• “A Reason to Believe” – outstanding new documentary on the psychology of belief

    Last year, I was interviewed by Sedona, Arizona-based filmmakers Ben Fama Jr. and his wife Mesa Fama for a new documentary they were working on that examined the question “Why do we believe?” Their previous work has won numerous awards, and their short film A Virus called Fear (below) is particularly good.

    This month, Ben and Mesa launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of the documentary, which is titled A Reason to Believe. They have completed interviews with myself, Michael Shermer (publisher of Skeptic magazine and noted author), Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist, Peter Boghossian (philosopher and author of A Manual For Creating Atheists), and a number of, shall we say, less than skeptical thought leaders as well, including Betsy Chasse (co-director of What the Bleep Do We Know?). Now, they are focusing on editing these hours of video into a cohesive whole, and could use your help.


    In it’s first five days, the campaign has already raised over $10,300, which is a third of the ultimate goal. There are some great rewards and benefits for backing it, and the trailer for the documentary is outstanding.

    So, go over there, support a skeptic filmmaker trying to answer big questions, and spread the word!

    Category: FeaturedPseudosciencePsychologyReligionSkepticism


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com

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    • An Ardent Skeptic

      Armchair and I are considering providing some funding for completion of “A Reason to Believe” but only because we think that what you have to say on the matter is worth hearing, Caleb. Quite frankly, if you weren’t interview for this documentary, we wouldn’t even consider supporting it. We have handed over far too much money for what we thought would be worthwhile endeavors only to be thoroughly disappointed with the results. I guess we have been infected with “A Virus of Fear” about how our money will be spent. (In this particular case, one of our fears is that you will have subtitles plastered across your face. 😉

      Speaking of “A Virus of Fear”, it always bothers me when I hear the claim, in essence, that children who are abused will likely grow up to be abusers. I was verbally, physically, and sexually abused as a child. I don’t run around verbally, physically, or sexually abusing people. In fact, I would say I’m very sensitive to seeing others being abused. (I suppose this is one of the reasons I don’t have a Twitter account – too much nastiness being spewed forth.)

      So Mr. PhD Psychology, is this claim of ‘abused becoming abusers’ actually supported by data? And, if so, how were other factors accounted for to prove causation rather than correlation. The woman in the “Virus of Fear” video said that children watch their father beating their mother and learn that beating is how to show anger. Why, if there is a “Virus of Fear”, wouldn’t children see their mother’s pain, be afraid that their father might beat them too, and learn that beating people up is a bad thing to do?

      Sorry, I’m probably asking you to give me an entire semester’s worth of education on learned behavior. It’s just that from my own personal experience (which I know is only one anecdote and, therefore, of no real value in explaining scientific concepts) I have always questioned the thinking that children learn negative behaviors from negative childhood experiences rather than learning positive behaviors from negative childhood experiences. For me, it hurt like hell to be abused as a child. I have no desire to hurt anyone else the way I was hurt. That means I learned positive behavior from negative childhood experiences. Quite frankly, after seeing how awful people behave to one another in Internet Land, I am having even less regret than ever about having negative childhood experiences. You won’t ever see me demanding someone’s head on a plate because I’ve rushed to negative judgment based on 140 characters.

      • Well, hopefully no subtitles across my face. I mean, I’m relatively sure my face is why Ben interviewed me, to up the “hunk” factor of the film…. 😛

        There actually is a good amount of work showing that being abused as a child makes one much more likely to a) abuse other children while still a minor, b) engage in domestic abuse, and c) abuse their own children. It’s not a perfect correlation by any means, but it does appear to be a significant predictive factor. There are a ton of potential mediating and moderating factors that appear to be important, but it’s certainly a big influence.

        As for why people might imitate the abusers rather than feel for the abused more, that’s likely due to some innate personality/temperamental differences. One could also say that those who abused are reinforced for it (through getting what they want, having a release of negative emotions, feeling powerful, etc.) which they wouldn’t get by emphasizing with the abused.

        That doesn’t mean that one can’t grow from negative experiences – we call that post-traumatic growth. That sounds like what happened for you…but it doesn’t mean there weren’t some problems that occurred as well. It’s rarely an either-or situation, it seems.


        • An Ardent Skeptic

          Thanks for the info about abuse. I have to say I find it very surprising because it seems counterintuitive to me but, then, math was my true love when I was young, so behaving in a way which you yourself find painful just doesn’t compute with me.

          Thanks also for including the link about post-traumatic growth, Dr. Caleb Lack, Psychology Hunk. It was very interesting.

          • I’m going to start signing all my correspondence “Dr Caleb Lack, Psychology Hunk.”

      • Ben Fama Jr.

        Hello Ardent, I am the director of the film. I can rest assured you that there will not be any subtitles on anyone’s face, unless we place subliminal message in it. And yes, I don’t blame you of not considering supporting it if Caleb was not in it, because Caleb is the smartest person in the film.

        All kidding aside, the goal of the film is to understand the process of belief, and how people come to their beliefs. It’s about figuring out the underlying mechanism of the psychology of why people believe, but also really why it’s so difficult to change their minds. As with “A Virus Called Fear”, my goal was not to say that all abused people would turn violent; it was asking the questions of what mechanism are underlying in some irrational behaviors. We can see patterns of abusive behavior from prior experiences in many cases. There will always be exceptions, but there is a lot of science to back up the continued cycle of abuse. It’s easy to call someone like Hitler or Manson and monster; it’s much more difficult to look objectively at patterns and behaviors that may have led to their thought process. This does not justify their actions, of course, but does allow us to have a better understanding so that we may see how to treat or deal with these situations, especially in psychology.

        As with “A Reason To Believe”, I not only sat down with psychologists, researchers and philosophers, especially those well versed in critical thinking, but I sat down with believers to have an honest discussion to figure out where are they coming from, and how can we best understand it? I tried to use the Socratic Method to try and understand where they are coming from. What do we have in common, where do we differ. I used to be a believer myself, and I wasn’t stupid or crazy. There is a process and mechanism that led me to those beliefs, so using rational thinking and empathy allows us to understand the deep emotional ties to why some people believe. If we are going to be better critical thinkers, we need to also place our emotions aside and look at things objectively. Believe me, this is hard to do, and sometimes I am known to speak my mind. But we have to be able to know when to separate the craziness from the science, and dig to the core of understanding of human behavior. Hope that helps.

        • An Ardent Skeptic

          Hi Ben,

          Thanks very much for your response! On Sunday I took a look at the Kickstarter page for the movie, including watching the trailer. I also did some research about the people in the movie whom I was unfamiliar with. My husband and I think it’s great that the documentary will be including perspectives from both believers and non-believers.

          I particularly appreciate your response because our major concern was that there was a possibility that believers might have been included solely as a way of illustrating how silly some beliefs can be. It’s good to have some assurance that the goal was to further understanding of why people find woo so appealing rather than just dismissing believers as fools. IMO, we’re all believers in woo. I think everyone holds some beliefs for which they have insufficient evidence. (With the notable exception of Dr. Caleb Lack, Psychology Hunk. 😉

          I also read all of the info about the differing support levels. If my husband and I choose to give some financial support to this endeavor our support would be at a level which would include a recording of the answer to the question “What do you believe?” Our answer would be “We believe in providing support for educational endeavors.” I don’t think that’s the kind of answer your looking for so we won’t be expecting to have our answer included. You wouldn’t be able to include it in any case because we wouldn’t bother recording it. 😉

          Thanks, again, for your response. It will help in our decision-making process.

        • An Ardent Skeptic

          Hi Ben,

          I’ve been keeping a watch on the kickstarter campaign and, most unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that you will make your goal. If you don’t, I would like to suggest that you apply for a grant from the JREF. Chip Denman, who is on the JREF board, made an announcement at last year’s TAM that the JREF will be giving grants for worthwhile endeavors. IMO, your documentary certainly qualifies as a worthwhile endeavor. It would be great if the JREF board agrees with my assessment and is willing to provide the necessary funds to complete the project.

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