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Dec 02 2013

Why It’s Easier to Be Religious

Chris Mooney has an interesting article at Mother Jones listing seven reasons why it’s easier to believe in God and reject evolution. I think most of this is right on the money and it speaks to the question of whether religious belief is, in at least some sense, innate in human beings. A few of the very human traits that suggest this:

Teleological Thinking. Essentialism is just one basic cognitive trait, observed in young children, that seems to hinder evolutionary thinking. Another is “teleology,” or the tendency to ascribe purposes to things and objects so as to assume they exist to serve some goal.

Recent research suggests that 4 and 5 year old children are highly teleological in their thinking, tending to opine, for instance, that clouds are “for raining” and that the purpose of lions is “to go in the zoo.” The same tendency has been observed in 7 and 8 year olds who, when asked why “prehistoric rocks are pointy,” offered answers like “so that animals could scratch on them when they got itchy” and “so that animals wouldn’t sit on them and smash them.”

Which is closely related to this:

Overactive Agency Detection. But how do you know the designer is “God”? That too may be the result of a default brain setting.

Another trait, closely related to teleological thinking, is our tendency to treat any number of inanimate objects as if they have minds and intentions. Examples of faulty agency detection, explains University of British Columbia origins of religion scholar Ara Norenzayan, range from seeing “faces in the clouds” to “getting really angry at your computer when it starts to malfunction.” People engage in such “anthropomorphizing” all the time; it seems to come naturally. And it’s a short step to religion: “When people anthropomorphize gods, they are inferring mental states,” says Norenzayan.

There has been much speculation about the evolutionary origin of our anthropomorphizing tendency. One idea is that our brains developed to rapidly assume that objects in the world are alive and may pose a threat, simply because while wrongly mistaking a rustle of leaves for a bear won’t get you killed, failing to detect a bear early (when the leaves rustle) most certainly will. “Supernatural agents are readily conjured up because natural selection has trip-wired cognitive schema for agency detection in the face of uncertainty,” write Norenzayan and fellow origin of religion scholar Scott Atran.

Which is also closely related to another factor:

Dualism. Yet another apparent feature of our cognitive architecture is the tendency to think that minds (or the “self” and the “soul”) are somehow separate from brains. Once again, this inclination has been found in young children, suggesting that it emerges early in human development. “Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems,” write Yale psychologists Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. “But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth.”

Dualistic thinking is closely related to belief in phenomena like spirits and ghosts. But in a recent study, it was also the cognitive factor most strongly associated with believing in God. As for evolutionary science? Dualism is pretty clearly implicated in resistance to the idea that human beings could have developed from purely natural processes—for if they did, how could there ever be a soul or self beyond the body, to say nothing of an afterlife?

What these findings suggest is that religious explanations are, in a sense, built into our brains. That doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome, of course, or there would be no atheists. But the traits that prod us in the direction of supernatural explanations for natural phenomena seem to be a sort of default setting. I’d be curious to hear what my readers think of this, especially Gretchen, who studied a lot of this material when getting her PhD.

30 comments

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  1. 1
    badgersdaughter

    My adult deconversion process (I was 35) was marked by quite a lot of sudden maturity in critical thinking. That’s the only way I can think of to put it. The whole thing was jumpstarted by a realization that the Bible didn’t make sense, and something else (that the Bible was a self-contradictory mess not worthy of taking seriously) did. My viewpoint may be more sophisticated than that now, several years later, but along the way I had many, many moments of thinking that something that made sense before just because I’d been taught it, or because it derived from something I’d been taught, had to be critically re-evaluated in terms of actual facts.

    For this reason (my gradual journey of exploration) I find it hard to understand tales of kindergarteners who were firmly Christian (this is possible; I was such a child) simply turning around one day and having a lightning-flash moment of atheistic realization. I’m not saying people who relate those stories are liars; I’m just saying I think it’s just one incident, or a few incidents, in an otherwise normally developing child cognition.

  2. 2
    colnago80

    Larry Moran over at the Sandwalk blog is rather less impressed by Mooney’s article. Link below. Prof. Moran concludes with the following observation about Mooney:

    Oops. I almost forgot. It’s important for Chris that he not look like he’s attacking religion. The party line (framing) is that religion and science are perfectly compatible. Why? Because of Ken Miller.

    http://goo.gl/fwhBPt

  3. 3
    raven

    Not reallly seeing this.

    There might be some innate tendencies towards religion but they aren’t that strong.

    Religion only survives due to:

    1. Lifelong intensive brainwashing. They churches have long known that you have to get the kids young and really hammer in their particular cult beliefs.

    2. Plus every form of social control even invented. Being fired from jobs, kicked out of the tribe, unable to hold elected office, kicked out of your family, demonized as evil and on and on. And fear. Don’t forget fear of going to hell and being tortured forever.

    3. Constant reinforcement. You are supposed to go to church at least once a week. Many cults have 2 or 3 days a week of bible study and so on. The churches do this to make sure your brainwashing took and stays there.

    Absent lifelong brainwashing, tribal social controls, and reinforcement, religion just sort of disappears.

  4. 4
    Gregory in Seattle

    I’ve seen an argument that the social nature of primates may be a large source of religiosity. Basically, we have evolved to be part of a larger social structure, and to seek the protection of an alpha community member when under threat. So strong is this need that we tend to create such an alpha when none is available. Thus, the extremely common idea of gods, and that there is a benevolent deity to whom each individual belongs.

  5. 5
    dogfightwithdogma

    Mooney’s article does a good job of summarizing much of the research on the subject. This explains, I think, why most atheists were themselves believers. Supernatural explanations appear to be the default setting of cognition. I think the agency detection and pattern recognition factors are particularly influential in this regard. Michael Shermer has written extensively on these two, particularly in his book The Believing Brain.

  6. 6
    raven

    While there are features of our minds that allow religions to parasitize it, there are features that oppose it as well.

    1. The truth matters. It should matter. Is that snake oil salesperson selling magic herbs for alt-medicine telling the truth. Guess wrong and you can be and are often…dead.

    2. We are all aware that some people try to cheat the system and us for personal advantage. Is that Televangelist selling eternal life and faith healing and making millions of dollars really telling us something we need or are they just conning us?

  7. 7
    dshetty

    It would be interesting to see how much of religion would survive if parents simply stopped brainwashing teaching it to their kids. A belief in a higher power (sometimes known as God) might be a default setting which survives but religion is a different ball game.

  8. 8
    Abby Normal

    There has been much speculation about the evolutionary origin of our anthropomorphizing tendency. One idea is that our brains developed to rapidly assume that objects in the world are alive and may pose a threat, simply because while wrongly mistaking a rustle of leaves for a bear won’t get you killed, failing to detect a bear early (when the leaves rustle) most certainly will.

    Funny seeing this in the quote immediately following the one about teleological thinking. Sharp rocks are for scratching. Agency detection is for escaping predators. It’s not exactly the same, as anthropomorphizing is an evolved trait and selection pressure tends to weed out counterproductive ones. But that doesn’t mean that it necessarily has an advantage or that it would be so straight forward if it does.

  9. 9
    raven

    The other thing that works against religion is our curiosity and survival drive.

    A few examples:

    1. Is the bible really a magic book? Does it have anything worthwhile to say? Anyone who reads it discovers that it is just a horrible kludgy old book of atrocities, cuckoo morality, and mythology.

    Being god’s special snowflakes didn’t do the Jews much good.

    2. Why are there so many religions? Why don’t they agree on anything? Why do they kill each other? They can’t all be right but they can all be wrong.

    3. What is the universe really like? Where did all these species of life come from. How come plants need sunlight. What causes disease, demons or microbes? We’ve discovered that knowing about reality, a process and result called science, makes our lives much easier and longer.

    Without modern science there wouldn’t be 7 billion people on the earth, the average lifespan might be as much as 40 years, and half our kids would be dead before 5. You know, the good old days.

  10. 10
    jenny6833a

    I’m dubious. I tend to attribute the data about “young children” far more to nurture than to nature. By the time kids are “4 and 5″ and “7 and 8″ they’ve been taught to think the way the article describes. If the parents haven’t done so, Grandma has. And in the rare cases where family hasn’t done so, cartoons and all the other stuff kids see has had its effect. In short, society teaches the crap. Psychologists carefully observe what society has taught and attribute it to “nature.”

  11. 11
    caseloweraz

    Looks like it just got a little less easy in Texas:

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/11/29/2986031/texas-textbooks-science-approved/

  12. 12
    Chris J

    Another thing about young children, and I am guessing a bit on this, is that they are raised to trust adults. So if you ask them “Why do you think prehistoric rocks are pointy,” that question may be leading them to think there is in fact some reason. Thus, they try their best to figure out one that makes sense. It’s sorta like asking “who created the universe,” it’s not immediately obvious that you can answer “nobody.”

    I think this same idea explains the dualism as well. How often to we tell kids to “use their heads” to solve a tough problem? It seems pretty natural for a kid to then assume that brains are for a specific task, just like the heart and lungs and any other part of the body. Maybe there’s something interesting in the fact that we as humans find it very easy to identify parts of our body as separate things, like “my arm, my leg, my brain,” but again, how do you separate this from how young children are taught about basic anatomy?

    The most valid part seems to be the anthropomorphism, in my woefully uneducated opinion. There’s plenty of instances of treating objects as gods throughout history, and it isn’t that far a jump once symbolic thinking enters the mix to treat the objects as representations rather than the gods themselves. Still, if you are talking specifically about why it seems easier to believe in a god rather than in evolution, a question heavily rooted in modern culture, you have to account for the way modern humans are raised and the way modern culture works.

  13. 13
    raven

    2. Plus every form of social control even invented. Being fired from jobs, kicked out of the tribe, unable to hold elected office, kicked out of your family, demonized as evil and on and on. And fear. Don’t forget fear of going to hell and being tortured forever.

    I forgot to mention one of the key methods of social control.

    Hitchens: Xianity lost its best defense when they lost the power of the noose, sword, or stack of firewood.

    Up until a few centuries ago, being an atheist was a death penalty offense. And there weren’t many out atheists. Without the power to kill defectors and heretics, xianity just split into what is now 42,000 different sects and nonbelievers started to accumulate.

  14. 14
    doublereed

    Yea, I’m kind of with raven on this. Religion without it’s constant reinforcement and social control just sort of vanishes. At best it becomes some sort of liberal deism/pantheism, or perhaps becomes alternative short-lived fads like ‘otherkin.’

    But of course, computers are far more magical than anything religion has come up with.

  15. 15
    Chiroptera

    Huh. I became an atheist because I found it increasingly difficult to be religious.

    I realize that I can’t make a generalization about the entire human race based on what may be my own idiosyncrasies, but I’m wondering whether people are again confusing “what seems to be common in US society” with “natural in the human race”?

  16. 16
    sinned34

    Shorter Chris Mooney:

    “Religion exists because children are stupid.”

    Doesn’t seem that compelling to me.

  17. 17
    kraut

    My father was a deist bordering on agnostic, my mother also had no strong religious convictions. My grandfather was active in the catholic church, but despite that religion was never a point of discussion in our house.
    Sure, i went to Sunday services and to the midnight service on Christmas – a really special event in the catholic church, but even then – that did not influence me as much as the non issue of religion in the home.

    I had no trouble shaking off any remainders of religious beliefs when I was sixteen, a process that had started about two years previously after learning about the activities of the church through the centuries. A religion that claims to speak for a saviour and acts utterly contrary to his supposed teachings? Not for me, add to that that the whole “sacrifice your son” theme made no sense, and I was rather incredulous of the claim of a god made flesh.

  18. 18
    Synfandel

    I have to agree with raven’s take in comment #3, if for no other reason than my own experience as a child.

    My parents had and have some rather vague religious beliefs, but have never been interested in going to church. In fact they always seemed rather suspicious of clergymen. So, I was raised without religion. They did the usual Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, and Easter Bunny routines with my brothers and me, but, at about the age of three or four, I pointed out that these stories were simply impossible. My mother asked me to keep that under my hat so as not to spoil the fun for my younger brother.

    At that same age, I was aware of religion—my closest friend at that time was a Sunday church-goer—but I dismissed God as impossible in exactly the same way as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny were impossible. Religion wasn’t imposed on me and it never got a foothold. I have no recollection of ever feeling any inclination, much less a need, to believe in God or Heaven or Hell.

  19. 19
    Area Man

    2. We are all aware that some people try to cheat the system and us for personal advantage. Is that Televangelist selling eternal life and faith healing and making millions of dollars really telling us something we need or are they just conning us?

    Good thing too, else televangelists would be all over the TV and millions of people would send them money.

  20. 20
    drr1

    If the thesis is “we default to religion because it’s easy,” I agree. Our cognitive minds demand that we know things, including things for which there are no readily apparent answers. That’s one of the big things that religion does – it gives us answers where there are none. Where did the world come from? Why does the earth tremble sometimes? What are those points of light in the night sky? These were questions the ancients needed to be able to answer, but couldn’t without some supernatural agency being involved. We do the same thing today. Some of the questions are different, but the answer is always the same. And it is easier to say “god did it” and move on, than to do the hard work that’s required to find and understand the real answers.

    At the same time, religion helps to create and reinforce political and social structures. In times past, those who were chosen by god as spiritual leaders had access to knowledge and information that the rest of us did not, and so we held them in high esteem and sought them out. These people held positions of incredible power and had access to kings, emperors, and political leaders of the day. They were special because they had been chosen by god to deliver god’s message to those who were not otherwise privy to it. No surprise, then, that these people often rose to positions of prominence in our social and political institutions, and still do today. Spiritual leaders don’t have the same influence now that they did long ago, but it is still a position to which many aspire. And since our political, legal, and social institutions are rooted in ancient traditions, we reinforce this instead of readily departing from it when it no longer serves us well.

  21. 21
    Michael Heath

    sinned34 writes:

    Shorter Chris Mooney:
    “Religion exists because children are stupid.”
    Doesn’t seem that compelling to me.

    Major strawman here; I suggest re-reading the article. One example that falsifies your description of the article is where Mooney writes:

    So how appropriate that one current scientific theory about religion is that it exists (and, maybe, that it evolved) to bind groups together and keep them cohesive. In his recent book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that religions provide a shared set of beliefs and practices that, in effect, serve as social glue. “Gods and religions,” writes Haidt, “are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.” The upside is unity; the downside, Haidt continues, is “groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.” Ideas and beliefs that threaten the group or the beliefs that hold it together—ideas like evolution—are bound to fare badly in this context.

  22. 22
    Akira MacKenzie

    Hmmmm… We should ask Mooney whether it’s easier to believe is free market capitalism than than global warming. He seems to always reserve more rancor for climate-change denialists than those reject evolution for religious reason.

    Maybe if his buddies at the Templeton Foudation paid him more…

  23. 23
    sinned34

    Michael Heath @34:

    You’re right. I’m not a big fan of Chris Mooney, but that doesn’t excuse my casual dismissal of him.

    A better “short” version might be:

    “Religion exists because the world doesn’t work the way our brains generally tell us it does.”

    Which does seem a bit more compelling than my earlier comment.

  24. 24
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I have only read a tiny bit of the relevant research – I think 2 studies, but maybe it was 3 – on kids and teleological thinking.

    I can’t remember if it was my insight of if it was accompanying reading/lecture (this was while studying psych in college), but there seemed to be a tendency of investigators to introduce teleology before the kids get hold of it.

    This isn’t to say that there isn’t teleological thinking among children, or that there isn’t better research than what I read (esp since the critique seems to be an obvious methodological one, and follow-ups should over time constantly weed out more and more sources of error), but asking a kid a “why” question introduces teleology from the get go. Also, what portion of this is taught: if we saw statistically significant differences in teleological thinking in open ended speech opportunities between kids raised in very religious households and kids raised in households that don’t routinely mention religion, would we be more likely to attribute this to a “teleology gene” inherited from the parents, or to a teleology trend in the cultures of the homes in question?

    Yeah, that.

  25. 25
    freehand

    Whatever the reasons, it seems clear that human have a propensity for being religious. I can’t think of any culture that doesn’t have religion. The Japanese seem secular only compared to the Abrahamic religions. The modern cultures that are closest to non-religious are the Scandinavian ones, and even they have have very religious citizens, although they are not dominant. They only recently become predominantly secular, which I hope (but do not expect) all countries will be soon.

    Like being violent, religion is something which humans are predisposed to doing, even if we have to learn to do it. We also have to learn to be non-violent or non-religious. Some of us may be rational and evidence-oriented by nature, but if we were common, surely there would be the occasional tribe or country that were free from religion. (There are small tribes that are said to be free from religion, but they are only free from organized, large-scale religions. They still have ideas of an afterlife, magic, non-human spirits, animated and sentient rocks, waterfalls, trees, etc.)

  26. 26
    Reptile Dysfunction

    To add to what drr1 said: we want to know things, including things
    that we can’t know, like ‘what happens to me after I die?’ Whether
    you think that something does happen, but we can’t peer past the
    veil, or that the question is badly posed, your answer will be less
    compelling than “We will all be together again in the glorious
    bye-&-bye!” Religions offer answers that science cannot, certainties
    about such large mysteries as death which most of us here would
    reject. But ‘there’s a seeker born every minute.’

  27. 27
    dogfightwithdogma

    @18:

    Religion wasn’t imposed on me and it never got a foothold. I have no recollection of ever feeling any inclination, much less a need, to believe in God or Heaven or Hell.”

    I had a similar experience with religion. My parents never seemed particularly interested in religion, though they did cart us off to church on many Sunday’s. But religion and god-belief were rarely a subject of conversation in my home while growing up. The sermon’s I heard at church never impressed themselves into my psyche or my intellect. I can’t say why they did not. I don’t recall myself being a particularly adept critical-thinker as a youngster. Yet, god-belief never sank any roots into my mind. I had a rather religious great-aunt on my father’s side who would occasionally take us to church. She lived in the house next door. But even her influence was of little impact. I just seemed to have some cognitive defense system that kept religion from infecting my mind without me ever seriously reflecting upon the question of God’s existence. Today, I have a very well thought-out argument for rejecting the existence of the supernatural, God included. But back then as a child I could not then nor now tell you why I was able to remain free of its clutches.

  28. 28
    raven

    Religions offer answers that science cannot, certainties
    about such large mysteries as death …

    That is their claim. And their problem.

    According to the bible, the earth is 6,000 years old and Noah had a boatload full of dinosaurs. The earth is flat, orbited by the sun, and the stars are just lights stuck on a dome. The dome has the Gates of Heaven so when god is mildly annoyed with us, he can pour water down and kill 99% of the population.

    It doesn’t take much to realize that the answers of religion are just wrong. In fact, every testable claim of the religions has turned out wrong.

    The other problem is the question, “How do they know that?”. It doesn’t take long to realize that they have no way of knowing what they claim. The gods, of which there are thousands, talk to millions of people and tell them all different things.

    After a while, you realize that if you want to know things, go to the library or look it up on Google and Wikipedia.

  29. 29
    Akira MacKenzie

    Reptile Dysfunction @ 26

    Oh! Oh! I”m 100% certain what happens after we die.

    We rot. That’s it. Nothing else.

    Next question?

  30. 30
    Kamaka

    Dreams about interacting with the once powerful dead play their part in this religion thing, lending credibility to “life after death” and the authoritarian divine right to rule.

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