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The ascent of man? José-manuel Benitos/Wikimedia Commons. Photoillustration by Matt Connolly.

Two months ago, Chris Mooney wrote a very interesting piece for Mother Jones entitled, 7 Reasons Why It’s Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution.[1] This article surveys one of my main areas of interest regarding belief and non-believe in a god or gods: namely the nature of religious belief itself. Why are human beings so prone to believe in a god or gods? Is this religious inclination universal in all societies across human history, as this report claims, and if so, what does it mean? We could call this set of questions about the nature of belief itself the sociological question.

Mooney’s seven reasons are backed by a remarkable amount of research and are as follows:

  1. Biological essentialism—each species is fundamentally unique
  2. Teleological thinking—events and objects have a purpose
  3. Overactive agency detection—occurrences imply a causal agent
  4. Dualism—body/soul, physical/metaphysical dichotomy
  5. Inability to comprehend vast time scales
  6. Group morality and tribalism
  7. Fear and the need for certainty

Interestingly, most of these reasons are evolutionary in themselves, which suggests that our evolutionary processes have been helped along by a tendency to believe in a god or gods. Great stories and myths have played a key role in human development. The classic example is overactive agency detection. Mooney writes, “our brains developed to rapidly assume that objects in the world are alive and may pose a threat, simply because while wrongly mistaking a rustle of leaves for a bear won’t get you killed, failing to detect a bear early (when the leaves rustle) most certainly will.” This extends to the human tendency to anthropomorphize notions of god as the cause—or agent—of unexplained phenomena in the world.

As I read through this brief explanation I quickly identified how Christian theology has played off these natural tendencies. The most obvious is teleological thinking. Eschatology, the theological exploration of ultimate things, is all teleology. Christians learn in Sunday School that ‘God has a plan for your life.’ Rick Warren created a huge following with the simple notion that your life has a purpose beyond itself. It is an attractive notion which Christians use to bolster belief in God. This is closely connected to ‘agency detection’ wherein God is actively involved in the affairs of your life. Christian theology’s love affair with dualism is well documented, as is the church’s penchant for fear, certainty and tribalism.

Naturally, the interpretive question is what, if anything, does this mean? Does the prevalence of religious belief throughout history prove or at least point to the existence of god? Does theology teach these things because they are true or do we think they are true because they are nearly universal and supported by theology? Just because something is nearly universal across societies and history doesn’t make it inherently good. Think about patriarchy, which is nearly universal. I don’t think very many readers will claim that universality equals correctness in this case, though sadly, some would.

We are meaning making creatures. This much is true, it seems to me. The teleological question comes so naturally to us. When something amazing and beautiful happens many people without thinking ascribe to the event a meaning beyond the event itself. Likewise when something tragic happens, many people instantly wonder why such a painful thing has happened. It’s frightening to consider that there is no meaning to suffering and that good things happen for random as well as causal reasons, unrelated to a deity who is orchestrating things from ‘above.’

I’ve spent a lot of time so far this year with the question, ‘What difference does god (or belief in a god) make?’ We can think of this as the pragmatic question. In this post I’m identifying what I want to call the sociological question—why are so many prone to believe? On my reading list so far in this regard are the following:

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt
Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not, by Robert N. McCauley
The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer

I’m naturally open to other suggestions, keeping in mind I am only one person with more to my life than all this fun reading.

[1] Thanks to Frederik Bruneel for sharing this link on my Facebook timeline.