Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why we are born to believe

That's the beginning of the title of an article in the Daily Mail. Here's an extract:

A study into the way children's brains develop suggests that during the process of evolution those with religious tendencies began to benefit from their beliefs - possibly by working in groups to ensure the future of their community.

The findings of Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, suggest that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.

His work is supported by other researchers who have found evidence linking religious feelings and experience to particular regions of the brain.

They suggest people are programmed to receive a feeling of spirituality from electrical activity in these areas.

The findings challenge atheists such as Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, who has long argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood 'indoctrination'.

Professor Hood believes it is futile to try to get people to abandon their beliefs because these come from such a 'fundamental level'.

'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.'

The professor, who will present his findings at the British Science Association's annual meeting this week, sees organised religion as just part of a spectrum of supernatural beliefs.

There's more at the link.

Speaking as a believer, I'm somewhat surprised that Professor Hood hasn't identified one obvious corollary. Sure, it's possible - from a purely secular viewpoint - that belief in God is the result of a primitive electrical activity in the brain. The question is, how did that electrical activity originate? If we are, indeed, created by an infinite and all-powerful God, isn't it likely that He would have implanted in our human nature the capacity to know Him? Might that be the reason why those electrical activities exist in the first place?

I don't expect the good Professor to answer that. After all, it can't be answered, scientifically speaking. However, from my perspective of faith, it's a not unreasonable proposition.

What say you, Labrat and Stingray?



Vertel said...

While it's a nice hypothesis, it is, more or less, a simple rewording of an old idea; the Invisible Clockmaker, a common explanation for evolution. The basic gist of it is that evolution is natural and happens, but God is there guiding it along every step of the way. For my money, it's never been a very good way of answering the problem; it says, "Okay, all of this happens, but we can fit God into this blank space here". It doesn't change how the system works, it just makes people feel better about their belief.

Speaking specifically in terms of humans being genetically primed for belief, there's a number of arguments you could make for it developing naturally -- ranging from the need for tribal cultures to have a defining marker between Us and Them, to the benefits of a defined religious structure to pass along moral and ethical codes -- that, with any one, you could say, "God fits into this gap here". But for none of them is God necessary for the system to function.

On the other side of the argument, none of this explicitly denies the existence of God. To be honest, the question of God's existence isn't relevant to the situation at all, despite appearances. The research just establishes what is, and leave matters of faith up to personal choices. To my view, it's not logical to believe that a god of some sort specifically gave us the ability to believe in higher powers and spirituality, but neither is it logical to explicitly say that didn't happen. Like most other matters of faith, you have to figure it out for yourself.

Anonymous said...

What is the difference between believing in the supernatural and simply believing what adults tell the kid even if the kid doesn't understand?

If a particular water hole is poison and adults tell a kid to never drink that water as it is bad/evil, what is the difference between that sort of believe and belief in the supernatural/gods? Maybe I am not understanding what they mean, but young kids should have a mechanism for learning things even if they can't understand the underlying reasons. Some things have to be accepted on faith.


Mikael said...

I'm with anonymous on this one.

But if we're going to talk science about religion, there's also a study that basically says that paradise is pre-agriculture turkey, that the use of agriculture destroyed paradise and made men toil in the dirt for sustenance as spoken of in the bible. The most likely reason for man to take up agriculture was religion, and creation of a place of worship. If this is true and you interpret the bible after this, then religion is the snake and agriculture the forbidden fruit. ;)

LabRat said...

I have plenty of thoughts on this, which I will post as soon as I have the time...