." I can't reconcile the two. They are NOMA to me.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jim: When I hear "spirituality," I translate it to "a sense of wonder and awe" and this meaning (or translation) dovetails well with the passionate and determined work done by first rate scientists. I suspect that Sagan had that kind of meaning in mind, rather than any suggestion that there is such a thing as disembodied sentience.

  12. Jim Razinha says:

    I know what Sagan meant. I just didn't like it. It doesn't fit with reason. Like when Hawking used the word "God" in A Brief History of Time.

    I don't see the need to translate awe to spirituality, but that's me. I recognize that sets me apart, but it is what it is. I changed my opinion about the value of philosophy around the same time I came to my conclusion about this. But that's for another thread.

  13. Tim Hogan says:

    Jim, Sagan has an amazing discussion between two of his characters in the book "Contact." The discussion surrounds the concept of the "numinous" which seems to wrap up much of the discord between the faith and non-faith communities. I've had discussions with Erich about this which he may recall, we exchanged e-mails. Maybe they're around, it was just about the time Erich started DI. Take a look and get back to me. You too, Vieth. Maybe we can get together over some Schlafly's and mull this over!

  14. Jim Razinha says:

    I read Contact and remember liking most of it up until the end. That bit about pi left a bad aftertaste and I was disappointed in Sagan for even mentioning spirituality, which I equate with mysticism though he apparently didn't. Fortunately, the movie adaptation was so atrocious that I forgot most of the book (and mercifully the movie plot as well.) Now, as I have forgotten so much of Contact, I guess I'll have to add it to my reread soon list and dig up your early exchanges. Perhaps I'll see it differently now that I'm a wee bit older?

  15. Jim Razinha says:

    Okay. I like that guy.

    So far.

    Gonna read Aadvarcheology to see more.

  16. Mike M. says:

    Salto has a problem with spirituality because Salto doesn't know what spirituality means. Exactly. Spirituality is self-defined, and has no objective "one size fits all" meaning. Poor Salto…maybe Salto should study the subject more deeply and gain an understanding. Maybe Salto should conduct an experiment with a mind manifesting plant or fungus, at which point spirituality may present itself in all its fractal, awesome, & ineffable glory. Or Salto can continue with the path non-understanding and the problem of ignorance.

  17. Jim Razinha says:

    Salto recognizes a wasted endeavor. Smart guy. Not ignorant at all.

  18. TheThinkingMan says:

    Jim writes: "Couldn’t disagree more. It’s not a function of my brain. I tried to make it so when growing up I saw I was different than the people in my church, but that was impossible. When I realized that, and that I had neither need of it nor could ever rationalize it, I left it and religion behind.

    I’m much happier now."

    I mean as an overall evolutionary trait in our species. Read Matthew Alper's "The God Part of the Brain."

    Perhaps you do not relate to specific spiritual leanings. However I would challenge you to seek deep within your psyche and discover the spark somewhere at least for a place for such leanings to manifest or had manifested once before.

    Or perhaps you are among the percentage in the "bell curve" that is less spiritual as opposed to hyper-spiritual, as detailed in Alper's book.

    Whatever the case may be, it still remains that the majority of humans have that capacity for spirituality at least partially.

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