Made to Believe


Why do people believe in God? Following several decades of research on the topic, anthropologist and atheist Scott Atran is saying that humans seem to be hard-wired to believe. The New York Times article reports:

He had received a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University and, in the course of his fieldwork, saw evidence of religion everywhere he looked — at archaeological digs in Israel, among the Mayans in Guatemala, in artifact drawers at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Atran is Darwinian in his approach, which means he tries to explain behavior by how it might once have solved problems of survival and reproduction for our early ancestors. But it was not clear to him what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival. Why, he wondered, was religion so pervasive, when it was something that seemed so costly from an evolutionary point of view?

His conclusion:

Maybe cognitive effort was precisely the point. Maybe it took less mental work than Atran realized to hold belief in God in one’s mind. Maybe, in fact, belief was the default position for the human mind, something that took no cognitive effort at all.

This confirms something I know to be true from reading Romans 1: “Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (19-20). It shouldn’t be surprising that science shows we are genetically predisposed to believe God exists. From the time God breathed life into Adam’s lungs, we were given the capacity to know Him. How wonderful!

Byproduct theorist Justin Barrett, a Christian and psychologist, has no problem reconciling these findings with his Christian beliefs.

“Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people,” Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. “Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?”


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