The Dissident

Lover of philosophy, politics, and spirituality

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Why Do People Believe in Gods

Written over two days and finished at Starbucks in Palo Alto. Inspired by recent readings of Andy Thomson, Michael Shermer and a lengthy discussion involving a group of friends. Finished with Bassnector (EDM) blasting in my ears, and a double espresso.

kjblLet’s face it, belief in a god will never go away. A Pew study (2014) found that 89% of Americans believe in a “God or a universal spirit.” Islam is the fastest growing religion and if the current demographic trends continue, the number of Muslims is expected to exceed the number of Christians by the end of this century. Despite the Enlightenment and scientific progress, people keep gravitating to a god or gods. Why is this? Many of us know of very smart individuals – doctors, engineers and scientists – who, despite their quest for empirical truth, nevertheless give their faith to a higher being. But I’m not interested in ‘why do smart people believe?’, rather, ‘why do people believe at all?’

 I consider myself to be a rational person. I value logic and the scientific method. Even though I don’t believe in a higher being, I admit I sometimes feel like there is Something Else. Last week serves as an illustration of several experiences that initiated an urge to cross the line into another realm. First, I voiced to a group of Christians that I had been having difficulty sleeping and they added my insomnia to their prayer requests. Well, wouldn’t you know that the next four nights I had eight hours of sleep each night! Second, last Thursday I had one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong. At one point, I found myself looking up and feeling that Something Else – up in the sky – was trying to send me a message. The ‘message’ was saying: “Wes, slow down and relax.” The last example occurred this past Friday when I was climbing a five-mile hill on my bike. Around 20 minutes into the ride I began feeling very fatigued and was fading fast. But then I rounded a switchback and came across the most spectacular view of San Jose that gave me this feeling of transcendence. Just then, it felt like a hand (or force) began pushing me up the mountain. I spent the next 17 minutes climbing ferociously with a vigor that I have not felt before.

As I look back, I can’t resist asking myself, “was that God intervening in my life?” I am completely open to the transcendence (or God) in my life, but I want to keep reason at the forefront. I could, perhaps, conclude that prayers were answered and that God cured me of insomnia. But was that an answered prayer or a coincidence? It appears that prayers were answered if one simply connects the dots. But what about the billions of prayers that go unanswered where the dots don’t connect? Theists are masters at connecting the dots, such that, God is always in the dots. To the theist, the word “coincidence” is anathema, given that God is always in the details. However, maybe Satan cured me of my insomnia, or Buddha – no one can tell which god is answering prayers. The same holds true of my visceral feeling that there was a force teaching me a lesson during my day of Hell as well as a force giving me energy to conquer a mountain. It’s easy to misjudge a biochemical boost of adrenaline for a euphoric cosmic force that desires for me to get up the mountain. In essence, natural explanations are just not that appealing. It feels like there is Something More. Maybe Satan or nothingness is controlling the strings of the universe. Either way, no one can know or prove it.

The question is still out there: why do people believe in Gods? Here is my argument for why we connect the dots that lead us to a belief in a Gods.

P1 All religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain.

P2 Our brain is an integrated collection of problem solving devices – adaptations – that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.

P3 We have psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in certain environments; medical evidence that prayer, meditation and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health; and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

ConclusionPeople believe in Gods because our brains our belief engines that serve as a useful mechanism for survival. Through evolution, magical thinking has helped humans learn about dangerous and potential lethal environments, as well as reduce anxiety about those environments.

 Going Deeper: Unpacking My Argument

Premises

P1 All religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain.

iuhoiAll religious beliefs and interpretations of spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain. And more than just belief, the brain yields the agony, the ecstasy, the confusion, the disappointment, and every other mental state that makes us human. Each brain harbors memories, creativity, and, maybe, some madness. It is the brain that catches the ball, scores the goal, flirts with strangers, or decides to invade Poland (The Illusion of Self, Bruce Hood). We in fact are our brain! Packed in our lump of tissue we call the brain is an estimated 170 billion cells and 86 o 100 billion neurons – the elements of the microcircuitry that create all of our mental life. The solidarity felt in joining Isis or the felt transcendence of praying hail Mary’s involve sensory neurons that respond to information picked from the environment through one’s senses. Motor neurons relay information that controls our movement outputs. And finally, the interneurons make all the clever stuff happen to the point that one says, “I believe!”. But is there a neurotransmitter for belief?

Of all the chemical transmitter substances sloshing around in your brain, it appears that dopamine may be the most directly related to the neural correlates of belief. Dopamine is a neural transmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center. The release of dopamine is a form of information, a message that tells the organism “Do that again.” Dopamine produces the sensation of pleasure that accompanies mastering a task or accomplishing a goal, which makes the organism want to repeat the behavior, whether it is pressing a bar, pulling a slot machine lever, or praying to Allah five times a day. You get a hit (a reinforcement) and your brain get a hits of dopamine. Behavior – Reinforcement – Behavior. Repeat sequence (The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer).

P2 Our brain is an integrated collection of problem solving devices – adaptations – that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.

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.  – Charles Darwin

My second premise rests on five key arguments. (1) The claim that the cognitive mechanisms that are underlying our behavior are adaptations. (2) The idea that they cannot be studied directly, for example, through observation of the brain or our overt behavior, but have to be discovered by means of a method known as “functional analysis,” where one starts with hypotheses about the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors, and then tries to infer the cognitive adaptations that must have evolved to solve them. (3) The claim that these cognitive mechanisms are adaptations not for solving problems prevalent in our modern environment, but for solving recurrent adaptive problems in the evolutionary environment of our ancestors. (4) The idea that our mind is a complex set of such cognitive mechanisms, or domain-specific modules. (5) The claim that these modules define who we are, in the sense that they define our universal human nature and ultimately trump any individual, cultural or societal differences.

Adaptations are traits present today because in the past they helped our ancestors to solve recurrent adaptive problems. The field of evolutionary psychology helps us understand those adaptations that have evolved in response to characteristically human adaptive problems that have shaped our ancestors’ lifestyle as hunter-gatherers during our evolutionary past in the Pleistocene (Ice Age), like choosing and securing a mate, recognizing emotional expressions, acquiring a language, distinguishing kin from non-kin, detecting cheaters or remembering the location of edible plants.

Homo erectus had to overcome a lot in order to go from small bands and tribes of people all the way up to states and empires. Homo erectus left Africa about 1.5-2 million years ago and conquered half the world, process that was essentially finished around 1 million years ago. Because of that, the most challenging part of the environment that drove our own evolution was probably the hominids themselves, and this is the origin of our complex social cognitions (Andy Thomson). This is important because religious ideas are just an extraordinary use of everyday cognitions, such as social cognitions, agency detection and precautionary reasoning. Religious ideas are the by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed originally for other purposes. There are other such by-products, such as reading and writing. We do not have reading/writing modules in our brain. They are a by-product of fine motor skills, vision, and language. Religious ideas are, thus, an artifact of our ability for imagined social worlds.

Through natural selection, human beings adapted social cognitions that primed man for religious belief. These adaptive social cognitions include, but are not limited to:

Theory of Mind (ToM)

While ‘minds’ are not directly observable things, we tend to think a lot about them, forming theories about beliefs, values, motivations, thought processes and so on. When we are interacting with others or thinking about them, we make guesses at what they are thinking and feeling. This is our ‘theory of mind’ about them (sometimes abbreviated to ‘ToM’). We even do the same to ourselves, stepping back and watching ourselves think and feel as we try to work out who we really are. In particular, we predict the intent of others, which helps us decide whether they are a threat or otherwise we should pre-emptively respond to their likely actions.

gIt is precisely the act of intentionality that moves us closer to understanding religious belief. As a preliminary example, everyone has a separate dedicated system that monitors eye gaze. We can make such complex discriminations concerning emotional states through pictures of solely eyes, and discern 212 complicated emotional states. Just from someone’s eye gaze! Ascribing intentionality comes very natural to humans.

Another way to understand ToM is our ability not only to ascribe intentionality, but also ascribe beliefs and desires. We can of it in the different order we think, for instance:

First Order: “I think”

Second Order: “I think, that you think”

Third Order: “I think, that you think, that I think”

Fourth Order: “I think, that you think, that I think, that you think”

This is an example of how deep and complicated we can get when processing emotional states. The ability to assign beliefs, intentions and desires primes us for religious beliefs. Here is an example:

First Order: “I believe”

Second Order: “I believe, that God wants”

Third Order: “I believe, that God wants, us to act with righteous intent”

Fourth Order: “I want you to believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent” (social religion)

Another kind of fourth order: “I want you to know that we both believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent” (communal)

Religions utilize this cognitive adaptation that is crucial to our social interaction. We are only one cognitive step away from ascribing characteristics to a deity. We do these kinds of mental games with inanimate objects all the time: possessions for deceased loved ones, treasured items, and also ascribing human characteristics to deceased loved ones as we imagine them looking down on us desiring actual outcomes for us.

Patternicity

jjjjjReligious people have mastered patternicity to find causal links leading all the way up to God. Patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Patternicity explains why people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news. A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat­ternicity”). In Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe, he argues that our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes ‘A’ really is connected to ‘B’; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

According to Shermer, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution. Nevertheless, this helps us understand how the theist can ‘connect the dots to answered prayers, God’s will, and many other examples that have no obvious empirical justification.

(HADD) Hyper-Active Agency Detection Devices

Agenticity is the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. Another term, essentialism, means to infuse essence upon a person or thing. A fascinating study was conducted by Bruce Hood, in which, 24 healthy adults were first asked to rate the faces of 20 people for attractiveness, intelligence, and how willing they would be to receive a heart transplant from each person. After these ratings were recorded, Hood told the subjects that half of the people they had just rated were convicted murderers, then he asked them to re-rate the pictures. Tellingly, although the ratings of the murderers’ attractiveness and intelligence dropped, the biggest drop of all was in the willingness to accept a heart from a murderer, which Hood concluded was due to the fear that some of the essence of evil might be transmitted to the recipient. This study corroborates the study that also reveals that most people would never wear a sweater of a murderer. By contrast, in a form of positive agency, most people would wear the sweater of Mr. Rogers.

It might help if I give some real-world examples of agenticity. Better yet, I’ll combine both patternicity and agenticity to illustrate how they work together. A clear example is when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana. Many Christians and their leaders (e.g. Pat Robertson) drew from both patternicity and agenticity. Here is an example:

Patternicity: There are a lot of homosexuals living in the city where there was just a hurricane; this can’t be a coincidence!
Agenticity: The God that I believe in strongly opposes homosexuality; he may have sent this hurricane to warn us to repent and turn from our wicked ways!

Let’s move on to a much more controversial example; answers to prayer.  Are they real?  Let’s break down the logic again:

Patternicity: I prayed about something that was worrying me last night and my situation improved today (this can’t be a coincidence)!
Agenticity: My God answers prayers, because he loves me!  Prayer works!

First off, the propensity to find patterns goes up when people feel a lack of control.  Christians tend to pray most fervently when they are feeling precisely this way (ie. stressed about something).  This means they’re perfectly primed, ahead of time, to find what they’re already looking for and expecting in faith (plus they count only the hits; ignoring the misses).  And here again there is no way to prove, in any sort of absolute sense, that these two items are not indeed connected (the prayer and the improvement in the situation at hand).

My argument is this: we are natural born supernaturalist, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. One of the leading experts, Stewart Guthrie, argues that people have a bias towards detecting human-like agency in their environment that might not actually exist. Thus, people are particularly sensitive to the presence of intentional agency and seem biased to over attribute intentional action as the cause of a given state of affairs when data is ambiguous or sketchy. These observations suggest that whatever cognitive mechanism people have for detecting agency might be extremely sensitive; in other words, people can be said to possess hyperactive agent detection devices (HADD). According to Guthrie, such a biased perceptual device would have been quite adaptive in our evolutionary past, for the consequences of failing to detect an agent are potentially much graver than mistakenly detecting an agent that is not there.

The idea that religious belief is to a large extent the result of mental adaptations for agency detection has been endorsed by several leading evolutionary theorists of religion (Guthrie 1993; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2005). Broadly, these theorists suggest that there are specialized mental mechanisms for the detection of agency behind significant events. These have evolved because the detection of agency – “who did that and why?” – has been a critical task facing human beings throughout their evolution. These mechanisms are “hyperactive,” leading us to attribute natural events to a hidden agent or agents.

Promiscuous Teleology

According to the theory of ‘promiscuous teleology’, statements such as “clouds are for raining” reflect a deep-rooted belief that natural kinds are intentionally designed for a purpose. While such reasoning is appropriate for certain domains (e.g., artifacts), it is considered promiscuous when extended to natural kinds because it implies “agentive and intentional conceptualizations of Nature” where physical-causal mechanistic explanations would be superior (Waxman, S.R.).

Some of these vulnerabilities are seen most clearly in children, who, from a very early age, are ‘Common sense dualists’. This means that when, for example, you present a box to a five-month-old and make it move like a person, the five-month-old will be startled. He will not be startled when a person behaves the same way. Children come into the world with these systems in place; this is not learned behavior. It is natural, from very early on, to think of disembodied minds. Half of four-year-olds have imaginary friends. Children are causal determinists. This means that they will over-read causality and purpose:

“What are birds for? To sing.”

“What are rivers for? For boats to float on.”

“What are rocks for? For animals, to scratch themselves.”

It is very easy for us to imagine intentional agents that are separate from ourselves. Children will spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention. The mechanisms that we are born with make us very vulnerable to religious ideas. Religion is the path of least resistance. It is cognitively harder and it requires more effort to understand concepts such as natural selection.

Filling In The Gaps: Kanizsa Square

An off-shoot of the promiscuous teleology in children, is intuitive reasoning that adults rely on to fill in the spaces where a void appears. Quite honestly, we will ‘make sense’ when ‘no sense’ appears. An interesting study in 1944 conducted by Fritz Heider and Mary Ann Simmel highlights this thought. Featured in the American Journal of Psychology, they put together a simplistic animated film depicting three moving, black-and-white figures: a large triangle, a small triangle, and a small circle. Participants watched the figures moving about the screen for a while and then were asked to describe what they had just seen. Most reported using a human social narrative – for example, seeing the large triangle as “bullying” the “timid” smaller triangle, both of “whom” were “seeking” the “affections” of the “female” circle. What was once just moving shapes is now infused with anthropomorphic meaning and purpose.

This type of intuitive reasoning is also found with a kanizsa square. In the Kanizsa Triangle Illusion we readily perceive three black circles and two triangles, even though there are technically no circles or triangles in the image. We see something more. We actually perceive objects that are not really there.

kansza square

When we see gaps, we naturally fill them in; even if it requires the supernatural. In the Kanizsa square, we ignore gaps and we complete contour lines to form familiar figures and shapes. Religious belief does this all the time. Consider the gaps between something ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and the question “Why did this happen?” The theist quickly fills the gap with some divine intention from up above. Even if one’s prayers continue to go unanswered, we fill in the gap with, “Well, God knows what is best for me.”

Other adaptive mechanisms and a brief explanation(taken from a talk done by Andy Thomson):

The attachment mechanism

The attachment mechanism in humans was laid out by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. This is the fundamental care taking system in mammals. This is what happens in religion: when someone is in distress, he or she turns to a caretaker, an attachment figure.

Transference

This is a concept discovered by Freud, the fact that we base current relationships on previous ones. This is also hijacked by religion, especially parental transferences.

Childhood credulity

A concept strongly advocated by Richard Dawkins. Natural selection designed our brains to soak up the culture around them. A child cannot tell the difference between good advice, such as ‘don’t swim with alligators’ and bad advice, such as ‘sacrifice a pig for the new harvest’.

Deference to authority

All of us are far more deferential to authority than we like to believe. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments showed that we will, under pressure of some authority, do things that we know on some other level we should not do.

Reciprocal altruism

All of us keep in our heads an account of what we owe to some people, and what we are owed. Religions utilize this: make a sacrifice, receive something in return.
Moral feelings system

All of us have inferential moral systems that come online as early as age 1. It is very hard for us to know the origins of this, and this is what religions hijack by claiming it comes from them. They recruit these systems to lend plausibility to gods, to link commitment and solidarity mechanisms, and to add a morally competent witness to our actions.

This is a useful way to think about the difference between genuine morality and religious morality:

Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what we are told.

Religious dogma is doing what we are told, no matter what is right.

Altruistic punishment

We are willing to punish social cheats at a cost to ourselves. It is crucial to social interaction. Suicide terrorism is just one step further.

Hard to fake, costly honest signals of commitment

We are shown a few examples of this. All religions utilize this. Suicide terrorism is also a hard to fake signal of commitment. This is also connected to religious rituals.

Religious rituals

Religious rituals tap into our threat response system. They are compelling and rigidly scripted, and have usually to do with cleansing and order. Religious rituals enable and elicit scrutiny of hard to fake signals of commitment. They communicate intentions, and they are used to inculcate doctrines and to forge alliances. Rituals are also used to create hope and solace, to excite and entertain.

Religious rituals are also divorced from the original goal of protection; they delimit sacred spaces and the exploit the Gestalt Law of the Whole. In order to illustrate what this means, Andy Thomson shows us a V-formation of flying birds. We tend not to see the birds in these formations, but rather the V-shape itself. Religions exploit this by creating attention arresting and often intimidating spectacles.

muslims praying

There is also motivated reasoning (we doubt what we don’t like), confirmation bias (we notice data that fits our beliefs), and mere familiarity.

Kin psychology

All of us have mechanisms to identify and favour kin. Religions hijack this. Just look at the Catholic Church: priests are brothers, nuns are sisters, and the pope is the Holy Father.

This is only a modest list, and not a complete list of all the cognitive mechanisms that come together to create religious beliefs and ideas and that make us vulnerable to believing them and passing them on.

Although we experience consciousness as a seamless whole, it is really built from very specific parts.

;kjn;P3 We have psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety in certain environments; medical evidence that prayer, meditation and worship may lead to greater physical and mental health; and anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them have more power and win more copulations, thus spreading their genes for magical thinking.

Religion capitalizes on superstition and takes it a bit further. The theist finds psychological comfort in a God who listens during desperate times; a God who provides meaning and purpose, and victory over death through an afterlife that claims eternal peace and goodness. Do you see it? For the existential threats in life, we conjure up magical thinking to dampen the dread of life. For many people, not having control over an outcome is a frightening proposition. The more important these uncontrollable situations are, the more likely you’ll try to dream up ways to control their outcome even though it may be unrealistic.

Have you ever wondered why there has been a continual decline in magical thinking from Biblical days to today? The Bible has people raised form the dead, people coming out of their graves and walking around like zombies, miraculous healings, and multiplying food to feed five-thousand people. Fast forward to medieval times where almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, and black magic. If a noble women died, her servants ran around the house emptying all containers of water so her soul would not drown. Her lord, in response to her death, faced east and formed a cross by lying prostrate on the ground, arms outstretched. If the left eye of a corpse did not close properly, the soul would spend extra time in purgatory (leading to the ritual of closing the eyes upon death). Perhaps magical thinking helps us gain control in cases where we feel helpless.

lllnFor the medieval mind, magical-thinking provided an understanding of how the world worked: It attenuated anxiety and allowed people to shed personal responsibility by blaming events on bad luck, evil spirits, mischievous fairies, or God’s will, and permitted one to cast blame on others through curses and witchcraft. Astrology, the most popular science of the day, invoked the alignment of the stars and plants to explain all manner of human and natural phenomena, the past, the present, and future, and life’s vagaries from daily events to yearly cycles. Only religion could rival astrology as an all-embracing explanation for the vicissitudes of life.

By the end of the seventh-teeth century Newton’s mechanical astronomy had replaced astrology; the mathematical understanding of chance and probability displaced luck and fortune; chemistry succeeded alchemy; banking and insurance decreased human misfortune and its attendant anxiety; city planning and social hygiene greatly attenuated the power of plagues; and medicine began its long road toward a germ theory of disease. Cumulatively, these events pushed us into the Age of Science, reducing the number of thinking errors and attenuating the power of superstition. Nevertheless, magical thinking is still with us, rearing its head wherever uncertainties arise.

Wade Boggs was famous for his superstitions, insisting on running his wind sprints at precisely 7:17pm, ending his grounder drill by stepping on the foul line when taking the field but always stepping on it returning to the dugout, and eating chicken before every game. It is worth noting, however, that such superstitions are not all uncommon among hitters where connecting with the baseball is so difficult and so fraught with uncertainties that the very best in the business fail a full seven out every ten times at bat. Fielders by contrast succeed in excess of nine out every ten times a ball is hit to them (the best success better than 95 percent of the time), and they have correspondingly fewer superstitions associated with fielding. But as soon as these same fielders pick up a bat, magical thinking goes into full swing.

One of the key studies in this area was conducted by Bronislaw Malinowski when studying the Trobriand Islanders located in the archipelago of Papua New Guinea. When studying their fishing practices, what Malinowski discovered was that the farther out to sea the islanders went, the more complex the superstitious rituals became. In the calm waters in the inner lagoon, there were very few rituals. By the time they reached the dangerous waters of deep-sea fishing, the Trobrianders were deep into magic. Malinowski discovered that magical thinking derived from environmental conditions, not inherent stupidities: “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.

Conclusion:

meaningPeople believe in Gods because our brains our belief engines that serve as a useful mechanism for survival. Through evolution, magical thinking has helped humans learn about dangerous and potential lethal environments, as well as reduce anxiety about those environments.