It is fashionable to note that there is nothing new in the “New Atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et. al. However, they offer at least one genuinely new challenge to theistic belief: a challenge from developmental and cognitive psychology.
Evolutionary biologists typically explain an organism’s existing traits-such as man’s propensity for religious belief-by reference to natural selection; existing traits persist because they provide an organism with survival advantages over competitors. But some biologists, like Dawkins, now see religion differently. “I am one of an increasing number of biologists who see religion as a by-product of something else,” he writes.
Perhaps the feature we are interested in (religion in this case) doesn’t have a direct survival of its own, but is a byproduct of something else that does…[Religious] behaviour may be a misfiring, an unfortunate by-product of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful.
Averse to saying that religion might be useful (i.e., good for something), Dawkins thinks religion does not aid our survival. It is only a by-product of a certain brain wiring that does.
The rebuttal begins by recognizing that some beliefs and psychological processes are innate, argues Michael J. Murray, a professor of humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and, with Westmont College biologist Jeffrey Schloss, author of a forthcoming book, The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Evolution of Religion (Oxford University Press).
Part of the New Atheist’s argument is new, but part isn’t, Murray said in an interview with Touchstone. “The claim that religion is adaptive goes back to Weber, Durkheim, Hume (in a way)…and to Cicero in one sense.”
What is new “is that we have identified specific cognitive tools (and specific adaptive practices) that give rise to religion and which we can test to determine if the are adaptations or by-products (as much as such things can be tested in any evolutionary framework). In that sense, we have the first serious scientific accounts of the origin of religion.”
These ideas and processing mechanisms, which Murray liken to computer files and programs, respectively, appear innate—built-in rather than accumulated by experience.
A first line of evidence derives from research indicating that infants have innate beliefs about the world. According to Murray, even days-old infants believe in the permanency of objects (for example, that faces do not stop existing when people play peek-a-boo) and that unsupported objects will fall.
Those whose education emphasized the diversity of world religions may find it surprising, but many researchers think some religious beliefs are innate. Research is showing that “when forming God concepts, not just in theistic traditions but even in non-theistic traditions…we have a natural tendency to believe that divine beings have [certain] characteristics,” says Murray. We naturally believe in a super-knowing, super-perceiving, super-powerful, immortal creator.
As an example of the “super-knowing” belief, Murray cites the research of Oxford psychologist (and Evangelical) Justin Barrett, who studies the formation of religious beliefs in children. Such research strongly suggests that three- and four-year-olds tend to believe all mind are omniscient.
For example, in one study, researchers showed children from various cultures a common cracker box. Asked what was in the box, most children said “crackers.” Upon opening the box and finding rocks, they were asked what Mommy would think was in the box. Answer: She would know that rocks were inside.
Belief in the omniscience of minds abates at about age four—except in the case of deities. For some reason, humans never shake this opinion. Studies of this belief and many others offer a strong case that we have innate God notions.
Second, in addition to innate beliefs, research also indicates that humans possess innate processing mechanisms. A favorite example of Murray’s is “The Margaret Thatcher Illusion.”
In this famous optical illusion, two pictures of Thatcher are shown upside down. At first glance, the pictures look identical. However, when turned right side up, obvious differences appear: In one picture, the eyes and mouth are upside down. Such illusions work because human brains are hard-wired to detect facial patterns, and we automatically correct for the pictures’ differences.
Unfortunately, innate beliefs and mental processes sometimes mislead us. In the case of processes, this is seen in the Thatcher illusion. Some innate beliefs are likewise dubious. Take our innate belief that we should avoid contagion: We are, understandably, extremely afraid of dead bodies and animal waste.
Experiments on college students, Murray explains, show that if a string is run from an ice cream tub, up along the ceiling, to a vat of cow manure across the room, most students will not touch the ice cream. If however, several feet of string along the ceiling are snipped out, they will.
Dawkins and Dennett claim that religious belief is equally irrational, the product of similar mental tricks. Lamenting that religion is pre-programmed into our minds, Yale cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom notes that “religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold,” like belief in the Garden of Eden or the nature of the afterlife.
“These ideas are learned,” he argues. “But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.”
As Murray told me, “These critics of religion think that these scientific discoveries will finally allow us to break the stranglehold of these irrational beliefs on our minds and behavior.” Thus, another prominent cognitive psychologist, Jesse Bering of Queens University in Belfast, claims, “With this research we have God by the throat, and all we have to do is squeeze.”
Turning the Tables
What exactly is the atheists’ argument? As Murray outlines it, the argument goes something like this:
- The evolution of the human brain through natural history has provided human minds with a number of special properties (i.e., innate ideas and processing mechanisms).
- These properties encourage human beings to believe in gods.
- Therefore, the evolution of human brains (and therefore minds) has produced belief in gods (i.e., God is an “accident” of evolution).
- And therefore, belief in gods is unwarranted.
What can be said in response? Murray turns the tables. Crticis argue that belief in God is unwarranted because it arises from evolved, hard-wired cognitive mechanism. But, if these psychologists are right, so are many (if not all) of our other beliefs.
“Surely the critic doesn’t want to say that any belief that is the output of our mental tools—our cognitive tools—is unwarranted,” Murray notes, because “we can’t reasonably think that all of our beliefs are unreliable.” Further,
most of these critics think that our cognitive tools usually get things just right. To see this, just substitute the following words (or phrases) into the argument [above] and see if the critic would still find the underlying reasoning acceptable: human minds, rocks, rainbow, or science’s ability to discover the truth.
In other words, “Why do they think it’s fair to single out belief in the existence of God as the one thing that turns out to be unreliable or unwarranted?”
Hence, Murray notes, this sweeping argument is self-defeating. For if all brain-dependent beliefs are unwarranted, then the idea that “belief in God is unwarranted” is itself unwarranted.
Dawkins and many of his peers think this argument shows belief in God to be “merely” a “by-product” of human evolutionary development. Theistic intellectuals like Murray conclude that “God instead, designed us so that belief in him is easy and natural. The human mind is naturally constructed in such a way that we have a tendency to form beliefs in God concepts, and even of a somewhat specific sort.”
Philosophers often speak of “properly basic beliefs,” beliefs one is justified in taking as foundational even in the absence of evidence or argument—such as belief in the reliability of sense perception. Ironically, says Murray, “when they’re not thinking about the religion question,” most cognitive psychologists “will say these beliefs are generated in us by these innate processes are ones that we can reasonably take as basic or foundational.”
But when someone argues that religious beliefs might also be properly basic,
they begin to backtrack. But maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe what we should say is: Those beliefs that we naturally form in our natural environment are ones that we are justified in holding until further notice.
In other words, since we think our other innate beliefs and mental processes are reliable in the absence of contrary evidence, the most reasonable course is also to take theistic belief as generally reliable. It would be special pleading to do otherwise.
And thus, far from being evidence that belief in God is a trick of the brain, new research in cognitive psychology offers positive support to theistic belief.
For more information on this subject, the writer recommends Justin L. Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (AltaMira Press, 2004) as well as Murray and Schloss’s forthcoming book, The Believing Primate.
Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with the Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C. He is co-author with Casey Luskin of “A Reply to Francis Collins’ Darwinian Arguments for Common Ancestry of Apes and Humans” in Intelligent Design 101 (Kregel, 2008). This essay first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Touchstone.