In our last article, we explored some recent findings in the cognitive science of religion (CSR). We saw how current research suggests that belief in God, or something like God, comes naturally to most human beings, most of the time, in virtue of the types of brains we have. I’d like to explore Justin L. Barrett’s arguments on this front in a bit more depth in this article.
Recall that Barrett divides beliefs into two categories: reflective and nonreflective. Nonreflective beliefs are generated by a mental “toolkit,” which operates, so to speak, in the backgrounds of our minds more or less continuously. Nonreflective beliefs have a taken-for-granted quality that makes it somewhat silly (unless we’re philosophers!) to state them plainly. I believe that the people around me have minds, as I have. I believe that I am awake, not dreaming, at this very moment. I believe that future experience will conform to that of the past, and so on. I don’t acquire these beliefs by weighing evidence and argument, for or against, and if I really think about them I’ll have to admit, sooner or later, that they could be false. And yet I am, like most people, very far from doubting their truth, and I get along perfectly well in my day-to-day life without ever feeling the need to weigh evidence or argument for their truth. I feel, indeed, no embarrassment whatever for taking these beliefs for granted, though if a philosopher brings them to the surface and starts to pick at them, she may bring me up short. Reflective beliefs, on the other hand, are the kind of thing we discuss in philosophy, and we might even go so far as to say that one of the chief tasks of philosophy is to cause us to reflect on our nonreflective beliefs. At any rate, we don’t normally do so because we don’t need to. Evolution has equipped us to acquire certain kinds of beliefs with very little effort, and as a rule we’re better off for it.
Now, we can think of the mind as a kind of committee, composed of all the tools in our toolkit, and in which they each get to weigh in on a given question that has been proposed as a candidate for reflective belief, and to do so with varying degrees of certainty. The more “yes” votes a candidate gets, and the more certainty that attaches to those “yes” votes, the more intuitive, the more natural, the belief seems to us, and hence the more attractive a candidate it becomes for positive, reflective belief. In the last article, we saw how one tool, the “hyperactive agency detection device,” predisposes us to belief in God, or something like God (hence-forward, “God-beliefs”) attractive. But it’s not a matter of this one tool running the whole show. Rather, it’s the concurrence between this tool and others, which we’ll explore directly, which accounts for this intuitive quality. And, as we’ll see, there are environmental factors at work that can nudge these tools in directions that make God-beliefs less attractive as well, and which help to account for the rise of contemporary skepticism about God-beliefs.
As we have said, the mind’s tools predispose us to hold a certain set of nonreflective expectations about the world. These expectations are not necessarily accurate, but quite often they are. In some cases we encounter, or imagine, things that violate these expectations. We don’t normally expect plants to eat animals, for instance, and as a general rule they do not. But we can imagine carnivorous plants, and they do, in fact, exist (Venus fly traps, for example.) Following evolutionary psychologist Pascal Boyer, we might call Venus fly traps “minimally counterintuitive.” They’re a little weird, but they don’t overwhelm us with their strangeness, the way, for instance, an invisible talking plant that tasted like spaghetti might. This second type of plant-concept might be called “massively counterintuitive.” It violates quite a lot of our expectations. So we can think of candidates for reflective belief—plants, for instance—as either intuitive, minimally counterintuitive, or massively counterintuitive. It turns out that minimally counterintuitive concepts have a certain “sticky” quality. The intuitive ones are so ordinary as to be unremarkable, so they don’t generate much activity in the “committee,” so to speak, of our mental tools. The massively counterintuitive beliefs, on the other hand, are so exceptional as to be bizarre, so the committee of our mental tools tends to reject them without much consideration. But minimally counterintuitive beliefs hit the sweet spot, generating enough puzzlement so as to be memorable, but not enough to totally disqualify themselves.
Many religious concepts fall into the category of being minimally counterintuitive. Ancestor spirits, for instance, are counterintuitive in the sense that, intuitively, dead people stay dead, but not so counterintuitive as to be totally inconceivable. An ancestor-spirit is pretty much just your great grandmother, only with one or two exceptional qualities, like being disembodied or invisible—different, to be sure, but not so different as to be bizarre or inconceivable. Reincarnation is quite a lot like regular incarnation, only instead of proceeding in a straight line from birth to death, it’s laid out like a loop, with death providing the beginning for a new birth. Because minimally counterintuitive beliefs like ancestor-spirits or reincarnation have this “sticky” quality, they tend to spread more easily from person to person, and to lodge themselves more firmly in the imagination when they do. This helps to explain the tenacity of religious belief across time and space. While, from the outside, religion can look totally arbitrary—as if the priest or the mystic or the theologian can teach just any old crazy nonsense, and the faithful will fall in line—in fact, not all candidates for belief are treated equally by the mind, and hence not by believing communities either. Some are intrinsically more plausible and attractive than others.
When we turn to God-beliefs more specifically, we find that the candidate posed for our reflective belief often possesses a number of minimally counterintuitive properties that makes it appealing on a nonreflective level. Of course, not all people have the same concept of God, so we cannot speak of God-belief just as such. On the other hand, not all beliefs about God are equally widespread or successful. The ancient conception of the gods, as we find in Greek and Roman mythology, as an essentially rowdy and amoral assembly of personified natural forces was extremely widespread in its time, but today maintains only a very tenuous and shadowy existence, at least in the West, in neo-Pagan communities. They’re still around, but in the “struggle for their existence,” to borrow a Darwinian metaphor, they have been out-competed by the God-concept found in the Abrahamic faiths. (As a historical aside, it may be of some interest to note here that late paganism in the Greco-Roman world, as we find in the beliefs of a Marcus Aurelius or the last pagan Emperor of Rome, Julian—called by his Christian detractors, “the apostate”—had a lot more in common with Jewish and Christian monotheism than with the paganism of Socrates’s time, seven or eight centuries previously. Zeus was then conceived in very similar terms, as an all-powerful, perfectly righteous judge who guides the destiny of mortals and nations, and whose favors could be courted through virtuous action and ritual sacrifice. The rest of the pantheon, conversely, tended to fade into the background. So there was, in other words, an internal development within paganism that ran parallel to that of the Abrahamic faiths, but this development was cut short when paganism was officially suppressed by the Christian-Roman authorities, beginning with the Emperor Theodosius in about 400 CE.)
So, without denying the existence of alternative God-concepts, I believe there is a principled case to be made here for talking about not just any God-concept, but that found in the Abrahamic faiths specifically—namely, that this particular God-concept has gained such a widespread currency that it justifies a proportional share of the attention. According to Barrett, this predominance is no accident. Rather, it has come about in consequence of the particularly appealing nature, given the characteristics of the kinds of minds we have, of this particular God-concept. More specifically, the relevant properties of this particular God-concept are infallibility, superknowledge, superperception, creative power, immortality, and creativity—all of which are, as experimental evidence shows, quite intuitive for young children. (See chapter 6 of Barrett’s book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?)
We don’t have space to discuss each of these properties, so let’s just take up the last: God as creator. Not all cultures attribute to their gods the property of having created the universe. In Buddhist cosmology, the gods are only very powerful beings, like us, and, like us, subject to the law of birth and decay, to karma and to reincarnation—laws they neither created nor control. The Babylonian gods sprung from the union of the primordial dragon, Tiamat, and the waters, Apsu, out of which they then fashioned the earth and the sea. In modern pantheism, God is co-eternal and co-identified with the material universe. It has even been argued that the original Hebrew understanding of God did not include the notion of creation “out of nothing” (much hinges on how a few very obscure words in the ancient Hebrew language are translated). So it’s perfectly possible to believe in God, or gods, without attributing to them the notion of creation. Nevertheless, psychological research in young children suggests that the notion of God-as-creator enjoys some competitive advantages.
Let’s look at some of the experimental evidence. In chapter 6 of his book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, Barret summarizes the results of four highly interesting studies. In one, psychologist Olivera Petrovich showed preschoolers pairs of pictures of various objects. She asked them to identify which, if either, of them could have been made by people. When the pair included an object from the natural world (such as a leaf) and one produced by human artifice (such as a bus), the children were nearly always able to identify the artificial from the natural object. They were only confused when they saw an artificial representation of a natural object, such as a toy animal. The study concluded that preschool-aged children were able to distinguish between the natural and the artificial world on the basis of their nonhuman or human origins.
In a similar study, Petrovich showed preschoolers pictures of plants, animals, or inert natural objects (rocks, the sky, etc.), and asked whether they were made by people, by God, or by no one knows. Preschoolers answered that God had made these objects at a rate of about seven-to-one, when contrasted with the other options. In a third study, developmental psychologist E. Margaret Evans asked children, aged seven to ten years old, from both fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist American communities, to rate their agreement with creationist and other, more naturalistic, accounts of origins of living and natural objects. She found that even for children whose parents had taught them evolutionary accounts of origins, the children regarded the creationist accounts as intrinsically more plausible. In a fourth study, psychologist Deborah Keleman found that young children tend to gravitate toward purposive, intention-based explanations of the natural world. Thus pointy rocks are pointy because that quality prevents them from being sat on, rather than because they just happened to emerge that way from a natural process.
Now I want to be clear here and put it down that none of these studies show, or purport to show, and Barrett does not argue that they show, that creationism is true, that evolution is false, that God actually did create the universe, or anything like that. Young children are wrong about all sorts of things, as anyone knows, so asking them how they think natural objects came about is not worth a whole lot when we come to the serious question of how, in fact, they came about. What these studies do suggest, however (according to Barrett), is that God-concepts that involve the notion of God-as-creator enjoy a strong competitive advantage, when contrasted to those that do not, because young children find them intuitively plausible, and beliefs acquired during childhood tend to carry a presumption of correctness throughout a person’s entire life. Not that they’re necessarily correct, but people tend to assume that they are unless given strong reason to doubt them. So, given this particular cognitive bias, people tend to gravitate toward the God-concept that includes a notion of creation, as against one that does not (assuming they find such concepts attractive in the first place—which, Barrett argues, they generally do).
Barrett makes many other highly interesting arguments in his book, and I highly recommend it. Barrett is a believer, and employed by a theological seminary, so someone might say he’s a biased source. Well, atheists and agnostics have biases just like theists do, so I don’t think that’s much of a reason to discount his research, especially since he’s held appointments at secular universities and regularly and unproblematically publishes in reputable scholarly journals. Believing researchers sometimes have to face an uphill battle when it comes to establishing their bona fides, unfortunately. Still, someone might say he’s biased, so in that case they can find similar terrain covered by Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer (both atheists), in their books In Gods We Trust and Religion Explained (respectively.) Maybe we’ll get a chance to discuss some of their research as well, before the series is over. Cognitive science of religion is cutting-edge stuff, and in my view it clears up a lot of the fog that often surrounds this discussion by putting at least part of the discussion on a firmly empirical, scientific basis.
One more thing: I promised earlier in this article to discuss contributing environmental factors to unbelief; unfortunately, I’ve run out of space. I hope I can interest you in a third article on the cognitive science of religion, or perhaps I should say, the cognitive science of atheism. For doubt, no less than belief, has a natural cause and a natural explanation, and it’s every bit as interesting as the psychology of belief.
Daniel Halverson is in the PhD program at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto. His research focuses on the history of evolutionary biology in the Victorian and WWII eras.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: