I was at a religious event yesterday on campus. Some student organization had invited three people to tell their conversion stories: one lifelong Christian, one former Muslim, and one former atheist.
All three stories followed a familiar pattern: “I used to be unhappy/abused/selfish, until I met some True Christians™ who seemed really happy. They invited me to read the Bible, pray, and live the life Jesus wanted, and I became happier and a much better person.” Nothing new there, but I was struck by the resemblance to an old statistical illusion:
Child psychologists have known for a while that praising children for their achievements works better than punishing them for their misdeeds. And yet, lots of parents think that punishment gets results. To see why, imagine a class of children taking a class with a series of weekly quizzes. In real life, a student’s grade depends both on how much effort he or she has put into studying, but also on random factors, like whether there were distracting noises outside, and things like that. So let’s ignore the effort part and make the grade completely random: the lazy teacher simply rolls percentile dice to determine each student’s score.
Imagine that one student got 90%, and his parents reward him for his this. Another student gets 10% and is punished by her parents for this. What should we expect to see on the next quiz?
The first student has a (roughly) one-in-ten chance of getting 90-100% on the second quiz, but nine times out of ten, his second grade will be 1-89%, lower than the first one. Likewise, nine times out of ten, the second student will get 11-100%, higher than on the first quiz. So what the first child’s parents see is that they rewarded their child, and his grades went down; the second child’s parents see that they punished their child, and her grades went up.
Likewise with conversions: if you’re at a low point in your life, there’s nowhere to go but up. And if you underwent a religious conversion during that period, you may attribute your subsequent improved fortune to the conversion. Post hoc, ergo proper hoc and all that.
Now, obviously conversions often come with changes in behavior and attitude, which are probably more significant. I’m not saying that this statistical illusion is a major factor in conversions, merely perhaps a contributing one.
An interesting thing happened in discussion afterward: the guy I was talking to said he had faith that Jesus existed. I asked him whether he thought faith was a good way of distinguishing what’s true from what isn’t. He asked me how I defined faith. I told him to use his own definition, since he was the one who believed on faith, and asked him again “is faith a reliable way of distinguishing what’s true from what isn’t?” He quoted Hebrews 11:1 and went off on a tangent, so I asked him again. I kept pressing him, and he kept dancing away from having to give a straight yes or no answer. I could practically hear the “clank!” as a shutter closed in his mind. “Don’t go there! There are dangerous thoughts there!”
Other than that, I have to give the organizers and presenters points for not bringing up Pascal’s wager. The general message was “follow Jesus and you’ll be happier”, rather than “repent or burn”.