Why Do Believers Believe Silly Things? Costly Signaling and the Function of Denialism

  • John S. Wilkins
Part of the New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion book series (NASR, volume 4)


People (and not merely religious people) often have beliefs that are widely regarded as silly by the experts or by the general population. This leads us to ask why believers believe silly things if they are widely thought to be silly, and then why believers believe the specific things they do. I propose that silly beliefs function as in-group and out-group tribal markers. Such markers act as an honest costly signal; honest and costly because such beliefs are hard to fake. Then I offer a developmentalist account of belief formation, in which beliefs are seen to be the result of a process of acquiring beliefs as cheaply and effectively as possible, leading to a reluctance to abandon early core beliefs later in life. Then I consider whether beliefs even can form a unified worldview, and ask how conversion occurs within the developmental characterization I propose. Finally, I consider how this may play out in terms of crises of faith.


Cognitive science of religion Costly signaling Silly beliefs Explanation of beliefs Creationism Crisis of faith 



Thanks to my blog readers for comments and criticism on prior drafts, and to the History and Philosophy of Science seminar attendees at the University of Melbourne for not laughing about my views on conversion. I am indebted to two reviewers for helpful and useful criticisms.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • John S. Wilkins
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Historical and Philosophical StudiesUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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