Why do people believe in Gods? Oxford to launch a $4 million research program on religious belief.
Associate Press (via AZ Central) reports that the University of Oxford is about to embark on a nearly $4 million research program investigating why mankind believes in God(s). The US-based John Templeton Foundation providing the financial resources that will enable the Oxford-based Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion to gather anthropologists, theologians, philosophers and other academics together for three years to study “whether belief in a divine being is a part of mankind’s makeup.”
Roger Trigg, acting director of the center, says that there are lots of issues. “What is it that is innate in human nature to believe in God, whether it is gods or something superhuman or supernatural?”
According to AP, Trigg claimed that research indicates that faith in God is a universal human impulse found in most cultures around the world, though it has been waning in Britain and western Europe. One implication of this, Trigg says, is that “religion is the default position, and atheism is perhaps more in need of explanation”.
Having studied psychology and cognitive science for over five years, and having read a number of books on cognitive architecture and development, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, I feel that I can make a few valuable observations.
Firstly, lets clarify the claim about the near universality of theism. Not all cultures that have supernatural beliefs believe in Gods. There are documented societies of people who believe in other types of supernatural beings. There are tribes in Africa who believe that their well-being (e.g., health and sickness, success or failure of crops, weather patterns, general good and bad luck) are influenced by benevolent and malevolent spirits. In some tribes, these spirits and demons are believed to be the souls of dead ancestors. As is more well known, there are polytheistic societies (e.g., Hindu societies). And, while I cannot think of any off hand, I can only imagine that there have been a number of monotheistic Gods that have been worshipped by some people at some time that have no connection to the God of the three dominant monotheisms. (Readers: Please feel free to cite any such Gods).
Secondly, we are most likely not innately programmed to believe in God. Talk of a God gene or God genes is almost certainly incorrect, and it is definitely baseless. There is no reason to believe that we evolved specifically to believe in God(s). There is no reason to believe that there is a certain subset of genes that emerged perhaps by some mutation and propagated across the species due to evolutionary fitness value. And, as I argue constantly, the existence of any God has yet to be demonstrated or even shown to be a reasonable proposition.
Functional complexity in cognition arises through natural selection, just as it does in other areas of biology. The belief in God is surely a complex phenomenon. It involves the ability to internalize a narrative, have beliefs about agency, universal morality, meaning, the ability to ponder the questions of meaning, morality, and existence, and so on. This is not going to be localized to a few genes. The process of natural selection operates on the traits of existing organisms in their environments. Traits that lend a competitive advantage, increasing the carrier’s odds of reproduction, increase the likelihood that the carrier’s genes will be passed on to subsequent generations. Given that natural selection operates on what it has to work with, we should ask what it had to work with in human evolution. Humans evolved a number of religion-relevant capacities, many or all of which have been found to lesser degrees in other species. Humans have the capacity to infer agency (i.e., to speculate that other people and organisms have minds) and to engage in complex reasoning (e.g., social/moral reasoning, cause-effect story-telling). Developing humans are also known to depend on and trust elders for information about the world. This is usually a good thing, but it can leave children vulnerable to internalize ideas that do not stand up to much rational scrutiny. Advanced reasoning abilities show up much later in developing children. Once ideas are internalized as core beliefs and serve as the basis for interpreting meaning, life, humanity, morality, justice, social relations, and so on for many years, these beliefs can be very difficult to let go. While it is generally good that developing humans look to their elders for guidance, there is no assurance that everything they learn will be true or the most adaptive.
Vulnerability to the internalization of fallacious ideas is not the only relevant cognitive imperfection humans have. We also tend to over-infer agency. We do it all the time. Humans are constantly anthropomorphizing. We attribute human like cognitions to all sorts of non-human species, even ants (e.g., if it’s scurrying away from you, it’s scared). Across human history, humans have been anthropomorphizing mysterious natural processes. A failure to understand the origin of thunder led some ancestors to invent Thor, the god of thunder. Members of some modern day African tribes will ascribe good or bad fortune (e.g., with respect to the crops) to intelligent causes – benevolent spirits or malevolent demons.
And then there is our tendency to misappraise our psychological states. Psychologists have been demonstrating for decades that humans constantly misappraise the causes of their feelings and actions.
Rather than humans being innately geared toward religion, what is far more likely is that we are innately prepared for religious belief by virtue of having a set of separate collectively necessary and sufficient cognitive precursors to religious belief. We have evolved to infer agency, to engage in complex social and cause-effect reasoning, and to trust our elders. All of these cognitive abilities have been found in non-human species, though generally in less-developed forms. We often over-infer agency and misappraise our psychological experiences. Humans are clearly cognitively prepared for religious cultural learning.
To learn more about the cognitive science of religious belief, I recommend Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. This book looks at religious belief from the perspective of requisite cognitive precursors, cultural anthropology, the sorts of things that make certain ideas more likely than others to be believed and successfully propagated, and so forth.