Saturday, April 17, 2010

Michael Shermer: Why Belief in God Is Innate

Why Belief in God Is Innate
By MICHAEL SHERMER article link

According to Oxford University Press's "World Christian Encyclopedia," 84% of the world's population belongs to some form of organized religion. That equals 5.7 billion people who belong to about 10,000 distinct religions, each of which may be further subdivided and classified. Christians, for example, may be apportioned among over 33,000 different denominations. Among the many binomial designations granted our species (Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo economicus), a strong case could be made for Homo religiosus. And Americans are among the most religious members of the species. A 2007 Pew Forum survey of over 35,000 Americans found the following percentages of belief:

God or a universal spirit 92%
Heaven 74%
Hell 59%
Scripture is word of God 63%
Miracles 79%

So powerful is the belief that there must be something else out there that even 21% of those who identified themselves as atheists and 55% of those who identified themselves as agnostics expressed a belief in God or a universal spirit.

Why do so many people believe in God? Although there is much cultural variation among different religious faiths, all have in common the belief in supernatural agents in the form of God, gods or spirits who have intention and interact with us in the world. Four lines of evidence point to the conclusion that such beliefs are hard-wired into our brains.

In his 1871 book, "The Descent of Man," Charles Darwin noted that anthropologists conclude that "a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in the reasoning powers of man, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder." Why would religion and belief in God evolve? Darwin suggested that it might accentuate group cohesiveness in the competition against other groups: "There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection [of the group]."

Around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, as bands and tribes began to coalesce into chiefdoms and states even before the invention of government, religion was the first social institution to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles. God evolved as the ultimate enforcer of the rules.

Human universals are traits shared by all peoples, such as tool use, myths, sex roles, social groups, aggression, gestures, grammar and phonemes. Many are related to religion and belief in God, including: anthropomorphizing animals and objects, belief in the supernatural, beliefs and rituals about death, and beliefs about fortune and misfortune. Although such universals are not totally controlled by genes alone (almost nothing is), there are good reasons to believe that there is a strong genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures. That is, your culture may dictate which God to believe in, but the belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world is universal to all cultures because it is hard-wired in the brain.

Several studies on twins support this conclusion. In one study of 53 pairs of identical twins and 31 pairs of fraternal twins, each reared apart, researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis looked at five different measures of religiosity and found that the correlations between identical twins were typically double those for fraternal twins. The finding suggests that genetic factors account for approximately half of the observed variance in their measures of religious beliefs.

This finding was corroborated by two much larger twin studies out of Australia (involving 3,810 pairs of twins) and England (involving 825 pairs of twins), which compared identical and fraternal twins on numerous measures of beliefs and social attitudes. The researchers concluded that approximately 55% of the variance in religious attitudes appears to be genetic.

They also concluded that people who grow up in religious families who themselves later become religious do so mostly because they have inherited a disposition, from one or both parents, to resonate positively with religious sentiments. Without such a genetic disposition, the religious teachings of parents appear to have few lasting effects.

Of course, genes do not determine whether one chooses Judaism, Catholicism, Islam or any other religion. Rather, belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism).

Why did we inherit this tendency? Long, long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far, far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency).

Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error (a false positive), but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, you have made a Type II error (a false negative) and there's a good chance you'll be lunch and thereby removed from your species' gene pool. Because we are poor at discriminating between false positives and false negatives, and because the cost of making a Type I error is much lower than making a Type II error, there was a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. This is the basis for the belief not only in God, but in souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, intelligent designers and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

Of course, there is a big difference between an inanimate force (the wind) and an intentional agent (the dangerous predator). Most animals can make this distinction on the superficial life-or-death level, but we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex, we have a Theory of Mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others. We "read minds" by projecting ourselves into someone else's shoes (as in empathy) or by imagining someone out to get us (as in fear).

Theory of Mind is part of a larger mind-brain dualism, in which we tend to think of the mind as something separate from the brain. We speak of "my body" as if "my" and "body" are dissimilar. We revel in books and films that are dualistic, as in Kafka's "Metamorphosis" in which a man falls asleep and wakes up as a cockroach with the man's personality intact inside it, or in the movie "Freaky Friday" where mother and daughter trade bodies with their essences unbroken. This belief in mind and essence is a byproduct of the brain's inability to perceive itself. Thus, we can "de-center" ourselves and imagine, say, being on a beach in Hawaii, which most people tend to see from above looking down on themselves as if out of their bodies.

Gods are agents and agents are essences, and agenticity is everywhere. Subjects watching reflective dots move about in a darkened room (especially if the dots take on the shape of two legs and two arms) infer that they represent a person or intentional agent. Children believe that the sun can think, and in pictures often add a smiley face to give agency to sol. A third of transplant patients believe that the donor's personality or essence is transplanted with the organ, and studies show that most people say that they would never wear the sweater of a murderer, but that they would wear the cardigan sweater of the children's television host Mr. Rogers, believing that it would make them better persons.

We believe in the supernatural because we believe in the natural and we cannot discriminate between the two. We create gods because we are natural-born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. The gods will always be with us because they are hard-wired into our brains.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and the author of "The Mind of the Market."

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