The March 4 New York Times Magazine had an article about the debate among evolutionary biologists regarding why humans believe in God. Religion is so persistent in human history, scientists can’t help but see it as a trait that has evolved in us, like opposable thumbs or hairless skin. But because it exists in the mind, the debate resolves around whether religious belief is an adaptation or the perhaps useless side-product of other adaptations.
The adaptationists say that religion helps bind us to other people, where we get advantages of the group–others to look after us when we’re sick or with whom we can share resources. Also, being ostensibly religious may help us build our reputation, which would provide access to better mates.
The “useless side product” camp tells us that we are primed to a belief in God by specifically three mind “modules.” The first, called “agent detection,” makes us able to quickly identify threats, such as a bear in the brush or a car pulling out of a drive way, and engages other mechanisms that will preserve our welfare. Sometimes, though, agent detection makes us perceive things that aren’t there–like a better-safe-than-sorry reflex. “Casual reasoning” is our ability to construct narratives, even counterfactual ones, to explain phenomena in our lives. Lastly, “theory of mind” is the ability in humans to recognize–and simulate in their own minds–the thoughts of others. Playing chess and anticipating your opponent’s next move is a good example of this ability, as is the act of persuading others. These three traits, they assert, make it natural for us to believe in an omnipotent, disembodied presence; the ultimate predator, the ultimate parent.
Interesting as these arguments are, they bother me because both presuppose that God does not exist. That idea seems as off-balance as the creationist “intelligent design” view of the world.
To me, a “universal belief” is one most likely to be true. There are all sorts of wacky, local beliefs that are easy to dismiss chiefly because they are local.
We can’t all agree on God’s gender, appearance, origin, special powers, commandments or even whether there’s one or many gods, but every collection of people throughout history has believed in a creative force superior to our own.
What really makes it easy for us to believe in God is the constant reinforcement of cause and effect in our life. The tree falls down because the wind blows. The prey dies because our arrow pierces it.
I had a conversation about God with a guy in a bar once. He said something very profound. “If you ask any religious person what the one constant in life is, he’ll say ‘God.’ If you ask any secular person the same question, he’ll say ‘change.’ Now, one person can be stupid, but not vast groups of people. All these people are correct if God is change.”
Just those three words, God is change makes a lot of sense to me. It answers many of my questions.