Cognition and Faith

Cognition and Faith

April 17, 2017—What is the difference between religious thinking and “religiosity.” Or, what is the difference between faith and magical thinking? When I worked at a state mental hospital during my CPE it seemed rather easy to tell the difference in the closed ward where patients spent the first stage of their admittance. When a patient claimed to be Jesus Christ it was easy to identify that as delusional thinking. When a patient used religious language disconnected from the reality of their circumstance it seemed easy to diagnose religiosity. But what about for most of us church-going religiously committed (no pun intended) believers? How do we distinguish authentic belief from magical thinking? What distinguishes prayer from wishful thinking?

Most of us are comfortable with the rationalistic side of our religious beliefs. We find assurance and derive considerable certitude in the solidity of doctrines and teachings informed by Tradition and reinforced by logic and rationality. But in times of existential crises and in the grips of acute anxiety from threat—physical, financial, psychological, or spiritual—we all tend to revert to some form of magical thinking.

In an article in Psychology Today titled Magical Thinking, author Matthew Hutson writes,

Magical thinking springs up everywhere. Some irrational beliefs (Santa Claus?) are passed on to us. But others we find on our own. Survival requires recognizing patterns: night follows day, berries that color will make you ill. And because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overtuned. No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.

Read Hutson’s short article to learn more about the positive side of magical thinking.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary.He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.

Photo from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.