Reading Time: 4 minutes

Why do Christians believe? Not because Christianity is true but pretty much for the same reason every other theist believes—because they were raised that way.

I’d like to use a puzzle to illustrate the thought process of the believer—or indeed any of us who feel backed into a corner, needing to defend a position. Seeing this flawed thinking in a more familiar, non-Christian context (and realizing that we all do this to varying degrees) may help us better understand how Christians believe.

Lateral thinking puzzle

Imagine two strings hanging from the ceiling in an ordinary room—an office, say, or a living room. Your challenge is to tie the strings together, but if you hold one, your arms aren’t long enough for you to reach the other. Using items typically in such a room (pencils, tacks, light bulbs, etc.), how many different ways can you find to connect them?

This puzzle dates to 1931 when psychologist Norman Maier first did the experiment. His subjects fairly reliably came up with solutions in three categories. (Pause here if you want to think up your own answer to the puzzle. How many categories can you find?)

Here are the categories.

  1. Make one string closer. There isn’t a second person to hand you string 1 while you hold string 2, but an easy alternative is to pull string 1 as close to string 2 as possible and hold it in place by tying it to a chair. Then grab string 1 and return to pick up string 2, and tie them together. There are lots of variations (replace the chair with a table, hold the string in place with a heavy weight, tack it to a wall, and so on), but these are unimportant. They all fit into this one category.
  2. Lengthen the string. Tie string 1 to something long like an extension cord. Grab the other string and then reach for the extension cord to pull in the first string.
  3. Lengthen your arm. Hold one string with one hand and use a broom or yardstick to reach the second string.

Did you get those? How about the fourth option? (Pause for a few minutes, if you want, to see if you can find it.)

In Maier’s 1931 experiment, only forty percent of the subjects found the fourth solution within ten minutes. Here’s that solution: tie a weight like a stapler or coffee mug to one string and make it swing like a pendulum. Hold the other string and wait for the pendulum to swing toward you, and then grab it.

Punch line

Now we’ll connect this puzzle to the problem of how the human mind justifies itself. The climax of the experiment was when the psychologist gave a clue for the fourth solution. To the sixty percent who didn’t come up with it themselves, he hinted at it by walking past one of the strings and knocking it “accidentally” so that it swung. That prodded an additional forty percent of the subjects to come up with the solution.

The interesting part was the final step when he asked the subjects with the new insight why they came up with the solution. The answer, of course, was “You brushed the string, and it moved like a pendulum. That helped me realize that I could make one string swing to me while I held the other.” But only one person answered with that. The rest gave answers ranging from “It just came to me” to some elaborate explanation or other. One supposed insight involved the mental image of monkeys swinging from trees.

Connection to Christianity

Why do Christians believe? Mostly because they were raised that way. Christian apologist Jim Wallace agrees and has said that, in his experience, this is a popular (but insufficient) Christian explanation for belief.

Nevertheless, Christians will often rationalize an intellectual foundation. They might point to the apparent design in nature or wonder where morality would come from in a world without God. This parallels the result of Maier’s connect-the-strings experiment. Those subjects wouldn’t state the actual reason for their belief and gave rationalizations when asked.

Or, perhaps those Christians couldn’t admit the actual reason because they honestly thought their belief was well grounded in evidence. Here, the intellectual part of the brain is simply rationalizing what the emotional part told it to rationalize—“I reject that argument; go make up a reason why” or “we’re doing it this way; go justify that.”

Malcolm Gladwell in Blink analyzes Maier’s subjects this way:

Were these people lying? Were they ashamed to admit that they could solve the problem only after getting a hint? Not at all. It’s just that Maier’s hint was so subtle that it was picked up only on an unconscious level. It was processed behind the locked door, so, when pressed for an explanation, all Maier’s subjects could do was make up what seemed to them the most plausible one.

Beyond simply being a fascinating look into the human mind, I see two lessons from Maier’s experiment. First, Christians’ explanations for their beliefs are unreliable, even if delivered earnestly. This experiment shows how Christians may think they’re believing for rational reasons when in fact they believe for emotional reasons (or, at least, non-intellectual reasons). To see that, find out when a Christian adopted their rationalizations. They likely learned those arguments after becoming a Christian.

Second, we all have (more or less) the same brain, and atheists aren’t immune from bad thinking. A little humility helps.

See also: Your Religion Is a Reflection of Your Culture—You’d Be Muslim if You Were Born in Pakistan

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.
Tell him you disagree and he turns away.
Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources.
Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
— Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger


Image from nahid hatamiz, CC license

Avatar photo

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...