Paul Bloom's excellent piece "Is God an Accident?" (December Atlantic) raises the question of what evolutionary events caused our brains to be hard-wired to embrace the idea of a supernatural, all-powerful being.
Perhaps it wasn't a genetic accident after all. Many years ago my anthropology professor at the University of Colorado offered this explanation, which still seems like a reasonable one: At some point some of our predecessors began to bury their dead to prepare them for what they may have believed was an afterlife. The clans that followed this practice had higher survival rates, owing to improved sanitation, than the clans that left their dead where they fell. This, in turn, served to pass along the genes that promote the notion of a supernatural god, and superstitions as well. Those genes are still with us today.
As Bloom points out, some 95 percent of human beings believe in a supernatural god. It stands to reason that the process of natural selection must have been at work here, just as there are good evolutionary reasons why almost all human beings crave fats and sugars, exhibit jealousy, and so forth. That's why, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, most Americans still hang on to the nutty notions of heaven, hell, Adam and Eve, the Great Flood, and the Resurrection.
The existential condition shared by human beings does predispose them to a belief in God. This predisposition, however, is not hard-wired into the human brain, as Paul Bloom's article seems to indicate, but instead emerges through linguistically mediated socialization. It is a product of the human software, so to speak, not the hardware. The distinction is crucial for understanding how the concept of God evolved and why it is ubiquitous.
Notwithstanding the large percentage of persons who believe that their "selves" (or "souls") will exist eternally after death, very few claim that they physically or spiritually existed before their birth. The explanation is quite simple: self-consciousness does not antedate birth, nor does it develop in a vacuum. Rather, we come to know and conceive of ourselves as "selves" by acting out the various roles in the social matrix into which each of us is born.
Although the self-concept is highly abstract, we conceive of our selves not as an aggregation of subjective representations, attitudes, and memories but as ontologically real objects. When we say "I am" or "you are," we impute substantive, self-existent Being to the abstractions "I" and "you." We perform the same trick with the concept of God.
All human beings are at least dimly conscious of the collective intellectual matrix in which their consciousness floats, and which reflects the images of their individual selves back to them. Sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers have referred to this collectively generated intellectual process by various names: the generalized other, the collective consciousness, the collective unconscious, the divine mind, the infinite intellect, the oversoul, and (to use Freud's psychoanalytical metaphor) the internalized superego. The great religions objectify it by such names as God, Yahweh, Allah, and Brahman. Indeed, it was the collective intellectual process on which Homo sapiens embarked eons ago, when the species began using vocally uttered sounds to symbolize externally posited forms, that "created"—or, if one prefers, "evolved"—the verbal structure through which we perceive what we call the universe.
Thus the concept of God is not something distinct from us. It is, rather, a reification of the community of consciousness that we have internalized as a part of us, that we share with other members of the human species, and that ultimately defines who we are. In Jesus' elegant phrase, the kingdom of God is within us. We sense this intuitively, although we quarrel interminably about the sanctity of our Lilliputian visions of the divine totem.
Thomas B. Pryor
Fort Smith, Ark.
Paul Bloom offers an interesting addition to the current literature on the phenomenon of religious faith, but his approach to the subject, like all others I have so far read, is to examine the faithful. Those of us without faith don't get much attention, perhaps because we are so few—little more than a few quotations from prominent figures about ways to reconcile belief and nonbelief.
From a scientific perspective, it might be worthwhile to ask why some lack not only faith but also any impetus toward spirituality of any kind. I grew up in a Christian home, where I went to Sunday school and church, to prayer meetings on Wednesday evenings, to vacation Bible school in the summer, and after about age fifteen to a week of "church camp" each summer. I enjoyed the fellowship and thought Bible study interesting, but it never occurred to me that the supernatural aspects of Christianity might be true. Perhaps it's similar to vaccination against common childhood illnesses—more than 95 percent of those vaccinated achieve some degree of immunity, but a few don't. We have learned something about our immune systems by studying those individuals in whom vaccination doesn't "take"; maybe a look at the few truly areligious among us would aid in understanding faith.
Paul Bloom's lucid account of the infantile origins of religious beliefs such as life after death prompts a question: How do we outgrow the religiously infantile and identify what might constitute "mature" belief? Bloom mentions in that regard Sam Harris's excellent book The End of Faith, which points up the cruelty and inconsistency of much Jewish, Christian, and Islamic dogma, favoring instead Buddhist meditation as the most effective way to calm our universal fears in the face of life's mystery and unfairness. Freud, taking his cue from Marx, interpreted belief as a cushion of rationalization softening the hard facts of death and fate. What Freud omitted, and what science in general omits in order to avoid any dilution of objectivity, is the flip side of fear: awe. Wonder may be the erotic counterforce Freud hoped would outweigh the mingled wish for and fear of death he found deep in the human psyche. One way past Freud's pessimism is to meditate on what science has taught us about the universe, its unfolding phases of creativity, its interconnectedness, and its coming to self-consciousness in our own capacity for awe. Irrational religious beliefs may be planted in us as "a by-product of biological adaptations gone awry," but we are free to evaluate such beliefs in the light of what we have glimpsed, say, through the Hubble telescope. Someone asked Thoreau on his deathbed if he believed in an afterlife. "One world at a time," he is said to have replied—a response that shows us what religious maturity might look like.
As a Christian academic, I didn't see Paul Bloom's article as a threat to my faith. But I was bothered by its lack of rigorous academic honesty. It read like a tract straight out of the Church of Evolution, penned by the high priests of Science.
Of course, to Bloom and his ilk, if it isn't quantifiable, it isn't true. And since science is in the business of quantifying and measuring, it naturally follows that if it isn't science, it isn't true.
G. K. Chesterton once said, "A madman is not someone who has lost his reason. A madman is someone who has lost everything but his reason." In that sense, much of Bloom's argument was entirely reasonable.
Azusa Pacific University
Paul Bloom replies:
I appreciate the thoughtful remarks of John Burgeson and Thomas Pryor, but I disagree with them. Something can be universal or nearly universal without being the direct product of natural selection. Examples include back pain, visual aftereffects, hiccups, masturbation, and self-pity. A propensity for supernatural belief might emerge in a similar way—as a by-product of certain traits, including social reasoning, that are themselves adaptations. And while elaborate religious systems are shaped by culture, the foundations of these systems—the seeds of religious thought—show up even in babies.
How, then, as David Bacon asks, can we explain the small minority of people who have no spiritual belief? Every human trait displays variation, in some cases because of genes and in others because of environment, and we could explore the cluster of personality factors that lead people toward skepticism. But one can also deny the premise of this question: while our individual conscious attitudes plainly differ, there is evidence that all of us hold some supernatural beliefs at a gut level. Bacon might explicitly reject the supernatural, but I would bet that he sees himself as somehow independent from his body and finds the notion of life after death to be, at least at an intuitive level, entirely sensible.
In this regard religion has an edge over science. On the other hand, as Winslow Myers nicely points out, scientific explanations have their own advantages. When you look at such accounts of the origin of the universe, the evolution of species, or the nature of matter, they are far more interesting—indeed, more beautiful—than the sorts of stories one finds in religious texts.
You don't have to be an atheist to be interested in why children believe in God. The study of why people have religious beliefs in no way challenges the truth of such beliefs. But some of these ideas, such as the view that human beings were created in their current form by a supernatural being, are just mistaken, and deserve to be treated in the same way as the notion that the earth is flat.
This last point might be what upsets Michael Bruner, a self-described Christian academic. It is hard to tell, since instead of explaining his position he settles for accusing me of dishonesty and dogmatism. This does not seem very Christian, or very academic. But I did get a kick out of being called a high priest of Science.