What they really mean is that human beings are born with the ability to believe in illogical supernatural things, including the belief that getting an organ donation from a murderer is going to make you become a murderer.
The idea has emerged from studies of the way children’s brains develop and of the workings of the brain during religious experiences. They suggest that during evolution groups of humans with religious tendencies began to benefit from their beliefs, perhaps because they tended to work together better and so stood a greater chance of survival.
The findings challenge campaigners against organised religion, such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He has long argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood “indoctrination”.
Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, believes the picture is more complex. “Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works,” he said.
“As they grow up they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches but the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion.”
I used to believe Miss Fran could see me in her magic mirror. All the jumping around I did in front of the TV and she never called my name. Imagine the disappointment. Kids believe all kinds of ridiculous crap. They don’t know any better. They see something that makes little sense to their little brains and come up with an answer that seems right based on what little they know.
Mom used to know a family that was raising a bilingual kid. The dad always spoke English to the child and the mother always spoke French. So when Mom met the kid (age 3 maybe?), the kid spoke French to her. Must have been assuming all women knew French. Fortunately Mom does, but I’m sure the kid’s got it all sorted out by now, of course.
They won’t know they’ve got it wrong if it never occurs to them to ask, or if they never find out by accident or life experience. I used to think my town had the only McDonald’s. I used to think every commercial was filmed in the local TV station. I used to think the equator went through California. I was a complete and total idiot. But as I aged, I cast aside these wrong impressions and flawed conclusions.
Hood’s not off the deep end with his research here. Other studies have linked spirituality to electrical impulses in the brain.
Andrew Newberg, professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, has used brain-imaging techniques to show that such feelings are invoked by activity in “belief networks” operating across the brain. This supersedes the earlier concept of a “God spot”, activated during meditation or prayer.
“The temporal lobe interacts with many other parts of the brain to provide the full range of religious and spiritual experiences,” he said.
This mechanistic view of religious experience is reinforced by separate research carried out by Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Ontario, who has used powerful magnetic fields to induce visions and spiritual experiences in volunteers.
Barbara Hagerty became one of Persinger’s subjects while researching Fingertips of God, a book on brain processes underlying religion. “I saw images and cartoonish figures. It didn’t convince me there was no God, but it did show me how much the brain is connected to our beliefs and perceptions,” she said.
How much more convincing would she need, I wonder. Faced with evidence of electrical influence and false images, she’ll still jump in front of the TV hoping to be seen? It’s like the people who write to Yahoo’s question thing asking why their reflections don’t turn up in the mirrors on television. How can anyone be that obtuse? Oh right, I was. But then I got better. That’s the point.
Professor Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist at Washington University and author of Religion Explained, supports Hood’s view that the origins of religion may lie in common childhood experiences. In a recent article in Nature, the science journal, he said: “From childhood, humans form enduring and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasised mates.
“It is a small step from this to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible.” Boyer holds out little hope for atheism. “Religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems,” he said. “By contrast, disbelief is generally the work of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.”
There’s no denying that religion helps a society bond and scientists aren’t out to refute that, as evidenced by Boyer, here. They’re not saying bonding isn’t necessary. It totally is. If you can’t bond with the people around you, or share in their knowledge and experience, you’re socially crippled. In a world where communities were few and far between, it really was death to be a social outcast. Far better to cling to the beliefs and rituals of the people you were with than risk getting the boot for thinking differently.
I disagree with the idea that atheism can’t gain a foothold, though. Supernatural thinking can be looked at objectively if you bother to try. If you’re willing to look at the beliefs you’ve held for so many years and really think about why you’ve got them, how they came about, whether you had any choice in believing what you were told, whether those beliefs actually hold water. And if, with all the introspection, you come to the realization that you don’t actually believe the supernatural explanations anymore, come join us on reason’s side.
Sure, there are atheists who still fall for ghosts and ESP and aliens (I love the idea of aliens) and homeopathy. We’ve just gotten out from under the idea that a god’s responsible for it all. That a god of any kind is involved in the natural operation of the universe. And we’re a community, too. We still have beliefs and goals and morals. Beliefs in humanity, a goal to see more people come to our way of thinking, and the sense (usually) to be good and kind in our efforts of achieving that.