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Evolutionary Studies Suggest that Atheists, Whatever They Say to the Contrary, Really Do Believe in God

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Over the past few weeks, a theme of discussion on the Internet has been the proposal that atheists may not exist. Of course people who think they’re atheists exist, but a study discussed in Nature proposes that people really aren’t functionally atheists because we’re innately predisposed toward religion. In an article titled “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke,” Science 2.0 has a nice summary:

While militant atheists like Richard Dawkins may be convinced God doesn’t exist, God, if he is around, may be amused to find that atheists might not exist.

Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.

While this idea may seem outlandish — after all, it seems easy to decide not to believe in God — evidence from several disciplines indicates that what you actually believe is not a decision you make for yourself. Your fundamental beliefs are decided by much deeper levels of consciousness, and some may well be more or less set in stone.

This line of thought has led to some scientists claiming that “atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think,” says Graham Lawton, an avowed atheist himself, writing in the New Scientist. “They point to studies showing, for example, that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. “A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,” writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people “are only aware of some of their religious ideas”.

Boyer’s article in Nature continues this line of argument: “Religious thought and behaviour can be considered part of the natural human capacities, such as music, political systems, family relations or ethnic coalitions.” He continues, “religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.” In a striking comment, he points out that these religious predispositions exist in humans from a very young age:

Humans also tend to entertain social relations with these and other non-physical agents, even from a very young age. … It is a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualizing spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible, yet are socially involved.

Boyer gives every sign that he himself is an atheist, writing things like, “When people proclaim their adherence to a particular faith, they subscribe to claims for which there is no evidence,” or “Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources.” So it’s not surprising that he suggests evolution is the ultimate cause of our religiosity:

Is religion a product of our evolution? The very question makes many people, religious or otherwise, cringe, although for different reasons. Some people of faith fear that an understanding of the processes underlying belief could undermine it. Others worry that what is shown to be part of our evolutionary heritage will be interpreted as good, true, necessary or inevitable. Still others, many scientists included, simply dismiss the whole issue, seeing religion as childish, dangerous nonsense.

Here’s my take. Evolutionary explanations of the origin of religion typically have two things in common: First, they’re dreadfully predictable. They simply look at some aspect of religious life or faith and ask how that behavior (or belief) might aid survival by endowing us with a beneficial trait (we’ll call that “X”). Second, in doing so, they utterly fail to explain the totality of religious experience and belief. Trait X might indeed aid in survival, but there’s no reason why evolving Trait X would imply or necessitate evolving anything like the full-fledged religion that’s so common throughout human societies today. Thankfully that’s not Boyer’s approach. Instead, he simply sees religion as an extension (or “hijacking”) of human “standard cognitive capacities,” however they might have arisen:

So is religion an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution? Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than “religion” in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times. For the time being, the data support a more modest conclusion: religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.

At least Boyer is being honest that it’s difficult as of yet to provide a full-fledged evolutionary account of the origin of religion. He argues, however, that evolutionary attempts to explain the origin of religion challenge key tenets of religion:

The findings emerging from this cognitive-evolutionary approach challenge two central tenets of most established religions. First, the notion that their particular creed differs from all other (supposedly misguided) faiths; second, that it is only because of extraordinary events or the actual presence of supernatural agents that religious ideas have taken shape. On the contrary, we now know that all versions of religion are based on very similar tacit assumptions, and that all it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way.

So the fact that all religions think they’re right and involve belief in supernatural agents mean they’re all basically the same? That discounts, in a na�ve way that one comes to expect from atheists, the profound differences among the world’s religions. And why should our being predisposed to faith somehow mean no religion is correct? That doesn’t follow at all. If anything, it would seem to support a key premise of theistic religion: that God gives us a capacity and desire to believe.

The philosopher and author Paul Copan cuts right through such arguments with clean logic. He writes:

The inventor Thomas Edison said that humans are “incurably religious.” History certainly bears this out. But why have humans been so religiously inclined across the millennia and civilizations? Neo-atheists Dawkins and Dennett interpret the phenomenon this way: theology is biology. To Dawkins, God is a “delusion”; for Dennett, religious believers are under a kind of “spell” that needs to be broken. Like computers, Dawkins says, we come equipped with a remarkable predisposition to do (and believe) what we’re told. So young minds full of mush are susceptible to mental infections or viruses (“memes”). Charismatic preachers and other adults spew out their superstitious bilge, and later generations latch on to it and eventually create churches and religious schools. Even if there isn’t a “God gene,” humans have a certain religious urge — an apparent hardwiring in the brain that draws us to supernatural myths.

Some conclude, therefore that God doesn’t exist but is simply the product of predictable biological processes. One big problem with this statement: it is a whopping non sequitur. It just doesn’t follow that if humans are somehow wired to be religious, God therefore doesn’t exist. This is what’s called “the genetic fallacy” — proving or disproving the truth of a view based on its origin. In this case, God’s existence is a separate question from the source of religious beliefs. We need to sort out the biology of belief from the rationality of belief.

There’s more to say here. We could turn the argument on its head: if God exists and has designed us to connect with him, then we’re actually functioning properly when we’re directed toward belief in God. We can agree that natural/physical processes partly contribute to commitment to God. In that case, the basic argument of Dawkins and Dennett could actually support the idea that religious believers are functioning decently and in order.

On top of this, we’re left wondering why people would think up gods and spirits in the first place. Why would humans voluntarily sacrifice their lives for some intangible realm? Maybe it’s because the physical domain doesn’t contain the source of coherence, order, morality, meaning, and guidance for life. Humans, though embodied, are moral, spiritual beings; they’re able to rise above the physical and biological to reflect on it and their condition. This can result in the search for a world-transcending God.

Attempts by these New Atheists to explain away theology as a useful fiction or, worse, a harmful delusion fall short of telling us why the religious impulse is so deeply embedded. If God exists, however, we have an excellent reason as to why religious fervor should exist.

(Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, pp. 29-30 (Baker Books, 2011) (emphases in original).)

Copan is exactly right: If God exists then we would predict that humans should have this innate tendency toward religiosity. Critics of religion will forever chase inadequate explanations for these religious tendencies. Science 2.0 gives a good example of this fruitless thinking:

If a tendency to believe in the reality of an intangible network is so deeply wired into humanity, the implication is that it must have an evolutionary purpose. Social scientists have long believed that the emotional depth and complexity of the human mind means that mindful, self-aware people necessarily suffer from deep existential dread. Spiritual beliefs evolved over thousands of years as nature’s way to help us balance this out and go on functioning.

So religion evolved to help us cope with the reality that we really live in a meaningless universe? How convenient that is for those who believe we live in a meaningless universe! But why should anyone feel “existential dread” in the first place, if not for the fact that we long for something greater and beyond our mortal lives? Why is that longing for greater purpose there in the first place? This argument reduces to “religion evolved to meet a need” without, however, bothering to explain where the need itself came from.

Well, where does it come from? Perhaps the answer was given by a different Pascal — not Pascal Boyer but Blaise Pascal. Centuries ago, he argued that if we find a “God-shaped vacuum” (a popular but apt paraphrase of his view) in the human heart, that is simply because God put it there.

Photo source: Zoe Margolis/Flickr.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.