Five writers tackle the issue of God

Coincidentally, another periodical published last week a series of articles on one subject. Last time, it was free will.

This time, it’s God.

On March 21st, New Scientist made temporarily available online five articles from, and on, “The God issue.” The pieces’ authors include well-known apologists and atheists, pundits and professors. Like the free will pieces, these short God essays exhibit a wide range of interest in the question of the origins of belief in God.

One thing all of the articles share is the fundamental notion that religion is a psychological and social phenomenon. No one in this group shows any interest in supporting the truth claims of any particular religion, or of any of the asserted transcendences of the God construct itself.

Like last time, let’s take a short look at the contribution of each writer in turn.

The first piece is “We are all born believers,” by prominent Templeton scholar and child development researcher Justin L. Barrett. His article is a summary of some of the key ideas in his book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?

Barrett’s core argument is that religious belief is a “byproduct” of the ways that human brains have evolved to solve “fundamental problems” of agency and unseen causation.

Claiming that “religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language,” Barrett writes that “from birth children show certain predilections in what they pay attention to and what they are inclined to think.”

He cites several early childhood studies, by himself and by others, that show that “because of our highly social nature we pay special attention to agents. We are strongly attracted to explanations of events in terms of agent action – particularly events that are not readily explained in terms of ordinary causation.”

Barrett writes that “when it comes to speculation about the origins of natural things, children are very receptive to explanations that invoke design or purpose.” He concludes that “we all share an intuition that apparent order and design … requires an agent….”

In Barrett’s view, the “natural religion” common to all children prepares the ground for  the particular culture into which a child is born to fill this “god-shaped conceptual space.”

Barrett’s explanation has nothing to do with whether or not gods or a God actually exists. His interest,  here at least, is that whatever the truth value of any particular religion, we are born ready to embrace religious ideas. His focus changes the question from whether this or that God is the one true deity to why belief is so widespread. While theists might argue that the near universality of belief in God (in some culturally dependent form or another) proves that God exists.

A strict application of Barrett’s ideas makes the more modest, and more defensible claim, that this ubiquitous willingness to believe says nothing about God; rather, it explains something about us. In fact, it’s probably fair to argue that Barrett’s position more favours the idea that God was created in our image than the more conventional religious claim that we were created in its.

Religion is the key to civilization,” by UBC psychologist Ara Norenzayan, has a different focus. Rather than Barrett’s “What evolved brain functions lead to religious belief?” Norenzayan asks “What were the social advantages of religion?”

She cites studies of artefacts found at “the world’s oldest temple,” Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. I’ve written about this site in the past, and reports in last week’s news reinforce the idea that hunter-gatherers organized themselves into a religious community before they adopted agriculture, which had previously been thought to have been the primary organizing principle for large social groups.

Writing that “some early cultural variants of religion presumably promoted prosocial behaviours,” Norenzayan argues that “religion thus forged anonymous strangers into moral communities tied together with sacred bonds under a common supernatural jurisdiction.”

Norenzayan explains that the presumed watchfulness of a God powerful enough to know what we do and to reward or punish “has been a social glue for most of human history.”

Like Barrett, Norenzayan makes no leap from explanation to belief. In fact, she goes out of her way to bring in the example of modern Scandanavian social democracies. In these societies, religious belief and practice is much lower than it is in most other groups. Norenzayan argues that these societies have replaced the “social glue” of religion with other forms of social cohesion. As she puts it, “these societies with atheist majorities – some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world – have climbed religion’s ladder and then kicked it away.”

In this second view, like the first, an entirely material investigation of religion ignores questions of religious ideology, as well as the question of God’s existence.

The next article, “Science won’t loosen religion’s grip,” by Robert N. McCauley of Emory University, addresses a different topic: How vulnerable is religion to the advancement of science?

His simple answer is, “Not much.” In fact, at one point he claims that, because science is much harder to understand and believe in than religion, it is unlikely to last as long as religion has as a way of explaining the world.

Like everyone else in this series so far, McCauley concedes that “religions appear to be a by-product of various cognitive systems that evolved for unrelated reasons.”

Yet he argues that these cognitive systems are so fundamental and natural that the basic forms of religious belief are not susceptible to material disproof. While theology, the “science of religion,” engages with and is threatened by science, ‘the religions that the vast majority of people actually practise are not the same as the doctrines they learn and recite.”

McCauley’s most interesting argument is that “the difference between popular religion and theology suggests that standard comparisons of religion and science are often ill-conceived.” He writes that, “cognitively, science has more in common with theology than it does with religion.”

Indeed, this last point lies at the heart of the current disputes between “soft” and “hard” atheists. The hardliners treat religion as a rational postulation, while accommodationists recognize that actual religious practice often is much different than the doctrines on which that practice is nominally based.

Prominent hardliner Victor J. Stenger, author of the uncompromising bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis, completely ignores McCauley caution in the next article,  “God is a testable hypothesis.

In the least nuanced and most uncompromising piece in the series, Stenger makes the point by point case against the existence of God. Unlike the first three writers, Stenger brushes aside the whys and wherefores and focuses directly on the ifs.

He begins with the unqualified assertion that “we can consider the existence of God to be a scientific hypothesis and look for the empirical evidence that would follow.”

Stenger cites empirical testing of intercessionary prayer and  near-death experiences, tests which have entirely failed to support any spiritual or other non-physical content.

He continues with a clear but rather tedious list of physical phenomena that should exist if there is a God. None of these phenomena exist.

In the end, Stenger turns to the point that is most relevant to McCauley’s claim that science can refute theology, but still not touch religion. Commenting on what he calls “the folly of faith” Stenger laments that “when faith rules over facts, magical thinking becomes deeply ingrained and warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence.”

That’s true, with little doubt. But if McCauley is right, no one is really listening.

While I share Stenger’s atheism, and while I’ve read several of his books, I find his “If this isn’t true, why do you continue to believe it?” incredulity rather annoyingly short-sighted. The more of the New Atheists that I read, it’s turning out, the less comfortable I am with their “unholier than thou” attitudes.

But there’s one “thinker” for whom I have even less tolerance than I have for the uncompromising hardliners. In an interview with the title “Alain de Botton’s religion for atheists,” the lightweight pundit wraps up this series of articles with a weak entry.

Given what I wrote just above, I can’t argue very much with deBotton’s complaint that “the Dawkins view that essentially religion is a species of stupidity … seems to be very narrow-minded.”

In an offhanded version of some of the ideas in previous articles, deBotton says that “I think the origins of religion are essentially to do with the challenges of living in a community and the challenges of bad stuff happening to us.”

His simplistic point of view is that religions “are choreographers of spiritual moments, or psychological moments.” His solution? Why don’t atheists become choreographers, too? We could have our own secular temples, whip up some non-sacred ceremonies — you know, put the pizzazz back into unbelief!

“Religion for atheists” is a disappointing conclusion to the New Scientist series. Indeed, I’m struggling to find some basis on which this last piece qualifies as worthy of even a popular science magazine. Maybe they wanted some “balance” after Stenger.

On the whole, though, the group of articles is worth the short reading time required. Like the series on free will, it’s a useful summary of some of the main ideas that are being discussed by those engaged by the topic. Just skip the last article.

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4 thoughts on “Five writers tackle the issue of God

  1. “While I share Stenger’s atheism… I find his “If this isn’t true, why do you continue to believe it?” incredulity rather annoyingly short-sighted. The more of the New Atheists that I read, it’s turning out, the less comfortable I am with their “unholier than thou” attitudes.”

    Ron, are you slowly becoming converted to the ‘middle-ground’ or a more ‘humble’ brand of atheism? If so, I wholeheartedly welcome you!

    You know my take on the New Atheists, so I won’t repeat it here. I do wish that people would stop arguing about what’s ‘true.’ Religion does not make logical sense – okay, we get it, now someone please step up to the plate and try to answer the hard question: “Why are so many of us religious?” You cannot get off so easily by saying that people were simply raised that way or that they are stupid. I also find the ‘meme’ theory of religion a bit ridiculous, so let’s toss that aside as well. And when people try to answer this question, you need to explain why so many once upon a time ‘believers’ or even never in their lives ‘non-believers,’ will often adopt some kind of religious faith at the end of their lives or when confronted with their own death. I suspect the answer is somewhere in that question, but those purporting to look are too short-sited to see it (maybe because it means having to admit something that might be there in all of us – some way of dealing with our uniquely human condition).

    • While I do seem to be “softening” into a more or less easy-going tolerance of a general “religious feeling,” I haven’t lost my disdain for the assertions of those who promote specific “facts” that are based on a falsified literalism. Smushy spirituality, if you must; but never the supernatural over the natural.

      What do you think of Barrett’s evolutionary psych argument that we are hard-wired to believe in agents, so we are universally susceptible to God stories?

      • Hard-wired to believe in agents? I am not so sure about that. I think there is some pre-specified and environmental stuff going on where we ‘discover’ our subjective agency and the agency of others… this is why in every culture the child leans the equivalent of ‘me’ (seeing themselves as an object) before ‘I’ (viewing themselves as a subjective agent with powers of causation). It seems to me that when we get there, we treat lots of things as if they were agents (including teddy bears), but those things do not stick around into adulthood. So why God? Why are so many people attracted to this idea? The answer, I think, has more to do with the fact that the illusion of God gives us comfort that we could not otherwise achieve by rationality alone – I suspect this is why we hold onto it, despite the fact that if we look really hard, there are no rational grounds on which to keep it (I suspect this is also why we do not look very hard).

      • Teddy bears have material reality, so their agency can be discredited by straightforward means. An immaterial God, on the other hand, can’t be shown definitively to be an illusion — he’s insubstantial by definition, which makes him “invulnerable” to direct disproof. So even if he doesn’t really have omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, he does have a kind of indestructibility denied to things that actually exist.

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