"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, March 05, 2007

God-shaped hole

There's an interesting piece about the evolution of religious belief on the New York Times website today:

In “The God Delusion,” published last year and still on best-seller lists, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins concludes that religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful,” Dawkins wrote. He is joined by two other best-selling authors — Sam Harris, who wrote “The End of Faith,” and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote “Breaking the Spell.” The three men differ in their personal styles and whether they are engaged in a battle against religiosity, but their names are often mentioned together. They have been portrayed as an unholy trinity of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.

Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.

Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?

In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?

(My "thoughts" can be found here.)

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Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Nice article.

“when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? ‘Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,’ the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in ‘Tragic Sense of Life.’ ‘The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.’
Much easier, then, to imagine that the thinking somehow continues. This is what young children seem to do”

I very clearly remember an occasion when I was a kid, thinking that I wouldn’t want to be cremated after I died because the flames would hurt…!

10:52 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Hey Tom,
Not so sure I agree with the statement: Much easier, then, to imagine that the thinking somehow continues.. Perhaps that may be a useful answer to lay upon a pre-man creature who's intellect was quite limited, as that of a child, but to use that as an excuse for why thinking people in this day and age might have a propensity for belief in the supernatural is really quite a stretch.

I go to sleep at least once a day. When I fall asleep I cease to be conscious. If there is no God, the moment after death will be much the same as falling asleep... with the exception of the sensation that you are speeding down main street in a bath tub shooting bananas at masked ninjas.

Point is, I don't believe ceasing to exist is really all that hard to conceive.

Interesting article though. Just goes to how confounded the the naturalists are with the existence of belief in something more. Not surprising at all. I'd be asking the same question if I was of that persuasion.

12:14 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

I've posted a... post about it on my own blog - responding specifically to the idea of the God-shaped hole that Atram suggests we have.

I'm not sure whether to amend the post here or not, as we're probably juggling enough balls as it is without me introducing something new.

12:33 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Something I know a little about. My research field is social cognition, and I have a particular interest in the social cognitive aspects of religious belief. Thus, I stand firmly in the camp of Spilka, Hunsinger, Hood, Gorsuch, Barrett et al., in saying that "belief in God" is an indirect result of adaptive social cognitive mechanisms. In a nutshell it's *both* an adaptation *and* an accident. How dialectical.

12:58 PM

Blogger Alex said...

How about's you just link to it from here? Then those who want to beat on that topic can head over to your joint. I just say that since life has really been heating up for me lately and I really haven't had time to keep up with all this.

You can just about imagine how much I like watching my blog turn into the atheist outpost! ;-)

I'm glad to hear you still seem to have an inexhaustible source of free time!

1:03 PM

Blogger Alex said...

Nah... That wouldn't be right. Go ahead an amend your post here. I'll just have to try and keep popping in as I get a spare moment.

1:04 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

I've added a little link to my site - the increased traffic will make me feel good. :-)

I'm glad to hear you still seem to have an inexhaustible source of free time!

It's been a great day: thought I had loads to do, but then it turned out I didn't.

1:12 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

Although I did discover that the sole of my shoe had split - and I hate shoe shopping.

So a mixed day.

1:14 PM

Blogger Alex said...

So sorry to hear about yor shoe. I've been looking for a pair of shoes that fits "me". It's been a long road with no end in sight. Sometimes I wish I could just develop a uniform like Steve Jobs, but then again I'm just not that cool.

1:41 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

If "Intelligent Design" were true we'd have considerably thicker skin on the bottom of our feet and no need for shoe shopping - unless someone wants to argue that Adidas are an integral part of the divine masterplan. ;-)

2:01 PM

Blogger Alex said...

If "Intelligent Design" were true we'd have considerably thicker skin on the bottom of our feet and no need for shoe shopping

pfft! When I was a boy I NEVER wore shoes! I could walk on a gravel road for hours with no discomfort. So let's not be blasting the designer here, you little tender foot you. ;-)

2:16 PM

Blogger Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I have Just finished Richard Dawkins' 'Ancestor's Tale'. I like Dawkins as a writer and take on board everything he says in that book, but I porbably will not read 'The God Delusion'.
It is interesting that mostbiologista are atheists, most physicists theists.
Since all other sciences are ultimately encapsulated by phsics, where does this leave us?
As a Catholic who acxcepts Free Will, I would agree that Darwinian evolution expresses this theory fully, by allowing all creatures the freedom to 'make themselves'.
Evolution is just the sort of machanism that would be in place with the sort of God Catholicism postulates.

2:12 PM


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