According to an article by Michael Brooks, there is scientific evidence which supports the idea that we have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during challenging times. I found the article interesting, especially for it’s taboo nature. Though the researchers cited in this article apparently stress that “none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods” I think that really, once you’re claiming that our “minds are finely tuned to believe in gods” and you begin laying out a religion-as-adaptation-theory, you’ve already more-or-less ditched any serious consideration of the existence of God (or gods). This article even likens children’s belief in their imaginary friends and adult’s relationships with their fantasy partners to believing in God. While I understand and appreciate the ability to think outside of yourself as an evolutionary tool, it’s clear that Barrett is implying that one’s relationship with God could be no more real than my childhood “invisible” brother, Sam.
While I am not a particularly religious person, myself, I do feel quite a bit of disappointment thinking that everything people believe and have faith in could be no more than a product of their own minds. I agree with the author in that we perhaps need the security of god or the supernatural, at least at some point in each of our lives, and the idea that something people have longed for for so long does not exist seems very sad to me. Though I found the article interesting and very credible, I will attempt to play devil’s advocate (no pun intended) for those of us who aren’t ready to dispel all of our beliefs quite yet; no matter how “superstitious” they may seem.
A study conducted by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky late last year came to the conclusion that the less control their participants felt, the more likely they were to see patterns in material where there were none. This supports the idea that as people go through difficult times, and begin feeling less in control of their lives, they are more likely to turn to belief in god or other “superstitious thinking”.
These results may actually not be that applicable to religion at all, however. If participants in the study were made to feel insecure, it’s highly likely that they would search harder for patterns just because they perceived that it was what the experimenters wanted them to do. What I’m referring to is called Social Desirability Bias, and it concerns behaviors people exhibit in order to seem more socially desirable to others. I believe that in a setting where you have a researcher and a participant, the participant is likely to want to look good in the researcher’s eyes, and if that same researcher was making them feel insecure and out of control, it’s likely that the participant would work harder to gain the researcher’s approval and to feel better about himself. Also, the feelings that were elicited from the participants can be very threatening feelings for some. Anyone who was feeling threatened or even in a mild state of panic, could easily have perceived patterns just because their senses were heightened and more aware. I also think it’s very possible that simply after staring at a monotonous series of dots or listings of stock market information, most anyone could find a pattern of some sort. Does that mean they’d be making it up? Not necessarily. Maybe a participant could perceive of a pattern, however the researchers couldn’t; does that necessarily mean it’s not there? Again, not necessarily. Patterns can be very subjective, just because each of our minds perceives stimulation in different ways. I feel like it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the participants who were more likely to find patterns when they felt out of control relates directly to the way people tend to search for God when they feel out of control in their lives. Just because you can draw a link between two things, doesn’t mean that a link is necessarily there.
I doubt that the issue of whether or not God exists is going to be resolved any time soon. I think that absolutely disproving God and the supernatural is likely impossible, especially because there are many people who wouldn’t be willing to let go of their faith. I realize, too, that proving the absolute existence of God without a doubt is likely impossible as well, for the same reason. I think if anything, it’s for the best that believers have their faith they can fall back on, and non-believers have their theories and beliefs as well. Whether or not God exists, I think we can all agree that it’s crucial for people to have a sense of security within their lives, and if that security comes from physical and chemical features of our brains, fine; if it comes from something much larger than ourselves, perhaps that’s even better.
Brooks, Michael Born Believers: How your brain creates God Feb. 04, 2009
Passer, Smith Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior, Fourth edition, McGraw-Hill, 2009