6 Feb 2009

Born to Believe – Review and Response

A New Scientist article, Born believers: how your brain creates God, takes us through some recent research with children that suggests belief in supernatural beings is somehow hard-wired into the human brain. The starting point is the rather unsurprising statistics that many people turn to religion in times of hardship. The afterlife may seem positively luxurious compared to being down and out.

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. Until recently, science has largely shied away from asking why. "It's not that religion is not important," says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, "it's that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress."

This is, indeed, good to see. However, I suspect we're also going to be entering a phase where the direction of research may also be contaminated with religious ideology and it is also good to know who says what.

As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary progress. "I don't think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion," he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.

This is precisely my feeling on the matter. The shared delusion that may result in social cohesion can also lead that whole society to an early grave. Such dead-end cults would be difficult to find historically but we get an inkling of them in some of the contemporary suicide cults. A belief in afterlife has to also have some good excuse to live this one out fully first.

"Children the world over have a strong natural receptivity to believing in gods because of the way their minds work, and this early developing receptivity continues to anchor our intuitive thinking throughout life," says anthropologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford.

One thing the article fails to mention is that Justin Barrett is not only an anthropologist but also one of the founders of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Religion and Science. Barrett is described in the New York Times as a "prominent member of the by-product camp" and "an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” [and] “that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.” He considers that “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people, Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” What did I say about investigating both the research and the researcher?

Children do seem to have an innate common-sense dualism between things with minds and inanimate objects. The dualism extends to being able to conceive of minds as separate from their bodies. The common experience of having fantasy friends is one consequence of this. But some of the research seems to contradict this in that it found that children were prone to ascribe meaning and intention to natural physical phenomena – it rains so as to help plants grow, the sun shines because it keeps us warm, and so on. I'm not sure if the researchers looked deeply enough if this was a consequence of the way children's stories are written in that very often animate and inanimate objects are characters with intentions and purposes. Whatever the source of these ideas they do seem to be deeply embedded, with it being a very short step from believing in imaginary friends or disembodied minds to gods and an afterlife.

[...] religion is an inescapable artefact of the wiring in our brain, says Bloom. "All humans possess the brain circuitry and that never goes away." Olivera Petrovich adds that even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking.

Seeing patterns where none exist may well be an attribute of the brain but extending that to the supernatural sphere is not an obvious progression. The last piece of research quoted showed that people under stress or feeling a loss of control would be more prone to seeing patterns in random data. The results are interpreted as showing that people under stress are more likely to seek solace in meaning, even if that meaning is purely imaginary. Hence the link with the original observation that religious belief seems to increase when times are difficult.

The final message is that, whether belief says anything about the object of belief, religion is not going to be going away any time soon. Religious faith is the path of least resistance when the world around us seems to be descending into chaos. In contrast, disbelief requires more effort.

It is also interesting that this article prompted an editorial in the same edition. The editor shows a certain resignation in research showing that irrationality may well be the natural human state and that scientific understanding has not only been hard won but may also be more fragile than many of us would hope.

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