University survey affirms we are ‘Bound to Believe’

Universities across Canada started their new academic year this past September.  Hundreds of thousands of students, from around the world, descended on campuses across Canada to participate in orientation events, meet old friends and new, and start another chapter in their student careers.

I was at McMaster University and joined in on some of the orientation events at the start of the year.  Though I was a bit more ‘of age’ than most, I also met old friends, made some new ones and partook in some orientation events.  My participation also confirmed a new stance in what psychologists are now saying about our Spirituality – that it is innately hardwired into us.  At an orientation event, I conducted a ‘Spiritual Interest Questionnaire’ for a TV draw.  Out of 375 entrants the responses for the first question were:

  1. In my view God…
  • __7%_  doesn’t exist
  • _10%_ doesn’t matter to me
  • _19%_  is someone I’d like to know more about
  • _49%_  is close to me
  • _15%_  Don’t know

What may seem surprising is that half the respondents indicated that God was ‘close to them’!  And almost one-fifth indicated a desire to know God ‘more’.  This tells us there is a lot going on in our brains when it comes to God, and it agrees with current research.

Research of Pascal Boyer

Cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer, in the recent Nature article Religion: Bound to Believe? (NATURE Vol. 455, October 2008, pg 1038-1039) asked “why and how is religious thought so pervasive in human societies.  He was challenged with an issue perplexing to his atheistic beliefs.  If the relevance and case for God seems so weak (from the standpoint of the atheistic establishment in academia that he is part of) why then is it so prevalent and pervasive across all societies and throughout history?  The common assumption that people with religious faith are just superstitious and ignorant seems inadequate to explain the widespread and persistent occurrence of religious faith.  Caricatures common in media and academic circles of religious people depicted as ‘simple’ distorts the breadth of the phenomenon. This has puzzled many thinkers. Boyer argues that research has shown that people have “a slew of cognitive traits that predispose us to belief” and this is only recently coming to light because cognitive research now

“asks what in the human make-up renders religion possible and successful.  Religious thought and behaviour can be considered part of natural human capacities, like music, political systems, family elations or ethnic coalitions.”

And why is this part of our natural capacities?

“… humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence ; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members. This goes even further. From childhood, humans form enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasized mates Indeed, the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.”

His conclusion?

“religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities. Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion. This hijacking occurs simply because religion provides some form of what psychologists would call super stimuli. Just as visual art is more symmetrical and its colours more saturated than what is generally found in nature, religious agents are highly simplified versions of absent human agents,and religious rituals are highly stylized versions of precautionary procedures.”

In other words, our brains are wired to have non-physical ‘friends’ just like we are wired for musical, artistic, political, cuisine and fashion expression.   So, in fact, it is not surprising that half of my survey felt that God was ‘close to them.’  Boyer argues that this is the natural way for our brains to operate, even in a setting (i.e. university) where this is considered a naive or foolish way of thinking.  This should give us some food for thought.

All our other capacities, be they physical, aesthetic, or social, are met and satisfied through existing things.  We do not have capacities and needs for which there is no external corresponding answer.  On a physical level we get hungry – and find there is food to meet this capacity.  We have innate aesthetic capacities and find there is music, drama or art ‘out there’ that can meet these needs.   As CS Lewis stated:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”  Mere Christianity p. 67-68

On every level we find that where we have an innate need or capacity, it is not there vacuously or by faulty happenstance – our needs fit like a lock-n-key system in a Reality that can meet them.  They are not dangling orphans.  So when we turn to our spirits and we find that (according to Boyer) “the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems” is to sense that God is close, perhaps that reflects the truth of the matter.  It would be peculiar indeed if this pattern of inner-capacity-matching-an-outer-Reality breaks down only at this point.  Usually when we consider the question “Does a personal God Exist?” we only look on the God-side of the question.  It is an interesting twist to look at the human-side of the question and when we do, we find that we seem to be made to believe.

We saw in the Session on the Basis for Morality that current research is also showing that we were made to be moral, built with an objective moral compass.  Boyer builds on this rather recent knowledge to show a linkage with our morality to our disposition to religious belief.  As he writes

It is a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualizing spirits… socially involved. This may explain why, in most cultures, at least some of the superhuman agents that people believe in have moral concerns. Those agents are often described as having complete access only to morally relevant actions. Experiments show that it is much more natural to think “the gods know that I stole this money” than “the gods know that I had porridge for breakfast”.

Why are we bound to believe?

So Boyer is showing that these different but innate capacities of morality and religious belief integrate within us.  We were made to believe and to be moral.  Looking at how modern psychology is starting to see how our minds are set to function strongly affirms how we were originally made in the image of God.  As the old saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, then maybe … it’s a duck”.  The human disposition to morality and an innate belief in God lends support to the idea that there is a God who has indeed made us this way.  It is the simplest and most straight-forward explanation.

Of course, this is a controversial conclusion so there will always be attempts to advocate natural explanations for this innate convergence between morality with an innate religious belief.  As Boyer states about our innate tendency to religious belief:

Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than ‘religion’ in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times.

In other words, Boyer envisages that ‘perhaps one day’ a Darwinian survival-based explanation for our religious predisposition can be developed.  Dawkins tried to develop just such an explanation for our innate morality, attributing it to genetic ‘misfirings’ when he conjectured:

what natural selection favours is rules of thumb … rules of thumb, by their nature sometimes misfire… Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfiring, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo [bird of another species]… I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity … it is just like sexual desire… Both are misfiring: blessed, precious mistakes” The God Delusion p 220-221

I do not doubt that scenarios like this appear progressive and modern to many people.  But a misfiring here and another there in our brains explains many disorders and problems that many of us cope with but it will not explain the convergence of our widespread and different cognitive systems to religious belief.  As Boyer describes it:

there is no unique domain for religion in human minds. Different cognitive systems handle representations of supernatural agents, of ritualized behaviours, of group commitment and so on, just as colour and shape are handled by different parts of the visual system. In other words, what makes a god-concept convincing is not what makes a ritual intuitively compelling or what makes a moral norm self-evident. … The evidence shows that the mind has no single belief network, but myriad distinct networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people.

Our dispositions do not come from one spot in the brain, but from a myriad of interconnected regions that work together – hardly the expected outcome of a few ‘misfirings’.  So perhaps the Apostle Paul’s comments are apropos when he states that “claiming to be wise they became fools”  because Boyer tells us that to snuff out our disposition to believe and instead engender disbelief (which many of us are able to do) requires that we engage in “deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions”.  To explain such deeply ingrained and interwoven predispositions as being simply due to ‘misfirings’ strikes me as rather foolish.

It might be wiser to conclude again with St. Paul that “God has made it plain”, especially in how we have been made.  Convoluted conjectures to explain away the simple and plain perhaps instead reveal another disposition, hearkening back to a rebellion and corruption from that initial Image, showing we are now armed with a propensity to “suppress the truth … about God” (Romans 1:18-19).

One thought on “University survey affirms we are ‘Bound to Believe’

Leave a Reply to judis Cancel reply