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Why do we believe in God?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2007

The cover story in this week’s NY Times Magazine is called Darwin’s God and covers, from an evolutionary biology standpoint, why people believe in God. Most scientists studying the matter believe that humans have a built-in mechanism for religious belief. For instance, anthropologist Scott Atran sometimes conducts an intriguing experiment with his students:

His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will. If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

Or rather, why are they afraid? One possible reason is that humans are conditioned to be on the lookout for “agents” and we tend to find them even when they’re not there:

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”

Another reason for the instinctive religious impulse may be that people are able to put themselves in other peoples’ minds, to think about how another person might be feeling or thinking:

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

There’s lots more in the article…it’s well worth a read.

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