Why do people believe in flying saucers? Or conspiracy theories? Or in gods? These thoughts occupied me recently when the print and broadcast media endlessly analyzed the evangelical vote and its effect on the Republican primaries. Is it ignorance of science? If so, how do you explain the fact that some eminent scientists, like Francis Collins, the previous director of the Human Genome Project and current director of NIH, are quite religious? Could it be that the natural order is a belief in supra-natural beings and that rationality is actually a late addition to our culture, a thin veneer layered over deep-seated impulses?
Is it in our genes?
Is there a God gene? Some claims to this effect have surfaced in the last few years. The evidence for such a gene is flimsy to non-existent, but what about the evidence against this claim? Well, the problem is that it is hard to prove the absence of something.
Well, the problem is that it is hard to prove the absence of something. But consider: there are millions of atheists in the world; do they all suffer from a gene deletion or some other mutation? The anthropological record shows that the rise of religions coincided with the advent of agriculture, namely about 10,000 years ago. This is quite recent in terms of human existence. What did earlier cultures believe in? They were animists, believing that their physical and spiritual beings are one with their environments, (like soil, sky, rocks, rivers, animals, plants) – these elements were also believed to be endowed with a spiritual being. The currently accepted definition of animism was developed in the 19th century by Sir Edward Tylor, who created it as “one of anthropology’s earliest concepts, if not the first.”
Is it a brain trick?
Is god-belief a brain trick? Not quite, but we are getting warmer. Michael Shermer is a psychology professor and the author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiratories – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Now, Shermer is not just your run-of-the-mill academic looking at the question of faith from 30,000 feet high. He was once an evangelical Christian but he lost his faith as a result of his college studies of psychology and cognitive science. His main point is that we form our beliefs first and then look for support for them afterward.
Why do we form those beliefs in the first place? Because our brain is wired, but not for the existence of spirits and gods, but for pattern-seeking and for agency (or intent) – attributing propensities, meaning that there is a pattern to everything, including random events, and that there is a reason and a will behind everything.
Is it irrational?
It depends. In the early days of our species, it was adaptive. If you didn’t recognize a silhouette of a leopard moving through the bush as a pattern of a stalking predator that has the intention and power to make you his lunch, then you most certainly would end up being eaten.
But this belief-machinery is neutral; when circumstances changed and people became inextricably dependent on rain, wind, thunder, and sunshine due to agriculture – our brain resorted to its hard-wired mechanisms: pattern and agency-seeking. Given the state of knowledge at that time, the “obvious” answer would have been: there must be a supernatural force that controls those patterns of nature.
So why can’t science change this archaic way of looking at nature? Here is another psychological trait we all share: confirmation bias. It is the phenomenon, amply demonstrated and confirmed, that we tend to accept evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignore that which refutes them. Hence the slow progress science is making in this respect. But progress nevertheless is being made.
But progress nevertheless is being made. Consider – people used to believe in witches in the middle ages. I dare say, most people don’t believe in them today (belief in Satan and exorcism notwithstanding). The notion that the earth circles the sun and not vice versa, qualified for the Inquisition’s ultimatum to Galileo: recant this heresy, or burn at the stake. And who believes today the earth was flat? And how many, outside the Bible Belt, truly believe that the earth is 5400 years old?
The notion that a supernatural deity is a “god of the gaps,” meaning that it occupies only gaps in our knowledge, predicts that as our knowledge of our physical world increases, the need for a metaphysical explanation will diminish. It remains to be seen if that prediction will come true. Stay tuned.
Reviewed and updated 5/5/17.