There's a great article in this month's Atlantic Monthly
by Paul Bloom called "Is God an Accident?"
He points out that nearly everyone in the world believes in the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. He posits that these beliefs are the after-effects of how our brain developed and that all of us have a predisposition to believe in the supernatural.
He uses recent research on the minds of infants to support the "religion-as-accident" theory.
I've always wondered about this. I've read Marx and Durkheim and Freud and although I thought their explanations for religious belief were kind of right, but I never felt that they were totally right. For example, I'll ask the Magic 8-Ball questions, and I'll take the answers seriously, even though I know logically the Magic 8-Ball works on statistics, probability, and on the way I frame my questions. Likewise, despite my strong dislike of metaphysics and the supernatural, I seem to be naturally inclined to look for metaphysical and supernatural answers for everything. This makes no sense unless my brain is somehow pushing me toward metaphysical thinking.
Bloom thinks there are two things which lead us to religious thinking: "First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, [we] infer goals and desires where none exist, [and look for patterns were there is only randomness]. This makes us animists and creationists."The first point: the Mind/Body split
Bloom posits that our brains fundamentally make a distinction between the physical and the psychological. "Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires." Children intuit such things and recognize, on a seemingly intrinsic level, that physical things should follow the 'laws of nature.' They also seem to intrinsically recognize that psychological things have minds. "(Autistic children have a problem with social understanding and sometimes don't understand that other individuals have minds of their own.)"
"[T]he separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity - a mind or soul - are genuinely distinct.
We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them...
This belief system opens the possibility that we ourselves can survive the death of our bodies. Most people believe that when the body is destroyed, the soul lives on. It might ascend to heaven, descend to hell, go off into some sort of parallel world, or occupy some other body, human or animal. Indeed, the belief that the world teems with ancestor spirits - the souls of people who have been liberated from their bodies through death - is common across cultures. We can imagine our bodies being destroyed, our brains ceasing to function, our bones turning to dust, but it is harder - some would say impossible - to imagine the end of our very existence. The notion of a soul without a body makes sense to us."The second point: Our desire for purpose and pattern.
"Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it is rigged - it looks orderly to them, too orderly.
"Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it is rigged - it looks orderly to them, too orderly."
This explains my belief in the Magic 8-Ball and other silly nonsense (I freak out when I 'jinx' myself by saying, "X
never happens to me," or "I never X
I dunno. This is a simple and powerful theory that explains a lot. It explains why half of America believes in angels. (Fucking angels
for fuck's sake – I mean, why not Cthulu or Santa Claus or Big Foot or fucking leprechauns?). It explains why over 90% of Americans' believe in God and why even in 'atheistic' Iceland, where only 2% of the population goes to church, 80% believe in God. We're hardwired to believe. Despite what Marx, Freud and Durkheim think, the universal themes of religion are not learned. "They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature."
Experiments mentioned in the article:
Six-month-olds understand that physical objects obey gravity. If you put an object on a table and then remove the table, and the object just stays there (held by a hidden wire), babies are surprised; they expect the object to fall. They expect objects to be solid, and contrary to what is still being taught in some psychology classes, they understand that objects persist over time even if hidden. (Show a baby an object and then put it behind a screen. Wait a little while and then remove the screen. If the object is gone, the baby is surprised.) Five-month-olds can even do simple math, appreciating that if first one object and then another is placed behind a screen, when the screen drops there should be two objects, not one or three. Other experiments find the same numerical understanding in nonhuman primates, including macaques and tamarins, and in dogs.
In a significant study the psychologists Jesse Bering, of the University of Arkansas, and David Bjorklund, of Florida Atlantic University, told young children a story about an alligator and a mouse, complete with a series of pictures, that ended in tragedy: "Uh oh! Mr. Alligator sees Brown Mouse and is coming to get him!" [The children were shown a picture of the alligator eating the mouse.] "Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator. Brown Mouse is not alive anymore."
The experimenters asked the children a set of questions about the mouse's biological functioning - such as "Now that the mouse is no longer alive, will he ever need to go to the bathroom? Do his ears still work? Does his brain still work?" - and about the mouse's mental functioning, such as "Now that the mouse is no longer alive, is he still hungry? Is he thinking about the alligator? Does he still want to go home?"
As predicted, when asked about biological properties, the children appreciated the effects of death: no need for bathroom breaks; the ears don't work, and neither does the brain. The mouse's body is gone. But when asked about the psychological properties, more than half the children said that these would continue: the dead mouse can feel hunger, think thoughts, and have desires. The soul survives. And children believe this more than adults do, suggesting that although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.
...nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"). When asked to explain why a bunch of rocks are pointy, adults prefer a physical explanation, while children use a functional one, such as "so that animals can scratch on them when they get itchy." And when asked about the origins of animals and people, children prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism - and belief in God - is bred in the bone.
In 1944 the social psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel made a simple movie in which geometric figures - circles, squares, triangles - moved in certain systematic ways, designed to tell a tale. When shown this movie, people instinctively describe the figures as if they were specific types of people (bullies, victims, heroes) with goals and desires, and repeat pretty much the same story that the psychologists intended to tell. Further research has found that bounded figures aren't even necessary - one can get much the same effect in movies where the "characters" are not single objects but moving groups, such as swarms of tiny squares.