Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why Do So Many People Believe in [a] God?

One argument I hear periodically is that, even if you can refute the claims of one particular religion, doesn't the fact that almost all cultures throughout human history have held a belief in some sort of god or gods mean something?  Couldn't this be evidence that there is, in fact, some sort of supernatural creative force "out there" and we all just perceive and interpret it in different ways?  If you want to get all scientific (and I always love when people invoke science to justify their non-scientific beliefs), doesn't it show that humans have evolved to believe in God and that it would only make sense if there were, in fact, a God to believe in?

Now, the easiest answer would, of course, be that it doesn't matter if a billion people believe something to be true if the thing is actually false, and humanity has collectively believed a lot of wrong ideas throughout history.  For untold thousands of years, people believed ("knew") that the sun went around the earth once a day, despite the fact that the earth actually revolves.  People believed that illnesses were caused by all matter of things (bad air, curses, etc.), despite the fact that they are actually caused by germs.  So yes, most cultures throughout recorded history have believed in some sort of supernatural creator, but (skipping the obvious problem that no two cultures could agree on what that creator actually was like) that doesn't really provide evidence that those beliefs are correct.

Having said that, however, I think the question does deserve a little more nuanced answer.  It's not enough to point out that people believe a lot of wrong things, since that doesn't mean that this particular belief is wrong (only that it could be wrong despite the fact that so many people have held it, or some form of it).  Instead, it would be helpful to provide an alternate explanation for why a belief in god or gods seems to be such an ingrained part of human nature.  Now, I'm not saying that I can conclusively provide the actual explanation, but I do at least have some thoughts as to one possible alternate explanation.  Someday I'll write a book on this subject and fill it with annotated footnotes to scientific studies and research, but for now I'm just going to go with a summation of things I have heard and read about, as well as my interpretation of what it all means.

Humans may not have evolved specifically to believe in God, but I think it's safe to say that our intellect and capacity to solve problems certainly evolved as a survival mechanism.  Rather than developing armored hides to protect ourselves from danger or razor-sharp claws to bring down prey, humans evolved the ability to anticipate danger to protect ourselves and to solve complex problems in order to figure out ways to obtain food.  When early man saw the tall grass swaying, especially in the absence of any evident wind, he realized it could still be caused by the wind but could also be caused by a predator stalking him.  If he assumed it's a predator and ran away, he lived to survive another day even if it really was the wind.  On, the other hand, if he assumed it was just the wind and it turned out to be a predator, well, he likely wouldn't live long enough to pass his genes to the next generation.  And thus, we evolved to see patterns even when they don't exist and to assume agency (i.e., that things are caused by mindful creatures) even when things happen by random chance.

Although this tendency to see patterns and assume agency was instrumental in allowing humans to survive and flourish throughout the millennia, it also brought along some baggage with it.  That's evolution for you.  Evolution allows species to adapt to changing environments and survive, but there's no guiding force to ensure that a particular adaptation is the "best" possible solution, only that it was better than other adaptations that did not enable a species to survive.  This is why we have eyes with built-in blind spots, appendices that serve no purpose and occasionally kill us by bursting and, sad to say, an intellect that assumes that every little bump in the night must be caused by some creature coming to eat us.

The problem is, of course, that our pattern-recognition skills are flawed.  Sure, they are good enough to help us survive, but they have also led us to see patterns where they don't exist and also ignore any evidence that contradicts the patterns we have convinced ourselves do exist.  If we, for example, see evidence of agency all around us, in the apparent design of the complex natural world or in stories of people being blessed after praying to one God or another, we are going to stick with our beliefs in those patterns even if the apparent natural design can be shown to have an alternate explanation or we hear stories about people who prayed and weren't blessed.  Psychologists call this "Confirmation Bias" and it simply means that, once we have made up our minds about something, we tend to accept any evidence supporting that belief and disregard (or ignore) any evidence that contradicts that belief.  And again, as a rough survival tool, confirmation bias served us well in the past.  The fact that 9 times out of 10 the swaying grass ended up just being caused by the wind doesn't matter if that 10th time ends up being a hungry predator, so it's better to just ignore the cases that don't fit the pattern and see the one case in your favor as proof that swaying grass means death is waiting to attack with sharp, nasty claws and fangs.

So, yeah.  Throughout history, human societies have tended to believe in one sort of supernatural force or another.  We don't know what that bright yellow thing in the sky is, but it moves and therefore must either be intelligent or else be pulled by something intelligent.  And when it hides for most of the day and things get cold, it must be because it is angry with us.  So we'd better pray to it and sacrifice things to it just in case.  And, sure enough, after a few months of prayers and sacrifices, winter comes to an end and spring returns proving we were right.  Except, we now know all about the rotation of the earth, the tilt of its axis and its yearly journey around the sun.  Does the fact that humans, in their ignorance, used to think the sun was a god and worshiped it accordingly really say anything about whether their is a god of some sort?  Or does it just speak to our ignorance and gullibility?