A hectic schedule this month means our first two posts about the science of belief formation and how it can be applied to religion will be covered in one post today. The story will be completed next week.
Why do so many Christians understand God in a way similar to other human agents, only infinitely more wise, powerful, and unseen? Besides what it means for religion, scientists have been figuring out how beliefs are formed in general. A specific oddity that has arisen from many studies is that we are very good at attributing agency to events we witness. To some scientists this ease of attributing events to some intelligent cause has suggested a way of explaining theistic beliefs.
I will be focusing this month’s topic on scientists, philosophers, and theologians who appear in the wonderful book The Believing Primate. The book is fair to the science, treating it on its own before bringing up those with objections. The science I am focusing on this week comes largely from Justin Barrett and Joseph Bulbulia who, in my opinion, are offering some of the better adaptation hypotheses (to be explained below) about religious belief currently available. The current scientific debate is between their approach and those who see belief in agency as a by-product of other biological mechanisms rather than an adaption (Dawkins is in this camp). I will give the information in the form of a dialogue, though. I tried a shorter version of this on colleagues once and it went over well. Besides, science can be playful and fun; it is not just boring facts.
Surprising claim #1: All life is based on selfish genes replicating at the expense of others. Or, otherwise state, there are evolutionary reasons for actions that might appear to transcended biological restrictions, such as altruism. Many animals cooperate, and the mutual benefit that results is still selfish. Kin can be favored in action, kind acts will be returned, reputation will increase, or cooperation can signify exceptional fitness. For example, the mother Stegodyphus spider commits matriphagy in which she allows offspring to consume her body so they have the energy to survive and pass on her genes. Vampire bats form buddy systems in which some bats share blood with sick bats or those unable to find food and the recipients of the gift later return the favor when the original gift giver is ill or unsuccessful at hunting.
Theology student: But humans show “strong reciprocity” (The Believing Primate, 28) and cooperate with people they will never meet again.
Scientist: Cooperation must be enforced by punishing free-riders that benefit from a group without giving back to that group. Furthermore, defectors who notice free-riders but refuse to punish them add another layer to the problem. Resources have to be spent seeking out free-riders and defectors so that other individuals will not be tempted to leech off others or let leechers off without punishment. Religion can provide a universal external norm in the form of supernatural retribution.
Theology student: So God is real and causes fear of retribution, right?
Scientist (Justin Barrett): Watch this video and then tell me what happened.
It is fortunate for religious sanctions that people readily attribute intentionality to events that benefit or harm them. That is the consistent result from those who watch this famous Heider and Simmel video. A hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD) activates in the presence of ambiguous or incomplete information. This device also serves the core need of species in an evolutionary world, survival. For example, assuming a rustle of wind in the grass is a tiger and reacting by running has little cost compared to being killed.
Surprising claim #2 (adaptation hypothesis of Bulbulia): Religion involves “contrived fictions” with “self-deception over their reality” (The Believing Primate, 45), but such fictions are adaptive. Individuals will be motivated to please supernatural agents who support social norms.
Theology student: Well then couldn’t it be the case that cognitive endowments make it possible to understand God? Beliefs in God are common due to properties of the mind. That fact supports religion, not atheism.
Surprising claim #3 (the religious test): Religious beliefs only spread if they are not horses “born of a goldfish mated with a bullfrog” (The Believing Primate, 83).
Scientist: Minimally counter-intuitive concepts, MCI, can be embraced reflectively if they violate a minimal number of non-reflective beliefs. That is, fictitious beliefs can be embraced if they are not as outright ridiculous as horsefishfrog. Luckily for supernatural agents, it is easy for individuals to transfer mental properties to artifacts in a simple transition. Based on what we know about universals in religion, belief in supernatural agent(s) is a naturally inborn conviction. However, that is far from belief in one true God. Some religious beliefs (Trinity and God’s non-temporality) do not appear to have such non-reflective support.
Theology student: What about life after death? That should escape your empirical method.
Scientist: You might think so, but no. Humans possess common-sense substance dualism. Naïve biology relates to reasoning about bodies and theory of mind (TOM) to reasoning without bodies and trying to figure out the intentions of other people. HADD + TOM = agency after death.
Claim competing with #2 (by-product hypothesis of Dawkins): Cultural inheritance has oblique (from unrelated adults to children) and horizontal (from peers) aspects. Among these options individuals can choose information that seems attractive but is really harmful. Dawkins understands religion as parasitic. There is no reason to engage in costly rituals for illusions. So religion is a by-product of preexisting biological systems evolved for understanding the social world. We see intention when there is really “artifact or accident” (121). This means we have a tendency to pervert natural selection because of our promiscuous teleology. Natural developments are incorrectly understood as designed by God.
Theology student: Still, these claims are based on early forms of religion, not modern theology.
Richard Dawkins, after barging into the room: If religions originated as adaptations or by-products, they are false human productions. Modern theological adaptations are still based on initial nonsense and are still false!
Cowering theology student: I wonder if theology has arrived at any novel truths…