The Reasoning Of Why People Tend To Believe In God

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Religion is a topic that is circumvented in casual conversation. Often motivated by fears of offending others, being judged, or having to engage in a long-winded philosophical discussion, many of us keep our religious beliefs private. Instead, we gravitate towards harmless conversations about weather or sports teams, as those discourses are rarely seen as controversial and we can engage in such a discussion without having to reflect deeply on what we believe. But what if someone were to say that religious beliefs aren’t as untouchable and enigmatic as they seem? Would we be more willing to talk about religion in public settings if we had a better understanding of where these beliefs come from and why they matter?

Justin L Barrett’s 2004 work, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, examines how beliefs in God originate in the human mind and maintain their prevalence over time. Drawing on innovative research in cognitive science and his own philosophical reasoning, Barrett defends that belief in God is a natural and inevitable consequence of the covert activities of highly evolved mental tools. Moving past the “untouchability” of discussing religion, Barrett candidly argues that these beliefs are intuitively satisfying and they originate and persist because of processes going on without our awareness. Having conducted research at Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and now serving as a Thrive Professor of Developmental Science at Fuller Theological Seminary, Barrett uses experience and evidence from his field to support his thesis. He has an extensive background in experimental psychology and a passionate interest in theology, as a Christian believer. Despite these two (perhaps conflicting) aspects of his identity, Barrett manages to keep his writing free of both confusing scientific jargon as well as declarations of faith in the supernatural. His analysis of how the mind influences god concepts serves as one of the founding documents in the field of cognitive science of religion (CSR), which has led him to become recognized as a founder. His writing is both readable to interested scholars of varied experience levels and mostly unconcerned with his personal religious practice.

CSR is a scientific field that belongs under the umbrella of three bio-psychological theories of religion. CSR is distinctive from neurotheology, which concerns itself with neural activity, and group selection, which attributes the survival of religious systems to its connection with prosocial behavior, because CSR suggests that all human brains have “naturally occurring preferences and capabilities” which are implicated in the formation of many religious beliefs. In other words, CSR attributes religious belief and its different properties to a variety of cognitive “subsystems,” not simply to neural pathways or sociobiological phenomena. Furthermore, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? is a founding document of the CSR field, because it uses knowledge about natural tendencies in the brain to show why religious belief is the way it is. Barrett’s starts building the concept that these natural tendencies shape religious belief by explaining how belief originates. Everyone has nonreflective beliefs, which come to us automatically, because they are the outputs of nonconscious mental tools. They help us to quickly come up with explanations and judgments for what we see. These mental tools can be summarized by three abstract categories: categorizers, describers, and facilitators. Categorizers use sensory stimuli to put things into groups, then describers assign properties to those things, and finally, facilitators regulate and monitor how we interact with the thing. Barrett illustrates this process with the example of asking people what happens when you drop a rock.

Mental tools (i. e. the “object detection device” and “object describer”) lead us to believe that the rock will fall to the ground if it is unsupported. Thus, we reflectively belief that the rock will fall, because we don’t have much salient evidence to counteract the nonreflective beliefs that support the theory. Barrett also suggests that these mental shortcuts are so dominant in our brains because they have served evolutionary purposes. If people couldn’t quickly form ideas about things, “they would probably spend much more time dropping things on each other’s heads and falling off cliffs than they currently do”. If we are hypersensitive to potential agents around us, “detecting partially hidden, camouflaged, or disguised agents in the environment and only occasionally misidentifying wind-blown tree branches as agents,” then we might be doing ourselves a favor when it comes to survival. These tools influence the assimilation of a reflective (more deliberate) belief into one’s mind: “beliefs that considerably jibe with the outputs of the nonconscious mental tools that people have all over the world will be more likely to be embraced and to spread within and across cultures”. Thus, there is a direct correlation between nonreflective, effortless beliefs and the reflective (sometimes religious) beliefs: nonreflective beliefs, produced by mental tools, are our best guesses for reflective beliefs unless we have reason to challenge them. So why is reflective belief in God specifically satisfying to our minds?

Barrett answers this by leaning on the work of Pascal Boyer, another prominent figure in the CSR realm, and his definition of minimally counterintuitive concepts, or MCIs. MCIs are not culturally specific because the same mental tools are governing brains, regardless of where someone is born. This highlights a strength in Barrett’s work — he seeks to make it culturally universal by leveraging his and others’ anthropological work. MCIs make sense to most of our mental tools, but violate one or a few nonreflective beliefs. MCI agents, things with minds and desires, are much more memorable and stimulating, in part because they have strong inferential potential. Inferential potential means that “For MCIs to successfully compete…they must have the potential to explain, to predict, or to generate interesting stories surrounding them”. Thus, they still have to make sense to most of our mental tools, but not all, and they must serve a meaningful purpose.

MCI agents are also natural to us because of a mental tool known as the hypersensitive or hyperactive agency detection device (HADD). To illustrate the power of the HADD, which is often complemented by the Theory of Mind (ToM), Barrett references studies often associated with the Heider-Simmel Illusion. After watching a simulation of shapes moving (seemingly randomly) around a square, people describe the shapes as having motives, emotions, and personality characteristics. HADD observes movement and searches for an agent that is responsible for it. If an agent cannot be found, we proceed to consider the object as a possible agent. Then, ToM works to categorize and portray the object in terms of its inner thoughts and feelings. In religious contexts, these tools contribute to ideas about supernatural agents. It is important to note that the influence of HADD and ToM on our daily observances of objects and unusual movement is not the reason that religious beliefs are popular; rather, they are a reason why beliefs originate. What makes MCI agents, which are high in inferential potential and shaped by persistent activities of HADD and ToM, spread throughout entire populations is that we incorporate these concepts into social and moral reasoning. Barrett aptly refers to the fact that there are many behaviors — stealing, murder, incest — that are shunned in virtually all cultures. He then writes, “Sociobiologists and other evolutionary human scientists have argued that part of our biologically endowed mental equipment is a system of mental tools that generate skeletal moral intuitions”, which he titles “intuitive morality. ” Furthermore, because we all have the same general idea about what is right and wrong but we can’t know all the facts, gods that can witness some or all human behavior are particularly attractive. Gods, which may have full access to all the facts, then become “high status,” a characterization made possible by our subconscious social status monitor. As a result, we are both drawn to and fearful of gods, and “we find ourselves paying great attention to them and trying to stay on their good sides”.

The second natural consequence of the interaction between religious beliefs and our intuitive morality is that we find ways to justify certain treatment. When bad things happen, our social exchange regulator directs us to social explanations involving punishments and rewards and assume that only a god could execute them. He argues that it is entirely plausible in our minds that the work of a god lies behind occurrences of misfortune and fortune. Our minds incline towards finding agents that are responsible, but if we determine that only an agent that knows about the situation and has punishing power could execute it, then gods seem to fit the role with ease. Anthropologist Scott Atran observed that a desperate Maya hunter appealed to spirits for medical advice, and when he survived, he reasoned that the spirits saved his life. Thus, Barrett argues that it makes sense to our intuitively moral minds to connect these life-saving or life-ruining experiences to a god, rather than explaining them with other causes. Not only are our religious beliefs affirmed by hardwired structures in our individual minds, like the HADD and intuitive morality, but also by social experiences. Barrett gives multiple examples of religious actions that make god concepts even more attractive. In ceremonies, rituals, and prayer, we act as if gods exist and observe others doing the same.

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One approach to looking at rituals that Barrett cites is that of McCauley and Lawson. The pattern they uncover is that rituals involving a representative of god, or a Culturally Postulated Superhuman (CPS), are more stimulating than those involving regular people, and “the often-intense emotional experience may make the god’s presence felt in such a way that the…(HADD) screams that the god is acting”. On the other hand, Harvey Whitehouse’s anthropological work on the two different kinds of rituals — the infrequent, emotional ones and rite of passage rituals — show that rituals are highly emotional and highly demanding of our resources and energy, which makes them virtually unforgettable. Having shared this experience with other people validates our beliefs, and the bizarre and costly character makes it highly memorable. Either way that we look at rituals, we find that they have extraordinary, even minimally counterintuitive, qualities giving them great leverage in the workshop of the mind. These highly memorable rituals are also important because they have self-convincing qualities. That is to say, if you go to a religious wedding and your entire family is there and it is a highly emotional event, you will not only remember it but also try to convince yourself that it has utmost significance and that god must have been present in some way. This specific quality of rituals can be explained by the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, the idea that we adapt our beliefs to justify our actions when there is tension between beliefs and actions. The pattern is manifest in the religious activities of Jehovah’s witnesses. Having to defend your beliefs when people don’t believe you and when you have to put considerable effort into sharing them door-to-door actually strengthens beliefs, because of the way our minds reconcile the tension between what we believe about our experiences and what we actually experience. Barrett explains, “These experiences become salient memories and feelings consistent with their religious beliefs and thus add to the number nonreflective systems affirming belief”.

Not only are our beliefs confirmed when we simply have persisting memories of them, but they are fortified when we recall that executing the task and defending our positions was difficult. Having asserted that these beliefs are natural to developed brains, Barrett is then faced with reconciling how religion is able to persist by vertical transmission: how do the minds of children support the naturalness of god beliefs? Children’s ideas about the world and others become more accurate about people over time, but their ideas about god remain relatively acceptable to them. He builds this reasoning against the anthropomorphism hypothesis, which states that children project ideas about humans onto a humanlike concept of god. He instead references his execution cracker box experiment, wherein American protestant children almost always referred to the super-knowing power of God to see what is actually inside the box despite its outward appearance.

Piaget, the father of developmental psychology, found that children eventually outgrow their assumptions that people have created the world but they maintain those assumptions as they apply to god. If the anthropomorphism hypothesis were true, then children would deconstruct their naive ideas about god’s powers as they do with people’s powers over time. E Margaret Evan’s finding that children “have strong inclinations to understand both living and nonliving things as purposeful,” for example, that rocks are pointy because it “keeps them from being sat on” supports that children are naturally inclined to believe that natural things are created with purpose by an intentional agent. In summary, multiple studies that look at how children characterize people, things, and god in terms of their super-knowing, super-perceiving, and super-powerful capabilities show that “God is…a residual of childhood naivety supported by theological instruction” and of course, heightened by the different mental processes explained above that take shape later on in life. Having analyzed the evidence that Barrett presents to prove that people believe in god because our minds are designed to support it, what implications do these arguments have on real lives?

I would argue that these explanations are fruitful and compelling in the sense that they apply to “normal” human brains, but the fact that Barrett doesn’t provide insight into the actual biological substrates and neural networks firing at all these levels makes it difficult for us to ascertain how god concepts evolve (or if they do) in abnormal brains. The abstract notion of “describers, categorizers, and facilitators” is helpful when looking at the mind from the perspective that it operates as a highly functional workshop but cognitive science demands that we investigate the mind at a neural level as well, so that we can identify crucial structures. For the purpose of philosophical discussion, it is safe to see the mind in the way that Barrett does, but if we are to apply these findings to diverse experiences, we have to shift to seeing the mind the way that brain imaging techniques are showing us now: more like a highly intertwined and dispersed electrochemical switchboard that is vulnerable to damage. Given this, we can associate the benefits of Barrett’s work more closely with the benefits of Freud and Jung’s work with psychoanalysis. He too convinces us that there is a “basement” to the mind with different programs and patterns at work which have great influence over our lived experience, but he does not convince me that these findings can be parsed to make conclusions about abnormal brains. Barrett’s argument is much more explanatory and rational, hinging on psychological studies and hypothetical situations that show us how people tend to act. He then applies those observations to his knowledge of the way mental tools are assumed to develop in people. In other words, his approach is more top-down than bottom-up; he calls on evidence that correlates experiences with mental wiring, rather than correlating mental wiring with experiences.

Secondly, I think this discussion would benefit from further investigation into how religious beliefs can become radical. A major qualm that defenders of New Atheism have with religion is that it can compel people to commit grave and violent acts. Barrett shows how beliefs in god are the nearly inevitable result of how our brains work, but how would he explain the acts of war, terrorism, and other human rights violations committed in the name of gods? It seems unlikely to me that the HADD, ToM, and the social exchange regulator are powerful enough to corrupt people to kill others. If anything, the injustices carried out by religious extremists that we see in the world undermine his argument that god concepts are supported by intuitive morality, because if this were true, then people would expect god to punish those that deserve to be punished, rather than people taking it into their own hands to reach a twisted view of justice. Additionally, he has explained the power of rituals like baptisms, funerals, and ceremonies, but what of the rituals that are violent and inhumane? To me, the next question to ask after “why would anyone believe in God?” would be “why would anyone kill for God?”

Lastly, there is something to be said about the suitability of boiling down a major component of the human condition to a set of psychological and cognitive processes. In The Roots of Religion, Aku Visala pushes back against an implicit claim that CSR writers make that “cultural phenomena (and hence also religious) phenomena have sufficient psychological or cognitive causes,” and thus attempting to explain areas of social science using explanatory frames from the natural sciences. They fail to identify the most relevant causes of belief and instead resort to explaining all the causes, an issue he calls “the problem of causal relevance. ” Thus, even though we can work to find the routine mental processes that are implicated in the formation of god concepts, we cannot employ them to explain entire cultures and religions. Similarly, Barrett explains that these processes are happening without our conscious awareness, but perhaps there is something to be said about human agency. Are we really controlled by systems in our mind alone or can we shut them off?

This sort of investigation into the degree to which our behavior can be simplified down to the mere effect of cognitive networks may also provide a counterargument to Barrett’s claim that disbelief in god, or atheism, is an unnatural phenomenon. Perhaps it can be argued that atheism is a normal, conscious decision made by someone who chooses to “shut off” the programs running in the mind. My view of Why Would Anyone Believe in God? is overall positive; Barrett’s line of reasoning is sound and even relatable to my own life. As a leading argument of the CSR field, Barrett’s book answers many pertinent questions with the topics that he explores and even opens up a discussion with even more questions that we can all work to answer moving forward.

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