The success of stuffed animals would seem to suggest that babies can attribute human qualities to non-living things. I've even seen Orthodox Jewish children cuddling with plush Torahs.
Yes, children imbue all sorts of inanimate things with emotional qualities, things like teddy bears and often blankets. Were you raised Orthodox?
No, I wasn't. But it sounds like you were. You begin your article with a story about your childhood rabbi who believed that the world was only a few thousand years old and that it would soon be coming to an end.
I was raised Conservative. But I grew up in a suburb of Montreal. There was just one synagogue in town, and it was Lubavitch [a Hasidic sect]. My parents dutifully brought us to that synagogue. The rabbi had a bumper sticker that said something like "We want the Messiah now." What's weird about this rabbi of mine—what struck me so much that I wanted to begin the article that way—is that he was no zealot. He was a smart guy. He just believed the world was going to end.
Right now, I live in this tiny academic enclave with people who think just like me. But when you look at polls, you'll see that the world is composed of a strong majority of believers. Most people are just like my rabbi.
You seem to take an "all or nothing" approach to religion. Is it possible to explore, through scientific research, whether human beings are predisposed to believe in one God or in multiple gods—for instance, whether Islam or Greek mythology is a more natural fit for the human mind?
The idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipotent God is not universal. Many religions don't have such things. Often the spiritual forces are stupid or malevolent. The way Jews and Christians worship God is, I think, a bit of an anomaly. It doesn't come naturally to people. I think that people are wired to be dualists and creationists. But I don't know that this brings them to monotheism in particular.
The modern idea of a God who is above human characteristics was not well represented in the past. If you read the Old Testament, God has very human qualities. He's quite quick to anger; he describes himself as a "jealous God." He battles with the Pharaoh to basically show people that he is the more powerful force. We tend naturally to make gods in our own image. So we understand the idea of a jealous God or a God who wants sacrifices.
Even within one religion, the tone and style of belief can change so much over time. When you look at the Hebrew Bible, there's a lot of emphasis on sacrifice and ritual. Now Judaism has become something more abstract, based on ideas and Talmudic discourse. How does this tie into your research on the way human beings perceive the divine?
You have, on the one hand, the theologically correct version of religion, and that is generally sophisticated. And then you have the stuff that people actually believe. People have studied this a lot in Buddhism, because Buddhism is supposed to be extremely advanced and linked up with modern science. But when you look at what actual Buddhists on the street believe, they believe in a lot of superstition, they believe in dualism, they believe in creationism. And they often treat the Buddha as a Christ figure. It's the same thing in the Catholic Church when the Vatican presents official doctrines like that hell is not a place, or that people should accept evolution as a possible fact. Few of the people on the street believe that.