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.
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.
So to answer your question, I think religions develop in all sorts of ways, in response to science and in response to other religions or social changes. But honestly, I think most people have a kind of Stone Age approach to religion. In their hearts, they believe in the same kind of religion people believed in thousands of years ago.
You mention a 1944 study in which two psychologists made a movie involving circles, squares, and triangles. The shapes moved in a certain way, and viewers interpreted the shapes as bullies, victims, or heroes. You cite this as an example of how people are predisposed to "see intention where only artifice or accident exists." But couldn't someone argue just the opposite—that humans are able to correctly identify intentions where they do exist? After all, the researchers did in fact create the movie with those motives in mind, and the audience picked right up on this story.
That's right. It was no surprise what the people saw. You see a very sophisticated version of that in Walt Disney movies— Fantasia, for instance. A good animator can make objects come to life and give them personalities in films. And people are extraordinarily adept at picking them up. We're natural conspiracy theorists, hypersensitive to signs of intelligence. So when it's there, we find it. Unfortunately, we tend to overshoot the mark. For instance, people historically attribute intentions to the weather.
Or to natural catastrophes, especially when they happen one after another.
Exactly. Social psychologists have studied that for a long time. When events happen, people try to find meaning in them, especially when it's something awful like the hurricane: "It was God's will." For everything, you could tell a story—for 9/11 and everything else. Social psychologists study what's called the "just world" hypothesis. This is the hypothesis that people seem to hold quite strongly, that when bad things happen, people had it coming to them. It shows up in why rape victims are often blamed for their own crime. Often the first response is, "They shouldn't have been walking there." There's a sense of justice that we have.
How does this issue of intentionality relate to animals? Would a dog, for instance, be able to watch that same animation and find the same motives in the movements of the triangles and squares?
There are a lot of ways to study that. I'm working with two colleagues—Karen Wynn and Laurie Santos—on a series of studies to explore this. We're doing some of the same experiments we've done with babies on monkeys and looking to see how monkeys do. We know that they can handle complex social interactions within their groups. What's not as clear is the extent to which they are motivated by actual social understanding. For instance, there's a lot of debate as to whether other animals besides humans can deceive each other—not through camouflage or anything like that, but by intentionally doing something to trick somebody else. The jury is still out. And that's another difference between social understanding and physical understanding. You asked before about how we can know that these are separate. One answer is that all of these physical-object studies have been replicated with non-humans, and we get the same results with monkeys or dogs. But the social stuff may be unique to humans. What might be special about humans is our incredibly advanced social ability.
The study with the animated shapes also reminds me of that famous scene in American Beauty where the character shows a video of a plastic bag floating in the wind. He says, "That's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things," and he remembers feeling an "incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever." Based on your research, how would you analyze this scene?
Not all conspiracy theories are depressing. You can look at something and see intelligence behind it and be gratified by it. If I believe that everything in my life has a meaning, it makes me feel reassured about myself and the people I love. If it's a cold random world, the reassurance goes away.
Where, if anywhere, can we draw the line between the movement of a plastic bag and the experience of hiking through the Rocky Mountains on a beautiful day? When people go into nature, they don't generally feel that the rocks and the water are just cold and lifeless. They more often feel that the landscape is radiating something genuine and personal.
I think we have these transcendent feelings about the natural world, and it makes no sense for someone like me to say it's right or wrong. We experience some things as beautiful and awe-inspiring, and I have no beef with that. My troubles are when someone sees the Grand Canyon and not only finds it aesthetically inspiring but says, "Somebody must have built this." Just as when you see a beautiful painting, you infer the intelligence of the painter, when you see beauty in nature, you infer some divine artist.
That may bring us back to your point that within any given religion there are different levels of intellectual reasoning. There are religious people who can look at the Grand Canyon and say, "Yes, it was created by these elaborate scientific processes, but that just proves all the more how brilliant the creator must be." Do you think it's possible for people to have such subtle thinking that they don't have to choose between science and divinity?
I think it's better than that. Someone who has a scientific worldview can actually get more appreciation from nature than someone with a religious worldview. I don't want to say this in an offensive way, but religious explanations are typically very boring. They're uninspired and they end very quickly. When you look at the actual facts of how the Grand Canyon was formed, and you look at the actual nuances of Darwinian evolution, it's far more interesting, far more beautiful, than what you find in the Old Testament and the New Testament. So when it comes to appreciating things, I think scientists have an edge over religious people.
I'm interested in the difference between blind religious faith and firsthand mystical experience. There's a kind of epiphany that you see popping up in different cultures throughout history, regardless of whether people are religious or not. I'm thinking of Eugene Ionesco, the postmodern playwright. In his memoir, he describes a flash of insight that he calls "a certainty of being." It hit him one day while he was walking through a little French village. His body felt weightless, but he writes, "Neither flight nor anything else could give me greater euphoria than that of becoming aware that I was, once and for all, and that this was an irreversible thing, an eternal miracle." When you're talking in terms of a direct experience like that, is it really so different from the experience of hot or cold, or hunger or thirst?
That touches upon what I'm most interested in: our feelings of what we ourselves are. There are some philosophers who believe that the result of science is that there's no such thing as consciousness or no such thing as free will. I'm not one of them. There is nothing more irrefutable than that we experience ourselves as conscious, experiencing, acting beings. That's just one of the facts that we as scientists have to come to terms with. I'm not interested in getting rid of that sense of selfhood. I'm just interested in where it comes from. And I think it comes from the physical brain.
One could speculate that the emergence of a coherent self is, in some ways, a developmental accomplishment. This idea sometimes gets overblown, but I think that the experience of selfhood that an adult has is different, in interesting ways, from that of a three-year-old—and the three-year-old's experience is different, in interesting ways, from that of a six-month-old. People with language and culture construct a sort of narrative self.
One argument for the eternity of the soul is that life in a body is even harder to explain than life outside of one. The quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote a long essay called "What Is Life?" in which he tried to understand how material objects can be alive and resist entropy. He concluded that the human being, the "I" or observer, must be something other than the body because the body goes through dramatic changes—childhood, puberty, the renewal of cells—while the identity inside the body is a continuum. Do you see this as a valid line of reasoning?
Schrödinger's observations are right on and the questions he's asking are the right ones. The hardest question in my field—maybe it's the hardest question ever—is how a mere physical object could give rise to an experience of selfhood. The mind-body problem, as it's called. Religious answers are deeply unsatisfactory. "It has a soul" is a common answer, but it doesn't go anywhere. But the problem is replacing it with something that makes sense to us.
Do you think science will succeed in that?
I think science is very far away from solving the fundamental problem of how physical objects give rise to experience and feeling and choice. On the other hand, I think we now know a hell of a lot about what's not the answer. So we know schizophrenia is not demonic possession. We know that memory is in the brain, not in the ether or spirit world. But we're very far from a solution to how a physical brain can give rise to mental life. Some people say we're never going to get there.
In your article, you tell a charming story about your six-year-old son, Max, who tells you, "You can make me go to bed but you can't make me go to sleep. It's my brain!" I can't help but wonder if he has given so much thought to his brain partly because he has you as a father—and maybe because he knows that talking about his brain is one sure way to lure you into letting him stay up later. How much do parents shape the very way that children, even infants, perceive the world of matter and the world of the mind?
Both of my kids are very interested in these issues and love to talk about them, probably in part because my wife and I love to talk about them, and they're kind of like me and they're kind of like my wife. So Max does get a lot from me. And if he was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, or if he was raised Islamic or fundamentalist Christian, he would think differently. In that way, parents and culture do play a role.
On the other hand, there's one really interesting finding that comes up in all of this research on common sense dualism and creationism. And that's that children believe it more than their parents do. What goes on in society isn't a question of taking kids with no religious beliefs and pumping religious beliefs into them. Instead, kids start with a strong, powerful propensity to believe all of these things. And then what society does is focus it: "There is one God"—or, "There are five gods"—or, "Here's what happens to your soul. It goes to heaven." "It occupies another animal." "It resides in the spirit world." Society tells a story and focuses these beliefs, but kids start off with the foundations.
And then in some very interesting sub-societies, like my house, the parents don't believe in any of these things. I don't bully my kids into my way of thinking, but when we talk about it, they know my view. And they're free to make up their own minds. Actually if they're like most people, they'll probably end up a lot more religious than I am.
There does seem to be a certain age at which kids are very ready to just adore someone, whether it's Jesus or Krishna or the Lubavitcher Rebbe. They'll gaze at pictures of that person or deity, and when visitors come to the house, the kids will take them by the hand and try to get them to believe in it, too.
Kids who are raised in atheist houses often glom on to the religion of other kids. There are atheist parents who discover, to their horror, that their daughter has fallen in love with Jesus. And a lot of Jewish kids, at least for a phase, become a lot more religious than their parents.
Many sociologists are interested in why some religions do better than others. They often conclude that it's the orthodox religions that do very well, because they keep the kids locked up, metaphorically speaking. They have strong control over what the kids read and see and whom they meet. When a religion has porous boundaries, like Reform Judaism or most forms of Christianity, people often rebel and look for something stricter. They want something to satisfy their intuitive belief systems, and the sort of secularized versions of the religion often aren't enough for them.
In your article, you mention Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama as examples of very appealing religious leaders because they emphasize morality and universal brotherhood rather than intolerance or eternal damnation. But a religious person might insist that Martin Luther King's faith in humanity was possible only because of his faith in God, or that the Dalai Lama's ethics are based on his belief that actions reverberate throughout the universe. Is it really possible to separate morality from some kind of belief in forces beyond the physical?
I think people have a strong moral sense that, to some extent, is built in. Children don't need to be taught that some things are fair and others are not. Of course it gets complicated, and of course there are some aspects that have to be learned. But if you're splitting up cookies between kids, a two year old will have a sense of what's right and what's wrong.
What a really good, contemplative person can do is take religious texts and use them to construct appealing virtues. But a lot of times, I think religious texts can corrupt our natural sense of morality. Most religions, for example, given the times they were created, have bizarre views about sex roles and the place of homosexuals in society.
In America, though, it does seem that the people who are most motivated to go out and work in soup kitchens or take care of flood victims are often members of a church group. It's difficult to inspire and mobilize people without something as magnetic as religion.
Here's a way to look at it. You're right that you find all things in religion. During the civil-rights movement, a lot of people were able to effect change by working through their churches. And that's certainly still true today. On the other hand, most of the world's current fanatical movements evolved from religions. So even though it's the religious people who are doing the most right now to help the victims of the hurricane, there are also religious people who are involved in abortion-clinic bombings.
The role of religion and morality is a complicated one. What religion often does is give people a language to express their moral views. But people pick and choose. So it can be a very useful tool—people who care about morality can get together under the rubric of religion and do good things. People can also go through the Bible and use it to justify all sorts of immoral things. A lot of people think gay marriage is terrible, but they won't say, "I think it's terrible because I hate gay people." What they'll say is, "I think it's terrible because it says so in the Bible." And they'll quote you chapter and verse. There are a lot of arguments against slavery in the Bible. There are a lot of arguments for slavery in the Bible. Religion provides a language, but the decision of what to say with it relies on other factors.
And then there's the argument that Sam Harris makes in his book The End of Faith, that religions are standing in the way of a more authentic form of spirituality. He advocates being spiritual outside the context of these set religions. How do you feel about that notion?
I tend to be rather crabby about this. When people tell me how spiritual they are, I roll my eyes.
Well, it's one of those words that's been overused to the point of self-parody.
People typically use it to tell you how wonderful they are. I would like to move away from such notions and towards more secular virtues such as intelligence and empathy and kindness and good sense. If it comes to someone deciding how to allocate money in society or how to treat animals or whether to allow gay marriage, I'd rather people give up both religion and spirituality and use their common sense and moral intuition. So I'm probably even more skeptical than Sam Harris.
You mention toward the end of your article that the Dalai Lama is becoming involved in neuroscience. I know that there's been a lot of research on Transcendental Meditation as well. The film director David Lynch is funding a study on TM at American University. Do you think there's any value in analyzing what happens to people's brains while they're having a certain inner experience?
I think it's extremely interesting. And there actually is good scientific work on meditation, suggesting that this has benefits for creating happiness. There's a very short list of things that people can do to make themselves happier. Making more money doesn't tend to make you happier unless you're living in poverty. But meditation does. That and getting married.
The Dalai Lama is quite an interesting case. He was invited to give a talk at a major neuroscience conference, and it's proven to be quite controversial. Part of the issue is that although he puts himself forth as a representative of science, he defends other views that are quite supernatural.
Do you think people are afraid that this might open the door to research on prayer and religious practices?
Meditative practices and how they work is a straightforward, interesting psychological question. People have been meditating for a very long time, and there's no reason that neuroscientists shouldn't study the effects of it. It could have real, practical benefits for making our lives better.
I know your graduate students are doing some intriguing research. Can you tell me about the topics they've been investigating?
Sure. I have a first-year graduate student named Izzat Jarudi who is asking the question, "Why do we find certain interventions, such as steroids, to be morally wrong?" The main idea here is that our moral intuition doesn't have to do with the bad consequences of this intervention; it has to do with its perceived unnaturalness. If I could tell you about some herbs that you could take that would make you much stronger, our prediction is that this would not be seen as being as bad as steroids. People used ginkgo biloba as an antidepressant for a while, before they found out it had very bad side effects. They did it because it was herbal, and so they saw it as intrinsically better than drugs like Prozac. So Izzat is interested in the idea that it's morally okay for people to use natural things and not okay to use unnatural products, independent of the effects.
I have another student named Deena Skolnick who is interested in young children and their views about fictional characters. The idea is that you believe that Batman and Robin are fictional, and so do young children. You believe that Spiderman and Mary Jane are fictional, and so do young children. But what do you think the relationship between Batman and Robin and Spiderman and Mary Jane is? As an adult, you think they're separate. She's asking whether children think they're separate also, and she's finding that they do. The youngest children understand that Batman can touch Robin, but he can't make contact with Harry Potter. Harry Potter is as far away from Batman as you are. So she's doing work on what she calls the cosmology of fictional worlds.
I've read that you and your students have also been researching art—trying to understand, for instance, what distinguishes an artwork from an ordinary object or from a forgery.
One argument that art critics have made for a long time is that what distinguishes art from non-art is the intention underlying it. This doesn't matter so much when you look at a Rembrandt. But it matters when you look at modern art, like the work of Marcel Duchamp, which gets to be art just by virtue of the intent of its creator. This sort of intuition seems to be shared by young children. You can show a two year old some paint on a canvas. In one case, paint was spilled on it. In another case, the two-year-old watches as somebody carefully works on it. The two paintings can look the same, but what matters is that only the second was created through an act of will. This is the one that two-year-olds will see as art.
So what sets apart a Monet or a Van Gogh from other lesser artists?
Now that's something I don't know much about. I'm just looking into what's art and what isn't. The difference between mediocre art and great art is a wonderful question. And I have nothing to say on it.
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