Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, is an author and researcher who studies human belief in the supernatural. He is also the father of two small boys who have theories of their own. One evening, Bloom recalls, his six-year-old son Max burst out, "You can make me go to bed, but you can't make me go to sleep. It's my brain!" Intrigued, Bloom pressed his son to say more about his brain and how it worked. Max explained that his brain was responsible for thinking and perceiving but not for more intimate experiences such as dreaming, loving, or feeling sad. "That's what I do," Max informed his father, "though my brain might help me out."
Bloom takes note when his children, or any other children, wax philosophical about the body and the soul. As a rationalist and a self-declared atheist, he rejects all notions of spirits, deities, and the afterlife. As a researcher, however, he has discovered that children are predisposed to divide the world into two categories: the physical and the immaterial. Five-month-old babies show clear signs of understanding the basic properties of objects; for example, that they are solid, will fall if dropped, and do not spontaneously disappear. These infants also show signs of responding to and understanding the world of emotions and personal relations—recognizing familiar voices, for instance, and responding to happiness or fear. As Bloom puts it, these two sets of abilities "can be seen as akin to two distinct computers, running separate programs."
With this kind of dual psychological wiring, he argues, it is no wonder that the majority of humans believe in the concept of souls as separate from bodies, which in turn leads to spirituality and faith in the afterlife. To Bloom, all religions everywhere are essentially variations on the same theme. He draws no real distinction between East and West, or between First-World and Third-World nations. What interests him is the human tendency to "see intention where only artifice or accident exists." Unlike many of his fellow atheists, Bloom is not content to simply dismiss religious people as misguided. Instead, he questions why a belief in the divine dominates virtually every culture on earth.
In his December 2005 article in The Atlantic, provocatively titled "Is God an Accident?," Bloom concludes that "the universal themes of religion are not learned." Taking his cues from Darwin, Bloom posits that our spiritual tendencies emerged somewhere in the evolutionary process, most likely as "accidental by-products" of other traits. As a species, humans have an unprecedented knack for finding patterns and reading intentions. Unfortunately, to Bloom's mind, this tendency to read intelligence into everything sometimes gets out of hand:
People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it was rigged—it looks orderly to them, too orderly. After 9/11 people claimed to see Satan in the billowing smoke from the World Trade Center. Before that some people were stirred by the Nun Bun, a baked good that bore an eerie resemblance to Mother Teresa. In November of 2004 someone posted on eBay a five-year-old grilled-cheese sandwich that looked remarkably like the Virgin Mary; it sold for $28,000 ... Older readers who lived their formative years before CDs and MPEGs might remember listening for the significant and sometimes scatological messages that were said to come from records playing backwards.
Bloom sums up his own worldview by inverting the old Hans Christian Andersen tale to proclaim, "the clothes have no emperor." The "clothes," to Bloom's mind, are the physical objects that make up the world: oceans and landforms that took shape over slow millennia, creatures that evolved through natural selection, gray matter that generates all of our thoughts and behavior. That the majority of people on earth are inclined to perceive all of this as the externalization of something boundless and meaningful is, according to Bloom, an evolutionary fluke; not evidence for an all-powerful Being. Even so, his work with children has left Bloom convinced that all humans, even his own children, will inevitably see design and divinity in the world: "Creationism—and belief in God," he writes, "is bred in the bone."
Paul Bloom lives in New Haven, Connecticut, where he and his graduate students research such wide-ranging topics as bodies and souls, art and fiction, and moral reasoning. We spoke by telephone on October 10.
Why do you think it is that more philosophers and researchers haven't explored whether humans are "wired" from infancy to believe in God?
It's a good question. I think people on both sides of this aren't paying enough attention to how our natural way of seeing the world affects our religion and faith. Take someone like Richard Dawkins, whom I respect a lot. I agree with him on the facts. But when he talks about people who are creationists, he says they're either stupid, ignorant, or downright evil. His point of view is that there's an excellent case for Darwinian theory, so if you don't know about it, you're ignorant; if you can't understand it, you're stupid; and if you know about it and you can understand it, but you tell people that creationism is the way to go, then you're being evil.
The problem is, he's not taking into account emotional and psychological facts about people. Dawkins doesn't look enough at the role of human nature in why people hold these beliefs. If you want to effect change in how people think—which Dawkins definitely does, and I do, too—you have to have some understanding and sympathy for where they're coming from. People who are creationists aren't just morons.
But is the rejection of science really a part of human nature? According to your article, babies understand how the natural world operates.
I think you have to make a distinction. Babies have an extraordinary understanding of the world. But they have an understanding of the "middle-sized" world that we've evolved in. They understand material objects and gravity and space. And they understand people. Humans have what's sometimes called theory of mind, or mind-reading capacity. We know how other minds work, and we're extremely adroit at social reasoning. So you're right. People are very smart in this way, naturally smart. And this is the sort of smartness that evolves from natural selection.
But science deals with vast scales of time. Evolution is a process that unfolds over millions of years, a largely hidden process that has to be inferred through indirect evidence. For most of human history, people thought that the earth was flat. There's nothing in the wiring of your brain to tell you that it isn't flat. A large part of science is demolishing common sense.
You describe babies as natural dualists. But how can we be so sure that they separate the physical world from the world of feelings? Perhaps when an object falls from a table, they see it as wanting to go toward the ground.
There's a lot of debate about that. We know that if we show babies objects that move in an animate fashion they attribute to these objects intentions and goals and desires. What some people have suggested is that they overextend this social mode of interpretation. Jean Piaget said a lot of wrong things, but one thing he said that's probably right is that people are natural animists. We naturally see agency and goals in the natural world. So I wouldn't be surprised if babies, when they see something fall off the table, think it's alive.