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.