On Atheism

Are humans hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen? Certainly, many great thinkers believe this is the case. "A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies," Charles Darwin wrote in his book,The Descent of Man, "seems to be universal."

Atran, who is 55, is an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

According to anthropologists, religions that share certain supernatural features -- belief in a noncorporeal God or gods, belief in the afterlife, belief in the ability of prayer or ritual to change the course of human events -- are featured in every culture on earth.

This is certainly true in the United States. According to a 2005 Harris Poll, 6 in 10 Americans believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God -- a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from "distant" to "benevolent."

Call this supernatural being God; call the belief in God a superstition; call it, as Scott Atran does, "belief in hope beyond reason" -- whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science.

However, when a trait is universal, evolutionary biologists search for a genetic explanation for how that gene or genes might enhance survival or reproductive success. Atran saw such questions as a puzzle when applied to religion. So many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Wouldn't this be a liability in the survival-of-the-fittest competition?

For Atran, religious belief requires taking "what is materially false to be true" and "what is materially true to be false." One example of this is the belief that even after someone dies and the body disintegrates, that person can still exist, will still be able to laugh and cry, to feel pain and joy. This confusion "does not appear to be a reasonable evolutionary strategy," Atran wrote in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (2002).

"Imagine another animal that took injury for health or big for small or fast for slow or dead for alive. It's unlikely that such a species could survive." He looked for another explanation: if religious belief was not adaptive, perhaps it was associated with something else that was.

Evolutionary biologists who study evolution distinguish between traits that are adaptive in and of themselves, like having blood cells that can transport oxygen, and traits that are byproducts of those adaptations, like the redness of blood. There is no survival advantage to blood's being red instead of turquoise; it is just a byproduct of the trait that is adaptive, having blood that contains hemoglobin.

Stephen Jay Gould, the famous evolutionary biologist and nature writer at Harvard who died in 2002, and his colleague Richard Lewontin proposed "spandrel" to describe a trait that has no adaptive value of its own. They borrowed the term from architecture, where it originally referred to the V-shaped structure formed between two rounded arches. The structure idoes not exist for any specific purpose; it is simply there because that is the structure created when arches align.

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive abilities, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to devise causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

A classic experiment in the 1940s by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. In their experiment, subjects watched a film depicting triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had seen, the subjects used words like "chase" and "capture." They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape. 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 means that our brains are primed for belief in the supernatural, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such a 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."

A second mental capacity that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the ability to create a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random.

"We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us," Barrett wrote, "and 'stuff just happens' is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events."

For example, the ancient Greeks believed thunder was the sound of Zeus's thunderbolt. Similarly, a contemporary woman whose cancer treatment works despite 10-to-1 odds might look for a story to explain her survival. It fits better with her causal-reasoning tool for her recovery to be a miracle, or a reward for prayer, than for it to be just a lucky roll of the dice.

A third cognitive trick is a type of social intuition known as theory of mind. One good alternative is the term Atran uses: folkpsychology. Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues refer to it, is essential for 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. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people's heads.

The adaptive advantage of folkpsychology is obvious. According to Atran, our ancestors needed it to survive their harsh environment, since folkpsychology allowed them to "rapidly and economically" distinguish good guys from bad guys. But how did folkpsychology -- an understanding of ordinary people's ordinary minds -- allow for a belief in supernatural, omniscient minds? And if the byproduct theorists are right and these beliefs were of little use in finding food or leaving more offspring, why did they persist?

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls -- and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing -- whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death -- are culturally shaped.

Digested from this much longer story.


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Religion is not universal. All children are born irreligious, although many get demented by grownups through various deceptions. Many adults do not suffer from it.

People can be mistaken, but making mistakes is not adaptive, unless it is checked by error detection and correction.

The idea that religion, even if full of faulty ideas, can somehow be good is like insisting that guillibility to con artists is healthy.

I can imagine that making mistakes in the form of religious/supernatural explanations of the unknown could be adaptive, to whatever extent worrying about these problems kept early humans from, say, farming. It's not that you actually benefit from supernatural mistakes in the long run (science and progress should always be adaptive), but in the short run, hand-wavy explanations might let people feel more comfortable spending their days doing something mindless.

Also, it used to be a lot more dangerous to be a hungry human than it is today... perhaps a belief in an afterlife would make hunting seem like a better idea? Of course, now it's completely unnecessary in our modern supermarket-filled lives ;)

[M]aking mistakes is not adaptive....

Making mistakes can be adaptive, under the right circumstances. A rather large fraction of evolutionary adaptations are based on mistakes in DNA replication.

I think that the byproduct of agent detection, causal reasoning, and theory of mind could be supernatural beliefs.

I'd add, however, that the emotions of "awe" and "reverence" seem to frequently get added to the confusion. Also, I believe an innate desire for social connection (rituals and church) and a sense of belonging (groupthink, submissiveness of followers) also perpetuate the religion aspect of supernatural beliefs.

when early man evolved to the point that he was aware of his own existance, that became troubling because the next step is death. unwilling to accept death, the afterlife becomes valuable and only god can provide for the afterlife. Life is precious, but not to those looking for the afterlife. they want the next life, too bad it won't come.

By richCares (not verified) on 05 Mar 2007 #permalink

"A third cognitive trick is a type of social intuition known as theory of mind . . . People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people's heads.

Hey, razib (if still around) - didn't you have a post some time back mentioning both being an atheist from earlyish childhood and having a somewhat attenuated theory of mind? I can't find it right now, and can't remember if you specifically suggested any link between the two - but anyway, it stuck in my mind as something fairly plausible that would be interesting to explore, (Obviously there are plenty of atheists with entirely standard ToMs; just if it atheism was more common in the first group . . .)

yes. i did mention it. it is a hypothesis which hasn't been tested much yet, i've contacted researchers about it, so we'll see....

There's also the issue of variant states of consciousness, such as shamanic trances, NDEs, "visitations and abductions", etc.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 05 Mar 2007 #permalink

Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

Some of these concepts are also used by neuroscientists, and as long as they correlate to anything measurable however indirect it is fine. But to go from there to what seems to hard to research seems to go into the "just so" land of evolutionary psychology.

the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not.

We may have adaptations that facilitate language, but I think sister scienceblogs have discussed whether it is an expression of domain-general abilities or not.

Which in my mind goes back to exploration and testability, some of the neuroscience work is on a very basic level and yet may tell us things about languages. It also seems to say that it will be a long time before we can say anything important. :-(

it is a hypothesis which hasn't been tested much yet, i've contacted researchers about it, so we'll see....

Funny you mentioned that, because I just learned about Robert Sapolsky's ideas about religious founders as schizotypal, and their rituals founders as OCDers. But I haven't learned about the status of tests here, so it would be interesting to know. Perhaps it can only give correlation, but anyway.

About any correlation between early childhood adopters of atheism and weak ToM, I am more doubtful both on theoretical and practical grounds.

Atheism is a different proposition, sans rituals and dogmas, so the correlation between personality traits and behavior, if it is identifiable as such, is probably not the same as for religion. ToM may be important for religion, but I have not heard of anyone becoming an atheist because he doesn't understand people. If anything, atheists are more intelligent according to statistics, so it would imply generally less problems with neurofunctions.

Practically, I know several early adopters that went in and out of several religions to form an opinion and sometimes stayed in one. It would be interesting to see if that can be sorted out.

In any case, it is interesting to see results on research into human behavior, such as this proposal.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 05 Mar 2007 #permalink

Blogging is such an iterative process...

The Frontal Cortex discusses morality on the same theme ( http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2007/03/evolution_agency_god_and_moral.p… ) which here makes a point on atheists and ToM.

Morality depends to a certain degree on ToM. Since atheists doesn't use preconceived dogma on moral issues, at least before they choose to adopt an attitude, it may be that they benefit from or even need a good ToM.

So now I know what I will expect from an investigation here, in case it can find any correlations at all. :-)

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 05 Mar 2007 #permalink

razib : dude, wutz up with the rudeness???

No apologies, this is my normal communication style.
Interesting that your "chamberlainianism" extends to some form of political correctness...

For a more "positive" note, it seems that a relevant book by Canadian psychiatrist Jean-Pierre Valla never got translated to english "Les états étranges de la conscience"
A rough Google translation of the summary :

This book presents a scientific study of the strange states of conscience (EEC) lived by the mentally normal people. From the accounts of 50 people interviewed in Montreal, the author studied these mental phenomena formerly considered as religious experiments. The material collected was confronted with the psychological theories into force, which associate these strange states the psychosis. The study highlights their reactional, but nonpathological character. An event which places the self-awareness in the center of the field of conscience however makes the states strange of the conscience different from the usual state of consciousness. Although they are spontaneously generally short, the strange states of the conscience can give rise to the famous oceanic feeling and to curious experiments of unfolding called out of body experiments by the Anglo-Saxon authors. The strangeness of these states caused multiple interpretations which should not however be confused with the state which gives them birth and which they seek to explain.

By Kevembuangga (not verified) on 05 Mar 2007 #permalink

I'm coming around to the belief that religion and art have a lot in common, in terms of ability to communicate, inspire, uplift, express, interpret, give meaning, and that we need to do our very best art/religion to envision and then implement a better world. We know a whole lot now and have a responsibility to act on that knowledge. Maybe there's a God, maybe there's a Goddess, and maybe there's just a set of daily routines and practices that get us through and ideally compel us to act out of something other than sheer consumerism. Maybe now that we're smart enough to "see through" all the God myths and understand that some form of collective understanding is helpful and necessary, we have to take on a lot more responsibility for the condition of the world.

The thing that bugs me about public atheists is that some -- not all -- of them are particularly joyless and seem to want to squash enthusiasm and pleasure in all its forms other than victory in intellectual swordplay.