Why do we believe?

6 03 2007

I’m a little late on the uptake but there’s an interesting article via the New York Times about the evolutionary basis for faith. Being that I recently sped through Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden and The Varieties of Scientific Experience (both wonderful, although Dragons is exceedingly dated in some respects), it struck me that many Christian websites and bulletins have a statement of faith entitled “Why we believe.” Such statements usually revolve around the “God-inspired manuscript transcribed by man” argument, citing that the New Testament is reliable as the earliest documents are from a period when witnesses to Jesus’ life were still alive and could raise criticisms if there were inaccuracies (apparently no one will allow for unscrupulous scribes, mistakes, misinterpretations, religious agendas, etc. however), but I’ve never seen one that goes beyond the tried-and-true explanations.

As the article notes, for a long time science and religion were kept separate in order to keep the peace, but thankfully there is increased interested in discovering how faith could have arisen and spread so far. Even people who are avowed atheists typically have some kind of superstitious belief, and a wonderful example of this is described in the article;

[Scott Atran’s] research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.

If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

For my own part, I hate flying; it is perhaps the most uncomfortable and stressful “normal” experience I go through every so often. Although I have to admit I do believe in God, I don’t believe in miracles or that God is going to intervene if something happens during the flight, yet I often pray quite a bit out of compulsion. I know that it’s not going to work and I can’t suddenly “make a deal” to save myself if something goes wrong, but it does calm me down a bit. Indeed, prayer and some non-traumatic “religious experiences” (inducing children to speak in tongues doesn’t count, being it’s essentially child abuse in my book), forgetting for a moment the debate over whether God exists or not, seem to have some benefits. Why is this?

One of my favorite lines from the film Inherit the Wind is “I don’t think about things I don’t think about” (the response, of course, being “But do you think about things you do think about?”). Prior to reading Sagan’s books, I wouldn’t have suggested that the mind somehow “lives” in the body and can be released through death or various experiences, but I didn’t use my own brain to take a look at how mine might be working. I’m sure many people haven’t contemplated this issue either, and perhaps many would indeed suggest that the mind is some separate energy/form living in the body. If true, this would stem from the religious idea that our bodies are essentially inhabited by a soul, the soul being the being/energy that experiences various experiences and emotions that will someday leave the withered old husk of a body behind. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if the Christian belief that someday the souls of all Christians will leave their bodies and ascend to heaven, the idea being the basis for the horrid Left Behind series. In this view, the mind is most likely wrapped up in the identity of the soul (the soul is never depicted, to the best of my knowledge, as just being “the spark of life” or something without intelligence), and therefore the brain is merely the instrument that the soul acts through rather than the other way around.

As Sagan said about a possible hormone that would induce a religious experience in the 1986 lectures collected in TVoSE;

…let’s call it “theophorin,” a material that makes you feel religious.

What could the selective advantage of a theophorin be? How would it come about? Why would it be there? Well, what is the nature of the experience? The nature of the experience has, as I say, many different aspects. But one uniform aspect of it is an intense feeling of awe and humility before a power vastly greater than ourselves. And that sounds to me very much like a dominance-heirarchy molecule or part of a suite of molecules whose function it is to fit us into the dominance hierarches- to suit us for the quest that was, according to Dostoyevsky, to strive for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship and obey.

Now, what the good of that? Why would that have any selective advantage? If for no other reason, it would produce social conformity, or, put in more favorable terms, it would ensure social stability and morality. And this is, of course, one of the principal justifications of religion. Any cosmological aspect of the deities is an entirely separate attribute. Consider how we bow our heads in prayer, making a gesture of submission that can be found in many other animals as they defer to the alpha male. We’re enjoined in the Bible not to look God in the face, or else we will die instantly. Submissive males of many species, including our own, avert their eyes before an alpha male.

While Sagan’s reasoning is interesting and certainly could give us some clues, I don’t think it’s the whole of the story either. While the hormones/signals our brains produce that give us some sort of religious experience may have been co-opted from ones dealing with dominance hierarchies, what about the many experiences people (and possibly even chimpanzees) have when viewing something grand in nature; a beautiful sunset, a waterfall, a thunderstorm, etc. Such experiences are often considered of the utmost beauty, so wonderful that there must have been a creator behind it. Indeed, such events most likely seemed supernatural to early hominids; why does the sky change color? Why does blue fire come down from the sky? How can a calm sea suddenly turn into a torrent of crashing waves? Deities and powers were invented to explain these things as they transcended understanding and inspired awe, and since our kind did not have the ability to control the seas, paint the sky, or hurl lightening such events must signal the presence of being much more powerful than ourselves. It’s no surprise that many gods and deities are often elemental or control certain aspects of nature; when we cannot control something and it is beyond our comprehension, it is the province of a god.

Part of the current problem with religion/superstition is that it’s comfortable; I don’t need to think about where the unity and diversity of life came from because God did it and it’s all in the Bible. This is the sort of Dark-Age mentality where everyone you need to know comes from books (or THE book in the case of some), actual observation counting for little if it contradicts traditional wisdom. While I do deeply wish people would actually use their brains more, in a way I can understand why so many choose to just go along with superstitions and tradition; it’s easier. In investigating evolution, I’ve spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars on books trying to understand it (and its dissenters), and I haven’t even been seriously following the issue for a whole year yet. Indeed, it’s a huge investment of time, money, and brain power that many just opt not to engage in, and that is what is truly frightening. Granted, not everyone is going to be interested in science, but given that most people don’t even have a cursory understanding of the difference between hypothesis and theory, things are pretty bad. Especially in America, people work long days for most days of the year in order to acheive material comfort, the end of the day reserved for cold drinks and the idiot box (and given what’s been on TV lately, idiot box is the most apt term), not for cracking open The Structure of Evolutionary Theory or revisiting a college physics textbook. Even if someone shows an interest, there is simply so much to know; a 300-page popular treatise even by the best science communicator cannot tell the reader everything they need to know to understand the vast array of phenomena we observe. Enter religion; rather than using your God-given brain to think, question, and strive for truth, it’s easier to be told what the truth is and accept it. Why should I be a “Doubting Thomas” (skepticism is never welcome) and rock the boat? So many people can’t be wrong.

In ranting, I’ve travelled away from something that occurred to me in mulling over this question. Could superstition be adaptive because they can produce stress? I’m no expert, but I don’t know of any religions that have entirely evil deities; there are usually good and evil gods/powers, or at least neutral gods that may help or hurt you depending on the circumstances. Wouldn’t is be advantageous if, being convinced such gods existed, you could appeal to them for help and entrust the problem into the hands of a power that can control nature? Whether the god actually exists or not is another question, but wouldn’t believing so ferverently that you would get help when under stress, reducing the stress the mind and body, be advantageous? I vaugely remember that during my psych 101 class, that when the body is under attack, say literally from a lion, the brain releases chemicals that help negate the pain, being that having a lion savage you might be so excruciating that the shock/stress alone might kill. Could belief do something similar in situations that are out of our control (i.e. flying)? Indeed, it’s the things where they lack total control that are often the subject of prayer.

I think I’ve rambled on far enough for now. Like I said, I’m no expert and I’m likely wrong in at least some of my hypotheses, but the question of how belief came about is certainly interesting. I’ve mostly focused on the positive in this entry, but could there be negative effects as well? Could an overload of “theophorin” cause psychosis or other problems? What about when people appear to have seizures and “speak in tongues”? I would imagine that these acts might either be the cause of (or even contributing to) brain malfunctions, and if inducing such states would land a lot of churches in trouble, being that they are essentially mentally torturing their congregation. So much focus has been on whether God exists or not that the question of how we came to believe in the first place has taken a bit of a back seat, but if anything is to shed light upon the intersection of science and religion it’s going to be the evolutionary study of the brain and culture.


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2 responses

6 03 2007
chickpea

Great post! It’s good to see that you point out there might be negatives to go along with the positives.

7 03 2007
Laelaps

[…] Comments Chris Harrison on &*#%^$)*^@!!!!!chickpea on Why do we believe?laelaps on I guess he’s got nothing better to dolaelaps on AiG tries to make itself sound more […]

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