Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why belief in God is Natural in Children... and Atheists as Well

by Rob R

Fans of the Scooby Doo cartoon series may recall a phrase that sleuth nerd extraordinaire, Velma, would repeat over and over again, "Science has proven a thousand times, there are no such things as Ghosts." Most fans wouldn't realize that this phrase was closely paralleled by Soviet communists who reportedly said, "Science has proven over and over, there is no God."

One might question just when and where either of these "scientific" discoveries was published. While neither claim can be substantiated, it is interesting to note that as formerly communist Russia rebounds toward the Orthodox church, the Scooby Doo franchise of recent years features "real" ghosts (as opposed to masked old cranks scheming to get some inheritance or real estate property who end up cursing "those meddlesome kids" for spoiling their plans.)

While science is ill-suited to approach most spiritual and metaphysical questions, especially with conclusive direct answers, there are scientific approaches to related issues.

New Scientist has published an article approaching the question of why religion/spirituality is believed to be hardwired in the brain.

Author Michael Brooks notes two previous suggestions about this question. First, that there is a specific area of the brain responsible for religious belief, and second, that religious belief is a result of adaptation. He sees reason for rejecting both claims, suggesting that religious belief is linked to a variety of mental functions, thus related to regions of the brain, and not just one area. He rejects the idea that these mental functions directly arose through adaptation for survival. Rather, he suggests it is an indirect result that through all these mental functions spirituality becomes natural.

Brooks cites Yale psychologist Paul Bloom who describes a "common sense dualism" that begins in infancy where babies distinguish between people and inanimate objects and later develops into a tendency to distinguish minds from bodies, noting a universal ability to think of the mind as distinct from the body and the ease with which one can even conceive of the mind as separable from the body. It is then a small step to conceiving ghosts, gods, and life after death.

One study where the mind body dualism demonstrates itself was by researcher Jesse Bering, who put on a puppet show for preschoolers in which an alligator eats a mouse. The children were then questioned about the implications of this show. They were asked if the mouse can still get sick or if it needs to eat and drink, to which the children answered no. But when asked spiritual questions such as whether the mouse still thinks and knows things, the children answered yes.

Children also demonstrate a tendency toward teleological beliefs, seeing design and purpose in the world around them. Here, the children claim for example that birds are here to make music or that rivers exist so boats will have something on which to float. This sort of thinking continues into adulthood when adults tacitly admit to a teleology, for instance, trees are here to make oxygen so we can breath.

Bloom says that we are all hard-wired for religious belief and that this programming doesn't go away with childhood. Another researcher, Olivier Petrovich, notes that even atheists possess this wiring. Bering has observed atheists who've attributed some purpose or agency behind traumatic experiences in their lives. He notes that "They don't completely exorcise the ghost of god - they just muzzle it."

Michael Brooks seems to attempt neutrality here noting that these findings conclude nothing about the existence of god, but I suspect he has more of an atheistic bent as he draws a connection with the ability to build fictive worlds. It should be noted that science depends on our ability to build fictive worlds, so this feature should not be linked with irrationality or delusion.

Of course, the atheistic approach to these findings would be, "How might it be that nature leads us toward these deceptions?" But of course, these findings fit a better unified picture where our hard-wiring assists us to see the truth that spirituality is stamped into our very flesh. After all, to view the mind as universally hardwired toward deception is the greatest paranoia one can have with bad epistemic results.


Christian Apologist said...

First of all this article is pure conjecture on the part of the author based solely on psychological observation. There is no brainscan, mri, or twin study to back this up, which are the common practices of psychology. Whithout a brain study it would be impossible to show whether teleological statements originate in the brain or whether our brain is able to perceive teleological truths.
Also this is an article in a magazine not a journal.

And of course from the christian standpoint 2 verses come to mind.

'God has made himself known through created things,'

'unless you trust me as these little ones do you shall never be saved.'

Rob R said...

The article resonates with the Christian belief that we are made for God.

The evidence for physical hardwiring in the brain comes in part through the study of children, through observations that are universal in children of whom one researcher states are naturally teleologically thinking regardless of guidance. But I suppose it would be in part arising from a materialistic naturalistic bias, that anything mental must have a completely physical basis. While I find the basis false, the conclusion is not something I find problematic in the least.

Is this conjecture? I don't know, it seems to me to be conjecture that this is conjecture. This article serves as an introduction and explanation of this view and I don't believe that this was meant as an exhaustive survey of the research on the topic. It highlights the key ideas and some of the research that has been done.

As for an MRI or other type of brain scan, it's not clear that something of this complexity could be demonstrated in this way. Brooks and the researchers he cites are making the claim that this isn't just one "God module" in the brain like there is a language module that might light up during specific mental activities.

I don't know if a twin study would help if absolutely every child surveyed displays the same kinds of beliefs or tendencies. I don't know that these observations are so universal, but that highlights that twin studies just aren't always useful. I would like to see if the children of atheists demonstrate telelogical thinking and dualism.

As for other sorts of studies, I'm sure they will follow. I don't know if this is a hypothesis or if its in the theory phase, but either way, researchers will continue to probe its predictive and explanatory strength and either it will gain momentum or it will fall apart.

That this comes from a magazine and not a journal, its a magazine that reports on science for the sake of scientists and the laymen (Though a Chemistry profesor tells me that New Scientist is geared more for people with significantly more scientific training than laymen, such as at the bachelors level).

steve said...

Keep Looking Up!

-Jack Horkheimer-

kateb said...

Nice! Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it. It's called 'Faith' for a reason.

Rob R said...

Oh, there was one other reason why this issue interested me.

There is an approach to atheism, one that I haven't used, where the theist insists that the atheist really believes in god and the atheist is just is denial and is at war with himself over it.

I'm not going to bang my head argueing that notion but I found it fascinating that there are researchers here who have come to that conclusion, and not only are they saying that the atheist harbors spiritual tendencies, but it's hard wired.

kateb said...

I agree it's hard wired. Arguing with an atheist over religion is comical.

If they don't believe, why do they CARE what we believe?

And if they're questioning because of their own internal struggle, well then they aren't an atheist at all.

Circular logic!

Anonymous said...

Theism is not natural in children, and to say so is ridiculous. If it's so easy for kids to believe in god, why waste your parish money on Sunday schools? They already believe in god, right?

Children would know nothing about god if it weren't taught to them from an early age. However, this is not to discount god - I'm not trying to make an argument against god's existence here. It's just ludicrous and stupid to say that children inherently have a natural affinity towards theism. M.

Rob R said...

Theism is not natural in children,.
Could be, but that's not what the researchers I cited are saying. Perhaps you know of different research?
If it's so easy for kids to believe in god, why waste your parish money on Sunday schools?.
If children can move on their own, why send them to dancing lessons. If they can speak, why give them grammer lessons.

That which is natural can benefit and sometimes must benefit from developement.

Rob R said...

Just another thought. Sunday Schools don't teach the existence of God. The students 99.9% (if not 100 percent) already believe in God... if we are talking about children. They go into the more important issue of what God is like.