Friday, September 13, 2013

Review: Why We Believe In Gods

Why do we believe in Gods? Is the human mind inherently theistic? In his lecture "Why We Believe In Gods" Andy Thomson provides a compelling and scientifically supported argument that our minds are hard wired to believe in Gods because of the way we evolved. I'm going to comment on a few of the highlights and try not to butcher it too much with my layman's understanding, but I strongly recommend watching the video if you have the time. Better yet, check out his book.

Andy Thomson explains that religion is a "by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed for other purposes." In other words, we evolved to think in certain ways that helped us survive, but then there were side effects. As you'll see, these "cognitive mechanisms" can combine to create religion.

Decoupled cognition: The ability to have an imaginary conversation with someone who is either absent or nonexistent. We can replay past conversations, rehearse future conversations, or even imagine what we would say to Elvis Presley and how he might respond. It's not much of a stretch to use this ability to talk to an imaginary agent, such as God. Sprinkle in a little magical thinking, and the imaginary conversation becomes an actual conversation. Some Christians might even imagine what God would say in response and misapprehend the imagined response as the actual voice of God.

Thomson says "It's natural to think of disembodied minds" because there may have been an evolutionary advantage to being able to think about someone's intentions or goals without them present. He talks about an experiment that was done where children were shown a puppet show of an alligator eating a mouse. The children were then asked a series of questions about the mouse.

"Does the mouse still need to eat or drink?" No.

"Is the mouse still moving around?" No.

"Does the mouse still think and want certain things?" Yes.

So apparently we're born thinking about minds and bodies as if they are separate things. This is evident even in adults when we ask "where do we go when we die?" This kind of thinking not only stimulates belief in souls, the afterlife, and ghosts, but also enables us to imagine a great disembodied mind in the sky.

Hyperactive agency detection: The tendency to assume that intelligent agents are behind every unknown. Think of this as a kind of abstract pareidolia. Similar to the way we unconsciously scan for faces in the clouds, we also look for other patterns that might indicate an agent.

We look at nature and think an intelligent designer must have made it. We experience a strange coincidence and think someone caused it to happen for a reason. We look back at our lives and think someone had a hand in the way things played out. Everywhere we look, we assume agents are behind everything.

Machines break down: gremlins did it.

Mushrooms appear in a circle: fairies did it.

Strange sounds in the night: ghosts did it.

Tide goes in and out: God did it.

The sound of a twig breaking nearby: a saber tooth tiger did it.

That last one might have something to do with why we think this way. There is an evolutionary advantage to being paranoid and constantly on the lookout for agents. Eons later, we no longer have to worry about that darn tiger, but we still have this sloppy detection mechanism built in, and we can't turn it off.

Attachment Mechanism: The tendency to turn to a caretaker when in distress. As children, we instinctively cry out for help whenever we're hurt or we need something. Prayer is when we continue that behavior into adulthood, instead of growing up and learning to be self-reliant. A lot of prayer is just childish crying for a celestial parent to make everything better.

Childhood credulity: The evolutionary advantage of being gullible. This is something Dawkins talks about as well. If a parent tells a child: don't play with snakes, don't swim with crocodiles, or don't eat a particular kind of berry, the child is more likely to survive if they don't try to be a skeptic and test those things. Unfortunately, this gullibility is still in effect when the parent tells the child what they need to do or believe in order to avoid the wrath of God.

These are just a few of the cognitive mechanisms that make the human mind a fertile petri dish for the memetic virus of religion. It's often said that everyone is born an atheist, but if Thomson is right, we're also born with a whole toolkit of evolutionary leftovers in our heads that make us naturally religious. This helps explain why theism has spontaneously and independently arisen in so many cultures around the world, a fact that many theists offer as evidence of faith.

I also strongly recommend Daniel Dennett's lecture "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon". If you haven't seen that one, it will blow your mind. You will never see religion the same way again. Dennett explains how a religion evolves as a memetic virus, a virus made of words and ideas instead of physical stuff.

While I still think Dennett's memetic theory about the evolution of religion explains a lot, Thomson's ideas are better at explaining the "abiogenesis" of religion. In fact, I think Thomson's and Dennett's theories mesh perfectly. A virus, even a memetic one, works by exploiting the weaknesses of a system, and the cognitive mechanisms Thomson has studied are the weaknesses that allow religion to take hold of a mind.

Unfortunately, religion has had a long time to evolve, and it has become exceedingly efficient at exploiting the human mind. If atheists want to make a difference, we need to understand how religion works to be able to fight it effectively.

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