Belief in God is Natural?

It’s about two in the morning here, and I’m wondering whether it’s natural to believe in God.

There are, at this hour, a handful of early reports that the Centre for Anthropology and Mind, which is associated with the prestigious University of Oxford, has concluded its Cognition, Religion and Theology Project — and that the Project has found it’s natural to believe in God.

But I doubt those reports are true. I cannot be certain and this in only a hunch — but it seems like the early reports have misinterpreted the Project’s findings.

The reports are saying such things as, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…“, and, “Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings…“, and, “Holding religious beliefs may be an intrinsically human characteristic…“.

So, what’s wrong?

Well, maybe nothing is wrong.  Maybe the Project did in fact find that religions are natural to humans, or that humans have a natural tendency to believe in God, and so forth.  But I wonder if those are the Project’s actual findings?  For I suspect they are not.

I suspect they are instead subtle misinterpretations of the findings.  And to explain just how subtle their misrepresentation of the findings might be, please consider very carefully these remarks of the biologist PZ Meyers, which he made sometime ago, but on the same subject:

There are human universals. We are curious or concerned about the world around us; we look for causal explanations for events; we like explanatory narratives that link sequences of events together; we tend to anthropomorphize and project our motivations and our expectation of agency on objects in our environment. That’s human nature, and religion isn’t at all intrinsic to it. Far from being the default, religion is a pathologic parasite that rides along on those human desires by promoting the illusion of agency as an all-encompassing explanation for everything, and by providing a framework for story-telling.

It is important to recognize here that, when Meyers talks about “our expectation of agency”, he is referring to the universal human tendency to think or expect that some “agent” (an “agent” is something that has a will, such as another human, a lion, or even a supposed god) is the cause of events in our environment.  When a tree suddenly falls down in a forest, our natural tendency is to think — at least at first — that something with a will caused the tree to fall down.  Hence, Meyers is saying that religions shamelessly exploit that natural human tendency.  They say, in effect, “Yes, your instincts are correct. Something with a will caused that tree to fall down, and that “something” was our God.”  Or a spirit, or a ghost, or fate, or some such thing.

Now, let’s return to the early reports of the Project’s findings.  When those reports say things like, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…”, they might be subtly misinterpreting the findings.  That is, I would not at all be surprised if the Project found a natural human tendency to see agency behind events.  But, for a number of reasons, I would be greatly surprised if the Project actually found a natural human tendency to see God behind events.  Or even a natural human tendency to see any deity — let alone the deity that gets capitalize as “God” — behind events.

One of the several reasons I would be surprised if it were God is that God seems to be a relatively late comer to human religiosity.  Our species has been on the planet for about 260,000 years.  During that time, most of the few folks who make relatively informed speculations about our ancestral religiosity, speculate that we were animists.  Animists do not believe in God.  Nor do they usually have a concept of any god, but they are instead people who think in terms of souls, life-forces, or spirits.  The Shinto religion of Japan is highly animistic.  If the Project actually found that humans have a natural tendency to see God — or a god — behind events, it would go against much that is either currently known, or currently suspected, about our ancestral religiosity.

Another thing about the early reports that I don’t much care for is their use of such terms as “religion” and “religious beliefs”.   It seems to me — even if it seems so to no one else — that the “human universals” PZ Meyers talks about are probably pretty close to the core of most early human religiosity.  That is, I doubt our ancestors did much to formalize their religiosity as firm or fixed beliefs, let alone develop much of anything in the way of elaborate belief systems.

Some of the earliest sedentary communities, for instance, such as at Çatal Höyük, seem to have had no hierarchical or organized religion.  While our ancestors surely had ritual, and while they surely had beliefs, they probably did not place anywhere near as much emphasis on their beliefs as many of us — especially in the West — do today.  As one Shinto priest told a Western theologian when the theologian asked him what he believed in, “I don’t think we have any beliefs.  We just dance.”

The most likely explanation for the word usage in the early reports of the Project’s findings is that the authors of those reports are simply trying to make the findings easily accessible to a wide audience.  You make things easily accessible by couching them in terms people already know and understand.  But doing so usually misrepresents to one extent or another anything that is out of the commonplace and ordinary.

Since I have not had a chance to read the Project’s findings, I cannot say for certain that the early reports misrepresent them. But I would be greatly surprised if they did not.  It will be interesting to find out.

21 thoughts on “Belief in God is Natural?

  1. I saw this report on the news last night. Of course, all the religious leaders interviewed sagely nodded their heads and said, “Of course.” A local Mormon leader explained that what the study had proven is the Mormon belief that every person is born with what Mormons call “the light of Christ.” In other words, the Mormon religion is true.

    Unfortunately this “natural tendency” to believe in god leads people to so many different — even diabolically opposed — gods. Yet every single believer in religion somehow finds this study validates only their own.

    Sigh.

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    • Very early this morning, I read an online print story put out late last night by an Utah TV station. I wonder if it was the same station you watched? At any rate, the reporter swallowed hook, line and sinker the notion the Project had demonstrated a natural inclination to believe in God. Nice.

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  2. I will remember your outrage at “God” in my prayers but am tired currently of your whining about “God” and currently bid you tired, whiny BLOG goodbye.
    It could not be more obvious that you will bend any report to fit your desires.
    Goodbye.

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    • I’m sorry you found the post upsetting, Curtis. I reckon if I had actually intended it to be offensive, I could have done a much better job of making it offensive.

      At any rate, best wishes in your journey!

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      • I was NOT offended by your post. It was VERY well done. I was just in the hospital for two weeks+ suffering from delirium. My mind was severely infected and I am slowly recovering and higher thought is now limited to my Court Filings. I bid you goodbye but hope that you continue to seek God. I am just unable to follow your BLOG. No harm meant and I was inappropriate in my calling your BLOG tired. I felt it was overly critical of deity and I should not have used “whiny” to describe your BLOG. You are as important to MY God as I am or slightly more so but only due to your intellect and search for truth.
        I will stop by occasionally but will no longer “follow”.

        Please forgive my severe mental disability and how it manifests itself. It was caused by a septic infection and should be gone.

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      • I’m very sorry to hear you have been ill, Curtis. I wish you the very best and a speedy recovery. You are, of course, always welcome on this blog. I shall miss your regular comments, but I can understand your need to distance yourself at this difficult time for you.

        And please don’t worry about having offended me with your charmingly passionate remarks. You have a beautiful heart, and I’ve known that for quite some time now.

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  3. I would hate to feel the need to modify/tone down my beliefs to please my blog readership. That would make me feel so dirty. Much better to stay true to myself and connect with like-minded people who appreciate my views and respect my right to my own beliefs. There are plenty of blogs for the many who do not agree with me.

    This is why I don’t show up at Mormon temples holding the sign, “Mormons are stupid.” Although I could. But that would suggest that perhaps I’m not so smart either.

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    • Dirty? Exactly, CD! And another thing: I don’t usually post with the intention of offending anyone. But this blog gets about 400 hits a day. That’s not all that many readers, but still — how can anyone on earth please even a hundred different people at once, let alone whatever number of actual readers 400 hits translates into? I think it is better to just write what you think is true, and damn the consequences.

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  4. Pingback: Is Belief in God Natural? Or Are the Early Reports Beginning to Stink? « Café Philos: an internet café

    • LOL! I haven’t been called a “god”, Gandalfe, since that time my second wife mistook me in a moment of passion for the man she was cheating on me with. But thank you so much! I’ll take the compliment!

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  5. Pingback: What Is This Guy Up To? « Café Philos: an internet café

  6. The assumption that belief in a god is natural doesn’t account for the significant numbers of atheists and agnostics in the world, as well as non-theistic belief systems (i.e., early Buddhism).

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  7. The notion of the belief in a god as “natural” is worrisome, because I can imagine it being used as justification for “correcting” the mental health of a person who does not believe in a deity. Remember how the Soviets locked up dissidents in mental hospitals? It wasn’t so long ago that Americans and Canadians still locked up single mothers in mental institutions. And then there is Rachel Maddow’s reporting on the influence of certain American lawmakers and clergy in Uganda, where the Kill the Gays Bill was shelved (at least temporarily) only one day ago. Among the Americans are those who believe in “conversion therapy” to “cure” homosexuality.

    There is anthropological grounding for the idea that human societies have a natural tendency to produce religions and theologies. Given the terrible record of religious chauvinism throughout human history, I fear that the reporting of this study is but one more example of how powerful groups justify overriding the will of the individual.

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  8. Clarification: by “the reporting of this study” I meant the manner in which the study was being reported, not the fact that the study was reported at all.

    I am disgusted by journalists who swallow “hook, line and sinker”. Somehow, it’s the rest of us who bleed from the hook.

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  9. I can hardly wait until I start hearing the theology of “See? We were made to worship the Lord.”

    I’m also disturbed to see how blog readers – of which there are millions – feel the need to announce their cessation of reading one. I don’t understand where that need comes from. It seems to be a need to cause pain for the person whose blog they’re not going to read anymore.

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  10. Pingback: Sunday in Outer Blogness: Mom Strikes Back Edition! | Main Street Plaza

  11. I am struggling from last 2 decades to search out the relation between science and theology, following our history and all the leading religions of the world. My goal is to unify the facts of all our god teachings in one idea according to science and history to uproot the basis of terrorism. This subject is designed for all the research scholars involved with such as projects “cognition religion and theology.

    I would be honored, if one comes ahead to consider reviewing my creation to save the time of the researchers seeking to understand, what is universal and cross- culturally variant in religious traditions as well as the cognitive mechanism that undergird religious thinking and behaviour.

    Ajay Singh

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